Shadow House - A.j. Sendall - ebook
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She’s out to avenge her sister’s death - he’s on a path to self-destruction.Heather Todd’s life had never been easy, but when her sister died as a result of overcut cocaine, everything changed. Now she’s determined to take down Sydney’s notorious organized crime ring, vowing to ensure her sister didn’t die in vain.Ex MI6 operative turned world sailor, Sam Autenburg is on a bender after his partner died, also as a result of overcut cocaine. When one night things go desperately wrong for Sam, Heather comes to his rescue.Taunting and goading him, she eventually convinces him to take on her cause and infiltrate the organized crime syndicate responsible for her sister’s, and his partner’s, deaths. Going after the brutal gang will be no easy feat, and in order to stop them, Sam and Heather must put their own lives on the line.Together in loss and driven by revenge, Sam and Heather hunt for justice, and in doing so, begin their own path to redemption.Can they find the evidence they need without getting caught?Are they strong enough to take on this fight without losing themselves in the process?Find out in this action-packed thriller, filled with daring adventure and high-risk operations!

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Shadow House

By

A.J. Sendall

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Published in 2016

by

Next Chapter Press

Previously Published as Heather in 2014

Author contact:[email protected]

Layout design by

Next Chapter Press

Cover Design by www.creativindiecovers.com

www.ajsendall.com

Prologue

The First Cut

Loretto Reed walked towards home on a warm autumn evening, up the hill from the ferry terminal through the gathering dusk, past Alfie’s Fish and Chips with its wonderful smell of hot fat and frying batter. He felt a sudden, sickening shove in the middle of his back. His immediate response was to bolt, but someone grabbed and twisted the collar of his jacket. Loretto turned his head and saw his worst nightmare.

Glen Smith was thickset like an angry pit-bull; his hands permanently curled into half-made oaken fists. He had no fear of authority, had been suspended and expelled from schools from the age of six.

Beside Smith, stood Martin Blake, a lean, violent halfwit, whose face carried a constant malignant grin. If Smith was Dennis the Menace, then Blake was Plug from Bash Street. The two boys were a year younger than Loretto, but so much tougher than he’d ever be.

They bundled him into the small side street he’d been passing. Smith released his collar, shoved him against the rough redbrick wall, then grabbed him again. Smith’s right arm was flexed by his side, his fist balled and ready. Blake stood beside him wearing his idiot grin.

‘Where do you think you’re going, Reed?’

Loretto tried to speak, but his throat dried with fear. He knew what came next.

‘I asked you where you’re going, Runner.’

‘Going home,’ Loretto squeezed out of his shrunken throat, as he fought back the inevitable tears.

He’d earned the nickname ‘Runner Reed’ due to this singular choice of flight, rather than fight. He feared fighting back, thinking it would further antagonise his aggressors and result in a worse beating and greater ridicule. Anyway, he knew he’d be useless in a fistfight; running away was all he could do. The familiar sick feeling swirled inside him, as if Smith’s knotty fist was twisting inside his gut.

He looked around in futile hope that somebody would intervene, then his head exploded as a fist slammed into his left ear. He could feel and taste the hot salty tears as his pathetic pleadings tumbled incoherently from his wet and trembling lips. ‘Don’t hit me. Please don’t hit me again.’

‘Come on, Runner, fight back you fuckin’ pussy.’

‘He’s frightened; aren’t you, Runner?’ Blake said, the spit flying from his lips and landing on Loretto’s face.

‘Your mother’s an old slapper, isn’t she, Runner,’ continued Blake. ‘An old slapper with big floppy tits and a worn-out fanny isn’t she, Runner?’ They both laughed in his face.

Smith tightened his grip, and said, ‘And your old man was an Italian faggot, wasn’t he, Runner? Are you a faggot, Runner? Well, are you? Is that why you always run away and won’t fight?’

There was more raucous laughter as Blake pushed his face close to Loretto’s. ‘Fuckin’ poofter, are you, Reed. Eh? A fuckin’ shirtlifter? Is that what you are?’

‘I’m not.’ His voice was weak and frightened, like the body it crept from. ‘I just want to go home.’

Martin Blake let out a short yelping laugh like a kicked dog, as he punched him hard in the gut.

Loretto buckled at the knees, seeking the sanctuary of the ground where he could curl up to protect himself, but Smith held him up with a tough grip on the lapel of his jacket. Loretto’s tears flowed freely, and the snot ran down his upper lip as the hopelessness of the situation overwhelmed him.

‘Bah-ha-ha, look, Smithy, he’s crying already.’ Blake pushed his face into Loretto’s again. ‘And we haven’t even started with you yet, Reed. Have we, Smithy.’

The smell of Blake’s rank breath flooded Loretto’s face and made him want to gag. He wanted to scream, scream until some big brute walking past the end of the street took pity on him and bashed these two arseholes. He wanted big rough knuckles, thick arms and pregnant muscles like his stepfather’s, then he could rip off bastard Blake’s stupid grinning head with its foul breath, and shove it up Smith’s hard arse. He wanted to be tough and hard-nosed like his stepfather; or a martial-arts expert like Jackie Chan. He’d show these bastards. He’d make them suffer for every kick and punch they’d landed on him. But he’d never be any of those things. He knew he’d spend the rest of his miserable life being slapped around by the Smiths and Blakes of this horrible world.

Smith’s right fist slammed into his gut. He wanted to beg, but there wasn’t enough breath in his lungs. He wished these two bastards would kill him, and end his miserable existence forever. That wouldn’t happen; they loved tormenting him. They were having way too much fun to end it. Anyway, they weren’t killers, they were small-time punks, revolting young bastards who enjoyed inflicting pain and seeing him make a mess of himself. Crying and pleading like a complete wuss. Like a frightened girl.

As he reeled in the misery of his situation; he remembered it. He could feel it in his back pocket, digging into him, nudging him, egging him on.

I’m here… go on… do it. They deserve it.

Smith slammed him against the redbrick wall, ready to inflict another excruciating punch.

Without a plan or conscious thought, Loretto’s right hand dropped to his side, slipped into the back pocket of his jeans, and came back out holding an ivory-handled straight razor. Those same robotic fingers gripped the ivory handle, letting the blade fall open. The razor’s edge lay silently waiting by his side. Smith turned his head and said something to Blake. Blake laughed. Loretto could see Blake’s mouth moving but couldn’t hear his words. The blood rushing around behind his ears and eyes blocked all sound.

