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Can a man who’s lived a life of crime ever escape his past? The world’s most reluctant private investigator is about to find out... Former bad boy turned local hero, Bill Murdoch, should be happy with his little piece of paradise. After all, he’s got the fancy car and the big house by the beach. The only trouble is he’s slowly suffocating in small town life.So when Murdoch is hired to investigate who framed wealthy businessman, James Harte, for murder, he jumps at the chance. Going undercover amongst the jet set, Murdoch is quickly drawn into an exciting world of yachts, horse racing and glitzy parties. But soon Murdoch’s shady past looks set to catch up with him and when he falls for Harte’s beautiful wife, Amanda, things take a deadly turn.Class Act is the gripping new murder mystery from bestselling author, Ged Gillmore. A perfect piece of modern Australian noir, it will grab you and keep you guessing until the very last line.** THIS IS NOT THE AUSTRALIA YOU’VE SEEN ADVERTISED ** Class Act is the second book in the Bill Murdoch Mystery series. It is perfect for fans of Peter Temple, Jane Harper, Scott Pratt, Garry Disher, and Peter Corris.Bad-boy-turned-local-hero, Bill Murdoch, returns for more Aussie noir adventures in BASE NATURE (coming March 2018).For news on upcoming books, visit: www.gedgillmore.com
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A BILL MURDOCH MYSTERY
‘Oh, you want a detective story? A nasty crime up front, is that right? And then, let me guess, you want to spend the rest of the book working out who did it and why?’
The woman’s voice was frail and tinny, trembling with the vibrations that carried it down the phone line. Murdoch wanted to correct her, but it was the first time they’d spoken; he didn’t know how to do it without being rude. Besides, she was excited now, barely listening to his hesitant noises.
‘A murder!’ she said with a gasp. ‘Some nice young girl getting brutally slaughtered. Oh yes, and you’re desperate to see it solved. What you want is a book that’s going to make you read late into the night, a story to make you miss your stop. You want to turn the pages breathlessly. Then, at the end, when you find out who the murderer is ... you’re surprised and yet it makes complete sense!’
‘And you want to find out who did it on the very last line of the very last page of the very last chapter of the book. Am I right? Am I? Isn’t that what you want?’
When Jennifer’s new housemates warned her about the rush hour traffic in Sydney, she thought they had to be exaggerating. Or, more likely, pulling her leg. No doubt they thought this country girl – newly arrived from Mudgee – didn’t know how to use Google Maps and couldn’t work out for herself that the drive from Cremorne to Surry Hills could only ever take half an hour, no matter the time of day. Oh, how they had underestimated her.
Jennifer liked the idea of driving herself to work. Crossing the Harbour Bridge every morning and making her way independently in the big city. She might only be a Junior Accounts Analyst for now, but – as had been stressed frequently during her interviews – her new employer was the fastest-growing PR agency in the country and the opportunities for an ambitious young graduate were limitless. As she left the house on Monday morning – the first Monday of a sweltering February – Jennifer smiled in the knowledge that she was a young woman going places. Half an hour and little more than two kilometres later, when at last she turned onto the Warringah Freeway, she saw the vehicles that had slowed her this far formed only a small part of a far greater traffic jam. Here on the freeway, dozens of cars every minute entered the throng, creeping down from suburbs further north or squeezing themselves down the irregular sliproads to join the six-lane approach to the harbour. Together they conspired to form a gridlock that spread, baking and unbroken, between her and her first day at work.
By the time she pulled up behind the offices of the Hoxton Harte Agency, Jennifer was twenty minutes late. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the coffee she had drunk before leaving the house had combined with her nervousness about her new job – plus the anguish of an hour in aggressive traffic – to exert a painful pressure on her bladder. Parking badly and ignoring the sucking humidity outside the car, she sprinted around to the front of the building.
The Hoxton Harte foyer came as a shock. Jennifer’s interviews had been held over the phone and in a drab airport conference room. By then, of course, she had known all about the company and its famous clients (not to mention its well-known owners); she had even seen pictures of its converted warehouse offices. But to experience them in the flesh was something else.
The end of the building inside the glass front doors had been hollowed out into a space four storeys high. Every centimetre was covered with white gloss tiles. The only visible colour was behind the reception desk, where, in acetate pinks and blues, a five-metre female face, suggestively licking a strawberry ice block, filled the wall. The space was busy – high heels clicking in all directions, dark suits moving quickly, every woman dressed in black – and Jennifer was momentarily overwhelmed. Then she took a deep breath and reminded herself she was supposed to be there: that she had a good degree and had passed the gruelling interviews. She hurried over to the long white desk, standing in line until, at last, she could speak to the receptionist.
‘Could you tell me where the nearest bathroom is?’
‘Do you work here?’
The woman behind the desk was as distinctive a splash of colour as the oversized image on the wall behind her. She was petite, with precisely cropped blonde hair, huge green eyes and flawless make-up. Attached to her emerald-green dress was a diamond brooch that caught the light from the glass doors to the street. As Jennifer gave her name and started to explain it was her first day at Hoxton Harte, the receptionist adjusted her telephone headset as if it, like the brooch, was a piece of expensive jewellery.
‘Sorry, just one second.’ The receptionist held up one perfectly manicured hand and used the other to jab at the control panel sunk into the desk before her. ‘Hoxton Harte, please hold. Hoxton Harte, please hold. Hoxton Harte, can you hold? Hello, Hoxton Harte?’
Ten minutes, thought Jennifer. It might be ten minutes before she got to a bathroom, so her bladder would just have to wait. She wouldn’t even worry about it until her watch showed eight minutes had passed. Perhaps she could even imply to the Finance Director, a rather stern woman called Emma Druitt, that the busy receptionist had been the main cause of her lateness. But two slow minutes later, her bladder threatening to burst, lateness was the least of Jennifer’s concerns. Shifting her weight from foot to foot, she looked around desperately for anything that might be a bathroom. To her left was the sunlit doorway to the street, three men drinking takeaway coffees and looking at their watches. Behind her were two glass lifts and, wrapped around them, the intricacies of a pale wooden staircase. To her right was a white tiled wall. The receptionist smiled at her – sorry! – and made a twirling gesture with one perfect hand, as if saying she’d just wrap up this call and then she’d be able to help. But Jennifer knew she couldn’t wait that long. She returned her attention to the three men at the door. The one closest to her had sleepy blue eyes, as if he’d just woken up, pale skin and a dark mop of curly hair. He caught Jennifer looking and smiled. She smiled back, took a deep breath, and crossed the reception area towards him and his friends.
