Либрусек (книги fb2)
A fast-moving suspense thriller from master storyteller, Garry Disher.
Leah Flood is on the run. The cops are after her and she has to find herself a place to hide, a bolthole. The irony is, Leah is a cop too. But she’s a cop who made a mistake, who ratted on some colleagues. Leah knows she’s in the right, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the guys who are chasing her. Hitting the road, Leah gets a lift with Mitch and Tess. They appear to be two young joyriders out for a good time—until their car is pursued and shot at. Mitch loses control and the car crashes down an embankment. Mitch is killed and Leah and Tess flee. But who are the attackers chasing? Leah thinks it’s her, but Tess is sure she’s the one they’re after. What is Tess hiding? Pursued by a violent hitman and a car full of goons, Leah has to find a way to keep both her and Tess out of trouble. But they can’t run forever…
TWO-WAY CUT by Garry Disher
The thing is, shed moved into this house only a few days ago, and yet they’d found her. Before that there’d been another house, and before that a couple of cheap and nasty flats. Cheap and nasty houses, too, so who was she kidding? The thing is, they’d found her at each of her boltholes and told her she was a dead woman.
This time they’d buried her car in a truckload of sand and placed a cardboard coffin on top of the heap. There was a doll dressed in a blue uniform cap and overalls inside the coffin. Overalls because some of them thought she was a lesbian. Lived alone, no boyfriend, didn’t mix, she had to be a dyke, right?
She was actually straight, but that wasn’t the issue, it was just their way of putting the boot in further. Some of them wanted her dead, and they were cops, and knew how to find her. Knew how to make her dead.
So there and then Leah Flood walked away from all of that. Literally. No more flats or houses in this city. She shoved clothes, toiletries, Swiss Army knife, sleeping-bag, tent and a couple of paperbacks into her pack and hit the road. Leah didn’t look back, not even at her buried car. It was a good car but a rope around her neck now. A rattly red MG with personalised plates, LEAH82 for the year she was born, shed not last five minutes on the open road.
Hitchhiking was a different matter. It was November, warm days and cool evenings, so she could camp in barns, under bridges, amongst ti-trees along the coast. Rent an on-site caravan or cabin whenever she needed to treat herself or put her clothes through a washing machine. Pay cash for everything so that she wouldn’t leave a trail of electronic records.
Lose herself, in other words. Vanish off the face of the earth.
And so the first thing she did when she left the house, ignoring the stares of the neighbours, was to take a bus ten blocks to Whitehorse Plaza, where she found a branch of the ANZ and cleaned out her savings. Five thousand dollars. Could she exist on twenty dollars a day? That would buy her over a year of freedom, and maybe by then her enemies would have forgotten her.
Next she altered her appearance. Her face was well known, so she couldn’t do much beyond going into a salon and asking them to cut her hair into a pageboy and put a red rinse through it. She didn’t need spectacles but bought a pair of sunglasses with bright green frames to distract attention from her features.
She examined herself in a restroom, liking the effect. Maybe with new looks Ill get a new personality, she thought then rejected the notion. She needed to be the person shed already become these last few months: vigilant, determined, solitary.
Finally she left the shopping-centre and boarded a bus and spotted the Subaru again. Shed first seen it from the bus window on the way to the shopping-centre and given it the benefit of the doubt, but here it was again and Leah didn’t believe in coincidences. It pulled in behind the bus and tailed it, staying well back. Leah thought rapidly. She needed access to an exit and a line of sight along the length of the bus, and so she moved seats, stationing herself on a side-facing seat near the drivers door. Would they try to take her on the bus? Phone ahead and put someone on board? She glanced around at the other passengers: a teenage girl with her mother, and an elderly man with a walking-stick. Leah couldn’t expect much help from them.
The minutes passed and the bus belched through the endless tracts of tiled roofs and drought-blighted lawns, more passengers embarking, and then on the other side of the river the houses grew smaller and older, the traffic heavier, and the air more toxic. Collingwood and then Fitzroy, two of the poorest of the inner suburbs, but in pockets also rich and desirable: certain streets with gentrified houses, outdoor cafs, expensive clothing, fancy coffee, Porsches at the kerb, the occasional TV star. But none of that interested Leah. In Fitzroy she could catch a tram to the main train station, which would give her access to the grasslands at the edge of Melbourne and the endless roads to the west. Just stick out her thumb and go.
But she couldn’t afford to let the men in the Subaru know she was going to the station. Several people got ready to alight at the stop for Brunswick Street. Leah let them get off first. She didn’t want them behind her but on the street where they could shield her. She paused on the top step, her head out, glancing back along the flank of the bus. The Subaru was waiting at the kerb a short distance behind.
She stepped down, jostling her way through a clump of pedestrians, and turned into Brunswick Street. A hundred metres down she paused outside a bookshop and gazed, without taking in the details, at a poster advertising the latest Isobelle Carmody novel, then switched direction and darted across to the other side of the street. She ran then, back toward Johnston Street, as if to catch the lights.
Leah was going to flush them out, see how good they were, see how many they were.
She turned right into Johnston Street, jogging along it to a sidewalk caf, where people were drinking coffee under striped umbrellas, and ducked left into a narrow side street. Halfway down she paused and looked back. The street was clear.
But she knew she hadn’t lost them. By running shed announced herself. They were out there, regrouping, setting up the next stage. She had to nip this in the bud, and the only way to do that was to let herself be the bait.
Back on Brunswick Street she headed south towards the city centre, keeping pace with the crowd. Half of the pedestrians were locals: yuppies, students and wannabe artists; the other half were tourists from the suburbs trying to look cool. In other circumstances, Leah would have found them irritating, but today she needed themas potential witnesses, obstacles or saviours.
She edged through some backpackers huddled outside an internet caf. There are ways of tailing people so you cant be spotted and ways of spotting a tail. A careless tail will always turn away abruptly, drop to fiddle with a shoelace, pause outside an unlikely shop window. Without drawing attention to herself, Leah began to scrutinise the people around her. She used reflective surfaces: car and shop windows, peoples sunglasses, store mirrors, car chrome and duco. Now and then she stopped abruptly and doubled back to see if that disconcerted anyone, made anyone change direction abruptly with her. She entered a vast, noisy pasta restaurant by one door, studied the chalked menu for a while, then left by way of an alley outside the kitchen. When a taxi pulled up outside a pub to discharge a passenger, she got in, told the driver to U-turn, and watched to see how her pursuers reacted.
Nothing. They were good. She didn’t see a thing that looked wrong.
She got out again near the bookshop, gave the complaining driver twenty dollars, and retraced her movements along Brunswick Street. Leah was prepared to do this for two or three hours if necessary. She assumed they’d have more than one man on her. There might even be a tail in front of her. Leah didn’t care who or where or when, she wanted to isolate just one man, disable him, and ask him some hard questions.
But they were good. Leah went through the main strip of cafs and boutiques a second time, heading toward the city, and was several blocks along, adjacent to the Housing Commission flats on Gertrude Street, before she spotted a tail. It was chance, and her instincts: just ahead of her a woman with a basket of dirty washing had propped open the glass-paned door of a laundromat with her hip, angling the glass sufficiently to give Leah a clear image of the man a few metres behind her.
It was not only his face but also the way he walked that she rememberednot five minutes ago, crossing against her at a traffic light. A tall man with pouchy eyes and an elaborately casual gait, more easily identifiable here, where there were fewer pedestrians. Leah scratched her head with feigned absentmindedness: she didn’t want the tail to see the tension in her. She kept walking. The street was broad and open. Her eyes darting, she searched for a way of ambushing the man.
Then she froze for a fraction of a second. Another man was keeping pace with her on the other side of the street. He was solid, compact, purposeful, not bothering to conceal himself, and now Leah knew what the plan was. They were hunting her as a team, herding her to where she could be trapped by the rest of the group.
Leah still had her house and car keys. She slid her right hand into her jacket pocket and fitted the keys between her fingers like spines. She kept walking, watching the second tail, taking note of his arms: they looked unrelaxed, hanging out from the stocky trunk as if prepared to tackle her at a moments notice. Leah doubted that shed be attacked out in the open, but somewhere isolated and contained. She looked back over her shoulder. The first tail was less than ten metres behind her. Leah wanted to run but suppressed the urge. She walked.