A mournful, animalistic moan erupted from his throat as he slashed wildly at his two aggressors. Smith’s grip released and fell as the razor bit deep into his right bicep. A thick river of blood spilled out of the gaping wound and ran down his arm, turning the sleeve of his blue school shirt deep crimson. Reed slashed at Blake who now stood open-mouthed, still wearing his idiot grin, unable to comprehend what had just happened.

Blake dodged backward as the blade sliced past his gawping face. Loretto’s head and heart were thumping in a jarring harmony of terror and ecstasy. He stood still, watching in fascination as Smith’s blood ran down his arm and fell to the cracked pavement forming a thick red pool.

Blake’s mouth was moving, the spit flying, but Loretto heard nothing. All sound ceased other than the swirling in his ears.

He looked down at the blood, and then at Smith and Blake. ‘You cunts!’ He took another wild slash, nicking Blake’s hand as he raised it in defence. Then he turned and started running.

Although nobody was pursuing him, Loretto ran until his lungs were burning; then he ran some more. He ran past familiar sights and brushed past strangers, the bloodstained razor gripped in his right hand. The cool steel blade lay along his wrist, out of sight but ready. He ran behind a disused service station and sat on the ground against the rear wall, lightheaded and legs shaking. He looked at the bloodstained blade in his hand and caressed its ivory-encased handle. He ran a pale trembling finger along the edge of the blade, wincing as he mixed a thin trickle of his blood with the drying blood of his adversaries. Adrenaline rushed through his body. His breathing was short and deliberate, his eyes glazed.

Loretto had stolen the razor from his employer. There was no sane reason for him to do so, the patchy bum fluff on his chin didn’t warrant risking his job, but he’d become used to stealing small things, perhaps as his way of hitting back at an unfair world, to feel a measure of control. He didn’t hear the traffic passing close by, or smell the stench of rotting garbage that lay all around him on the abandoned site.

On this day, at age fifteen and a half, he’d found his own solution to the tortured existence he called Life. Now it was his turn to inflict pain and take control. This was his solution, he realised; to carry a weapon and use it, and if necessary kill or be killed. He had no fear of death. He’d contemplated suicide as a way out of the unfair world of bullying in which he lived, and he’d do it, he’d told himself over and over, as long as he felt no pain.

Something inside the boy had snapped. For Loretto, seeing the fear and confusion in Smith’s eyes was an epiphany, a moment of joyous realisation. Letting his blood was the first taste of freedom from fear. The singular control of others, about which he so often daydreamed. Loretto the tough guy. Hard-nut Reed.

A thin smile spread out across his snotty, pouting lips, widening as it flowed into his wet cheeks and swollen eyes, and then he started laughing.

He couldn’t have told you when he’d last laughed. He rubbed the back of his hand across his wet eyes, and then looked down at the scrawny grey kitten approaching him, sniffing at the small drops of blood on the ground.

‘Here, kitty-kitty.’

The kitten approached, eyes wide, head bobbing, nostrils flaring at Loretto’s bloodstained hand.

‘Heeere, Kitty. Come on. Come on, kitty.’

Loretto reached out with his right hand and stroked the kitten’s back. There was a short purr. ‘Here, kitty-kitty.’

He stroked again and the kitten came closer, rubbing long white whiskers against his shin. ‘Here, kitty-kitty.’

The kitten gave a brief jerk backward as Loretto brought the blade under its chin. There was a release of air; a last faint breath of panic as he scooped out half of its throat. Loretto watched the blood drain from the kitten’s small dying body. It gave one last sad twitch, then was still.

Loretto threw his head back and laughed again.

Because of that first incident, Loretto started to hang out with two other local thugs who’d heard about him cutting Smith. By his 17th birthday, he’d started doing small jobs for a local moneylender and minor drug dealer named Dennis Quaid. He wore the mantle of a tough guy, while inside he was still a quivering boy. The thing he feared more than getting a beating was to have the fear itself exposed; to have others see him for who he really was. Nobody could know. The retribution would be swift and merciless.

Loretto’s stepbrothers, Kurt and Martin Reed, had grown up through their teen years believing nobody crossed Loretto because he was tough like their father, and that part of his toughness was carrying a weapon. This imagery and Loretto’s growing reputation for being a cold, violent bastard caused Kurt, and Martin, to become ‘tough guys’, and widely feared in their neighbourhood. Perhaps they would’ve achieved recognition without Loretto, as both boys inherited their father’s hard nose and quick fists, especially Kurt, who seemed to revel in a brawl and inflicting pain. The reputation grew, and was all based on aversion to altercation, cowardice, and partiality to gratuitous violence.

At age twenty-eight, Loretto married nineteen-year-old Matilda Pickering. The marriage lasted only a few months before Matilda disappeared. Matilda’s body was never found. The investigation was closed and accusations by her family that Loretto was involved in her disappearance soon stilled.

He subsequently had a brief affair with the wife of Kevin Thwaite, one of the badges he had on the payroll, and, paradoxically, the officer in charge of investigating Matilda Pickering’s disappearance. Many speculated that the affair was a display of power over the man rather than any genuine hunger for the woman, who he soon discarded.

Loretto’s nickname later changed from Runner Reed to Tilly Reed, in reference to Tilly Devine, a Kings Cross madam and one of the main antagonists in the so-called Sydney Razor Wars. Tilly Devine had become infamous in Sydney, initially as a prostitute, then later as a brothel madam and organised-crime entrepreneur during the years of the Great Depression. Later, his nickname changed again, to Razor Reed, after he slashed one of his own crew for calling him Tilly to his face; a nickname he fervently hated.

In November 1996, the psychopathic Reed ordered a hit on his boss, veteran hard-man, John (Johno) Brookes. The ever-loyal Kurt carried out the hit, using, at Loretto’s insistence, an ivory-handled straight razor. With Brookes dead, Loretto was left in control of his empire of clubs, drugs, and prostitution. At age thirty-eight, Loretto Reed, and his two stepbrothers, dominated organised crime in central Sydney.

Loretto Reed was neither a hard man nor a great organiser. But he did have a sixth sense, an animal-like cunning, and was quick to maim or kill anyone whom he thought threatened his rise to power; his rise to the top. That’s where he saw himself; at the top.

Loretto D. Reed: The Boss of The Cross.