‘Sorry to bother you’, she said from a few metres away. ‘Do you know if there are any bathrooms on this floor?’
Everything was fine. She had sounded confident; she hadn’t whispered it or shouted it, hadn’t said it too fast. There was nothing embarrassing about needing a bathroom.
‘Through there’, the good-looking man said, pointing with his coffee at the tiled wall on the other side of the foyer. ‘Watch out for the step.’
Jennifer frowned and followed the direction of his arm, noticing, for the first time, a thick door-shaped line around a section of tiles in the far wall. One of the other men said ‘Angus’ in a warning tone, but Jennifer had already smiled her thanks and turned away, trying her best not to walk too quickly.
Close-up, the piece of wall was, in fact, a door: it even had a white door handle and this, on her second attempt, Jennifer was able to turn. The door was stiff, but, using her shoulder, Jennifer managed to push it open, wincing as its hinges protested in piercing squeals. Stepping through, she found herself in a little backyard: a dark, derelict space, damp and puddled, empty but for half a bicycle and a collapsed pile of boxes. A small patch of sky was visible high above.
‘No one will mind!’ yelled the man from the other side of the rush hour reception, ‘but you might want to close the door behind you!’
He needn’t have bothered being so loud. It wasn’t like anyone hadn’t noticed her standing in the dank space, blushing in her cheap black suit. Jennifer saw the man laugh, his blue eyes disappearing behind his tan as his friends grimaced into their coffees. She looked at her feet – and away from the stares of everyone else in the foyer. Stepping back inside, she pulled the door closed behind her and told herself that no matter what happened, even if she wet herself there and then, she was not going to cry.
The receptionist’s voice was like a fire alarm and several people across the lobby flinched. She was on her feet, five-foot-six in four-inch heels, headset in her right hand, one of her exquisite fingernails pointing across the tiles.
‘Do you think that’s funny? Do you?’
‘Please’, said Jennifer. ‘It’s fine.’
She said it quickly and quietly, with none of the confidence she’d pretended when asking for the bathroom, but everyone heard her. There was nothing else in the foyer to listen to. The receptionist made the same twirling gesture as before, pointing with her other hand this time at the pale wooden staircase that spiralled around the lifts.
‘Up to the first floor,’ she said. ‘You’ll see the sign.’
Jennifer thanked her and hurried over to the curve of stairs. As she climbed, she had a clear view of the continuing conversation in the foyer. The receptionist was still on her feet, staring at the blue-eyed man at the door.
‘Which anyone with any sense of decency could have told her,’ she said loudly. ‘A common courtesy, you’d have thought.’
‘Oh, calm down, Charlie.’
The man at the door said it a little too coolly, as though he wasn’t as sure as he’d like to be that the receptionist wasn’t the only one who hadn’t got the joke.
‘I will not calm down, Angus! That young lady there was getting her first impression of this place and I am embarrassed, embarrassed, yet again by your complete lack of professionalism. Why don’t you pick on someone your own size for once?’
And then, in the near silence that followed, the receptionist sat down and said, as if for herself, but loud enough for everyone in the foyer to hear. ‘If you can find anyone with a dick that small. Hello, Hoxton Harte, thank you for holding, how can I direct your call?’
Barely suppressed laughter rippled across the reception area, smirks and snorts echoing off the shiny white tiles. Someone coughed and someone else whooped. The man called Angus merely snapped something sharp at the men beside him before turning through the bright arch of the doorway and out into the street. Before Jennifer had reached the top of the stairs, the receptionist’s voice rang out again.
‘And what are the rest of you looking at?! Haven’t you got overpaid jobs to go to?’
Jennifer’s week slowly improved. As promised in her interviews, Hoxton Harte’s finance department was skeletal and Jennifer worked closely with the Finance Director, Emma Druitt, herself. Emma was a small and serious woman who wore her dark hair in a tight chignon and fixed her beady brown eyes steadily on whomever she was talking to. She was friendly enough and, once they were past the awkwardness of Jennifer being late on her first day in the job, the two women got along well. Their conversation, however, rarely strayed far from the work at hand. They shared a quiet space on the third floor, separated from rows of messy desks by thick glass which, Emma explained, she had had installed to give her the quiet she needed to concentrate. The glass wall worked well, especially with its glass door closed, and, if neither woman was on the phone and they had nothing to discuss, the two of them worked in a silence that, to Jennifer, came as a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the world outside.
On Wednesday, Emma sent her to meet James Harte, one of the company’s founders. It was unsettling to be alone with a man Jennifer recognised from the papers. She had thought famous people were shorter in real life, but James Harte was tall and broad-shouldered and, on top of that, he smelled good. He was, if anything, more handsome in the flesh than in the papers, his emerald eyes sparkling whenever he smiled. The carpet in his corner office reminded Jennifer of a bedroom and, even though she pulled herself to her full height, ignored his perfect teeth, and asked questions about the size of his balance sheet, she was utterly intimidated. Harte seemed to sense this and asked her questions about herself and how she was finding life in the big city. He calmed her, charmed her, encouraged her in her work and then gently let her go.
On Thursday morning came an invitation to lunch. Charlotte Holland’s email took Jennifer by surprise and she had to consult the company directory before working out Charlotte was the receptionist who had caused the scene on her first day in the office. Jennifer wasn’t sure she wanted reminding of that; every morning since then she’d arrived so early and left so late she’d found the foyer deserted. But the email was sweetly persuasive and Jennifer found herself unwilling to explain that she normally brought in sandwiches. Besides, she told herself, it would be a good way of confirming who was who in the zoo without asking Emma Druitt to repeat herself.