Cars, taxis, a bus, a courier motorcycle, people shopping, a kid on a skateboardit was an ordinary, moderately busy street in the middle of the afternoon, not a place for chaos. That would come somewhere nearby, somewhere narrow, dark and shielded from view. She felt a bleakness settle in her. Nothing was finished yet. Nothing was ever finished.
A hundred metres closer to the city were two rows of faded terrace houses, separated by an alley, and home to several struggling shops under the rusted verandahs over the footpath. The Subaru was parked just beyond the alley. And just then a third man appeared, stepping out from behind the Subaru, blocking Leah’s path. He had blunt features and the build of a weightlifter. Leah saw him crouch slightly, waiting to see what she would do.
Leah stopped, looking for leverages. She couldn’t find any. The first two men were keeping well back from her and the bodybuilder posed problems. If the guy had long hair or loose clothing then there would be something she could hold, jerk or twist, but his skull was shaved, he wore tight jeans and T-shirt, and there was only his body, hard, coiled-looking, like a black spring, and the expandable police baton that he was now taking from the small of his back. He jerked his head at the alley, meaning in there.
This was her last chance to make a run for it, but Leah was angry and focused now, needing to thrash this out, and walked a few metres into the alley. She stopped, turned around. The third man had followed her in; he halted when Leah did, the others stationed on the footpath behind him. He didn’t speak, just stared flatly at Leah. Then he gestured with the baton, ushering her deeper into the alley. Leah turned, walked, and after a few seconds heard soft footfalls as he began to follow her. She knew how it would go: theyd swarm over her, start punching, kicking, smacking their batons against her, and it would be done in silenceno arguments, no explanations.
Leah stopped. The alley was damp and narrow, smelling of urine and garbage scattered by rangy cats. Faint grey light leaked in from the street behind her. In front of her was a wall.
They were not counting on what she did then. She spun around. She began to shout. At the same time, she charged, zigzagging down the alley toward them, bouncing from wall to wall. The bodybuilder swung his baton, tracking Leah, but was slow to react. Leah reached the man and raked her keys across his face. The cold eyes filled with blood. The man grunted in pain, and his first instinct was to put both hands to his face. Leah wheeled, swung her fist, and drove the air from his body.
The other men began to fumble for batons. They hadn’t expected this. They’d thought it would be easy, three against one. Now they didn’t know if they should rush Leah, keep her trapped, or rescue their friend. You bitch, one of them said. They started toward her.
Leah continued to run, swift, low, shouting unnervingly. She ran right into the face of their batons. They swung, but she was too fast, and was running at the gap between them, so that they risked clouting each other. Suddenly they were at a disadvantage in that narrow space.
Leah’s shoulder drove into the first man, who doubled over, mouth opening and closing. He dropped his baton, crumpled to the ground. Leah scooped up the baton and swung it around on the other man, who backed on to the footpath, shocked at the speed and fury of the turnaround, then fled, scuttling in panic down the street.
It had all taken seven seconds.
A small boy and an elderly woman had seen everything. The boy began to cry, the old woman was gulping, but they didn’t move. Leah walked past them and across the street. They looked wonderingly after her then back at the men in the alley.
Leah walked south east toward the city centre, then cut across to the Victoria Market. It was a long shot, but it paid off, and thirty minutes later she had her ride out of the city.
They wouldn’t be expecting that. They would be expecting her to go deeper to ground.
Don’t I know you from somewhere?
Leah shook her head. Don’t think so.
You look familiar, the driver said. It’ll come to me.
To forestall that, Leah said, Ive got one of those faces. I’m always reminding people of someone.
The driver was silent, as if chewing on the matter. Leah said, How often do you make this run?
Get people to talk about themselves. It was a trick that Leah often used. She almost never talked about herself though, and for some people that was a problem. They couldn’t read her and she didn’t reveal anything.
Twice a week, the driver answered.
Faded paintwork on the sides of the van said Glendas Flowers and Gifts, Tiverton, a backroads town in the empty west of the state. The destination suited Leah just fine. The driver clearly wasn’t Glenda. Glendas husband? An employee? But whoever he was, he made the trip to Melbourne twice a week to buy market flowers at wholesale prices for re-sale to the locals in and around Tiverton.
Leah felt sleepy after her adrenaline burst of the last few hours. The sun warmed her and the vans motion lulled her toward sleep. But she needed to stay alert. Constant vigilance had become a condition of her life.
And she couldn’t afford to get offside with the people who gave her lifts, now that she was thumbing it. She thought back to her student days and her unwritten guide to hitchhiking. Look presentable or you’ll never be picked up in the first place. Stand where a vehicle can pull in safely (the number of idiots shed seen standing halfway up snarling freeway on-ramps). Travel with another woman whenever possible. Stand alert, expectant, proud, not slumped like a dropout or dead-beat. If you’re hitching in Europe, sew an Australian flag to your pack. Be patient. Carry apples, muesli bars and plenty of water in case you’re stuck somewhere for several hours. Carry a roll of loo paper. Wear sunblock and a hat. Wear pantswomen should cover up. Carry a nylon rain slicker that will protect you and your pack. Don’t stand too close to the edge of the road, lest you become a skittle to a truckie low on sleep or high on uppers or anger at the world. Stand well clear of gravel, puddles, blind corners and the brows of hills. Expect to be discouraged. Expect to play catch-up with drivers who let you hoof it toward them for a hundred metres, then take off just as you reach the passenger door. Expect to dodge eggs, apple cores and stones.
And when you actually get a ride, buckle up and sound grateful and polite. Try to read the driver. Is she nervous? Use body language to show that you’re not a threat. Is he a windbag? Let him talk. Does she want to ride in silence? Respect that. Don’t fiddle with the radio or complain about his Barry Manilow tapes. Don’t crank down the window and sniff elaborately if she lights up a cigarette. Don’t be too nosy. Don’t give away personal details. If its a long trip, offer to buy a cup of coffee. If you buy yourself a block of chocolate, share it. Offer five bucks for petrol. It’ll probably be refused but, if its accepted, then remember that its cheaper than the bus or train and not going to break the bank. Expect to be bored. Expect to hear all kinds of intimacies and inanities. Expect to be beaten over the head with Jesus, the power of the trade union movement and the shiftiness of your black, your Asian, your Arab. Expect kindness: ten bucks shoved into your top pocket or being taken fifty kilometres out of the drivers way. Expect roving hands or blunt demands.
All of these things passed through Leah’s mind in a heartbeat and she sat up straight, alert and friendly, all the way to Tiverton.
The town was a string of shopfronts with a pub at one end and an agricultural machinery yard at the other, and a few hectares of tin-roofed bungalows, oleander bushes and lawns on either side. Leah thanked the driver and asked about campgrounds and caravan parks.
The driver pointed. Go to the end, first right, the caravan parks on the edge of the creek there.
Mosquitoes, lots and lots of mosquitoes.
So Leah went into the pharmacy and bought insect repellent and was about to leave when she saw a face she recognised. She froze, watching the cop car creep past along Main Street. Then before the pharmacist got suspicious she turned to a rack of sunhats and swivelled it a few times, staring past the straw rims to the street outside, thinking it through. The cops name was Drew. So, they’d demoted the bastard, sent him to this one-horse town in the middle of nowhere. But if Drew had been demoted, so had others, meaning the bush could be crawling with men just like him. Leah would have to get out of the state as soon as she could.
She went back to the pharmacist. Its a bit embarrassing, I’m supposed to take a urine sample to the doctor but I left the sample jar at home and…
The pharmacist glanced at Leah’s backpack and frowned.
Leah smiled disarmingly. I’m staying at the caravan park.
The pharmacists face cleared. He sold Leah a sample jar, said, You can use the loo out the back, and turned to an elderly man who had banged his ankle and couldn’t stop it from weeping. The old man was deaf and soon he and the pharmacist were shouting at each other to be understood.
Leah stepped into the corridor and opened and closed the toilet door without going in and used the din in the front of the shop to cover her exit by the back door.
She found herself in a weedy yard. A gate at the end opened onto an alley, which led to streets and more alleys and eventually to an oily paved area behind a service station. A proper map, thats what she needed.
Five minutes later she was strolling out of town as if she had all the time in the world and no criminal intentions that might concern the good citizens of Tiverton. According to the map, there was a state park one kilometre to the east. A secondary road ran through it, and if she was lucky shed catch a ride before it got dark.