Part One

The Canadian

Sam Autenburg looked distractedly around the small marina office, thinking how the walls could do with some fresh paint, the floor a new carpet, and the windows cleaning. The windows he’d take care of, but paint and carpet would have to wait until the marina owner, Mrs O’Hare, was in one of her rare spending moods. Sam tried to see the good in her as he did in all people, but mining that nugget from Mrs O’Hare was hard work. She had plenty of money, which made her penny-pinching harder to endure. As Sam contemplated what he’d like to say to Mrs O’Hare about her pecuniary cramps, a man walked into the office and sat down at the desk opposite him, uninvited and visibly tense.

‘I’m from Pacific Bliss,’ the man said, looking out of the window. ‘I arrived from Fiji this morning.’

Sam looked at the new arrival a little bemused. ‘Sam Autenburg,’ he said, extending his hand. ‘Did you have a good passage from Fiji?’

‘Larry Alardice,’ the man said, and shook Sam’s hand briefly without making eye contact. ‘It was okay, but it’s good to be somewhere still.’

Sam reached over the desk for the ship’s papers and passport that the Canadian had laid out, and tried making small talk as he filled in the arrival form. Larry Alardice returned monosyllabic responses. He looked older than the picture in his passport and the thirty-six years Sam calculated from his DOB. Sam noticed he was dressed in business slacks with a clean and ironed golf shirt, new Docksiders and socks. Not the usual garb for a cruising sailor just in from a passage, but maybe the guy was fussy about his appearance.

‘How many days were you from Fiji, Larry?’

‘Eleven.’

‘Did you sail directly to Sydney?’ Sam asked, and immediately sensed a discomfort in the Canadian. He seemed all knotted up. Perhaps from the stress of the passage.

‘Why?’

‘Just asking. You’ve been through customs and immigration I guess?’

‘This morning.’

‘Everything okay with your berth? The guys get you tied in all right?’

‘Yes. Great.’ His words didn’t match his tone of voice, expression, or body language. Again, Sam put the Canadian’s edginess down to passage fatigue, which affected people in many different ways. Perhaps he’d been left with a touch of anxiety. Perhaps he went through some rough weather during the passage.

‘Do you have any crew, or are you singlehanded?’

‘Singlehanded.’

‘And how long will you be staying with us, Larry?’

‘I’m not sure,’ the Canadian replied, as he ran his fingers distractedly through his short, mousey hair.

‘How about if I book you in for a week?’ Sam said. ‘Then you can extend if you need to.’

‘Sure.’ He gripped the bridge of his nose as if deep in thought, then said, ‘Better make it a month.’

‘No problem, Larry, you’re in for a month.’

Larry Alardice stood, replaced his papers and passport into the brown leather valise, and turned to leave.

‘I’ll have an invoice ready for you tomorrow,’ Sam said as the Canadian reached the door.

‘Sure. Is cash okay?’ His words were hesitant and he kept his back to Sam and his head bent forward as he spoke.

Sam told him cash would be fine, and then looked back at the entry forms as the Canadian walked away.

A schoolteacher from Toronto; maybe it explains the clothes and the weak handshake.

By mid-afternoon the sky had clouded over and the air grown still. Sam had done enough for the day and was ready to clear up his desk and go home. He dropped some unfinished work in his overflowing pending tray, and filed the few papers lying in the bottom of the out tray. His thoughts returned to the edgy Canadian. Something about the schoolteacher from Toronto bothered him. He was certainly not the usual overseas cruiser. Sam sat for a while, distilling his thoughts, then dialled the number for Australian Customs.

‘This is Sam Autenburg from O’Hare’s Marina. Could you put me through to Alex Divinski please?… Thanks.’

‘Divinski,’ came the rigid voice on the other end. The voice matched the owner. Alex Divinski was all business; a man who didn’t waste words or time.

‘Hi, Alex, this is Sam from O’Hare’s. How are things?’

‘Good thanks, Sam. What can I do for you?’

‘This could be nothing, but I wanted to give you the heads-up anyway. There was an overseas yacht cleared this morning; Pacific Bliss, did you do clearance?’

‘No, I wasn’t on inbound clearance this morning. Why do you ask?’

‘Like I said, it could be nothing, but the skipper is jumpy and strung out. He doesn’t fit the mould. Maybe there’s an innocent explanation, but I thought I should speak to you.’

‘Hold a second please, Sam.’

He could hear Divinski, leafing through the contents of a folder.

‘The boat was cleared in without comments. Sheldon McBride did the clearance; I’ll speak with him and see if he noticed anything. Would you mind keeping an eye on his movements for me, Sam, and give me a call if you see anything I should know about?’

‘Sure, no problem. The yacht is close to the office, so that’s easy. One thing’s for sure, Alex, this guy isn’t the regular cruiser.’

Sam ended the call, pulled a new legal pad from the desk drawer, and made notes about the Canadian’s arrival and behaviour, and then logged his call to Divinski.

Sam and Marie had been at the Sydney Fish Market since early morning, and were relaxing in the cockpit of Sam’s yacht, Clara, watching the crowd gathering for Sunday lunch. They’d enjoyed their usual oyster and crab breakfast, and washed it down with a bottle of sparkling white. Warm and mellow, they propped themselves up on beanbags and watched the comings and goings, both ashore and on the small dock which Clara was berthed on for the day.

‘I’m glad we arrived early and got a berth,’ Sam said, as he topped up Marie’s glass.

‘Mm, it’ll be packed out within the hour. Look at the crowds around the fish bars and fighting for tables now.’

‘Poor slobs.’

‘Don’t say that,’ she said with a mock-frown. ‘They can’t all be as lucky as we are.’

‘Is it luck?’ Sam said, leaning back into a cushion and taking a drink.

She leaned forward and traced a line along his thigh with her finger. ‘Aren’t you feeling lucky?’

‘Let me think about it while you keep doing that.’

Mid-afternoon, and the dock was packed with well-fed drunks. The music was turned up on a nearby boat, and three juiced adolescents hit the water. Sam and Marie left.

Back at Camden Bay they put away, locked up, and then rode a taxi to The Basement; their favourite jazz club.

A black woman sat at the piano singing low rootsy jazz. Her fingers were both stiff and nimble, her voice deep and laced with ancient hurt.

They found a table, and ordered drinks and seafood baskets.

‘What a great day,’ Marie said.

‘Shame it has to end so soon. What time are you travelling tomorrow?’

‘Seven o’clock train out of central. It’s not for much longer. Another month and the contract will be finished, then I might need to spend a week or two handing over and training. Be home for good by May first.’

Sam laid his hand on her arm. ‘Seems like a long time when you say it like that.’