The sight of The Vines at lunchtime that day made her wonder if she’d made an expensive mistake. Every table in the courtyard restaurant had a thickly-starched tablecloth, heavy cutlery and crowds of glasses that sparkled in the late summer sun. Waitresses weaved between the tables like sharks hunting in the shallows and as Jennifer crossed the restaurant – struggling to keep up with the woman leading her to her table – she wondered for the hundredth time why everyone in this city was in such a rush. As if, no matter what you were doing, you had to finish it quickly so you could do something else, presumably, just as fast. She had explained to the dark-haired waitress racing ahead of her now that she didn’t even need to be led: she could see where her colleague was sitting and make her own way over. But that, apparently, was not an option.
‘The manager says it’s an “integral part of the customer experience”,’ the waitress told her, rolling her Latin eyes. ‘Come on, we wouldn’t want to keep madam waiting.’
As they passed tables, Jennifer recognised a few faces from the agency – presumably out with clients – and one girl who even said hello. Beyond them, either side of the courtyard, stood plate glass windows and as Jennifer crossed the crowded restaurant, her reflection seemed to join and leave the diners, like a hostess checking on her guests. She was going to have to buy a better suit.
‘There you are!’ Charlotte Holland stubbed out a cigarette as the waitress delivered Jennifer with an unconvincing smile. ‘I was beginning to think you’d stood me up.’
‘I’m so sorry, Charlotte ...’
‘Charlie!’ The receptionist’s smile was broad but firm. ‘My name’s Charlie.’
‘Oh. Sorry. Anyway, Emma wanted to take me through the mid-year financials. We’re carrying on again at one thirty. This place looks a bit fancy, I thought we were going out to a café or something.’
Charlie looked around as if trying to find something she’d describe as fancy. A few tables away were some suits from the agency and she wiggled her fingers at them. One of them smiled and raised his glass.
‘They’re from IT,’ she said, watching Jennifer sit down. ‘Don’t make eye contact. How’s your first week going?’ She really was dazzling, more like a Hoxton Harte client than the woman who answered its phones. The intensity of her green-eyed gaze made Jennifer want to look away in shame.
‘Better than it started,’ Jennifer told her. ‘In reception on Monday, I was convinced I was going to cry or wet myself or both. I’m so silly.’
‘Oh, never you mind Angus Hoxton. He’s a prize arsehole and everyone knows it.’
Jennifer’s stomach shrank. ‘That was Angus Hoxton?’
‘Didn’t you know? Oh, well, don’t worry about it, darling.’ The receptionist reached across the table and took Jennifer’s hand. ‘Seriously, don’t worry. His name’s above the door, but that’s all. He just looks after sales. It’s James Harte’s business, everyone knows that. They’re old school friends; that’s why James even tolerates him.’
‘Oh my God, I didn’t think things could have gone any worse. I didn’t realise I’d upset one of the directors.’
Charlie Holland’s smile was unwavering. ‘You didn’t, darling, I did. It wasn’t the first time and I doubt it’ll be the last. Trust me, it’ll be water off a duck’s back. Angus probably won’t even recognise you when he sees you again. He barely looks at anyone – except himself in the mirror.’
Jennifer forced a smile and looked around the restaurant. What if Angus Hoxton was here too and saw them having lunch together? As she studied the scene, the air grew dull and, along with everyone else in courtyard, Jennifer looked up at the sky. A grey cloud was hiding the sun, other clouds close by waiting to do the same. The forecast had said weeks of rain were on the way; this would be the last lunch anyone would be eating outdoors for a while. As the cloud moved and the sun began to reappear, Jennifer blinked and – the restaurant sparkling once more – looked across the table to find Charlie Holland examining her closely.
‘I feel so silly,’ Jennifer said again, just for something to say. The receptionist’s gaze was unerring.
‘I doubt you are.’ Charlie lit a cigarette and smiled. ‘Whatever else I might think about Emma Druitt, she’s no fool. If she hired you, then you must be pretty switched-on. Shall we order?’
Jennifer had prepared herself for the prices on the gigantic cardboard menus, but they were still fifty-five per cent higher than she’d estimated. She ordered a prawn salad and a glass of water, claiming a diet. Charlie ordered a glass of champagne, a starter and a main.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said, once the waitress had shot away again. ‘You’re not paying for half of this. I just feel like spoiling myself, that’s all. Tell me, what do you think of your new boss?’
‘Emma? Oh, you know, nice enough. Very interesting the way she’s structured the finance department.’
‘Finance is as boring as bat shit.’ Charlie underlined the statement with a plume of smoke. ‘Did you know I was the first employee of the agency? After Angus and James, of course.’
‘Before Emma even?’
‘Oh, her. She’s James Harte’s sister, did you know that?’
Jennifer hadn’t known that and wondered if she should have. Had she said anything inappropriate to either of them?
‘And have you met James yet?’ Charlie went on. ‘The big boss?’
‘Well, I was introduced. I’m afraid I blushed and looked at my shoes.’
It sounded convincing even to Jennifer. She felt like blushing now. The memory of James Harte’s emerald eyes made it easier to believe he was the brother of the receptionist rather than of the Finance Director. Charlie checked a nail.
‘He’s very good-looking, isn’t he?’
‘Oh, well. I guess. Not really my type.’ And then, because Charlie looked a little put out, Jennifer added, ‘I mean, of course he is.’
Their drinks arrived and as Charlie’s champagne was placed in front of her, she said loudly, ‘I’m sleeping with him.’
Now Jennifer did blush; she could feel the heat working its way up her face. She waited until the waitress had smiled and left again, but still couldn’t think of anything to say. James Harte was married.
‘You probably disapprove.’ Charlie was checking the perfect nail again.
Not at all,’ said Jennifer quickly, desperate to prove herself worthy of the secret. ‘What’s he like in bed?’
The receptionist looked up, eyes huge in surprise, until she leaned back her head and roared with laughter. When the people at the next table looked around, Charlie put her cigarette hand over her mouth in mock shame, then leant forward to place the other conspiratorially on Jennifer’s forearm.
‘Fantastic!’ she whispered loudly. ‘He’s fantastic in bed. Why do you think I do it?’
Jennifer leant back in her chair, more as an excuse to retract her arm than anything, and caught her reflection in the glass again. Look at me. Only one week in Sydney and already having a gossipy lunch with a girlfriend.