Another tip from her unwritten guide: Remember that in the long shadows and setting sun of late afternoon, drivers may not see you until its too late.
It was not Leah but her backpack that caught the full force of the passenger-side bumper of the muscle car. Leah had positioned herself at the far end of a rest stop, her pack at her feet, beyond the rubbish bins and two metres clear of the tarmac, giving motorists plenty of room in which to pull off the road once they’d spotted her. But the sun was low on the horizon and fell in a hard bright band across the raked windshields of the passing cars. Leah saw the drivers squinting against it, unable to see her. She could cross the road and hitch a ride in the opposite direction, but east meant back to the city, and her old strife, so she stood where she was and waited for someone to slow down and pull over. Then that muscle car veered at her suddenly, leaving the sealed surface, all four tyres spewing dust and gravel, tail twitching as the driver sought traction, and then it was upon her. Leah stepped back instinctively and flinched as her pack was flung aside like a… like a body.
Her heart hammering, Leah stared after the car, which fishtailed past her in the dust and stopped, its brake lights flaring. Other instincts kicked in then and she coolly noted the colour, make and number of the carfire-engine red, latest model Monaro, this years registration and prepared to run.
But something made her hold back. There had been an element of panic and confusion in the motion of the car, as though it had not been choreographed to kill her. Sure enough, the front doors opened a moment later, a young guy getting out of the passenger side, a young woman out of the drivers side. The young woman spoke first, her voice shaky.
God, are you okay?
And the guy said, Jeez, when I heard that thump I was sure wed collected you.
The girl hurried toward Leah. I’m so sorry, I just didn’t see you, the sun…
The guy sauntered after her. She wanted to listen to Triple J, I wanted Fox FM, and the next moment—
I took my eyes off the road for just a second, honest, the girl said.
She was now standing directly in front of Leah, full of the beat of strong emotions: excitement, relief, curiosity. She wore tight red jeans, slim-line lace-up ankle boots, a white T-shirt that showed the tops of her flushed breasts. She was good-looking in a careless way, as if she sought and found risky distractions in lifelike almost running down hitchhikersbut got bored easily. She removed her dark glasses and clamped the frames on top of her head, revealing grey-green eyes that were more amused than apologetic.
Your lucky day, she said, barely suppressing her laughter.
For me, maybe, Leah said, eyeing the backpack, tumbled in the dust.
Well buy you a new one, no probs, the guy said.
He stood by his girlfriend and put his arm around her waist until they were joined at the hip and grinning good-naturedly. Leah assessed the guy rapidly: early twenties, dark hair cropped short and dyed purple at the tips, earring, eyebrow stud, jaws chomping away on a stick of gum. Black jeans, black T-shirt, black studded belt, black shoes as chunky as blocks of carved wood.
There was a moment of silence and then the girl said, Wherere you headed?
Leah shrugged. Wherever the road takes me.
If shed read these two correctly, they would heartily approve of an unconventional life. Shed never have given that answer to a straight-looking person. Straight people always had specific destinations.
Well, get in, the guy said. Hed stopped chewing long enough to absorb Leah’s answer, now was chewing hard again. Least we can do for you.
The girl grabbed Leah. Yeah, come with us, she said, swinging Leah’s arm as if delighted with her, with herself, with life. For the ride of a lifetime, she said, giggling.
Leah disengaged, crossed to her pack, and dusted it off. The flap was torn, a buckle snapped in two, but it was otherwise intact. Couldve been worse, she said.
Great, the guy said. Hop in the front. Ill drive.
The girl sashayed at her boyfriend, poking him. Yeah, right, put me in the back so I cant listen to Triple J.
They guy gaped at her in mock dismay. Who, me?
She waggled herself at him. Thats right, big boy.
It was all for Leah’s benefit, as if they were in love with being lovers and believed the old saying that the world loves a lover. But all it did was make them look younger, and in ordinary circumstances shed have avoided them like the plague. Right now she needed them.
A few minutes later they were leaving the state forest and heading into a region of low hills and grazing land. Leah, in the passenger seat, felt insulated from the world and settled back, feeling more secure than she had for days. Then she felt fingers reach around from the back seat and rest on her shoulder, and a soft voice breathed warmly in her ear, I’m Tess, this is Mitch.
Glad to know ya, Mitch said. Hed stopped chewing for the introductions, now he was chewing again.
Leah sensed, without turning around, that Tess was perched on the edge of her seat and leaning into the gap between the two front seats as if she couldn’t bear to be left out of anything. Her fingers rubbed up and down on Leah’s upper arm. There was nothing overtly sexual about it: she probably touched everybody. Leah liked it. It was oddly comforting, and she wondered idly if Tess was used to such simple expressions of warmth and friendliness, or was in need of them. Her own upbringing had been loving, but expressed remotely and formally, and she envied Tess’s easy, open sense of comfort with her body and her surroundings.
What have I become? Leah thought. Wary, watchful and ready to run…
She shook off the thoughts. Nice wheels, Mitch.
Mitch snapped forward suddenly and stabbed at the radio. There seemed to be six speakers in the car and it filled with sound, Mitch jerking like a robot at the wheel.
Not that crap! Tess shouted. Turn it off!
Leah turned around to grin at Tess, who had flung herself back into the corner, mouth pouting. Tess caught Leah’s gaze and rolled her eyes. She was full of signals and responses, as if her body reflected exactly every thought in her head. It was appealing, and Tess was no doubt accustomed to being seen as cute, but Leah wondered how appealing the cuteness would be after a few days.
She settled deeper into her seat and looked out at the world in the queer half-light of dusk, thinking about Mitch, Tess, and the car. A lot of car for a young guy. A lot of money. You had to wonder where it all came from. There was something hyper about Mitch. Maybe he was on uppers.
The road climbed and the motion of the car would have encouraged sleep if not for the head-banging music. A guard rail slipped by Leah’s window and she looked down into a shallow gully and a creek and weeping willows. There was something manicured about the setting, as though people picnicked there, and Leah guessed there was a town nearby. The shadows were long now.
Then she saw a sign: Prospect 3 km. Theres a town up ahead. If theres a campground or a caravan park Ill
There was a harsh smack of metal against metal and the big car swerved violently. Leah grabbed the dash with both hands. Beside her Mitch was fighting to keep the car stable. Behind them Tess shrieked and ducked low in her seat. Then another thumping sensation and at once the Monaro jerked again and Leah heard the tyre disintegrate and punch around inside the wheel arch.
She peered back through the rear window. A Range Rover was hard on them, slightly off to one side, as if preparing to ram them again. A shotgun was trained on them from the passenger seat. Suddenly Mitch lost control and the Monaro tore itself open along the guard rail for a few metres before hitting a stanchion and plunging through the rail. Mitch sat as if paralysed and Leah grabbed at the wheel in an effort to steer down the bank, feeling a jerk that almost snapped her wrist, and then they were tumbling about inside the car as it rolled.
In the hiss and ticking and awful stillness a minute later, Leah thought fire, and unstrapped her seatbelt. The Monaro was on its side and she couldn’t avoid trampling Mitch as she freed herself. The car groaned and settled at a crazier angle. Mitch was clearly dead, his neck broken. Tess was sobbing. Leah reached through, released the younger womans seatbelt and pulled her into the front before kicking out the windscreen, which peeled away like stiff cardboard. The Monaro protested again. Leah pushed Tess through the gap and slipped out after her, then grabbed her arm to haul her a safe distance from the car. She could smell fuel. She could smell heat rising, seeking the fumes and ignition.
But Tess broke away from her and ran back to the car.
Tess ignored her, ran sobbing for the boot, which had sprung open during the crash. There was a soft whump of superheated petrol. Leah began to dash toward the car, just as Tess recoiled from it and ran back toward her, lugging a leather daypack and a small weekender bag on a strap.
In the lick of the flames then, Leah saw Tess grin, as if she were filled with a lust for life again, her tears forgotten. But beyond her, high above the burning car, the Range Rover was stationary, the driver and passenger watching. Then both men got out and began to ease purposefully through the twisted guardrail and down the slope.
How did they find me? Leah thought, running with Tess at full tilt through the long grass and tricky shadows.
