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How far can you push a man before he reveals his Base Nature? Bill Murdoch is about to find out…Murdoch takes on two cases in as many days. First he is hired to find local man, Scott Patterson, the victim of a mysterious abduction. Then an impressive stranger arrives in town with a tempting offer. But has Patterson really been abducted? And is the stranger all he appears to be?As Murdoch gives in to temptation and risks everything by returning to his old criminal ways, the hunt for Scott Patterson takes an unexpected turn. Soon Murdoch and his partner, Davie Simms, are dragged into a depraved underworld of human trafficking, prostitution and torture, where they will find evil on their doorstep, and face a desperate fight for their lives.Base Nature - Prepare yourself for a breathless journey to the darkest corners of human nature.** THIS IS NOT THE AUSTRALIA YOU’VE SEEN ADVERTISED **Base Nature is the third book in the Bill Murdoch Mystery series (HEADLAND #1, CLASS ACT #2, Base Nature #3). Set in Sydney, and small town Australia, this series will appeal to fans of Garry Disher, Peter Corris, Jane Harper, and Peter Temple. Followers of Dave Warner, Jay Stringer, Faith Martin, and Chris Collett will get a kick out of the Murdoch Mysteries too.For exclusive extracts and news on upcoming books, visit: www.gedgillmore.com
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A BILL MURDOCH MYSTERY
A dull breeze brings Anita back to her senses. She is standing behind her little Suzuki, the driver-side door hanging open, the engine throbbing eagerly as it helps to bake the afternoon air.
Remembering she is supposed to be checking something, Anita blinks, looks again and sees one of the Suzuki’s back wheels is halfway onto the pavement. The tyre is teetering on the concrete kerb, an ugly swell distorting its black rubber and threatening any second to burst. Anita stares at it, until she notices a sharp pain in her hand. She has been clenching her fists so tightly that the broken fingernail of her middle finger has pierced her palm.
She raises her hand to inspect it and sees a tiny drop of blood appear. The drop swells and then – too fat to resist the pull of gravity – starts making its slow way towards her wrist. Under the hard summer sky, Anita fancies she can see her reflection in the shiny claret. She licks her hand clean, keen to understand the meaning of the blood, and immediately wondering if this is what insanity will be like. Empty minutes unexplained, significance given to everyday nothings.
She pulls her sunglasses down onto her face and takes a deep breath that does her no good – the air so hot it scrapes. Her dress is clinging to her sides. The breeze comes again, stronger this time and somehow even dryer than before. It is a brickfielder straight from the desert, like opening an oven door: that searing rush you always forget to prepare for. But at least it wakes her up. She regards the deformed tyre once more and sighs. Climbs backs into the Suzuki and edges the car further forwards – the unexploding bump of tyre into gutter a disappointment, somehow – then climbs back out, locks the door carefully behind her and sets off along the broken pavement.
They say there is a storm on the way, but, for now, the sky is a pitiless blue. As Anita passes the empty shop windows of Crosley town centre, she wonders why she has parked so far from The Flying Pan. Only an idiot would walk to the café on a day like today. She stops abruptly and turns. Considers hurrying back to the car and driving across the town centre instead. Then, annoyed at her indecision, she tuts loudly. Surely this dithering in the early afternoon heat is the strongest sign yet she is losing her mind? But no. She is not losing her mind. She can’t – she’s got Riya to think of. So she takes a deep breath, turns again and strides purposefully on.
‘Anita! Hi! Anita – wait up!’
A man in Stubbies and a PPC work shirt is waving from the shadows of a torn awning on the other side of the road. He hurries towards her, crossing in front of one slow car and waiting for another to pass. He is only metres away before she recognises him. It is Tom Brandle, the PPC warehouse foreman. Anita manages to drag up a smile, grateful for her sunglasses.
‘Are you a mad dog, Anita?’
Tom’s smile is crooked and yellow, his skin the colour of a summer spent outdoors.
‘Or an Englishman? Aren’t they the only ones who go out in the midday sun? You know, the song?’
Anita doesn’t reply and Tom squints at the sky as if looking for confirmation his joke is valid. He is an amber-eyed man, tanned and shaped by a life of hard work, somehow still fair-haired as he approaches retirement.
‘Jesus, it’s hot,’ he says. ‘What you doing out here?’
‘Getting away from everyone at work.’
She watches him get it.
‘Oh. Sorry. Listen, Anita, I’m desperate but. Do you know when Scott’s back? I’m not allowed to push out the Hanjin order till he signs it off and he’ll be upset if we miss the shipment date. Y’know what he’s like about deadlines. Only I can’t get hold of ’im.’
Now. Right now. Anita could let it all out. Burst like the tyre had refused to, scream and cry and fall apart. Or she could just close her eyes, fall to the ground and let Tom Brandle call emergency services. Surely, he could be trusted? She could pretend to be unconscious and let Tom put her in the care of strangers, people who could take her to a clean hospital bed where she might remember how to sleep. The thought that those strangers – men – would touch her, handle her, lift and undress her, taints the fantasy. But, again, it is the thought of Riya that kills it. What a burden it is to have a small child. For the rest of her life, Anita will have to be strong for Riya’s sake; stay alive for Riya’s sake; act happy for Riya’s sake. No matter how a man might look at her, no matter what thoughts he might have, Anita can never complain. Tom coughs uncertainly.
‘Scott’s in the office right now.’ She can hear the curtness in her voice but she doesn’t care. ‘I just left him there. He’s got a meeting at three but otherwise he’s free all afternoon.’
‘But he told me ...’
Tom frowns and looks at her with his head slightly tilted. Anita can see he’s preparing to ask if she’s sure. They both know she’s got things wrong in the past. Without another word, she walks past him and further on along the cracked pavement. When she hears him shout after her – ‘Thanks! Sorry for bothering you during your break!’ – she doesn’t respond.
The Flying Pan is busy, a birthday lunch taking up all the tables, the booths so full strangers are being asked to share. Around Ly at the till is a huddle of people and, between there and the door, three young women with improbably straight hair are reading their phones as they wait.