Somehow the conversation moved on to books. It was rare for Jennifer to meet someone who read as much as she did and the two of them spoke for almost half an hour about what they’d recently finished, what was short-listed for which award, who had something new coming out. Then, over food – Jennifer’s thirty-dollar prawn salad proving to be little prawn and all salad – they drifted into a competition about which of them was more afraid of turning into her mother. Charlie laughed a little too loudly, and always for a little too long, but, apart from that, she was good company. Jennifer felt her shoulders drop – the first time in days – sat back and let Charlie tell her what parts of town she might want to move to. It was half an hour later, the changing sky above them more often dull than bright by now, before the conversation came back to James Harte. Charlie referred to him as her ‘make-do man’.
‘So, you’re not madly in love or anything?’
‘Oh, we are, actually. But James is far too good a man to leave his wife. No doubt you’ve heard how lovely she is. He keeps saying we should stop, not see each other again. You know, he never phones me, it’s always me has to phone him. But then I get us alone together and take off my clothes and he can’t resist.’
‘Did you ever think it would turn into anything serious?’
Jennifer, worried she was sounding prudish, wished they were still talking about books. She watched Charlie put one china-doll hand up to her nose, fumbling with the other in her handbag until, after a few seconds, it produced a tissue. She thought for a while the receptionist had silently sneezed.
‘Oh my God, Charlie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you; are you all right?’
‘I’m fine! I’m fine. I’m sorry. It’s just ... I’ve spent the last five years waiting around for that man.’
She was talking to her tissue; it was difficult to hear. Ignoring the glances from the tables around them, Jennifer reached halfway across the table.
‘I’ve spent a fortune,’ said Charlie, breathing away the tears. ‘All the perfect clothes and the perfect presents and the perfect little weekends away. Oh, but don’t you worry, there’s more than one way to skin a fish. I’ll get what I’m owed. I know where the bodies are buried; what ASIC would like to know, and they know that I know.’
She said something else, but it was completely lost to the tissue. Jennifer reached into her handbag and supplied a fresh pack of Kleenex. In response, Charlie looked up – a badly run watercolour – smiled and excused herself.
‘You eat,’ she said. ‘I’ll be back soon.’
She was as good as her word. No more than a few minutes later she reappeared, fresh and grinning wickedly, no evidence of any blotchiness.
‘So, what about you?’ she said, sitting with a bump and downing the end of her champagne. ‘You got a boyfriend?’
The change in the woman across the table – make-up flawless, not a hair out of place – left Jennifer momentarily lost for words. ‘Um, no,’ she said at last. ‘I only arrived in Sydney last week.’
‘No one back home? No dates lined up?’
Jennifer pretended to look for her last prawn, but she’d never been a good liar. She blushed too easily, thought too slowly.
‘You have!’ Charlie leant across the table, her hand on Jennifer’s forearm again. ‘Oh go on, share! You have to, I’ve told you my secret. What’s he like?’
There were a thousand little lies anyone else could have used.
‘Well, I know you’re going to think this is weird, but I’ve not actually met him yet. I got to know him online. We’ve been chatting on WhatsApp for weeks and, when I got the job down here ... well, you know. He’s very funny and so kind. He works for a children’s charity as an outreach worker but he really wants to join the police ...’
Charlie was staring.
‘What?’ said Jennifer. ‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘A social worker? Really?’
‘Well, yes, I suppose. In a way, for now. So?’
‘Nothing, darling! Nothing.’ The receptionist cracked a smile that revealed lipstick on her teeth and went back to her starter. ‘Tell me about him.’
But Jennifer regretted having said anything at all. She wasn’t ready to share Michael yet; not when they hadn’t even met. Not with Charlie Holland. She felt suddenly far from home. Any one of her friends would have shown a genuine interest if she’d ever told them about Michael, no matter what he did for a job. She gave nothing more to Charlie, even made up a false name, calling Michael ‘Stephen’ as if the whole thing had been a lie. Keen to change the subject, she asked if Charlie had always worked on reception.
‘God no! I used to be James’s and Emma’s PA. That’s how I know so much about the company. Like I said, I know where all the fucking bodies are buried. I call it my insurance policy, and, trust me, it’s about to start paying up. Well, it better, or else. Anyway, they decided they needed someone to be the face of the organisation. You know, put on a good show when people walked in? So I got moved down to reception. I’m going to have some more bubbles; do you want a glass?’
It was another ten minutes before Charlie’s main course arrived, a surprisingly large steak, and, as she cut into it, she caught Jennifer looking at her watch.
‘Got somewhere better to be, darling?’
‘Are you kidding? I could sit here all day chatting with you. Although, I think we’d both get rained on if we did – it’s going to pour, by the looks of it. But, anyway, I can’t; I’ve got that meeting with Emma at one thirty.’
‘Oh, screw her. Did I tell you she’s James’s sister? I can’t stand the woman. Only good thing about her is her husband, Oscar. Total dish and a real gentleman, I can’t think how Emma bagged him. She tried to fire me once. Said I was insubordinate. She won’t even give me a work phone, so I have to use Sydafone with their bloody useless coverage. And she won’t give me a parking spot, the bitch!’
This time people at several tables turned to look. Worse were the others, the diners Jennifer recognised from Hoxton Harte. They simply flinched, then carried on carefully eating.
‘What about you?’ said Charlie. ‘You got one?’
It was a quarter past one. The sky was now slate grey, but it was far too humid to walk any distance in a hurry. Jennifer tried to catch the waitress’s attention, but it was as if the woman was avoiding their corner of the courtyard. She remembered Charlie had asked her a question.
‘Have I got one what?’
‘A parking spot,’ Charlie said the words slowly through a mouthful of steak.
‘Ha! And you’re just new in this week. Employee number four hundred and thirty-two you are, did you know that?’ She swallowed hard and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, leaving a spot of gravy on her otherwise perfect cheek. ‘And I’m employee number three and a half. You using it?’
‘My employee number?’
‘Your parking spot.’
‘Oh.’ Jennifer found herself wincing. ‘I am, I’m afraid. I drive to work, you see.’
‘So, you’ve got a car then?’
‘Yes, I brought it down with me from Mudgee.’
‘Perfect. Do you reckon you could give me a lift tonight?’