Leah needed a refuge, a safe place where she could rest and do something about changing her face again. Somewhere with a radio, so she could monitor the news. Somewhere big enough to hide Tess, too, for the girl was caught up in this awful mess now.
But the country towns shed passed through today had been too small to provide that sort of cover. Nervy, suspicious places, wary of strangers. Would Prospect be any different? Would she encounter a cop like Drew in this town? Had Drew seen her in Tiverton and passed the word on?
She ran with Tess along the edge of the creek and they arrived at Prospect just as the streetlights were coming on. The first indications were favourable: motels, small businesses and flashing neon along the main street, with a sprawl of ugly new houses and flats at either end. There was even a mall. The town hall was as big as any shed seen in the suburbs of Melbourne.
When she saw the Range Rover prowling along the main street she pulled Tess into the shadows and watched until it had gone, and only then did she notice Tess’s condition. The younger woman was listless, unfocused, and Leah felt a pang of guilt and pity. Look, I’m really sorry about your friend, but we couldn’t stick around back there.
Tess made an effort, blinking, throwing off her vagueness. I know.
Those men were
They would have killed us, Tess said vehemently. I’m sorry I got you into this mess.
Got me into it? I got you into it.
Tess shook her head. A teenager skated past, drifting in lazy S shapes along the footpath, trailing the odours of fish and chips after him. I knew they’d catch up to us.
I don’t understand. Those men
It doesn’t matter, Tess said, her face and body shutting down. Lets just get away from here.
Ill take you to the police station if you like, but I wont go in.
Tess shuddered. No. God no.
It seems we both have reasons not to bring in the cops, Leah thought.
I’m sorry about Mitch, she said again.
Tess choked down a couple of sobs, then heaved a sigh. I knew it couldn’t last, but it was exciting while it did, she said, as if putting the very recent past behind her. Leah didn’t pursue it. Tess had maybe seen too many made-for-TV movies and had cast herself in this one, inventing the dialogue as she went along. She was seeing everything that happened as her story, her drama, when Leah knew damn well that the men in the Range Rover were not interested in a couple of drippy teenage lovers. Those men were after revenge.
It was dark before Leah found somewhere for them to spend the night. She didn’t want to stay in a house a house would mean curious neighbours. There are also neighbours in blocks of flats, but they tend to come and go and expect others to come and go. She didn’t expect anyone to ask her what her business was in this row of down-at-heel flats in a back street behind the town mall.
There had been lights showing in most of the flats in the first block, and all had empty letterboxes. Shed hurried Tess along to the next block. Flats 2 and 6 had not claimed their letters yet. She rejected Flat 2 when she heard raised voices behind the door. They climbed the stairs to Flat 6, where she listened for half a minute, knocked on the door and listened again. Silence.
How are we going to get in?
Key, I hope, Leah said.
She ran her hand along the top of the door surround, finding dust. She glanced around. There was a wrought-iron potplant stand nearby. The key was under a white stone at the base of a dying fern. She opened the door and they slipped inside.
There was no one home but the place felt lived in. Then she saw a movement in the corner. It was a cat, stretching awake in a basket on the floor.
They let themselves out quickly and walked down the stairs and along to a single-storey block of four flats in the next street. These Leah rejected immediately. According to a sign by the driveway entrance, the building was let to elderly parishioners of the Uniting Church, who were more likely than not to be at home.
Their luck improved at the next block of flats. The letterbox for Flat 4 was crammed with junk mail. Leah led the way up to the second landing and tried the door. When no one answered her knock, she searched for the key, finding it on top of a fuse box in the hallway. She opened the door and they went in. This time there were no pets or signs that people had been there recently. The place felt as if it had been empty for several days. The rooms were tidy. The refrigerator had been switched off and the door left ajar. The kitchen tidy was empty and clean.
She examined the bedroom and the bathroom. The clothing, jewelery and cosmetics indicated that a youngish man and woman lived there.
Good. My pack was burnt up in the car. All Ive got is my mobile phone and the clothes I’m wearing. She also had her $5000, but wasn’t about to tell Tess that.
Ive got spare undies and T-shirts if you need them, Tess said, dropping her weekender bag to the carpet but continuing to clutch her leather daypack in one hand. Were about the same size.
Excuse me, Tess said, pushing past Leah to the bathroom. She looked weepy, agitated, her face streaked with misery, her jeans grimy.
Leah made a second sweep of the flat, concentrating on the kitchen. There was a calendar pinned to a cabinet door above the sink. Notes had been scribbled in the blank spaces under some of the dates. Leave for Noosa had been written under a date at the beginning of the month and a bold red line cancelled the next two weeks. At the end were the words arrive home.
Tess reappeared, calmer now, visibly making an effort. She was faintly water-splashed and had combed her hair. How long are we staying?
Leah showed her the calendar. We’ve got the place for a week if we want it. She hoped that a spare key hadn’t been given to friends or relatives. She hoped the weather was fine in Queensland. But we have to be super quiet and unobtrusive, and ready to quit the place at a moments notice. We don’t want curious neighbours knocking on the door. If they do, we act as if we belong here; were friends looking after the place for a few days. Okay?
You’re the boss.
Leah wanted Tess to be more alert than that, but let it go. You can have the bed. Ill sleep on the sofa.
Can we eat? I’m starving.
This is weird, Leah thought. Mitch has just been murdered, killers are after us, and Tess is starving. I feel as if I could jump out of my skin, and this girl has made a remarkable recovery. Clearly her bond with Mitch hadn’t been that strong, but still…
First things first, Leah said.
There was a radio next to the toaster on the kitchen bench. She tuned it to a regional station of the ABC, the volume low, and they listened to the news. Mitch was on last, just before sport and weather, and the item took less than ten seconds: a young man killed in a single-vehicle accident when his car had run off the road near Prospect and caught fire. Police were appealing for witnesses.
Leah glanced keenly at Tess, who stared at the floor. You okay?
Its none of my business but
Youre right, its not.
Fair enough, Leah said, searching the cupboards for something to eat.
She opened a tin of spaghetti, spooned it onto two plates and ate hers cold with a spoon. It had the consistency of glue. Tess gave her an appalled look and wrinkled her nose. If we heat anything, Leah explained, well release cooking smells that might alert the neighbours, and we don’t want that.
Yeah, well Ill just have toast.
Toast smells. Theres no bread, anyway.
Okay, how about fruit.
No fruit, either.
Tess yanked open the cupboard. God.
She brought out an open packet of sultanas and tipped some into the palm of her hand. I don’t know if I can put up with much of this.
Go, then. Its me they’re after.
No its not.
Okay, what have you done?
Its not me, its Mitch, but I was with him, right? I’m a witness.
Go to the police.
You mean that you and Mitch were in it together, whatever it was. What was it? Did you rip off somebody?
Tess glanced away. Not really.
So, what did you do?
Stole a car. What about you?
Leah thought about it as she placed her empty tin in a plastic bag, which she would dispose of later, in a public bin. I’m stuck with a person I hardly know, she told herself. What does it matter if I tell her? It might even forge a bit of a bond between us, and God knows we need to help each other out now. She took a deep breath. It would be a relief to talk to someone. Suddenly Leah was overwhelmed by her own loneliness.
Three years ago shed been a police officer, a rookie, just graduated and top of her class. An only child, her elderly parents had retired to the Gold Coast and so this was all she had, a new career, one she could be proud of. After a year in a divisional van shed been fast-tracked into some specialist short courses and plainclothes detective work, posing once as a sex worker and once as a junkie. And then, at the end of an extensive undercover sting operation involving fifteen uniformed police and CIB detectives, shed been sexually assaulted.
Theyd all gone to a guesthouse in the hills to celebrate, reserving the dining-room and all of the bedrooms and cabins, the whole place, for an overnight stay. That evening Leah had got drunktheyd all got drunk. Well, that was the point, to celebrate, have fun, let off steam, wash some of the grime away.
Except that at two oclock in the morning she and two other women had been unwinding in the communal spa bath when someone stole every stitch of fabric from the room: towels, bathrobes, floor mats, their clothing. Leah had crept to the door, poked her steamy head out and seen ten of her male colleagues lined along the corridor.
Hey, girlie, said the one closest to the door.
She hated being called girlie.
What? she demanded.
Come on, give us back our clothes, or at least our towels.
He glanced comically at his mates, then back at her, and said with mock regret, No can do, sorry.