Anita frowns and checks her watch. She has to be back in the office in under an hour – will she really have to return there hungry? Isn’t she even allowed to eat? Seeing her in the doorway, Charlie Lam calls out from behind the counter.
‘For lovely Ms Patel, we have best seat in house!’
At this, two of the straight-haired women look up, but Anita, safe behind her sunglasses, stares back at them until they remember their screens. Charlie caught her crying in one of the booths once. He didn’t ask what was wrong, just patted her arm and told her to take her time finishing her sandwich. He must have said something to the others too because the bill didn’t come until long after she had pulled herself together. Now, whenever Anita comes in, they all make a fuss.
‘Window seat so you can look at all losers outside on day hot like today!’ Charlie points towards a lone free stool at the shelf running along the front window. Someone has left a small metal Reserved notice on its seat.
‘Bloody hell, Neets,’ Mark Lam calls from further along the counter. ‘Don’t know what you ever did to Dad, but he’s smitten. I’m telling Mum!’
The girls on their phones look up again, real life more interesting than Instagram for once, but this time Anita hasn’t the strength to stare back. Her mouth is the first to go, loosening as she gasps, then she feels her chin grow weak as tears dampen in her eyes. She turns away out of shock rather than shame that anyone might see her crying. Surely not Charlie? Surely not here? She thinks about the amount of work that would take, everyone in the café in on the plan. There is no birthday party, just an excuse to have the place full, to put her on a stool in full view, her bum visible from wherever he stands.
Mark looks up from his cutting to share his smile. It drops when he sees her face. ‘Jesus, Neets, I was only joking. You all right?’
Anita hears Charlie yell at his son in harsher Mandarin than normal and knows she has to leave. She has to get back to the car and lock herself inside before anyone can touch her.
Bronwyn, Mark’s tiny mother, appears. ‘Come here, Nita,’ she says, guiding her towards the stool at the window. ‘These stupid men and their stupid jokes. I think Mark isn’t too big for me to spank like baby, what you think?’
Anita smiles and says, ‘Of course, I mean, of course not, it’s fine, sorry.’ The light changes and she tells herself it’s because she’s seated in the huge window now, not because she was dreaming awake again. She is back, she is sane, she is normal. She wants to turn to the straight-haired girls in the queue and ask them what they think they’re looking at? To shout over to Mark that he has done nothing wrong. Instead, she lets Bronwyn tell her she is having a bacon roll because that’s what she likes. And an iced tea, no argument now.
It is several minutes before Anita is ready to turn and face the café. The girls in the queue are on their phones again, no doubt texting each other about the crazy lady. Mark Lam is cutting another sandwich. When, at last, he looks up, Anita gives him a smile and watches relief light his face, his lovely teeth showing as he smiles in return. And just like that she understands what she has to do. She has to make a sacrifice to her sanity: she has to kill a man.
Later, on her way back through the heat of Macquarie Road, Anita passes a homeless woman, bent over, shouting into a bin. The woman must have been pale-skinned once, before her life got dirty. Now, worn and eaten away, she is rifling through the bin with one hand while flailing about with the other to keep her phantoms at bay. There, Anita tells herself, that’s what a mad woman looks like. Not like me at all. She takes another look to reassure herself and, as she does so, the homeless woman glances up feverishly. The eyes beneath her matted hair are a startling blue, the only surviving part of the girl she once was. Near one blue eye – down a bit, out a bit – she wears a blue teardrop tattoo, the first Anita has ever seen on a woman. In the blistering sunlight it shines as clearly as the woman’s eyes and this, Anita knows, this is a sign. A sign she must never go to prison. So now the question isn’t just how she is going to kill Scott Patterson but how she is going to get away with it.
It was only natural Murdoch should bump into Natalie that day. For the first time in months, he actually had somewhere to be, so, of course, there she was: strangely nervous and keen to talk. It was the first real day of autumn, no matter what the calendar said. The previous day there had been a torrential storm and, once its clouds and rain had cleared, it had left behind a new season. Today, for the first time in the year, the breeze had an edge to it, the sun somehow blunted.
Excited by his appointment, Murdoch was taking the shortcut along the beach, hurrying towards the path that climbed through the dunes, when, looking up, he saw Natalie. She was on the whale-watching platform at the level of the road but, whatever she was watching, it wasn’t whales. She was peering inland, squinting at something hidden from Murdoch’s view by the height of the grass-swayed dunes.
In the solid sea breeze, her T-shirt was tight against her torso – her jeans tight enough without any help – and Murdoch remembered the first time he’d seen her. How much he’d fancied her back then, before he’d known she was a copper.
As he trudged through the soft sand, each footstep sucking grains, he tried to remember how long it had been since he’d looked at a woman that way. The answer, when it came, stopped him in his tracks. Stood him staring at his compact shadow as he counted back over the months before admitting, reluctantly, they added up to over a year. He thought about grief and how it sped up time – fifteen months uncounted till now – and, at the same time, slowed things down so a single day had sometimes been too long to bear. Except, he wondered, when was the last time he’d had a day like that? Maybe he really was getting over Amanda, the way everyone had promised he would.
Murdoch had grown used to losing himself in such vague thoughts, so Natalie was only metres away when he heard her.
‘It is you!’
She must have spotted him from up on the platform. Must have run down between the dunes to where she now stood, panting on the sand and blocking his way as she clipped a chunky two-way radio to the belt of her jeans. Murdoch said hello, nodded at the radio and asked Natalie if she was on duty.
‘Me?’ She double-checked she had switched off the device. ‘Oh, well, you know. Always on duty, one way or another. Where are you off to, then?’
Her smile was less than sincere, a cheerful expression made for someone else’s mouth. Murdoch had once told Natalie she looked better when scowling; best of all, when scowling at something he’d done. It was the kind of thing he’d said in those days to wind her up. But then he’d lost Amanda and the old enmity between him and Natalie had softened: a fight run out of fuel. Natalie might be a copper who was always on duty, but, at some point, she had obviously decided that Murdoch was no longer a crook. Or maybe both of them had realised that Montauban was so small – six hundred houses pinned to the coast, half of them empty in winter – that they’d have to get along. Whatever it was, enough nods and smiles across the street, then enough crossing paths at Davie’s house, had brought them back to something close to friendship.