The receptionist had been cutting hard into her steak again, but, at Jennifer’s hesitation, she looked up, her green eyes firm as she waited for a response.
‘Well,’ said Jennifer, wondering why the truth sounded like a lie. ‘I would, but I’m meeting that boy tonight. For the first time. It’s our first date.’
Charlie appeared to have forgotten her food, her eyes still fixed on Jennifer.
‘You’re making that up.’
Jennifer laughed. ‘No, I’m not. Why would I make that up?’
‘To stop giving me a lift.’
Charlie returned to her steak and they sat without speaking for a while, silence kept at bay by the clinking of cutlery on plates, murmurs from the tables around them. The waitress walked past, but before Jennifer could attract her attention, Charlie shouted loudly.
‘Oi, Annabel! We’ve got to head back and sharpish. You reckon you could get us a bill sometime today?’ She turned back to Jennifer with a naughty little smile. ‘Here’s the thing. I’m out with James on his boat tonight. Class Act, it’s called, a forty-footer; I think he named it after me. It’s not exactly cruising weather, but then we’re not exactly going to spend much time outside of the main bedroom, or berth, or cabin, or whatever he calls it. Anyway, we’re going on a romantic little cruise – he can’t get out of it. But, just in case he drops me off at Rose Bay like he sometimes does, would you come and pick me up? It’s a nightmare getting a taxi that time of night, especially with my stupid phone reception.’
‘But I’m meeting Michael tonight.’
‘Michael? You said his name was Stephen.’
‘I mean, Stephen. I’m meeting him tonight, we’re going out for dinner in Newtown. I’ll probably have something to drink.’
‘Oh please, don’t pretend. Besides, it’s not like you don’t owe me a favour after what I did for you on Monday.’ Charlie’s hand was on Jennifer’s forearm again, its grip surprisingly strong. ‘Once James has dropped me at the wharf, he’s always in such a rush to get back to Class, especially if it’s raining, and I hate standing around by myself. There’s Wi-Fi on the boat and I’ve tried ordering Ubers, but by the time we’ve got into the dinghy and back to the wharf, half the time they’ve driven off again. Besides, it could be anyone in an Uber, couldn’t it? Even someone just pretending to be an Uber. You might as well get into a random car! I’d feel much safer if there was someone there to meet me.’
‘Better. Come on, Jennifer, we both know you’re not going on a date.’
Jennifer didn’t know what to say. She scrabbled around in her handbag, praying for the waitress to come back with the bill, sure Charlie was staring at her again with those big green eyes. Finding her purse at last, she pulled out the notes needed to pay for her meal and laid them carefully on the table. Then she stood quickly, out of arm’s reach, and looked down to find Charlie glaring up at her.
‘I have to get back to the office,’ Jennifer told her. ‘I’m sorry. Thanks so much for lunch.’
‘I’ve got your mobile number from the directory,’ Charlie replied with a sudden sweet smile. ‘I’ll send you a WhatsApp from the boat.’
Murdoch walked through Bell Fair trying to work out why he hated the place. It was no dirtier than a lot of shopping malls, the lighting wasn’t any worse, its piped music no more depressing. But every time he approached Bell Fair’s sliding doors, he found himself recoiling, like a man catching his reflection after a particularly bad beating. After two years on the Coast, and everyone else loving the mall, he had come to the conclusion that the problem had to be with him. Finding the spot where he’d agreed to meet Suzie Bourne, he stood awkwardly looking around. He could, he realised after a minute or two, actually taste his dislike of the place: his mouth metallic and sour. He caught himself worrying about his breath. Told himself he was being ridiculous and, spotting a likely-looking woman, forced a smile and approached her.
The woman flinched, shook her head and changed direction, handbag clenched to her side and one shoulder up like it could offer protection. Watching her scuttle away across the grubby tiles, Murdoch swore quietly. He hated these little reminders that he still looked like a crook. But what was he supposed to do? Change the colour of what an old boss had called his ‘disturbingly black’ eyes? Join the steroid junkies and put on some weight? Spotting another older woman, he took a deep breath, tried a nice smile – like English prison dentistry hadn’t ruined that idea – and tried again. He tried twice more with similar results, and was trying to breathe away his mounting anger, when he noticed a little old lady on a metal bench between two plastic palms. She was watching him closely, something like a glint in her eye. Murdoch walked over.
‘Yes,’ she said, and he recognised her lilting voice from the phone. ‘I’m Suzie Bourne. And you’re Dr Livingstone, I presume?’
She was smaller than he’d expected and much older: the tiny remains of a woman beneath a shock of white hair. When she leant forward and held out her hand. Murdoch shook it gently and sat beside her, determined to hide his frustration.
‘Nah love, I’m not the doctor. My name’s Bill Murdoch; we spoke on the phone. Do you remember?’
The old lady laughed and told him that of course she did, she’d been joking. Murdoch made a note to look up the Livingstone reference later – yet another thing no one had told him about – and asked Suzie Bourne how long she’d been sitting there.
‘Long enough,’ she said with another little laugh. ‘I was having fun watching you.’
‘Really? Well, I’m glad one of us found it funny.’
The words snapped and crackled, angrier than he’d meant them to sound. Murdoch took another deep breath, decided to start again, and the old lady sat back, like she wanted to avoid what was coming next. As she did so, Murdoch spotted a walking stick, grey and ugly with heavy stoppers on three feet, leaning against the bench beside her. Shit. Maybe she’d called out and he hadn’t heard her.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I just felt like a right tw—like an idiot walking up to all them people.’
She followed his gaze to the walking stick and laughed the same little laugh as before: a tinkling glass noise that was beginning to grate on him.
‘That’s not mine!’ she said. ‘It belongs to a friend. Never underestimate the forgetfulness of old women. Still, she can’t have got very far, eh? But do forgive me, Mr Murdoch, I have been told I have an unkind sense of humour. That was cruel of me, but,’ – that laugh again – ‘it was funny.’
Murdoch’s quashed frustration rose again. He resisted swearing but stood suddenly, one hand rubbing the red stubble on his scalp.
‘You know what,’ he said, ‘maybe this was a stupid idea.’
‘Let’s forget the whole thing.’