‘It’ll pass before you know it.’ She stood, and took his hand. ‘Come on, let’s smooch.’

In the early hours of the following Tuesday morning, Sam was woken by the sound of raised voices. He sat on the edge of the bed and listened but couldn’t hear it again. He pulled on a T-shirt and pair of shorts, and was about to look around outside when the voice called out again.

‘Can somebody help me!’

It was a woman’s voice; not one he recognised. He opened the hatch above his bed and hurried out onto Clara’s aft deck. Again, the voice cried out, this time with more urgency.

‘Can somebody fucking help me!’

The voice was coming from the Canadian boat, Pacific Bliss, which was in a berth almost opposite Clara. Sam hurried along Clara’s side deck. He could see lights and a figure in the companionway. In seconds, he was on the dock and beside the other yacht.

Larry Alardice was standing in the companionway. He moved sideways when he saw Sam approaching. A woman pushed past him into the cockpit, stepped onto the side deck, then out onto the dock. As she started to walk away, Sam held out an arm, blocking her path. He looked at the Canadian and then at her, trying to gauge what was going on.

‘Wait a minute, if you don’t mind,’ Sam said.

She clearly did mind, but stopped anyway, folding her arms across her heaving chest; her face locked with contempt. Sam looked at her. Her face was red. There was fear and anger in her eyes.

‘What’s going on, Larry?’ Sam said.

The Canadian moved away from the companionway and sat on the cockpit seat. He crossed his legs and then uncrossed them before standing and moving back to the companionway.

‘She’s stolen my credit card and cash, she—’

‘No I fucking haven’t,’ the woman cut in. She turned her head partly towards Sam, but didn’t look directly at him. ‘I haven’t touched his fucking things. He wouldn’t let me get off this stinking boat.’ She turned away as if that was the end of the matter, and then added, ‘His fucking gears have slipped.’

A couple of other people wandered onto the dock, curious as to what was happening. Karen Stringer was one of them. Karen was the local gossipmonger and this was right up her alley. She’d been the catalyst for many a rumour and indiscretion, sometimes against her long-suffering husband, who, on some days, Sam pitied, but most of the time figured he got what he deserved. Sam didn’t like Karen, or people like her who preyed upon others’ misfortune and discomfort.

He turned to them and said, ‘It’s all right, I’ve got this. Go on back to bed.’

Lizzie Cole and her husband Glen took one last look, then ambled away, reluctant to miss any scandal, but not wanting to appear nosey. Karen stood gawping through sleep-smudged eyes. She was starting to approach them when Sam said firmly, ‘Go on now, Karen. Go on home. There’s nothing for you here.’

The woman from the Canadian yacht turned to look at Karen, unfolded her arms, put her hands on her hips, and pushed out her chest. ‘What the fuck are you looking at, you fat cow?’

Karen Stringer’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. She seemed to be struggling to form a response, her mouth wordlessly opening and closing. She screwed up her stubby nose, turned for home, and caught up with the Coles. The three of them inventing a juicy plot as they mooched along the dock, filling in the gaps that would always remain.

Sam watched them go for a few moments, then turned and faced the other two. ‘Let’s go to the office and sort this out privately. Or do either of you want to call in the cops?’

‘No. No, I guess not,’ Larry Alardice said, his face a map of knotted indecision.

‘I just want to get out of here, and away from him,’ the woman said. She turned and stomped along the dock towards the office, her stilettos punishing each hardwood plank.

In the light of the office, Sam sat behind his desk, moving some folders to one side as he did so. Larry Alardice was agitated and, Sam guessed, high on cocaine; snow-blind. The woman, who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, was angry and tense. She stood in the doorway, and alternated between combing her shoulder-length black hair away from her face with her fingers, and having her arms knotted across her chest. Despite her pale complexion, her high-boned cheeks were flushed.

‘How do you two want to resolve this?’ Sam asked, looking from one to the other. Larry Alardice started to say something, then stopped as if he’d been going in the wrong direction. His hair was a mess and his clothes looked as if he’d slept in them for more than one night. He moved around constantly, scratching phantom itches, his eyes darting wildly from one place to another as if following a bug.

‘What’s your name?’ Sam asked the woman, keeping his voice friendly but firm.

She looked at him for a five beat, then looked back at the wall before saying, ‘Heather.’

‘Heather, my name is Sam. I’m the marina manager, and I want to try to sort this out so we all go away happy. Do you mind if I look through your bag?’

She slipped the black leather handbag from her shoulder and dropped it on the desk. ‘You want to search my bra and panties too?’ she asked, looking at Sam for the first time.

‘She’s a hooker!’ Larry Alardice blurted out, as if his outburst explained everything. ‘She’s a hooker and she took my cash and card!’ His voice rising as he spat the words out.

‘I’m an escort, not a hooker, and I didn’t touch your stuff. Fucking needle-dick.’

Larry reddened, sputtered, and then brushed distractedly at something on his right trouser leg.

‘Fucking strung-out twat,’ Heather continued.

‘That’s enough,’ Sam cut in. ‘Both of you sit down. If you can’t sort it this way, I’ll call the cops and they can handle it. Okay?’ He looked from one to the other, waiting for a response. Larry Alardice sat down, ashen faced, eyes flicking constantly between Sam and Heather. Heather continued standing on the other side of the desk, her gaze fixed on some imaginary spot on the wall, her face wrapped in a veneer of boredom.

Sam picked up her handbag and removed the contents, then spread them out on the desk in front of him: a set of keys, mobile phone, a purse, cigarettes, two disposable lighters, and a small pack of tissues. He unzipped the small side pocket and found lipstick and other cosmetics. Flipping the cigarette pack open, he checked inside. It was clean. He looked up at Heather as he picked up her purse.

‘Do you mind?’

‘Knock yourself out. But the cash is mine; I had two hundred dollars at the start of the night.’

She stepped forward, took the pack of Longbeach and one of the lighters, lit up, and threw them back down on the desk. Sam noticed her hands were trembling despite her tough attitude.

In the purse there was a Visa credit card, and a Visa debit card, both in her name. There was also a couple of hundred in cash as she’d said. There were no family photos, in fact it contained little at all. Sam pulled out the driver’s licence and copied down the name and number.

‘Do you mind giving me a contact phone number please, Heather?’

She looked at him with unhidden contempt, exhaled thick smoke through her nose, then said, ‘You want a rate-card as well, big-shot?’

‘Just the phone number, thanks.’ He wrote the number in his desk diary, and then replaced the contents of her bag before handing it back to her.