Squinting against the bright and gritty air, Murdoch told Natalie she worked too hard. She snorted in agreement – he didn’t know the half of it, she was doing two jobs at the same time – then took a step forward, looped her arm through his and turned him away from the path, leading him down to the lapping water. The gesture was such a surprise that Murdoch didn’t know how to resist. A few years earlier, when he’d first arrived in Montauban, he and Natalie had had a one-night stand. He wasn’t sure they had even touched since then. Now he could smell her: a tiny hint of female sweat adding spice to her deodorant and the soft scent of her hair.
‘How have you been, Bill?’
‘I’m all right, love.’
‘What you up to?’
‘Bit busy, actually. I can’t hang about, I’ve—’
‘I hear you’re learning how to swim?’
That was the last thing he wanted to talk about right there next to the sea. Kildare Public Pool mightn’t have much going for it, but at least there was always an edge in sight. Keen to change the subject, Murdoch reached for a flat object floating close to their feet, struggling to keep his trainers dry as he lifted it from the water. It was a wooden bat, one of a pair for hitting a ball back and forth: litter from the overstretched summer.
‘Is this, you know, bio-thingy?’
‘Do you mean “biodegradable”?’ Natalie shrugged. ‘Eventually, it would be, I guess.’
Murdoch threw the bat as far as he could. Not that far, as it turned out, not once the breeze had caught the thin wood and angled it back in towards the shore. Natalie laughed and Murdoch managed a defeated smile. The bat looked lonelier than ever, betrayed in its attempt to reach a safe haven.
‘So,’ Natalie asked again. ‘Where are you off to in such a hurry?’
‘Just a meeting.’
‘Sounds interesting. What’s it about?’
‘Oh, go on, tell me.’
‘Actually, Nat, no. I’m not gonna tell you nothing about it at all.’
Murdoch realised he was rubbing his shorn ginger hair. He pulled his hand down and then stood awkwardly, not knowing how to hold himself. Natalie had planted her hands on her hips and was scowling at him. He’d been right: it was her best look. It took the weakness from her smile, gave a dark glint to the green of her eyes.
‘Er ... no. Sorry, love.’
‘OK, fine.’ She tried a small laugh that didn’t work. ‘Well, lovely chatting; fuck you too and I’ll see you later then.’
‘No!’ Murdoch reached for her, forgetting he had anyone else to see, embarrassed to find his hand around her wrist. ‘I mean, you should be pleased, love. You asked me once, ages ago, never to lie to you no more and, well, I’m not, am I? I’m off to a meeting what I don’t want to tell you about; so instead of lying, I’m just gonna not tell you about it. What’s wrong with that?’
He’d meant it as a peace offering, something to honour the fact they weren’t enemies any more, but somehow it came out as defiance. What was it about Natalie that meant he always wanted to bring her down a peg or two? He took a deep breath, deciding to try again, but before he could, a wave frothed in and chased them up the beach, Natalie’s renewed laughter difficult to resist. When Murdoch, soaked to the ankles, sat on the bright sand to peel off his socks and trainers, Natalie detached the radio from her belt and dropped down beside him, leaning back to look at the sky, her top half out of sight.
‘Hardly appropriate shoes for an important meeting, Bill.’
‘Nat, I’m not telling you where I’m going.’
‘Uh huh. So how are you really?’
‘I’m fine, love.’
‘“Fine” as in Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotionally unstable? Or “fine” as in fine?’
‘I’m fine. Why? Do I look sick or something?’
He’d thought this might make her sit up and examine him – lying back as she was, it was difficult to ignore the gap between her T-shirt and the top of her jeans: Natalie’s stomach was a soft xylophone, the skin smoothly tanned – but she responded from the sand behind him.
‘Since when did looks have anything to do with it? Everyone always looks all right from the outside. That’s why we’re all jealous of each other – we can’t see what’s going on under the skin. Look at you with your big house and your fancy car, anyone would think you’ve got it made. But then I heard you got into a bit of a blue down the surf club the other night.’
Murdoch sighed and shook his head, no sound to compete with the waves, but the brushing of his hands on his feet. Then he said, ‘You know, sometimes I reckon you’d hear from half of Montauban if I turned over too often in bed one night.’
‘Depends who you were turning over with.’
He twisted around to look at her, but Natalie’s eyes were closed against the sun, impossible to know if she’d meant anything by it. Her hair was fluttering in the breeze, a strand teasing her lips until she pulled it away.
‘And two speeding tickets in the last four weeks,’ she went on. ‘I’m a bit worried about you, Bill. It’s not like you to ... well, you know. Nothing from the old days has come up, has it?’
‘I don’t know. The Club?’
Murdoch grimaced and turned back to the sea. The bat had landed on the sand again. It reminded him of pictures of refugees, face down on the beaches of Europe.
‘Nothing like that,’ he said.
‘So why the bad behaviour? What’s going on?’
‘Jesus Christ, I don’t bloody well know, do I?!’
‘No need to bite my head off. I just want to make sure you’re all right.’
‘And why wouldn’t I be all right?’ He didn’t want her to answer that. ‘What is this? A formal warning from DC Natalie Conquest or are you the community liaison officer too now?’
‘Oh!’ She sat up at last, sand scattering the back of his shirt. ‘I didn’t tell you, Bill! It came through! Signed, sealed and delivered. Not acting, not temporary – the full box and dice.’ She was leaning forwards, eyes open now, that intense green gaze checking he had understood. ‘My promotion, Bill. Detective Sergeant! You know it’s two bloody years since I passed the assessment? Not only that, they’ve put me on the Scott Patterson case. You know, the—’
Murdoch checked his watch, swore again and stood quickly – his turn to spray her with sand. Natalie shielded her eyes too late and sat blinking at the ground between her knees.
‘Bloody hell, Bill.’
‘Oh shit, sorry. Sorry, Nat, but I’ve got to ... well, you know, I’ve got to go to that meeting what I’m not telling you about. I’ll see you soon and ...’