Murdoch felt a tug on his trouser leg. Looking down, he saw the old lady’s liver-spotted hand was pinching at the fabric.
‘Please,’ she said. ‘I really am sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel like a “right twat”. That’s the word you were going to say, isn’t it? But, obviously, I’m the “right twat” for having such a stupid sense of humour. Come on, I’ll buy you a cup of tea. Please?’
She started struggling to her feet and, stepping closer to give her a hand, Murdoch wondered who in the world could resist such helplessness. That alone made him feel better: the idea that these days he had to wonder. That he’d actually forgotten for a while what the scum of the earth were really like. The fact that Suzie Bourne had been lying about the walking stick – ‘I can’t stand sympathy’ – made him feel better still. Even in the mood he was now in, he had to admit that, as a candidate, she was working out pretty well.
They took a while to get settled in the dull and functional café. The old lady moved slowly, tutting at Murdoch when he offered to help, then insisting on getting up again when they worked out they had to order at the till. It was a quarter of an hour before they were both seated again – Murdoch winning the battle about carrying the tray – with the shared pot of tea on the table between them. Murdoch offered to be mother, but Suzie Bourne told him it was a sexist expression and said, given she was paying, it was her job to pour.
‘Yeah, three, thanks.’
It was like a little dance; like the tea ceremonies he’d read about on Google, and something about it calmed him. They were sitting in the café’s window, separated from the rest of Bell Fair – easy enough to look away from it. Apart from him and Suzie Bourne and the acned youth at the till, the café was empty. The old lady passed him his tea, the cup rattling gently in its saucer. Her eyes were keen and shiny but held only a memory of blue.
‘So, Mr Murdoch ...’
‘Oh.’ She thought about it, her head cocked on one side. ‘Yes, very good. And you must call me Suzie. So, Bill, you want me to teach you how to write a book?’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘sort of.’
‘I mean, no.’
The old lady’s mouth tightened. She had lifted her own cup and saucer but now put them back on the table, waiting for him to explain. There was something hard about her, he saw. Something tough under all those wrinkles.
‘I don’t want you to teach me how to write a book,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t never do nothing like that. I want you to write it for me. I had a bit of an adventure last year and I thought I could tell you what happened and you could write it all down. In a story, like.’
Suzie raised her eyebrows. ‘I used to teach creative writing. I never wrote much myself.’
She was a good liar, but Murdoch had evidence. ‘You wrote two books in the sixties,’ he said. ‘Jewels in the Morning and The Turkish Bazaar. I read ’em both; they was good.’
Her face relaxed and her little laugh rang out again, louder this time.
‘You can’t possibly have read them. No one read them even when they were in print. The internet is a marvellous thing, Bill, but you can’t kid a kidder.’
She gave him a smile with her faded eyes – she didn’t mind him lying, it was a compliment. Murdoch reached down into his leather tote bag, open on the floor beside the table, rifled past his magazines and found the two books. He laid them gently on the table in front of her.
‘It is “marvellous”,’ he said, liking the word. ‘You can get everything. You just find the right website and pay them enough money and they’ll get you whatever you want, free delivery half the time. That one’s from Canada.’
Suzie gave up on her tea again. She picked up Jewels in the Morning, handling it like the stolen necklace in its story, then reached for the other book, turning the pages slowly until she let out her glass laugh, a spot of pink in her cheeks.
‘... he stole through the night like a cat, the animal smell of fear on him ...” Oh God, what a penny dreadful. Just because you can get everything doesn’t mean you should.’
‘Doesn’t mean it’ll make you happy neither.’
She gave him a strange look, her head cocked to the side again. She was like a little grey bird, he thought, listening to a far-off and familiar song. Then she seemed to remember the book in her hands.
‘Goodness. Well, I’m touched; I really am. Maybe I should be worried? You’re not a stalker, are you?’ She peered down into his tote, then, looking up, caught the expression on his face. ‘Joke! I was joking again; really, you are funny. But, well, I don’t know. You see, writing fiction’s not what I do professionally. “Did”, I should say. I was a journalist for a while and, yes, then I took myself off and wrote those two books. But that was it; after that I just taught other people how to write. There are people who ghostwrite professionally, you know.’
‘Yeah, but I need someone what I can trust a hundred per cent.’
‘But why me ... Oh, the internet again?’
‘And the library,’ he said. ‘The library’s better for old papers, specially the local ones.’
Murdoch was reaching towards his tote bag, ready to dig for the articles he’d photocopied. But, at the mention of the papers, the old lady had flinched and was now staring into the bag like she was worried it held a weapon. Murdoch sat straight.
‘You went to prison for protecting your sources,’ he said gently. ‘You said you was doing it not just for them but for all the other journalists too. You said if journalists started letting on about their grasses, no one would ever grass again.’
‘Well,’ Suzie Bourne rubbed her mottled hands together, ‘those probably aren’t the words I used.’
‘Still though, you done it.’
The skin on the old lady’s hands stayed wherever she pushed it, the noise a dry whisper, and, when she spoke again, it was to the liver-spotted skin rather to Murdoch. There was no sign of the cheeky woman who had bossed him around moments before.
‘Prison was an awful experience,’ she said quietly. ‘If I’d had any idea, I’d have given that man’s name up in seconds. Later, I swore I’d never have anything to do with that world again.’ She blinked the memory away and looked up with a fragile smile. ‘Besides, I’m far better qualified to teach you to write. It’s hard work, but you can learn to do it. It’s more of a skill than a talent and there are guidelines you can follow. What kind of book did you want to write – a detective story, was it?’
She reached forward for her cup again, grabbing it a little too quickly and splashing some of the tea into the saucer. Murdoch thought he heard her say ‘fuck’ under her breath.
‘It’s not a story,’ he said. ‘It’s the truth ...’
‘Ah well, it still needs telling as a story.’ She was talking quickly, keen to move them on. ‘First of all, we need The Crime, or even just The Set-Up, if you want to keep readers guessing what the crime actually is. And, of course, your main character – that’s you – has to start in The Prison.’
‘Nah, I wasn’t in prison at the start.’