‘Thanks, Heather.’ He paused as if in thought, then continued, ‘Larry, Heather hasn’t got your cards and cash, so other than call the police there’s nothing more we can do.’

‘Can I get out of here now?’ Heather said.

Sam looked at Larry Alardice to gauge his reaction, but Larry was still distracted by something visible only to himself. Sam looked up at Heather, smiled, and said, ‘Thanks for your cooperation, Heather.’

She looked back at him, her mouth an irascible red line. ‘Don’t fucking mention it.’ She picked up her bag, threw the door open, and walked away without a backward glance.

Sam watched her go, an amused grin spreading across his face. He straightened his face and turned back to Larry Alardice who was still sitting in the office chair. His red-rimmed eyes peered out from below a waxen forehead beaded with sweat.

‘Go get some sleep, Larry. If you don’t find your cards in the morning, call them in as missing. It’s about all you can do. If you need to call Canada, you can use the office phone here anytime.’

Larry Alardice stood, mumbled a kind of thanks, and bumped into the doorjamb on his way out. Sam watched him go, making sure he made it back to his boat, before writing a note in his desk diary alongside Heather’s name and number. He also made a mental note to call Alex Divinski in the morning to update him.

Sam looked up at the cheap, white plastic wall clock; three a.m. He didn’t feel like sleeping, and there was only two hours before dawn anyway. He shut the office door, closed the window blinds, and switched on the coffee machine.

He pushed back in the chair, put his bare feet up on the desk, and thought about the events of the night. He didn’t think the woman had stolen anything. She was a hard nut for sure, but he doubted she’d taken the cards. The likely explanation, considering the state of Larry Alardice, was he’d dropped them, or left them in the last bar he fell out of.

Tonight confirmed Sam’s doubts about the Canadian being a genuine cruiser, which didn’t leave many other explanations. He stretched, then pulled out the yellow legal pad and made some notes.

Missing

Gary Mitchell was sitting at a small ceramic-top table at the rear of Migani’s Café. He hated waiting for people. His life was demanding enough without having his time squandered by others. As usual, he was dressed in a charcoal two-piece, fine wool suit that complemented his six-foot-four-inch frame, and a business shirt with the top button open. He only wore a tie for serious business meetings, which the one he was waiting for, wasn’t. His hair was dark, greying slightly at the temples, cut short, neat, and square at the back. He looked every inch the successful executive. Well read, well spoken, and with two degrees; one in business management; the other in media communications, he was respected by some, and feared by others.

Gary Mitchell led a double life.

As a young man carving his life from the granite of Kings Cross, he’d understood the necessity of having a legitimate business as a cover for anything he did for organised crime boss, Johno Brookes, and then later for Loretto Reed. As the years passed, his legitimate import and warehousing business had grown considerably, and earned well for him. As his legitimate businesses grew, so did the work he did for the Reed brothers. Gary Mitchell had set a goal of retiring by the age of fifty with a fat offshore bank account. At age forty-two, he was well on his way.

Fidgeting and scratching at the same table was Jimmy McCutchen. McCutchen didn’t have any goals in life, and he was never likely to retire wealthy. McCutchen worked for Loretto Reed, although nobody, including Mitchell, was clear why, or in what capacity. Reed would send him to sort out small problems in one or other of the clubs he owned in Kings Cross, or some other insignificant matter he couldn’t cock up.

McCutchen was a scrawny adolescent when Loretto Reed started stabbing and shooting his way to power in Sydney’s underworld during the eighties. Although McCutchen wasn’t a major player in Reed’s organisation, he was favoured by Reed, and enjoyed the power he felt as a result. At five feet seven and a hundred and thirty pounds he wasn’t physically intimidating, neither was he blessed with good looks or a quick mind. His scrawny build made his clothes look too big for him, and his thin, fair hair and bad complexion gave him a weak, tragic appearance. He had a reputation for being quick with a knife. Like Reed himself, if threatened, his first instinct was to pull a blade.

‘Where is this guy, McCutchen?’ Mitchell said. He hated McCutchen. He hated his thin, sallow face and protruding teeth. Mitchell hated everything about him. McCutchen didn’t like Mitchell, either. The difference was, McCutchen feared Mitchell, and with good reason. Mitchell would love an excuse to bump him; and he’d do it himself. He wouldn’t sub the hit out to one of his guys or a freelancer. No, he’d take pleasure in feeling the kick of his SIG Sauer as the two rounds flew towards McCutchen’s rat-like face. Only Loretto Reed stood in the way of it happening now. He didn’t know why Reed favoured and protected McCutchen. He treated him like some kind of protégé, which was laughable. Everyone took the piss behind their backs. There’d been various rumours, but Mitchell didn’t base his life on rumours and idle gossip. He was a man who liked facts, sound decisions, and decisive action. Things he was seeing less and less from Loretto Reed these days.

McCutchen ground his cigarette into the glass ashtray. ‘He’ll be here, Mitch, don’t worry.’ What he’d like to have said, was, ‘Go fuck ya’self, Mitch—suck my dick, Mitch.’ He’d never be able to say any of those things. Mitchell would kill him for sure.

‘Don’t tell me when I should worry and when I shouldn’t, fuckwit. And it’s Mr Mitchell to you, you repugnant little scrote. You might have Reed’s arm around you, but don’t push your luck.’

McCutchen swallowed hard and looked away. He knew if anything ever happened to Loretto Reed, he’d be a grease spot before his boss’ body was cold.

Many others hated McCutchen. People such as Ray Peterson, Mitchell’s head guy, who was there whenever muscle and intimidation were needed, and who’d slice McCutchen sooner than look at him. Some of the mid-level dealers would also be happy to off him because of his arrogance, the way he spoke down to them as if he was some kind of superior, and they were shit under his Reeboks. McCutchen caused a couple of them to get bumped after he suggested to Reed they were skimming when deliveries came in a couple of kilos light. They could’ve been, nobody would ever know, but payback was due anyway. One day the settling of scores would come in spades. However, as long as Loretto Reed was alive and running The Cross, McCutchen was protected.

Somebody once said Jimmy McCutchen was the one person who made Loretto Reed feel good about himself, and so he liked having him around. Reed also lapped up the sycophantic brown-nosing McCutchen was famous for.

‘Call that fucker again and find out where he is. Keeping me waiting around here like some kind of lackey. Who the fuck does he think he is? If he’s not here in ten minutes, I’m sending Ray Peterson to find him.’