Natalie didn’t look up. ‘Congratulations?’
‘You what? I got to go.’
‘Congratulations on your promotion, Natalie?’
She mumbled it, still blinking down at the sand, and by the time the words had sunk in, Murdoch was halfway to the path through the dunes, running with a sock-stuffed trainer in each hand. He slowed for a second, thinking he should turn back, then decided he’d congratulate Natalie next time he saw her. Running on, he was on the path itself when he heard her voice again, shouting, this time, in a tone he recognised.
‘Say hello to Davie from me. And to his fancy new client.’
But the breeze did strange things to words on the beach and he decided he must have misheard.
Davie was waiting in line for the beach shower, tapping his hands against his thighs. The temptation not to bother rinsing off, to rush over the road to the office instead, was proving difficult to resist. The angel on his one shoulder might be reminding him that his wetsuit was brand new – that he had promised himself to make this one last by rinsing it properly after every surf – but the devil on his other shoulder kept telling him how sweet it would be, just for once, for Bill to be the one who was late. Hadn’t Davie seen Bill down on the beach just now chatting with Natalie at the water’s edge? And, besides, didn’t Davie need some time to prepare his thoughts before Bill arrived? Even the angel admitted that was true.
Davie decided to wait for one more minute. The guy ahead of him in the shower, Orange, they called him, had his eyes closed under the dribbling water. As soon as he opened them, he’d see Davie was waiting and let him take his place, no worries. After all, it wasn’t like Bill had seen Davie come in from the break – he was certain of that – or noticed him jog with his fishtail up to the north end of the beach where the sand climbed to meet the road. And there was no way Bill could have seen him race back along the pavement behind the surf club, past the whale-watching platform to the shower here, where the road was hidden behind the dunes. All Davie needed now was for Orange to hurry up and he’d definitely get to the office first.
‘Bleeding hell, you muppet! What you doing there? We had an appointment.’
Davie turned slowly. A few metres down the sandy path that ran to the beach, Bill Murdoch was glowering up at him, out of breath, with his trainers in his hands. It was three years since the Englishman had arrived in Montie, but Davie thought you could still tell from a country mile he wasn’t from the Coast. Not because of Bill’s home-made skinhead or the slightly malnourished look of him, or even the way he walked like a warning. There were, after all, plenty of Coasties who’d survived a hard life. But what marked Bill as different was his refusal to relax now that he had survived. To slope to the beach and enjoy the water; to appreciate a beautiful day; to close his eyes in the sunshine. Bill didn’t seem to know the meaning of ‘No worries’ and Davie had once heard him complain that ‘She’ll be right, mate’ was generally a lie.
‘Dude.’ Davie tested the mood between them. ‘What’s up?’
‘What’s up, mate, is you and me have got a meeting about ten minutes ago and a client arriving in half an hour. You was the one what wanted to talk about her first.’
‘Potential client who I deffo want to talk about first. But I only stayed out so long because I could see you were on the beach talking to Nat and, anyway, seeing as I got here first, I’m actually not as late as you are. Oh, watch your back.’
Some of the other boys had come in too – the tide was turning, the swell too full – and were backed up behind Bill on the narrow path. Davie watched the Englishman make as little space as possible and barely respond to their greetings as they squeezed past. How he managed to stay so popular was a mystery: it wasn’t as if he liked anyone back.
Noticing Orange had wandered off to the cars parked at the kerb, Davie took his place under the beach shower. Turning under the spray with open eyes – the drops around him sparking the sunlight – he rinsed his face, his wetsuit and his board, relishing the last minutes of being in water. Turning again, he saw Bill had come all the way up the path now, glowering still from just outside the circle of spray.
‘Dude, just one minute more.’
‘What’d you say this woman’s name was?’
Davie glanced at the guys who’d followed Murdoch up from the beach, but they were out of earshot, chatting with Orange as they admired his new car. At least, Davie assumed it was Orange’s new car, he hadn’t really—’
‘Oh sorry. What? Yeah, her name’s Fran Patterson. Didn’t you get the newspapers like I told you to? But it’s probably not going to work out. Like I said on the phone, there’s a complication.’ He frowned towards the surfers at the cars. ‘I’ll tell you about it upstairs. We should still have time before she arrives.’
‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that, sunshine.’
Bill gestured towards a fancy blue car parked on the far side of the road, nose to the shops. It was a huge soft-top, roof down to reveal the cream upholstery inside. Davie looked back at Bill.
‘The number plate?’
Davie looked back at the car, saw the personalised plate – FRAN 1 – and gasped so hard that shower water hit the back of his throat. When his torso wracked forward to help him cough it out, he banged his head against the rail of his board and had to close his eyes against the pain. By the time he’d opened them again, Bill was already halfway across the road. Still coughing, Davie ran after him, wrestling the key to the office from the tiny pocket on the leg of his wetsuit and trying not to drop his best fishtail which was dragging its leash truculently, as if it hadn’t wanted to leave the ocean in the first place.
The Montauban shops huddled under the shade of dilapidated and mismatched awnings, their only common feature, their prime location opposite the beach. There were six businesses now: a pungent chip shop, a dusty bakery, a general store, the estate agents where Davie had worked for years, a filthy café and – the biggest news in town since Murdoch had arrived – a brand new pharmacy. Sitting above most of the shops were short-term rentals: apartments popular with Sydney surfers keen to escape the overcrowded city breaks. But above the bakery sat the offices of Davie Simms Detection Services.
The offices – office singular, unless you counted the toilet – were accessed by an ancient glass door that hung between the bakery and the chip shop, then by a steep and unlit staircase. They ran the full depth of the building, the toilet window overlooking an alley behind the shops, the window at the front overlooking the beach and the ocean. It was a narrow space made narrower still in its dingy back half by the stairs that ran up from the street. Between the bathroom and the roomier front half of the office, a low half-wall was the only thing to stop you falling into the stairwell.