Its late, we want to go to bed.
So do we, sweetheart, so do we.
And they all looked hot, oily and porcine to her, open-mouthed, their faces distorted with an ugly kind of hunger.
Come on, guys, give us a break, Leah said, hoping to remind them that they worked together, were colleagues, even friends.
A little fun first, one man said. All you have to do is run the gauntlet.
Thats right. Cross my heart and hope to die.
You wont touch us?
Then one of the two women huddled in the doorway with Leah said, Come on, Leah, be a sport. Theyre just having a laugh.
Yeah, come on, said the second woman. Theyre all too drunk to do anything.
Leah said, No, its not right, this is harassment. They could lose their jobs for this.
The atmosphere turned then. Leah felt the force of their suspicion and anger, as if shed betrayed the team.
Don’t be a tight-arse, the first woman said, shoving past Leah and into the corridor and beginning to run. The men clapped and cheered and one or two smacked her on the rump. She reached the end of the corridor and pranced about with both fists raised in victory. Then the other woman ran, also playing to her audience.
That left Leah.
Come on, love, show us what youve got, the first man said.
Be a sport.
So she ran. The moment she stepped into the corridor she knew that shed made a bad mistake. The first man gave her a shove. She stumbled against the man opposite him, who also shoved her, placing both hands on her breasts. In this way she was passed jerkily from man to man until she reached the end of the corridor. Her body bore the marks of their hands for hours afterwards.
The next day she resigned from the force. She brought charges against all of them, including the women, who reluctantly gave evidence supporting her case. Of the ten men, four were sacked, five transferred or demoted, one committed suicide. So, justice had been served, but shed let the side down, and now she was a target.
Its the fact that one of the guys committed suicide, she told Tess in conclusion. They want to get even.
Tess was watching her, eyes wide. What, like, kill you?
I doubt it, but then again, I wouldn’t put it past some of them.
Wow. Bummer, Tess said. She shook her head in disgust. Cops.
Leah’s attitude was more complicated. She missed her job, her vocation. She had loved police work, was good at it, and praised for it by her superiors. And even though the police had ultimately let her down, her belief in them was undiminished. In her view, the police were mostly dedicated, but underpaid, unappreciated and apparently despised by a high percentage of the public, so it was no wonder that they tended to be inward-looking, clannish, a culture apart from the mainstream. They sought each other out when off-duty, and were sustained by a sense of moral superiority despite existing on the fringes of polite society.
And they hated anyone who broke ranks, anyone who revealed the rotten apples in the barrel. They felt that whistleblowers tainted the force, did more harm than good, and should be stopped.
But Leah said none of this to Tess. So I hit the road.
What about your friends, your parents? Tess said.
I wasn’t going to drag them into my mess, said Leah harshly. Anyway, my parents are in Queensland, I lost friends when I joined the force, and lost police friends when I left it. Now, whats your story?
They had returned to the sitting-room. Tess flopped back in her corner of the sofa and began checking her hair for split ends. A moment later she pulled one bare foot into her lap and picked at the hoary skin on the edge of her big toe. She looked bored, sulky and apathetic, a dangerous combination to Leah’s mind. To shock her out of it she said, Tess, someone close to you was murdered a couple of hours ago. You could be next.
Tess shifted about restlessly. Leah wondered if she was coming down from something, amphetamines maybe. Tess? Lets start at the beginning. Whats your full name?
How did you meet Mitch?
He did maintenance at my school.
God, how old was she? Your school?
Penleigh Hall. I’m a boarder there.
How old are you?
Tess’s eyes shifted. Eighteen.
Leah knew she was lying. Sixteen? Seventeen? She certainly could pass for eighteen. She could pass for twenty-five. So, Mitch was a handyman at your school.
Tess leaned forward and smirked. Very handy.
Leah stared at her neutrally, unimpressed by the sexual bravado. And you got involved with him.
Tess shrugged her bare shoulders and sat back in a sulk. Yeah.
And the pair of you stole a car.
This was like getting blood from a stone. And ran away together.
I’m trying to understand. Were you running away from something, or running to something?
Stop interrogating me. Stop sounding like a cop. Or a teacher.
I want to know.
I was failing, all right? Satisfied?
At that moment, Tess sounded exactly like a sixteen-year-old schoolkid. Did you and Mitch hit the road immediately?
Tess laughed. We shacked up together, only my father sent my brothers to get me back. Hes such a control freak.
Leah cocked her head in frank disbelief, hoping to unsettle Tess. When Tess wouldn’t meet her gaze she said in a low, hard voice, Tess, those men had a shotgun, they killed Mitch, they could have killed you. Are you saying they were your brothers?
No. I mean, I don’t think they meant anyone to get killed. Maybe its really you theyre after.
Leah shook her head. This was like interrogating a child who lies automatically, the lies a complicated, unconvincing artifice when a simple lieor the truth would be best. When did you and Mitch hit the road together?
About five days ago.
Leah let the silence build in the stuffy little room, knowing that someone as impatient and impulsive as Tess could not stand much silence. Finally she said, So you don’t want to go to the police because it would mean getting your father and brothers into trouble?
But Mitch is dead now, Leah said, thinking: Not that you’re exactly grief-stricken.
So you can go home, or back to school. If you’re a boarder, the school must be worried about you. Theyll be looking for you.
You must be joking, Tess said. They were going to expel me anyway.
Leah felt immensely weary. I don’t understand: if you’re a boarder, does that mean your parents live interstate or on a remote property somewhere?
So why are you a boarder?
Don’t get on with my parents.
They must have pots of money, sending you to boarding-school when they don’t have to, Leah said, feeling resentful.
I’m not exactly in a position to look after you.
You don’t have to. I can look after myself.
Yeah, right, Leah thought. The police will be involved now, she said, because of the car crash. Theyll identify Mitch, and someone will tell them that you were travelling with him. People will wonder where you are. The school, your mother.
Want to know about my mother? When I was fourteen I got asthma so bad I had to go to hospital, so the school called her, and you know what, they didn’t find her for two weeks. She was off overseas with her boyfriend, whos now my stepfather. When they finally did get hold of her, you know what she told them? You deal with it, like she didn’t care if I died or not. So excuse me if I don’t care what my mother thinks. Tess seemed on the verge of tears again.
Leah cocked her head. It was your father, not your stepfather, who sent your brothers after you?
Tess looked hunted. Yeah.
Tess, look at me. Were those guys in the Range Rover your brothers?
Tess avoided her gaze. I couldn’t tell. Maybe they got their friends involved, or hired somebody.
Leah wanted to give Tess a good shake. She believed that Tess and Mitch had stolen a car, but that was all she believed, and a stolen car wasn’t enough to galvanise two killers in a Range Rover. No, she thought, I’m the target, not Tess.
We need to stay here for at least a couple of days, she said. When they don’t find us tonight and tomorrow, theyll assume weve moved on.
Stay in this dump for two days? No way.
All right then, go home. Go back to school. Simple.
Tess moved about agitatedly on the sofa. She was a poor little rich girl with no conscience and hooked on cheap thrills. Life was a movie, and Leah was making her see what was real. She took a mobile phone from her pocket and switched it on.
What are you doing?
I have got some friends, you know, Tess flounced. Not that its any of your business.
It is my business. Mobile phones can be tracked. Calls can be monitored.
Giving Leah a hunted look, Tess put the mobile away. Leah wanted to say more, but fear was clearly apparent in the younger woman, breaking through the shallow cuteness and bravado. I don’t blame her, Leah thought. But I have to put on a brave front.
Tomorrow we alter our appearance, she said. If we have to go out to the shops, then we don’t leave a trail. We use cash, not credit cards, okay? And no calls from public phones.
I’ll sleep on the sofa, Leah said.
Can I watch TV?
Only the news, if you keep the volume down.
God! What about e-mail?
There was a computer on a card table in one corner of the sitting-room. No, Leah said, glancing at it. We don’t do anything that signals where we are.
The target left work every afternoon at six, so Evert van Wyk got to the carpark at five-thirty. Only one car was there, the targets Audi, together with some scraggly shrubs and a rubbish skip full of broken concrete paving. Van Wyk waited. In the old days you had to break into a car in order to set the trap, but now all he had to do was wait for the target to push a button on his key ring.