Suzie Bourne looked annoyed at being interrupted. ‘I didn’t say you were in prison,’ she said slowly. ‘I said at the beginning of a story, the main character is always in a prison. A prison of their own making; it’s metaphorical. Either they’re greedy or frightened or a snob or doing a job they hate or in a bad relationship. That’s where all stories start. And then the prison gets worse and they’re more trapped than ever.’
Murdoch thought back to the previous year, to his life in Sydney and what had happened to him.
‘Well, I won’t go into it all now, but, like I said, there are guidelines to storytelling. I’m more than happy to teach you, it’s really not that hard ...’
‘No, really, it’s not.’
‘It is. I’ve tried it a hundred times and I can’t do it. Whatever I write, it’s all rubbish. I want someone else to do it!’
She looked at him in surprise and he realised he’d raised his voice. For a fleeting second, her expression seemed to change to one of intense curiosity and he thought she was about to ask him something. But then, with a tiny shake of her head, she looked away. In the sad silence that followed, Murdoch remembered where they were. He turned in his seat and looked out at the slow shoppers, everyone in the world trying to buy themselves happier.
‘Would you like another cup of tea, Bill?’
Jesus Christ, it made him want to cry. Bad tea and piped music, nothing else happening. This was going to be the rest of his life.
‘Milk, wasn’t it? And three sugars? You see, I’ll be honest and tell you I am rather keen to get some extra income. I have friends who’ve invited me to join them on a long cruise and I’d dearly love to accept. But I simply have no interest in going near the underworld again.’
‘Yeah, but you wouldn’t have to, would you? Everyone I ever had anything to do with in this country is dead or banged up. My old gang in Sydney, the Club, they’re done – otherwise I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it. You wouldn’t have to do nothing ‘cept listening to me tell you what I did, then write it out like a good story. Them’s all doing it, these ex-crooks. They publish their memories and then they get to go on chat shows and everything; hang out with real celebrities.’
The old lady smiled and shuffled forward on her chair, her turn to reach down into his open bag. Grunting with the effort, she sat up again with his copy of Starstrike! in her hand.
‘Celebrities,’ she said, opening the magazine onto the table between them. ‘Like these people? Why on earth would you choose to mix with them?’
Murdoch wanted to be more annoyed. Who did this old biddy think she was, poking around in his private stuff? On the other hand, wasn’t that exactly what he wanted her to do?
‘Oh, this one,’ she said with a sudden smile, tapping at a photograph. ‘Even I recognise her. She’s Australian, isn’t she?’
‘Yeah, she’s Melissa Munday. She’s in Society, it’s my favourite thing on the telly. Actually ...’ He checked his watch and looked up to find the old lady smirking. ‘What?’
‘Oh nothing. It’s just I didn’t take you for someone who would enjoy watching that kind of thing. Or reading this kind of thing, to tell the truth. Tell me, what’s the appeal?’
She was like a social worker: spotting the stuff you didn’t want to talk about and making you talk about nothing but that. Murdoch could have resisted, but he knew he had to give her something if she was going to help him. She was like that, he could tell: too savvy to give something for nothing. He shrugged. ‘I dunno. It’s how the other half lives, innit? How I’m gunna live one day. Yachts and parties and penguin suits. That’s what I always wanted, not this ...’ He gestured out at the mall, gave up on trying to find a word for it and pointed at the magazine instead. ‘I like reading about what life could be like. You know, exciting.’
Suzie Bourne too looked out at the mall, then turned back to him with a tired look on her face.
‘It gets worse as you get older,’ she said. ‘Everyone who’s any fun dies and you’re too weak to do anything interesting.’ She seemed to remember something, maybe that she wasn’t supposed to think this way, and forced another smile – less convincing this one – as she tapped on the magazine again. ‘But I bet these people’s lives aren’t much better. They’re probably not that exciting in reality.’
‘Compared to mine they are. They all go to balls and launches and openings and stuff.’
‘Yes, but that’s just the bit you see, Bill. It’s storytelling, like anything else. Oh dear, were you looking for your story to portray you like someone in this magazine? Or to be written like an episode of Society?’
‘Nah, I mean, I dunno. I’d leave all that bit up to you. As long as you get the facts out, you can do it whatever way you want.’
She gave him a different look, like his proposal was more interesting than it had been, before making a small noise, a short and tidy hum, and shaking her head again. She smiled at him sadly, closed the magazine and pushed it across the table.
‘We could discuss money,’ he said quickly. ‘Maybe that would help? I looked it all up.’
‘I was thinking forty grand.’
Suzie Bourne stared at him. ‘Forty thousand dollars?’
‘Oh!’ She pressed one hand against her chest, the world smallest diamond clinging to her finger after all these years. ‘My! Well, I don’t know. I mean ...’
Murdoch’s alarm started up on his phone, buzzing the whole table, the cups worried in their saucers. Checking his watch again, he swore under his breath and leant to pick up his bag.
‘Listen,’ he said, standing too quickly and bothering the table more than his phone had done. ‘I’ve got something on, but you think about it, yeah?’
She showed him all her tiny teeth this time, a grimace as much as a smile, dentures he hadn’t noticed before. When he reached over the table to shake hands goodbye, she reached up, took his hand in both of hers and shook it with the full strength of her arms. One good tug and he could have pulled them off.
Davie was in the overbright window of Deutsch & Bowler, updating the cards describing houses for sale, when he saw Bill Murdoch drive past. Immediately, he climbed backwards into the estate agency’s shabby office, leaving half the cards blank and one of them hanging by a corner, and started looking around for his keys. Two minutes later he’d locked up and, without even examining the surf across the road, was hurrying in the direction of Bill’s house.
It was a day to show why the white man’s seasons don’t work in Australia. Half spring, half winter, it was a perfect ‘sprinter’ day: the sky cloudless but cool, the trees and bushes full of bloom. The kind of day that usually filled Davie’s head with calculations about the surf and how soon he could bunk off work to enjoy it. Today, all that concerned him was how he was going to break his news to Bill without getting shouted at.