Murdoch had been told that the place had once been a tiny brothel. Then a therapy room, then a beach studio (whatever the hell that was), then a squat, then a storage room. He had never liked it; he reckoned the two rooms still reeked of all their histories and had tried to stop Davie taking them on. What did Davie Simms need an office for, anyway, when he didn’t have any customers?
‘Clients.’ Davie had been adamant. ‘I’m going to have lots of clients.’
The muppet had come to his senses somewhere between signing the lease and kitting the place out, the result being the furniture got cheaper the further you progressed inside. At the top of the stairs sat a pair of six-thousand-dollar armchairs: overstuffed bouncers waiting to hold back all those clients. Most of the furniture crowded into the front half of the office – the desk chair, the half-empty bookcase, the glass-topped table and four kitchen chairs – were from Ikea. Davie’s desk, under the front window, was a kitchen table he’d found on the street. He’d never got around to repainting the room and there were patches of bare plaster around the power points, the wood of the Ikea shelves still raw. Every time Murdoch walked in, he remembered something he’d once read about new trousers being useless if you couldn’t be bothered shining your shoes.
Today, arriving at the top of the stairs – Davie panicking and babbling ahead of him – Murdoch did what he always did: he ignored the over-priced armchairs and doubled back to the front half of the office to sit at the glass-topped table. Davie, meanwhile, rushed into the bathroom with his surfboard before re-emerging minutes later in a crumpled white shirt and jeans. Thirty-four going on fourteen, he never looked comfortable in grown-up clothes.
‘What’s she doing in Montie so early, Bill? She said ten thirty!’
‘Dunno. Maybe she wanted to grab a bag of chips first?’
‘I’m sure she said ten thirty.’
Murdoch rolled his eyes. ‘You know what, Davie? Whenever anyone says “I’m sure”, they normally mean the opposite. You ever noticed that?’
‘Aw, man. I wanted to talk to you before she got here. There’s a complication, that’s why I wanted you to come early.’
Murdoch sighed. There was always a complication; at least, in Davie’s head there was. He told the muppet to calm down, to make them a cuppa and tell Uncle Bill all about it. But before Davie had even reached the glass-topped table, they heard the rattle of the street door and quick footsteps on the stairs.
Then, there she was. Pristine in a yellow polo shirt and a white pleated skirt, her tiny gold necklace resisting the gloom. Fran Patterson. Murdoch knew her name all right, he’d been winding Davie up. With nothing better to do, he’d spent the previous day reading all about Fran’s husband, Scott, then studying images of the woman herself, swinging golf clubs and holding trophies below her perfect smile. Fran Patterson might not be a famous golfer, but she was good enough, good-looking enough and blonde enough to have her picture on tournament websites. She had golden skin, a pretty nose and a small but full-lipped mouth. In the flesh, she had more lines than in the photos and Murdoch wondered if that was the because she was so stressed or if the pictures had been touched up. Neither would have surprised him.
Fran Patterson gave them each a tight smile and walked down the office towards them. She moved like a fighter, Murdoch thought, no superfluous movement anywhere. Not as she gave them each a firm handshake, not as she took the chair offered at the glass-topped table. Not even when she laid her phone and keys gently on the table’s surface. No fixing of her thick blonde hair, no looking around the room. No to tea, no to a glass of water, no to Davie’s attempts at small talk. Only her honey-coloured eyes struggled to settle until, after a while, she let them focus on the middle distance, staring through the wall behind Murdoch like she was watching a golf ball fly. Up close, he saw, the lines were everywhere and he realised he’d misjudged her age. Scott Patterson’s trophy wife wasn’t much younger than the missing man himself. Forties, he thought. Fifty?
‘Right then,’ he said. ‘Let’s talk about why you’re here, shall we, Fran? We’ve read what it said in the papers, but we need to hear your version.’
Davie was still standing, tapping his hands against his thighs like a little boy wanting a wee-wee but too shy to ask. Murdoch ignored him.
‘Just tell it from the top,’ he said. ‘Like we don’t know nothing.’
Fran Patterson looked relieved and did what she was told. As she spoke, her body remained perfectly still: straight-spined with her legs crossed, hands quiet in her pleated lap. She didn’t rub her eyes, scratch her nose or look away from the wall, not even when Davie pushed between it and Murdoch to grab a pad and a pen from his messy desk before joining them at the table.
‘Yesterday, my husband, Scott, fell asleep at the wheel of his car. He veered off the road and down a steep embankment into a school playing field. He was knocked unconscious, which is probably a good thing, given he broke three ribs and suffered lacerations to his face and neck. I was playing a friendly in the Southern Highlands and didn’t pick up the calls from the police until over an hour later. I drove straight home to get some things for him and then to the hospital. When I got there, the place was in chaos. Police, doctors, nurses, everyone running around in a panic. My nephew, Alan – he works with Scott at PPC – was there and he told me what had happened. Scott had disappeared; there were signs of a struggle. The last person who’d spoken to Scott was Dr ...’
She looked down at her hands, her thick hair falling forwards in a veil, as naturally blonde as all the other blonde hair in Australia. Murdoch waited a few seconds, then looked at Davie, who shrugged and said, ‘Mrs Patterson? Fran?’
‘... Sherezade!’ She was back with them, eyes triumphant. ‘I knew I’d remember. Dr Sherezade, who said that Scott had been incoherent but had shown no obvious signs of wanting to leave. Well, if you’ve read the papers, you know the rest. Scott is still missing. The police phone me hourly, I don’t know why. They have nothing to tell me.’
There was something unreal about her, like one of those characters in a sci-fi movie who turns out to have been a robot all along. Murdoch imagined Fran Patterson happier receiving police updates via a cable plugged into the back of her neck. He asked how long she and her husband had lived in the area and watched her respond at the same steady pace as she’d adopted from the start. A woman reciting her witness statement.
‘We moved to Crosley four years ago. Scott had been through a messy divorce and we wanted to live somewhere neither of us had any history. PPC had a plant here already; it was easy enough to relocate the head office.’
‘PPC? Sorry, darling, what’s the business?’
She turned her head to Murdoch now, the eyes on him for a startling second, then away to the wall again. ‘I didn’t say, did I? Maybe I should just check what you’ve read in the papers?’