McCutchen flipped his phone open and pressed a speed-dial button. The call timed out unanswered. ‘I’m sure he’ll be here soon.’

‘What do you base that on?’ Mitchell said. Without waiting for a response, he stood and walked outside, punching a number into his phone as he went.

Heather was in her garden, weeding around the tomato plants when the call came from Mitchell. She brushed the soil from her hands and walked back towards the house as she answered.

‘Hi, Mitch.’ She sat on one of the wrought iron chairs set around the small café table in the middle of the paved patio, reached for her pack of Longbeach, shook one out, and lit up. She always felt nervous when Mitchell or one of his crew called her, even though he’d always treated her well, and in the past had dealt with a client or two who’d been stalking or harassing her. Still, she felt a pang of apprehension when dealing with him or any of the other characters from that clammy underworld.

She didn’t know the extent of what Mitchell did. She had her ideas, could guess a lot from things people said, and from the people he mixed with. But that was none of her business and she kept it that way.

‘When did you last see that Canadian?’

‘The night before last, in the early hours of the morning. Is everything all right?’ Her face flushed. She was glad he couldn’t see her.

‘So you didn’t see him yesterday?’

‘No.’

‘And he didn’t say he wanted to see you today?’

‘No, he didn’t.’ She hesitated, not wanting to tell him about the fiasco on the boat, but it would be far worse if he heard about it from the Canadian, or one of Reed’s punks. She took a long pull on her cigarette, exhaled, then said, ‘There was a bit of an incident on Saturday night… on the boat.’ She bit her bottom lip then pulled again on her cigarette, nervous of how Mitchell would react.

‘What do you mean incident? Tell me what happened.’

Oh hell, why do Ihaveto get involved in this shite? Because I’ve no choice! Because this is my life!

‘He sort of flipped out on me. I thought he was going to kill me.’

‘You’re not in any trouble, mate, I give you my word. Take your time and tell me what happened.’

Heather hesitated for a few seconds before going on. ‘I took him to dinner at Langdon’s, like McCutchen told me to—’

‘Langdon’s? Why there?’

‘I didn’t ask. McCutchen said go there, so I did.’

‘All right, go on.’

‘He wasn’t much company; he seemed on edge all the time, so I goofed around and tried to cheer him up a bit. After we’d eaten, he wanted to go back to the boat. I figured he just wanted to get laid.’ She paused again.

‘Okay, go on,’ Mitchell said.

‘When we arrived at the boat he did another line, and then—’

‘He did a line?’

‘Another. He went to the bathroom at least three times in the restaurant, so he was either doing nose candy or he had his period.’

‘And then what happened?’ Mitchell said, sounding increasingly pissed off.

‘By the time he’d done another line or two he was fully snowed. Started saying weird shit, like he was a made-guy in Canada, and he’d carried out hits. You know all the macho bullshit stuff. I didn’t know they had the Mob in Canada. Anyway, all of a sudden he wanted to go out again. He wanted to go to a nightclub. Then he couldn’t find his credit card or cash.’ She hesitated, not wanting to tell Mitchell the next part.

‘So then what?’

‘He started on me. He accused me of taking his fucking stuff. I didn’t, Mitch, I swear I didn’t.’

‘I know you wouldn’t pull that sort of shit. It’s all right, mate, go on.’

‘He grabbed me and started to shove me into the stinky little bathroom. I tried to fight back, but when the fucker punched me in the stomach I could hardly breathe.’ She heard Mitchell mutter something under his breath, and then she continued, ‘So when I got my breath back, I yelled out for help, and kept yelling, until this guy came over to the boat asking what’s happening. The Canadian backed right off, and I was able to get off the boat.’

‘Who was the guy, the one who came to the boat?’

‘Turns out he runs the marina, I guess he must live there. The Canadian starts up about how I’m a whore and how I’ve stolen his cash and cards.’

‘Were the jacks called?’

‘Nobody wanted the cops involved, not even the marina guy. He just wanted things quietened down. Seems like there’s lots of people staying on boats there, and they didn’t want a scene.’

‘What was this marina guy’s name?’

‘Shit. I think it was Mal or Hal or… I’m not sure, Mitch. I guess I should’ve paid attention but I was kinda shook up.’

‘What was the outcome?’

‘I left after Hal or Mal or whatever his name was searched my bag.’

‘And the Canadian?’

‘He was still in the office when I left. I haven’t heard from him since.’

‘Why didn’t you come to me with this, Heather?’

She was silent for a while, combed her hair back with her fingers, and then said, ‘I don’t know. I guess I was frightened. McCutchen gave me the job, and I didn’t want to go to him. I figured he’d be pissed with me.’

‘I want you to come and see me tonight at Ronnie’s Place.’

‘Sure, Mitch.’

‘Don’t mention this to anyone else, Heather, especially McCutchen.’

Heather sat at the small table, her hands trembling as she turned off her mobile phone.

She went inside, all thoughts of the garden gone as she washed the soil from her hands. She sat in the window seat, her favourite place to sit and read, or stare out across her garden in which she found so much calm and contentment these days.

She felt uneasy as she replayed the conversation with Mitchell through her mind. She trusted Mitchell to be fair with her. She’d known him since she started working The Cross as a kid of sixteen, when he was a bouncer at a strip joint. She’d heard on the grapevine that he also did standover work for Johno Brookes, until Kurt Reed opened Johno’s throat with a razor.

It was so different in those days. If you didn’t cross anyone, then no one crossed you. You had nothing to fear. Johno Brookes wouldn’t tolerate cowboys operating in his area, and didn’t like regular taxpayers getting caught up in The Cross’s affairs. He figured it was bad for business, bad for everyone.

She and Mitchell hadn’t been friends as such, but he’d helped her out a couple of times. Nowadays, Mitchell would call on her to entertain a business contact when he needed someone he could rely on. She was classy compared to many of the other escorts; she didn’t dress like a tramp, didn’t do drugs, and could hold intelligent conversation. Still, she felt uneasy about having to see him later that night at the club. She pushed the cigarette stub into the glass ashtray, reached for another, then pushed them away, and went to shower.

Mitchell went back inside to the table where McCutchen still sat fiddling with his phone, as if willing it to ring. Mitchell lifted his jacket from the back of the chair and shrugged it on. Brushing something from the lapel, he said, ‘Stupid bastard.’ His words spoken to no one, but his eyes were fixed hard on McCutchen. ‘Find him, and bring him to me,’ he said, and then left.