Sure enough, at six on the dot the target crossed the carpark and a moment later van Wyk heard an electronic beep and the soft oiled click of locks disengaging. He waited until the target was halfway in the drivers door before making his move. By the time the target had his door closed but before he could lock it, van Wyk had slid into the back seat and was shoving his .22 pistol against the hinge of the mans jaw.
Don’t do anything stupid.
What do you want?
Drive out of here slowly, left at the lights, were going to the golf course.
The man slumped. He knew. Look, I can pay you next week. All I need is
Thats nothing to do with me, van Wyk said. I don’t know why they want you topped, I just know they do, okay? Drive. Don’t talk.
It was an easy hit and he was home by seven-thirty. The thing about your .22 pistol is, its small and quiet. A .22 wont necessarily stop an enraged or vigorous target, but it wasn’t designed to. It was intended for competition shooting…and for putting a bullet inside the skull of a human being.
Van Wyk always used a .22 for close work. The trick was to shoot when the targets defences were down. Like tonight. The guy in the Audi expected to be shot in the woods off the main fairway, but van Wyk shot him inside the car, the moment hed turned off the ignition.
Last month van Wyk had shot a guy in a toilet cubicle, the guy at his most vulnerable, trousers around his ankles.
Earlier in the year hed tracked a target to a busy pub. The guy was a heavy in an organised outfit, always surrounded by minders, and van Wyk had no idea how hed get close to him. Maybe this would have to be long range, with a sniping rifle, the kind of job that didn’t bring the same sort of satisfaction to van Wyk. So he tailed the guy for a few days, noting his routine and looking for vantage points, and learnt that the guy was a regular at the pub.
In fact, as if mindful that a mobile phone is less secure than a land-line, he did business there, on a public phone in a dark corridor that ran behind the main bar. There were two phones, one on either side of a door marked cleaner. Van Wyk noticed that the target always used the phone closest to the entrance to the corridor, and both made and took calls. If it rang, the barman would answer and return to the bar, calling the targets name. So on the fourth day van Wyk picked up the second phone, rang the first phone and asked for the target by name, then broke the connection without hanging up. He was faking a drunken, pleading conversation with an imaginary wife when the target picked up the other phone and said, Yo. Van Wyk turned and shot him at the hairline, saying, Yo, yourself.
Ten seconds later he was walking calmly through the main bar and out onto the street.
A sweet hit, like tonights. After dumping the gun, hed picked up Thai takeaway and gone home to eat it. In his old life hed had black servants, but that wasn’t possible in Australia. In his old life hed been a sanctioned killer for the government. Hed put a lot of woolly heads into body bags. Now the woolly heads were running South Africa, and hed emigrated and was a killer for hire and did all of his own housework. It wasn’t so bad. He was used to it. But hed met plenty of his countrymen who couldn’t adjust. They were lost without their servants. Once, when collecting his residency documents at the Australian High Commission in Pretoria, hed overheard a telling exchange between fat, indignant whites and the immigration officials…
But shes only a servant!
That doesn’t matter, sir, she still needs a passport, a visa and a work permit.
But who is going to do our cooking and cleaning when we get to Australia?
You, sir? Your wife?
It was a sign of the times. Van Wyk always moved with the times, stayed ahead of the times.
At 8.30 the phone rang. It was another job, down in Victoria this time. Van Wyk went to his study, dismantled his spare .22 and silencer, and distributed the pieces inside a shaving-cream can, an electric razor and a video camcorder, ready for the X-ray machines at the airport tomorrow morning.
The first morning Leah stripped and washed at the sink, not in the shower, knowing how thin the walls were in these places, how noisy the plumbing. Then she patted herself dry with paper towels from the kitchen and went to work on her appearance. In the cabinet above the sink she found hair gel, scissors, a comb, rubber gloves and a box of black permanent hair colour. The woman depicted on the package was frozen in a toss of her beautiful head, her hair arcing in a long, glossy black fan: well, apart from the colour, Leah was going in the opposite direction. She chopped her hair short all over, then applied the dye to her hair, leaving it on for almost an hour before rinsing off the excess. Finally she dried her hair with paper towels and used her fingers to coax it into a carefully dishevelled style.
Who am I now? she thought. She seemed to have a darker cast to her face, her features thin and drawn. She finished by mopping up with more paper towels and stuffing the paper and wrapping into a plastic shopping-bag along with last nights rubbish.
She was drinking coffee when Tess wandered into the kitchen, yawning, puffy with sleep, wearing knickers and a T-shirt. She saw the girls jaw drop. Radical.
We can work on you later.
No way, Tess said.
Yes, Leah said.
Leah watched as Tess flopped into a kitchen chair and yawned hugely, unappealingly. She didn’t care about Tess’s feelings, but did care if giving orders to her was going to be counterproductive. How about some coffee?
Tess glowered, suspecting a trap, then smiled widely and Leah could see how young and pretty she was under the attitude and puffy face. While Tess was sipping her coffee, elbows on the table, the mug in both hands, steam rising dreamily around her sleepy face, Leah said, Okay, if we don’t cut or colour your hair, how else can we alter your appearance?
Tess frowned, giving it some thought, and they went to and fro for thirty minutes. In the end, Tess decided on temporary face tattoos, dark glasses and some streaks of hair mascara. Leah was satisfied. You should eat something.
Tess shuddered. God, too early.
Muesli and long-life milk, Leah said. Shed found plenty of both in the pantry and didn’t think theyd be missed by the residents of the flat.
Not before I have this coffee and a shower.
No showering, Leah said, and explained why.
Tess looked ready to complain, thought better of it, and kept sipping her coffee.
I’m going out to buy some things, Leah said. Your shades and tattoos, some food, plus I need underwear, jeans, T-shirt, toiletries, sleeping-bag, a new pack…
Tess was alarmed. Are you hitting the road without me?
Of course not.
When will you get back?
An hour or so. While I’m out, don’t do anything to attract attention to the flat. And no phone calls.
God, Tess muttered, staring at the pattern in the table top.
See you soon.
How long are we staying here?
Another night at least.
How are we going to get away?
Steal a car.
Yeah, right, just like that.
Just like that.
Tess said nothing, then turned a puzzled face to Leah. How come you’re helping me?
Were helping each other.
I want the truth.
Leah thought about it. When I was in trouble I could have done with a senior officer to stand up for me, but they were all too busy watching their backs.
Welcome to the real world, Leah. I don’t expect anyone to watch my back.
Well, I just changed the rules, Leah said, wondering how much of her stance was false bravado.
Tess was still at the kitchen table when Leah got back. The younger woman heaved to her feet, and stumbled to the bathroom. Definitely not a morning person. Leah unpacked bread, juice, sliced ham, tomatoes, tinned food and Tess’s tattoos, hair mascara and dark glasses. She heard the tap run, heard Tess pad on bare feet to the bedroom, later heard her slump onto the sofa in the sitting-room and turn on the TV softly. It was going to be a long twenty-four hours.
The next morning Leah opened the door to the corridor and listened. There were no sounds in the stairwell and shed heard nothing since 8.30. It was ten oclock now and she was guessing that the other residents were at work. She closed the door behind her. Shed left a note on the kitchen table: Ill be back before lunch.
Half a minute later she was on the street. She walked for an hour, first dumping their rubbish, then looking for parked cars that hadn’t been locked or still had keys in the ignition, and finally looking for vehicles parked in the shadowy corners of public carparks. At every intersection she would wait and watch and listen for the Range Rover or any other vehicle that might cause her skin to creep.
Her search took her to the railway station. There were four cars in the carpark. The platform was deserted and there were no cops or heavies in the waiting-room or the ticket office. The only people she saw were the station master making coffee in a room next to the ticket office and a bleary-eyed man in the waiting-room. Leah looked at the timetable. There was a Melbourne train due in twenty minutes. The return train got in at 6.30 that evening.
Fifteen minutes later, there were eight more people waiting for the train. Most were women who appeared to be going to the city for a days shopping, but there were also two men in suits. All were yawning. One of the men coughed repeatedly. Another smoked, ignoring the sign.
When the train came in they all stood up and walked onto the platform. Leah went into the womens. When the train was gone, she went out to the carpark. There were now twelve cars parked along the fence. She chose an old white Kingswood, knowing it was the easiest to break into and start. She was hoping it wouldn’t be missed until 6.30.