‘Or we could talk about our terms,’ said Davie.
‘Nah.’ Murdoch tapped the glass tabletop. ‘It’s better if we hear it in your own words, love. Pretend neither of us has never read a paper.’
‘Cardboard,’ Fran said without another hesitation. ‘Customised cardboard packaging. PPC is the second biggest independent operator in the country. Scott started it up when he was still a teenager. He left school at sixteen but he’s very intelligent. Street-smart, you might say. He’s good at business.’
‘My dad’s met him a few times,’ said Davie. ‘I think they have friends in common.’
Like that alone was a character reference. What a clever and successful man Patterson must be to associate with the great John Simms. Fran was waiting for the next question, but when Davie opened his mouth, presumably to ask one, nothing came out.
Murdoch did the honours instead. ‘So you’re hiring us to find your old man? You given up on the police already? That was quick.’
Fran’s eyebrows creased at the question, a tiny tremor revving beside her lovely mouth. She gave a tiny shake of her head, then reached up and rubbed the back of her neck. It was the first time either hand had left her lap and even Davie seemed to notice the gesture, sitting back in his chair with a curious look on his face. Behind Murdoch, the etched window above the desk rattled as it protected them all from the breeze off the sea. A minute later, it did it again.
‘It’s not that I’ve given up on the police,’ Fran said slowly. ‘It’s just that ...’
Her cheeks pinked and her perfect nose crinkled, her eyes forced from the wall to the table. Maybe she caught her reflection there. She certainly seemed to notice her hand rubbing her neck. She bit her lip and returned the hand to its rightful place, took a deep breath and frowned like she’d missed a putt.
‘Of course, I’ve not given up on the police. It’s been less than twenty-four hours. But as soon as this happened, I knew I had to involve a ... a private service. It’s early, I know, but I’ve got a tournament in Queensland early next week and I thought I should kick this off before I go. If you’re willing to take the case.’
‘Yes,’ said Davie. ‘If we’re willing to take the case.’
Murdoch leaned forward. ‘You’re gonna play golf in Queensland? Ain’t you worried that’s gonna look a bit funny?’
Fran looked at them each in turn before choosing to answer the wall. ‘Why should I worry about what it looks like? I won’t be helping just by being here. I’ve told the police everything I know and now I’m hoping to hire you, so I don’t see why anyone should care where I am. I’ll be back at the end of next week.’
Davie fidgeted in his seat and Murdoch reminded Fran that she hadn’t explained why she wanted a private detective. She gave a tiny nod and narrowed her eyes. When she spoke again, he could tell she’d made a decision.
‘It’s because there are things I can tell a private detective that I can’t tell the police. I’m not sure, but I think these things might help you find Scott. You see, while I make a point of not knowing the details of my husband’s business affairs, I do know he has some ... less than entirely legal dealings. As a result, I believe he has some unpleasant connections. If I told the police these things, they might focus their investigations on Scott’s business dealings instead of finding him. And if they did that, well, even if they did find Scott, then they might put him in prison. So I’d be no better off, would I?’
She looked at them both again in turn, this time with a tight-lipped smile. Like they were stupid little boys for not having worked it out for themselves. It was a forced expression, as borrowed as the stillness and the calm recounting of events and Murdoch found he wanted to reach across the glass table and shake the woman into a more honest reaction. Behind him, the etched window above the desk did the job instead. When it rattled again, the sea breeze stronger than before, the noise clearly startled Fran Patterson. She glanced towards it sharply, then looked back at Murdoch and Davie, then down to the glass table again. This time she seemed to look through it, staring at Murdoch’s bare feet.
‘Our contract includes clauses on client confidentiality,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Davie. ‘About our contract—’
‘Is that why you’re worried we might not take the case?
Davie pulled his hands down his face. ‘We’ve had our fair share of those, don’t you worry.’
Murdoch rolled his eyes. The closest Davie had ever come to an unpleasant connection was when he ran into his old boss from the estate agents. Fran didn’t seem to be listening. She had picked up her phone and was scrolling through the screen.
‘Scott gave me this information years ago,’ she said. ‘He told me to keep it in a safe place. That it was important in case anything ever happened to him. And now ... I mean, now, of course, something has ... happened ...’
Wait for it, thought Murdoch. Here come the tears. But Fran Patterson had merely found what she was looking for.
She read from the screen. ‘472023103509071379.’
She looked up, first at Murdoch, then at Davie, as if expecting a response.
‘What’s that?’ said Murdoch.
‘I don’t know.’
He held out a hand, but Fran Patterson pulled the phone close to the protection of her bosom.
‘I can’t show you. It was part of a very personal email. Very romantic.’
She pronounced the last word like a correction, like it explained things any better. Davie asked her to repeat the numbers so he could write them down, then read them back to her slowly.
‘Now,’ he said, when that was done, ‘about the contract—’
But Fran stood so suddenly that Murdoch flinched. Then, as he and Davie watched, she walked around the glass-topped table and over to the desk beside Murdoch, leaning on it with both hands as she looked out at the view that explained the office’s rent. A thin strip of moving green, a thinner one of yellow, then nothing but rolling blue. Davie stood too, like a gent in a black-and-white movie, and asked if she was sure she didn’t want tea.
‘I’ll have one,’ said Murdoch. ‘Milk, three sugars, thanks.’
Murdoch didn’t see Davie’s reaction to that – although he heard him flick on the kettle – because he was concentrating on the woman a metre to his left. Her face was immobile, the fingers of one hand on the vibrating glass like she was helping it resist the forces of nature. She wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.
‘This is an unusual situation for me,’ she said to the view, breath fogging the window for a second.
‘Don’t get offered tea too often?’
She turned as suddenly as she had stood and smiled at him, two sets of pearly whites visible for less than a second. Murdoch would have been less surprised if she’d leaned over and slapped him. He watched her walk back to her seat and sit, legs crossed like before, hands in her lap again, the robot back on program. Davie was at the Ikea bookcase behind her, fiddling with cups, while the kettle scratched and scraped itself to a boil.
‘No tea,’ she said.