Mitchell’s silver Holden Commodore Executive was parked a block away from Migani’s. Despite being able to afford any car of his choosing, Mitchell owned a Holden. He figured in his line of business, blending in was better than standing out from the crowd. He had plenty of luxuries, but never flaunted them in public.

As he walked he made two calls. First he called Sonny Thaku, one of his enforcers, and told him to be at the club later that night with three or four others. The second call was to Loretto Reed.

When Reed answered, Mitchell took a slow breath, before saying, ‘There’s a problem with the Canadian.’

‘He’s all right, Mitchell, he came highly recommended by our friends.’

Mitchell closed his eyes repressing his urge to scream, you fucking idiot, into his phone. Instead, he said in a level, controlled way, ‘He’s been drawing attention to himself. He was as high as a fucking kite the night before last and made a right mess of himself.’

After a pause, Reed said, ‘Where is he now?’

‘He’s missing. I told McCutchen to find him and bring him to me. I’ve got some other stuff to sort. I’ll be at Ronnie’s tonight after nine.’

‘Keep me in the loop, Mitch.’

Mitchell ended the call, cursing under his breath, ‘Keep me in the fucking loop!’

He called another number. ‘Ray, go to the Canadian boat and collect. It should be in the usual one-k bricks in a holding tank in the front cabin. But from the sound of things, it could be out in the open. If it’s not in the tank, tear the place apart until you find it.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘I’ll fill you in later, Ray. You better wait until after dark when there’s fewer people around, then see me at Ronnie’s after nine.’

‘No worries, mate.’

‘If any nosey bastard wants to know what you’re doing, tell them you’re picking up some clothes and stuff for him. Any problems at all, call me. I want everyone else hunting him. He can’t be that hard to find.’

‘Sure, Mitch. I’ll get the guys on it right now. We’ll find the fucker.’

‘There’s a grand on him, Ray: I want him today.’

Marley’s

Mitchell’s phone rang as he approached his car. When he saw the call was from Loretto Reed, he sighed heavily and got into the car before answering.

‘That fucker’s dead, Mitchell.’

‘Who’s dead?’

‘The Canadian fucker. They found him in one of the back rooms at Marley’s. They reckon he OD’d. Or maybe he shagged himself to death in there.’

‘Do the jacks know yet?’ Mitchell asked tersely.

‘I don’t think so. One of Marley’s boys found him. He heard we were looking for a Canadian, and so when he pulled his ID he gave Jimmy a call and Jimmy called me.’

‘And nobody’s called the jacks?’

‘Not that I’m aware of. Like I said, I got this second-hand from Jimmy.’

‘Was there anybody with him? Somebody must know who was in there with him, Loretto. I want to know what he’s been doing, what he’s been saying, and everyone he’s been hanging out with, every last one of them.’

‘Put Jimmy on it if you want to. He’ll turn something up. I’ll see you tonight at Ronnie’s.’

Put Jimmy who doesn’t have a clue, who couldn’t find his arse with a mirror McCutchen on it. You’re having a laugh.

Mitchell called Ray Peterson again. ‘Call the boys off, Ray. The Canadian’s chilling down at Marley’s cathouse.’

‘He’s dead?’

‘Would seem so. Meet me there in twenty. I want a few minutes before the plods get there. They haven’t been told yet but you can bet it won’t be long.’

‘Do you want me to lose him?’

‘I want the jacks to do the legwork; find cause of death, and if he died there or was dumped there to take the heat off wherever else he was. Keep your ears open, Ray, we need to know what he’s been up to and who with.’

Marley’s had been open for about a year, and so was still considered ‘new’ and somewhat suspect by the old hands like Mitchell and Ray Peterson. They preferred the established clubs with well-worn seats in the booths, a known staff who could be trusted, and a regular clientele who knew the rules, and who knew not to elbow at the bar. Ronnie’s Place was their equivalent of the ‘Gentleman’s Club’. It was where they were comfortable and in control. It was where a nod to a bartender saw another tray of drinks arrive, and where a nod to a doorman would see a guy thrown out onto the street without question. It was where they were the law, and they liked it that way.

Marley’s wasn’t like that.

It was the second time Mitchell had been inside the club, the first time being the opening night, when the proud Lebanese owner had invited them all to an open house. Most of the major faces turned up, then made excuses and left.

‘Been great, but got some business to take care of, Marley.’

Now, here he was again, walking past the same cheap red leatherette, mirrors, and chrome plate. This time he had business to take care of here.

‘He’s upstairs, Mr Mitchell,’ said one of Marley’s flunkies, who, like all the other waiters and bouncers who worked in the cathouse, wore black shirt and slacks and a white tie. Neither Mitchell nor Ray Peterson acknowledged him other than to climb the red-carpeted stairs the man indicated. The stairway led to a corridor, again carpeted in red shagpile. There were two doors on each side, each painted a different pastel colour. Another black and white flunky at the far end opened the pink door as Mitchell and Ray approached. He walked in ahead of them and leaned against the wall as the other two men entered the room.

Ray Peterson fixed him with a cold, hard stare. ‘Go on, fuck off then, and shut the door behind you.’

He didn’t need telling twice. Ray Peterson had a well-earned reputation of being supremely tough, and this underpaid gofer wasn’t about to test him.

The fake velvet curtains and cheap shagpile, were supposed to give the room an air of luxury. However, the place felt and smelled like a second-rate brothel, which behind the swanky facade is all it was.

Larry Alardice lay supine on the king-size bed, fully clothed, and still wearing shoes. There was a trail of dried vomit running from his mouth to his hair. His eyes were wide and milky. Ray pulled on a pair of black leather gloves and started going through the Canadian’s pockets, seemingly oblivious to the post-mortem stench of shit, piss, and vomit. He handed the wallet to Mitchell, tossed a mobile phone, a small pack of white powder, keys, and some change on the bedside table. Ray looked around the room and spotted a brown leather valise leaning against the wall, partly hidden by the red pseudo-velvet drapes. He laid the case on the bed beside the Canadian’s head, flicked the latches, and opened the lid.

‘Who’s been a bad boy then,’ Ray said to the dead Canadian. Mitchell looked up as Ray rotated the case towards him.

‘All right, close it up. Is there anything else?’

‘That’s it, Mr Mitchell,’ Ray said, as he scanned the room once more, remembering to use ‘Mr Mitchell’ instead of ‘Mitch’ when others could overhear.