It wasn’t that Davie was afraid of his friend’s foul temper – Bill Murdoch was always angry or miserable about something – more that he hated contributing to it. The trouble was, whatever Davie suggested, whatever great ideas he had about how Bill could enjoy life in Montauban, how he should try and patch things up with Natalie Conquest, they always seemed to make things worse. The Englishman seemed personally offended by the idea of joining the surf club or the bush preservation society or the coastal regeneration group. Worse than that, he had no idea how lucky he was to be invited to do so. Out of holiday season, Montauban was a sleepy place – less than half its houses occupied, barely enough business for the shops opposite the beach – and it certainly didn’t welcome blow-ins. But Bill Murdoch had been an exception. The previous year, posing as a private detective – and with significant help from Davie – he had solved the case of a missing local schoolgirl, Georgie Walker. Admittedly, prior to that, Bill had been a crook – everyone in Montie knew, it had been all over the papers – but this was the Coast, no one minded that up here. Besides, everyone in Montie also knew that Bill had crossed his former gangland employers to solve the Georgie Walker case and that made him a local hero. So much so, in fact, that, when those same papers reported Bill Murdoch’s death, the locals had been happy to keep up the story. In public they were supposed to call him by a different name – Davie could never remember what it was – and to tell him if anyone was asking after him. But no one ever had asked after him. Not until today.
Lost in his thoughts, Davie forgot not to lean on Bill’s doorbell – you could never hear if it was working or not – and flinched in surprise when the Englishman opened the door.
‘You know, mate,’ said Bill, ‘you only need to press the doorbell for a second and then you can take your finger off it. That’s how it works.’
Wiry, shorn-headed and fizzy with energy, Bill tended to make Davie, who was floppily blond and six foot four, feel like a giant sloth.
‘Yo, Bill. How you going?’
‘Fine thanks. You?’
‘I’ve got news.’
‘Let me guess, Natalie said hello.’
‘I wish, but no. Are you going to let me in?’
Bill checked his watch, said, ‘Fifteen minutes, absolute max,’ and turned back into the house.
Jim Young, Davie remembered as he followed Bill down the long hallway. That was the name they were supposed to use for Bill in front of anyone out of town. Davie had sold this house and its contents to a James Young, and only afterwards discovered it was really Bill. It was the best house in town. As the local estate agent, over the years Davie had been inside most of the others and not one – not even the millionaires’ weekenders up on the cliffs – came close. The previous owner had been an architect with a renowned eye for art deco and deco-inspired furniture, all of which Bill had bought when he’d bought the house. The place was full of glass, brass, dark wood and curves – elegant angles that made you want to reach out and touch. Whoever said you couldn’t buy taste hadn’t seen this house.
Bill walked down to the kitchen, but Davie stopped halfway along the hall and pushed open the door to the living room. At this time of year, the light from the lagoon juddered shadows against the room’s green walls, sparking the mirrors and the vases, an optical display even Bill had made positive noises about. Today, however, Davie found the room shut up in darkness, the only light coming from adverts playing silently on the huge television. Davie wanted to stride across to the French windows, pull open the curtains and let the glorious daylight in, but that was the kind of thing Bill tended to use as an excuse for throwing him out. He called towards the kitchen.
‘It’s a beautiful day out there, Bill, and here’s you hiding in the dark. Why don’t you let the sunshine in?’
‘Because I’m going to watch telly.’
‘Why don’t you come down the beach? I could bunk off work.’
‘Because I want to watch telly?’
Davie gave up and walked into the kitchen, blinking against the brightness. Bill was at the counter, flipping through a magazine.
‘Have you been out much?’
The Englishman didn’t turn around. ‘Yeah, a bit.’
‘Nat says she saw you walking on the beach.’
‘Davie, mate, I still don’t want to go for a drink with her, right?’
The previous year, Bill had had a one-night stand with Davie’s best friend, Natalie Conquest. Convinced the two of them still had the hots for each other, Davie had tried a little too hard to push them back together.
‘So you’ve not been out?’ he asked again, unsure how to move the conversation towards his news.
‘Went to Crosley this morning, didn’t I? And I see Ed Springer twice a week.’
‘Oh yeah, I heard you were doing that. I heard you’re getting good!’
‘Course you did. I can’t fart without half of Montie knowing about it, can I?’
Bill had opened a cupboard and taken out two mugs. Now he let them drop onto the counter before jabbing at the switch on the kettle. Davie grimaced and sat himself quietly at the table beneath the window. It really was a beautiful day outside. All the pot plants on Bill’s patio had flowers on them, and, further down, near the lagoon, the turpentine towering over his lawn was dotted with off-white blossom. Inside, the kettle screamed itself to a boil. In the silence that followed, Davie asked how things were going with Ed Springer.
‘And what else? Have you been out much otherwise? You should, you know. You’d get to meet some new people. You know, what about joining ...’ Davie remembered he’d suggested the surf club once too often. ‘... a gym again or something. Terry over at Punch in Kildare says you’ve not been there in months.’
‘You know, Davie ...’
‘Or what about the idea of doing another detective job? I told you my CAPI licence came through – we’d be legal and everything.’
‘Or what about that woman I told you about? Suzie Bourne? You should go and see her. Didn’t you say you wanted to? You said ...’
‘Or maybe you could join Taradale Tennis Club?’
‘Davie, for God’s sake! Do you want me to disconnect that doorbell? Cos I will, you know. You can come round, I don’t mind, but don’t bleeding well tell me how to live my life. You go to the beach; you go and enjoy this bleeding little backwater and talk to all the bogans who live here, but leave me out of it, will you?’
Months before this would have counted as an argument. These days most of their conversations went this way. Davie sighed and looked out of the window again, listening to Bill make the tea. It was several minutes before he remembered his news.
‘Is it possible they’re still looking for you?’
‘Who’s that then?’
‘Those people you used to work for. The Club. Is that why you’re staying indoors?’
‘No, you muppet. No one’s looking for me. Most of them lot are dead and buried, and the ones what aren’t think I am.’
‘So why the hermit act? Have you been down the shops and spoken to Anne Lincoln?’
‘Davie, there is no hermit act. I go out every day, don’t I? You hear about anyone looking for me, I’ll start shitting myself, if it makes you feel better. Until then, I’m— spoken to Anne Lincoln about what?’
Davie realised he was biting his lower lip, one hand combing through his hair. He stopped both and took a deep breath. It was like making yourself sick: better to get it over and done with.
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