The lack of talk which followed was too raw even for Murdoch. This was normally where Davie asked all his stupid questions, but today the muppet seemed to be sulking. Maybe he was upset he hadn’t got the smile. The kettle clicked and calmed and Murdoch asked Fran Patterson why the situation was unusual for her. She took a while to compose her answer.
‘As I said, I make a point of keeping out of my husband’s business affairs. I know some of them may be less than legal, but I know nothing else. We make a point of separating his business life from our personal life. That includes anything to do with ... money.’ She whispered the word like it was the description of a bodily function. ‘Scott puts a certain amount in my account on the fifteenth of each month and with that I run the house and live my life. It’s generous and I never have to ask for more. We don’t discuss finances. I don’t really discuss that kind of thing with anybody. It’s vulgar. But yesterday’s payment didn’t arrive. I don’t have visibility of Scott’s bank accounts and I don’t know how to access them. So this conversation presents an unusual situation for me.’
‘You can’t pay,’ said Murdoch. ‘You want us to work for a success fee.’
‘Bingo.’ Davie was talking to the kettle. Nobody else was listening.
‘Not quite.’ Fran Patterson gave a little victory smile. ‘I have a little left over from last month and I’m sure I can persuade my nephew, Alan, to let me have something from the company books. But I can’t pay your full rate – not until Scott is back and I can get my cash flow sorted. I am proposing to pay you thirty per cent of your normal rate until then, with the remainder in a lump sum.’
‘The thing is—’ said Davie.
‘And how long can you keep that up for? The thirty per cent?’
Fran Patterson clearly hadn’t expected the question. She closed her eyes and Murdoch could see she was calculating the answer. She was like a dummy in a shop window: perfect without being hot. Behind her, Davie had turned, red-faced and frowning. Murdoch gave him a wink.
‘Get back to us,’ he said. ‘You tell us how long you can keep us on at thirty per cent and we’ll tell you if we’re willing to take the case. Lump sum to be paid whether we find your old man or not, dead or alive. Bonus, if we do find him. There’s no point going into this if you can only pay us for a month or so.’
Fran Patterson was human after all. She opened her eyes and stared at Murdoch, her skin patching pink and white. This time she raised both hands to her neck and Murdoch saw why she’d held them so still in her lap. Why, under her fingers, the glass had vibrated in the window.
‘A month or so?!’ she gasped. ‘Scott can’t be gone a month or so! We have to find him in three weeks max. He needs his injection. He has to have it or ...’ But the alternative was clearly too much for her to put into words. She bit her lips and looked at the wall, the window, the table again.
‘His injection?’ Davie sat beside her again. ‘Your husband needs injections?’
Fran Patterson nodded and seemed to make a new decision. ‘Scott is HIV positive; nobody knows but me and his doctor. But he hates injections and he can’t take pills; he detests them. It’s a horrible process for him, trying to get them down. He only manages because he knows if he doesn’t, sooner or later, he’ll develop AIDS. He’s tried everything and the viral rebound is always so strong. But there’s a new trial, he just needs one injection every eight weeks and ...’ She spotted her phone on the table and grabbed it, tapping and swiping hard at the screen until she found what she was looking for. ‘Yes, see. The twenty-third of March. Scott’s next injection is due on the twenty-third of March – that’s only a week away. He can probably manage two weeks after that, but then his CD4 will start declining ...’
She went on, staring at her phone and using terms Murdoch barely understood – T-cells, hepatic complications, virological control – talking faster and less clearly, before suddenly interrupting herself and looking up at them. ‘You have to find him in the next three weeks, do you understand? He has to have his injection or he—’
‘One injection every eight weeks?’ said Davie. ‘For HIV? I’ve never heard of that. Are you sure?’
Fran Patterson gave him a stony look. ‘Of course, I’m sure. As I said, it’s a trial – it’s not available to the public yet. It’s supposed to be only happening in the States, but Scott heard about it and used his connections to get a supply of the ARVs. He’s not supposed to; it’s illegal, apparently, but he has a doctor friend here who measures his viral load. It’s been working well. He hates getting the shot; won’t let anyone else do it for him, won’t even let me watch him doing it. I’ve no idea where he even keeps the injection kit.’
‘Did you tell the police?’
‘No, I didn’t see the point. Scott would hate if it got into the papers. I was going to tell the doctors in the hospital, but before I got there, he’d ...’ She took a deep breath and sat straight again, like that might hide her emotions, but the words continued to tumble from her. ‘I’ve never been away from him for a single night before. Not once since we met. It’s why I have to go to Queensland, do you see? I have to get away, distract myself somehow until I know he’s safe. I miss him ... so ... much.’
Davie leaned forward, elbows on the table, a hand towards Fran in case she wanted to take it. She didn’t, but still Davie soothed and calmed her, promising, of course they’d help, of course they’d find Scott, everything would be fine. Murdoch watched jealously. He could never work out what to say when someone was unhappy. How to make them feel better when there was rarely good reason to be anything but sad or lonely or scared.
At the bang of the blind against the office door, Anita gives a little yelp: the kind of noise a small dog might make. Ever since her near-meltdown at lunchtime, she’s been struggling to keep things together. Today is worse than most days and those are bad enough.
As the office door opens, she stands quickly – the main thing is to be on your feet – scratching her left hand badly on the corner of the credenza. She takes two steps into the middle of the room, arms pulled tight across her chest; then she sees it is only Alan Drummond and gives a nervous laugh that lasts a second too long. Alan smiles back awkwardly and Anita can see him trying to work out if he’s done something wrong. He’s an unattractive man with reddish brown hair, dirty glasses and sad pale skin. His small head does little for him, accentuating the strange shape of his body, tiny at the ends and bulging in the middle, and his clothes are no help either. His suits and shirts are always crumpled or the wrong size or a combination of the two. Anita has never understood why, given Alan’s ambitions, he doesn’t make more of an effort.
‘Sorry, Anita,’ he says nervously. ‘Did I frighten you? That bloody blind would drive me mad, I don’t know how Scott ... Oh, you’ve hurt yourself.’