A skinny kid with nose rings and a shaved head was coming down the stairs from the second level when Leah got back to the flats. He slipped past without looking at her, an eager expression on his face. She hurried into the flat, finding Tess in the bedroom, shoving a denim jacket into the top of her daypack.
Who was that I just saw?
You didn’t answer the door to anyone, did you?
Don’t know what you’re talking about.
I saw a guy on the stairs.
Well there are other flats here, you know.
Leah let it go. Tess was quite right. But something, some shift in Tess’s manner or in the stale air of the little flat, told Leah that it was time they got out of this town.
As they left Prospect, Leah decided they should exchange the stolen Kingswood for another set of wheels as soon as possible. But they were heading into the mid-west of the state, where the towns and farms were sparse, and the featureless landscape bleached and heat-stunned. Distant dust clouds indicated solitary vehicles on lonely dirt roads. They could lose themselves out there but those back roads could also stifle and trap them without food, water or shelter. No, it was better to stick to the bitumen roads and scout around the next town for another car.
She explained some of this to Tess, who was yawning, still struggling to face the day, and responded with a bored Whatever. Tess was useless to her, that was clear. Even a handicap. But they had to stick together for now. She tuned in the radio to the midday news: there was no follow-up story to Mitchs death.
How did your brothers find you?
Tess frowned, as if shed been daydreaming or didn’t understand the question. What?
Would they have hired private detectives?
Leah shook her head in irritation and watched the unfolding road. She knew cops who’d become private eyes, and knew they were often better at finding missing people than the police, whose resources were overstretched, each officer working several cases at once. A private eye had time, resources and know-how to bear on each case. Leah found herself remembering some statistics from a lecture shed attended during her training: 26,000 Australians go missing every year, and 69 per cent of those were like Tess, aged eighteen or under. Most were found in the first day, 98 per cent within a year. Those least likely to be found were males aged between twenty-six and forty-five.
How would a private detective track Tess? Leah wondered. Open a file, first, listing the twelve key identifiers of a missing person: name, sex, race, age, height, weight, hair, eyes, complexion, blemishes or scars, habits, clothing/accessories. Then ascertain when and where she was last seen, and with whom. Contact morgues, hospitals, prisons and police stations in case the disappearance was involuntary or shed encountered the wrong person. Interview friendsand enemies, for friends might lie in order to protect.
A certain predictability could be counted upon: those missing persons who deliberately cover their tracks (for Leah knew that a depressing number go missing involuntarily, the victim of opportunist killers) nevertheless tend to adopt a similar name, maintain their old habits and interests, wear the same clothes and hairstyles. The things they alter will be obvious: a blonde will dye her hair black, a Sydney resident head for Melbourne.
Finally, we all leave a trail. Vast bureaucracies keep track of births, deaths, marriages, money and property transactions, travel movements. Each time we rent a car, stay in a hotel, use a motel phone, buy a bus ticket, apply for a passport or use a credit card to pay for a taxi or withdraw cash from an automatic teller machine, we generate pieces of paper and electronic records. These map our movements and predict our habits and inclinations.
And overlying all of that, good private detectives try to think their ways into the heads of the people theyre tracking. A girl like Tess? Shes run off with her boyfriend; shes heading interstate; if shes not lying dead in a ditch somewhere, then shell die of an overdose in a scungy motel room or back alley.
And me? Leah thought. What can they predict about me? Thats what I need to keep in front of my eyes, so that I can outwit, anticipate, subvert.
Forty minutes later, she slowed for the outskirts of a prosperous-looking town called Leighton Wells. Tess stirred, pointed. Used car yard.
Leah shook her head. We don’t want to leave a trail. No pieces of paper, no phone calls, no e-mail. I told you that.
Are you for real?
Your brothers found you, didn’t they?
Tess wriggled in her seat and muttered, Whatever.
They cruised through the town. Suddenly Tess pointed. There!
On the nature strip.
Leah braked and reversed the car until they were adjacent to an early model Holden panel van, painted white, standing in a collar of grass. A faded red For Sale sign was propped inside the windscreen, the words $2,500 apply within hand-written in black marker at the bottom. Leah got out for a closer look.
The panel van had clearly been a workhorse in the past, but it was unlikely to be pulled over for a road-worthy inspection: plenty of tread left on the tyres, no obvious rust or external damage beyond a couple of scratches and a small dent in the rear panel, no cracks or pitting in the glass. She glanced at the nearest house. An old man was watching her from a verandah chair.
Leah got back into the Kingswood and drove it into the first side street. Five doors down she found a house with a For Sale sign staked in the blighted front lawn. The place looked empty, neglected, empty soft-drink cans and scraps of paper and plastic collecting along the front fence and caught here and there in the grass around dead and dying shrubs. She parked in the open carport at the side of the house, yanked out the For Sale sign and shoved it under the car.
Then she opened Tess’s door. Come on.
Yeah, right, I just automatically do everything you tell me to do.
Leah said patiently, I’m glad you spotted that old panel van back there. It could save our necks. All we have to do now is spin a good story.
Somewhat mollified, Tess accompanied her back to the main street and the white panel van. They walked around it and a minute later the old man joined them.
Love, I havent got time for tyre kickers.
Leah shook her head. Ive been after one of these.
Tess swung into action. Youve taken good care of it.
The old man jerked his head in acknowledgment. Ive had the old girl for twenty-five years, regularly serviced, never any heavy carrying, just mailbags.
Yep. I delivered to all the outlying farms.
Getting too old.
Engine? Leah said. Gearbox, differential?
New engine about four years ago, reconditioned gearbox and diff about three years ago, new brakes last year, recently serviced. A good radio-cassette player no CD, sorry. And you have to admit the price is good. Id have sold her by now if it wasn’t for the flaming drought, although I have to advise you, a young mechanic is interested.
Leah doubted that, but wasn’t about to challenge the old guy and make herself more memorable to him. Id like a test drive.
The old man shot her a keen look. Didnt I see you just now in a Kingswood?
Oh, thats a friends car, she said.
He cocked his head as if to say, So?
Weve just rented that house around the corner.
The old man waited.
I’m a new teacher at the high school, Leah said, hoping that there was a high school.
She saw the old man relax a little, and went on: A friend loaned us the Kingswood so we could move out here
And now you’re getting a pay cheque, you want a car of your own.
His amused but keen gaze switched to Tess, who said, I’m her sister.
He seemed to abandon his scrutiny and fished in his pocket, bringing out an ignition key. Take her for a good spin if you like. But maybe if you could leave me your license for security?
Better still, Tess said, moving close to the old man, who seemed to blush and find her bewitching, why don’t I stay and keep you company?
He grinned. Right you are. If your sister doesn’t come back I can always sell you to the white slave trade or set you to work in my kitchen.
Tess poked him. He giggled. Leah smiled and drove off in the panel van.
Ten minutes later she was saying to the old man, Drives well. Why are you selling?
I told you, too old to deliver mail any more.
But not too old to drive?
Its me eyes and me age and me kids, all conspiring against me.
Leah nodded. She liked the man and felt sorry for him. But meanwhile she had to stay in character. He would expect her to make a bid. Two thousand dollars, she said. Cash.
He pursed his lips. Twenty-four hundred.
A minute later they agreed on $2250. I cant accept a personal cheque, you know. No offense, the old man said.
Cash, Leah said, turning away from him and extracting the money. I went to the bank this morning, she explained, turning back to him. We were going to do the rounds of all the car yards this afternoon. I don’t usually carry this much cash around.
Apparently satisfied, he said, Ill do you a receipt.
Leah had no use for a receipt but didn’t want to raise the old mans suspicions. Thanks, she said, giving a false name and address.
He wrote in laborious capitals on a sheet of note-paper. You’ll hand in all the forms?
I promise, Leah said, conscious that Tess was smirking at her.
The transaction completed, Leah and Tess drove down the street and into the side street, aware that the man was watching and waving goodbye. Leah braked outside the empty house. We wipe our prints off the Kingswood.
Tess rolled her eyes.
You wouldn’t survive five minutes without me, Leah snapped, feeling mean and small.
To mend bridges, Leah said, I was very impressed with the way you handled that old guy back there.
But Tess did help and five minutes later they were driving further down the side street and onto a cross street. Back into the wide open spaces, Tess said.
Ive been thinking about that.