Mitchell flicked through the wallet; three credit cards, about two thousand in cash, and a Canadian driver’s licence. He picked up the keys and dropped them into his jacket pocket, then switched on the phone and looked through the call log. The Canadian had called one number six times the previous night. That same number had called in four times. Mitchell punched the number into his own mobile then waited. The phone rang three times before being answered.

‘Hello.’ He waited, listening to the voice, not sure if he recognised it.

‘Hello?’

Mitchell immediately ended the call and dropped the phone into his pocket, cursing under his breath, ‘McCutchen. You scabby little bastard.’

Mitchell knew the cops would soon be there. Too many people would know for it to stay quiet for long. He wiped his prints from the wallet and dropped it on the bed. The smell of cheap perfume and corpse was an offensive mix.

‘Put that stuff back in his pockets, grab the case, and let’s get out of this stinking shit-hole.’

The marina dock was lit by lights set into the service posts that were located at the junction of each finger pier. Ray was waiting and watching as the grey dusk deepened to black. Draining the last of his coffee, he threw the styrene cup into the rear of his aging Commodore where it settled among the others.

‘Might as well get the job done then, Ray. Waddaya reckon?’ prompted Kevin Scrivener. Scrivener, one of Mitchell’s errand boys, was young, strong, and ambitious, but his intelligence didn’t match his ambition. He was rash, and prone to act before thinking things through. When he did think, it wasn’t deeply. Ray Peterson had little time for him, but used him occasionally when he was closest at hand.

‘We’ll wait another ten minutes. And you’re here to lift not think.’

‘Ah, fuck you, Ray.’

‘Watch your mouth, Scrivener, or you’ll end up like your old man.’

Scrivener pushed back in the seat, exhaling slowly. He thought of his father floating face down in the harbour, a hole in the back of his head where the bullet entered, and his face blown away where it exited. The police investigation had found nothing, but word on the street was he’d crossed the Reeds. Some said he’d dogged on them. Scrivener knew it couldn’t be true. His father hated the jacks. The only thing his father had ever told the jacks was ‘go fuck ya’self’.

After finishing his cigarette and looking around the car park once more, Ray exited the car. Scrivener followed his lead. The two men walked the length of the dock in silence, passing Pacific Bliss, which lay close to the office block at the head of the wharf. Scrivener was still smarting from Ray’s comment about his father. Ray had forgotten it already.

‘All right, let’s get this done,’ Ray said.

As they returned along the wharf towards Pacific Bliss, Ray heard the sound of a high-powered motor boat approaching. He turned in time to see the dark blue vessel stop alongside the end of the wharf and discharge four overall-clad police who came running down the wharf towards them.

It was Monday, a slow night in the clubs. When she was working there as a hostess, Heather had tried to dodge working Mondays. She didn’t stick the job for long anyway, preferring to be able to work her own hours, her own days.

Heather spotted Mitchell as she walked towards the bar, his height and wide shoulders made him easy to pick out in a crowd. She didn’t approach him, but hopped onto a bar stool close by and lit up a Longbeach. She caught the eye of the lank-haired barman, ordered a dry ginger on ice, and then sat at the bar eating nuts and looking around without any real interest. A few minutes later, Mitchell walked over and touched her shoulder.

‘How are you, Heather?’

‘Good thanks, Mitch. You?’

‘Never better.’ His manner was friendly. Heather relaxed a little. ‘Now look,’ he continued, ‘I don’t want you to worry about the Canadian. Also, I don’t want you telling anyone else what you told me, okay? Nobody. If anyone comes asking about him I want you to say nothing and then let me know right away, all right?’ His tone was firm, but seemed to be tinged with concern for her.

‘No worries, Mitch. Things go tits-up with this guy?’

Mitchell slowly shook his head, a look of resignation in his eyes. ‘Don’t ask.’ He reached into his inside jacket pocket and handed Heather the small fold of bills.

‘No. No need for that, Mitch, McCutchen paid me up front.’

‘I know. This is a little extra for your trouble, and for keeping quiet. No word to McCutchen or the Reeds. Okay?’

‘Sure, Mitch.’ She looked at him questioningly. He smiled, touched the top of her arm, then turned and joined Ray Peterson at the other end of the bar.

No way would I talk with fucking McCutchen. Is that all he wanted me here for? To give me a few bucks and not a grilling?

Heather stayed at the club long enough to finish her drink, then she slid off the stool and left.

It took her only a few seconds to hail a cab at that time of night. The silver Holden Executive stopped in front of her, then she flinched at the sound of another car pulling to a rapid stop close behind her. She glanced back at the other car. Her heart lurched as she saw McCutchen already standing by the open door waiting, and looking directly at her. Loretto Reed exited the black sedan, stared at her, and said something to McCutchen.

Heather opened the cab door and got in as quickly as she could, trying not to appear hurried or frightened. She closed the door fast, but before the cab could pull away from the kerb there was a loud rap on the window. Heather ignored the sound, hoping the cab would pull away. There was a louder, more persistent rapping on the window. She sighed and wound the window halfway.

‘I want to talk with you,’ McCutchen said.

Heather did her best to hide both her fear and loathing of him. She noticed the questioning look from the cabbie in the rear-view mirror and flashed a brief smile to say ‘it’s okay’.

‘So talk,’ she said, continuing to look straight ahead and not at him.

‘Who was the Canadian dealing with?’

‘I didn’t see him “dealing” with anyone.’

‘Who was he with?’

‘Me. I thought you knew that.’

‘Don’t mouth-off smart with me, bitch. Did anything unusual happen?’

Heather turned her head to meet his eyes. ‘What do you class as unusual in my line of work… Jimmy?’

McCutchen’s face reddened as he straightened up, the window closed, and the cab pulled away.

As the cab moved into the late night traffic a sense of relief washed over her. She felt as if she’d narrowly escaped some great danger. She knew that wasn’t the case, and it was her emotions playing with her. Nonetheless, she was glad to be going home where she could lock the door, take the phone off the hook, and hibernate until she felt like facing the world again. She remembered the paint she’d bought a few weeks before to freshen up the laundry room, and decided to make that a project for the next couple of days. The world would get by without her.

When the cab pulled up at the end of her road, she climbed out and peeled off one of the fifties Mitchell had given her. As the cabbie was counting out her change, she flicked through the fold of bills and raised an eyebrow after counting five hundred.

‘Good old Mitch.’

‘What’s that?’ the lively cabbie said.

‘Nothing. Just talking to myself,’ she said, and then handed the cabbie back ten dollars from the change he’d given her.

‘Thanks, lady, have a good one.’

‘You too, mate.’