Anita looks down at the scratch on her hand. It throbs red like a living thing, a sharp animal burrowing into her. Suddenly she understands why people deliberately harm themselves, the relief of something else to focus on. Remembering her fingernail in her palm at lunchtime, she wonders if maybe she did that on purpose? She looks back at Alan and sees he’s expecting an answer.
‘Sorry. What were you saying?’
‘I said, do you want anything for it? There’s a first aid kit out in the opening between the offices, isn’t there?’
She has a vision of Alan pressing the Band-Aid against the flesh of her hand, of Scott walking in and catching him at it. The vision morphs until she is in a half-lit room, covered in scratches, naked but for the red lines on her brown skin. A crowd of men approaches her with leery smiles, each of them holding a tiny sticking plaster, backing her into a corner. They are countless, getting closer, blocking out what little light there is.
‘Anita? Are you sure you’re all right?’
The light brightens and she is back again. ‘What? No. It’s nothing, it’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Is there anything you wanted?’
She watches Alan smile again and shrug his soft shoulders. He looks around the office, gives Anita a mischievous grin and walks behind his uncle’s desk.
‘Oh no, Alan, you shouldn’t.’
But it is no use; he is already lowering himself into Scott’s chair. The sound of its creaking leather makes Anita want to vomit.
‘One day,’ Alan says. ‘Not long now. I’ll fix the blind on that bloody door but I’ll keep this chair. I suppose I’d better keep those too.’
He nods at the opposite wall, at the countless framed articles about Patterson Precision Cardboards opening plants in Fremantle, Hervey Bay, Crosley. PPC sponsoring small football teams, supporting local schools, providing boxes for aid. In most of the frames, beside the fading newsprint, Scott Patterson smiles awkwardly, shaking hands or cutting ribbons, his eyes lost in the creases of his face.
‘Oh, Alan, really.’ Anita forces a little laugh, as if she can play this game too. ‘You shouldn’t be in here. And, oh, please don’t!’
He has picked up Scott’s letter opener, a shining blade on an onyx handle, and is twiddling it between the fingers of one hand while he shifts the huge flat pad on the desk to read the numbers scribbled there.
‘Who’s “Terry H”?’
Anita hurries over, takes the letter opener from Alan and returns it to the correct position. Then she readjusts the desk pad and, on second thoughts, readjusts it again.
‘Come on,’ she says, annoyed now. ‘Out. If you want to talk, we can talk in the opening.’
‘Oh, come on, Scott’s not going to mind. Besides, he’s in Newcastle, isn’t he? And you were in here.’
‘I was filing.’
She remembers the papers she has left on the floor beside the knee-high cabinet and walks back to them. But there she stops and forces herself to turn, to think of something else. Behind Alan, through the window that runs the full width of the office, she sees the distant highway, traffic dotting and dashing the horizon like a code she cannot read.
Alan turns the leather chair to follow her gaze. ‘God,’ he says. ‘Isn’t it miserable here?’
‘I thought you liked it. Isn’t that why you want to be the boss?
‘No, I mean the industrial estate. What a miserable bloody place.’
Alan sighs, pulls himself to his feet and steps to the window until his forehead is on the glass, like a child at an aquarium. Anita makes a mental note to clean the window later, then watches one of Alan’s shoes kick a black mark onto the skirting board above the carpet; so now she’ll have to clean that too.
‘Listen, Anita, I don’t suppose Scott’s given any clues about when he’s really going to retire, has he?’
‘I’ll tell you if you get out of his office. Come on, Alan, let me lock up and we’ll have a nice cup of tea.’
He starts to protest, but, catching the look on her face, gives in and lets her usher him into the opening. Locking the door behind them, the blind banging again, Anita turns to find Alan still waiting for an answer.
‘No, Alan, nothing. Frankly, sometimes I wonder if Scott’s ever going to retire. He’ll be here––’
She stops, unable to put such a hideous future into words. The emotions she has been battling all day rise again stronger than ever and, just as in the café at lunchtime, she turns away, leaning into Scott’s office door as if checking she’s locked it properly. It is vital she protect Alan from the full force of her tears.
But, try as she might, this time Anita cannot stop herself from crying. Sobs force their way up through her, tapping her head against the doorframe, the wood sharp against her temple. Alan’s voice sounds far away even as she feels him put his hand on her shoulder before, at her flinch, withdrawing it again quickly. She has not broken down like this at work before and she knows it is wrong. Knows she needs to stop the tears, no matter the emotions overwhelming her. Awful guttural noises are coming from her throat and she tries to swallow them, to swallow the pain and quieten herself. She puts her hands to her face, but the crying fights back in spluttering coughs until her palms are as wet and flowing as her face.
How strange, she thinks with sudden and startling clarity, that tears are the only thing to come out of the body that isn’t considered disgusting. If she vomited, or lost control of her bladder or bowels, or even just broke a sweat, Alan Drummond wouldn’t come near. But tears – a woman’s tears – are irresistible, it seems. She can see him standing stupidly next to her, his hands worrying the air, no idea what to do. He is apologising and, for a split second, she thinks, he knows. But then she watches him step backwards, ‘Sorry, sorry,’ as he fishes in his pocket for his phone.
‘It’s the boss,’ he says with a grimace, holding up the screen so she can see Scott’s silly grin and his puppy-dog eyes.
Her sobbing stops and, immediately, she is divorced from it. Someone else was making that awful noise; it is someone else’s mascara all over her hands. Anita checks the door to the stairs is closed – nobody can have heard – then crosses to her desk to find her handbag. Alan takes Scott’s call into the sales room, on the far side of the opening from Scott’s office, but Anita can hear him clearly enough.
‘But that’s in half an hour. No, no! Of course, I do. Yes, Scott, loud and clear. Yes, I’ll get going straight away. Yes. Goodbye.’
Anita finds her compact mirror and checks her eyes. Puffy, blotchy, honest for once. She remembers Pam, the office cleaner, telling her just that morning, how lucky she is, with her own house and a car and a daughter who likes her. Pam should see her now. Everyone should see her now. Alan comes to the door of the sales office.
‘Sorry. Listen, are you OK?’
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