I bet you have, Tess muttered.
Whoever is chasing you, whoever is chasing me, will expect us to put in huge distances. They’re not expecting us to stay inside the general area.
Tess had a mobile face. It readily expressed all of her emotions, but displeasure seemed to be her normal condition. Yeah, right, in a motel where they can find us, or do you intend to luck out on another empty flat?
A bed-and-breakfast would be good, Leah said.
Shed seen signs for them. Apparently there was a deep gorge and watercourse east of the town, and some of the locals were making a buck out of the tourist trade.
Tess folded her arms stubbornly. I want a place with air-con. I’m sick of this heat.
Leah wondered if she should simply dump the girl and move on. Head north to Queensland or north west to Darwin. Tess was an absolute pain, a real burden. But Tess was sixteen. Shed never make it alone, Leah thought, remembering herself at sixteen, how little shed known.
I cant guarantee air-con.
Yeah, yeah. Look, I need tampons and stuff. Theres a shopping-centre on the edge of this dump.
How do you know that?
We came through here on a school camp once, Tess said vaguely.
Leah didn’t pursue it. She drove for some distance along the street parallel to the main road, and then turned right, joining the main road at the edge of the town, and saw the shopping-centre, just as Tess had stated. Leah badly wanted to get out of the town, but it made sense to stock up on supplies. A newspaper, for a start, and she hadn’t found any decent backpacks or sleeping-bags in Prospect. In the carpark of the shopping-centre she said, Well split up, that will be quicker. Ill meet you at the entrance in thirty minutes, okay?
Tess hoisted the leather daypack over her shoulder and hurried toward the main doors, saying, I’m busting. Leah followed, strolling unconcernedly but alert for the Range Rover or anything else that didn’t belong in this corner of globe.
Then she was inside. There was no sign of Tess. The shopping-centre was laid out like wheel spokes radiating from a central hub. It looked, smelt and sounded like any shopping-centre anywhere in the Western world. She bought a newspaper and rolls and mineral water for lunch, then found a well-stocked camping store.
And just as she was paying for a new pack and sleeping-bag, she saw Tess. Tess spotted her at the same instant and spoke urgently to the young man with her. Tess slapped him on the back and waved cheerily as she walked away from him. He looked to be in his early twenties, dressed in an elegant black shirt, dark trousers and shiny black shoes, hair short and tipped with blonde highlights, a small ring in one ear. He glanced once at Leah and turned away and she lost him amongst the shoppers.
Whos the boyfriend? demanded Leah a few seconds later.
Him? Tess looked flushed. Oh, thats the brother of a kid at school. Hes got the music shop.
Bit of a coincidence.
What do you mean?
Running into the brother of someone you go to school with. Here, of all places.
Tess shrugged. Come on, lets go.
Leah sighed. Leave it until another time, she thought. Whats in the shopping-bags?
Tess showed her. Leah frowned, trying to get a handle on Tess. A couple of glossy magazines, a lipstick, chewing-gum, postcards.
Ditch the postcards, Tess.
I knew you’d say that.
There was also a Paul Kelly cassette. Good choice.
Tess shrugged. He sings about solitary people and places, just right for the road.
It was a perceptive comment. They walked to the main exit, Leah wondering how long they had before it all went wrong again.
Van Wyk didn’t want the client to know which motel he was staying in and refused to let the client nominate the meeting place. These were basic precautions, as necessary to van Wyk as breathing. So he suggested a cheap motel on the Nepean Highway in Highton and arrived an hour before the meeting. This was also precautionary. If the client was part of a sting then the place would be crammed with coppers posing as guests, reservation clerks, gardeners and delivery drivers in vans parked in the street outside the motel. If there was a contract out on him for any reason, then he wanted to know in advance if he was walking into an ambush.
He watched from a takeaway joint across the street from the motel. It was a sterile place, solitary diners at many of the tables, so nobody looked twice at him. He chewed a few french fries, took a couple of bites from a pile of chicken nuggetshed never tasted anything less like chickenand sipped a Coke slushy with ice. Van Wyk saw a delivery van stop long enough to toss a bundle of newspapers to the ground. A handful of guests left in ones and twos, some wearing suits, as if going off to meetings, some in T-shirts and jeans and carrying daypacks and cameras. A desk clerk loitered outside, pulling hungrily on a cigarette. An elderly man appeared with clippers and snipped at a fraying hedge for twenty minutes. Otherwise there was no apparent danger to van Wyk, and he began to relax.
Then a man carrying a briefcase got out of a taxi and walked along the row of rooms facing the street and tapped on the door at the end. Van Wyk wiped his fingers and left the restaurant and sauntered across the road, one hand against his chest, ready to pull the .22 in the holster under his arm. He never used the same gun twice. This pistol had been stolen from the secretary of a Sydney gun club.
He came up behind the client and said, I have a key, startling the man.
They went in. Van Wyk crossed immediately to the bed and sat facing the window, obliging the client to sit in the chair beside the window in order to face him. He put the .22 beside him on the bedspread, a way of cutting through the crap, of focusing the client.
You have photos?
The client opened the briefcase, van Wyk going tense and placing his hands on the .22. Take your hands out, turn the briefcase around very slowly so I can see in.
The client obliged.
Van Wyk peered into the briefcase. Photographs and a couple of sheets of typed notes. Van Wyk plucked them out, spread the photographs across the bedspread, and scanned the notes. He looked up. I trust youve deleted the file?
Where is she?
Somewhere in the bush, out west.
Not in the city?
So I’m just supposed to find her and kill her, somewhere way out in the bush. Van Wyk shook his head in disgust. He couldn’t see this as an easy, up-close hit, somehow. Maybe he would need a sniping rifle after all. Where, exactly?
Look, its all taken care of, I get updated every hour or two. Ill let you know when shes been eyeballed.
No names, van Wyk warned the client. When we speak on the phone, youll say something like The goods are on the road between X and Y, okay?
If you like.
Van Wyk stared at the client in distaste. Yes, I do like, I like very much, understood?
Okay, okay, Ill do it your way. Just so long as theres no comeback for me.
Mister, I know where you live. All youve got on me is the number of a message service. You don’t even know what city I live in.
The client swallowed. So, I ring you here, at the motel?
Use the same message service. Ill be calling in every couple of hours from public phones, providing I find them, out there in the bush.
Why don’t you use a mobile, like everyone else?
Mobiles can be traced, said van Wyk simply.
I want her disappeared permanently, the client said. If thats not possible, make it look like an accident, she got hit by a car, took an overdose, or at least like a random, spontaneous killing, like she ran into the wrong people.
Van Wyk stared coldly at the client, not liking the way this hit had suddenly become messy and complicated.
She was in a land of four-wheel drives, big dusty farmers and tradesmens vehicles, so there was nothing novel about seeing a Range Rover in the shopping-centre carpark, but Leah, with her nerves finely tuned, recognised this Range Rover. She noted the dented front bumper, lack of country road dust, and the two men just now stepping out of it, last seen at the crash barrier above the burning Monaro.
How had they found their way to Leighton Wells so quickly? She stopped just outside the sliding doors, clamped her fingers around Tess’s arm and edged Tess to one side until a concrete support column concealed them. Weve got company, she murmured.
Tess froze, began to look around wildly, so Leah strengthened her grip. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Turn you eyes to the right. See the Range Rover on the other side of that row of charity bins?
Tess, look at me. Are they your brothers?
What do you mean, not exactly? Either they are, or they arent.
I mean, my father must have hired a private detective to find me, like you said.
Leah shook her head in exasperation. No time to deal with Tess’s evasions now. She grabbed an empty trolley and dumped her jacket and shopping-bags in it. Were going to casually wheel this trolley to the car as if were close friends or sisters having a natter and helping each other with the shopping, okay?
Tess bit her lip, nodded, seemed as tightly wound as a spring. Her knuckles on the ubiquitous leather day-pack were white as Leah guided her by the elbow out of the alcove in front of the sliding doors. Leah watched the two men from the corners of her eyes. Both wore jeans, T-shirts and trainers, and had shaved heads. It was like a uniform. But one man sported a bushy moustache and the other a tattoo on his forearm. That was sufficient for Leah to recognise them in any crowd. She saw them split up, Moustache heading toward the main entrance, Tatts toward the side of the building, presumably to another entrance. Leah supposed there was also a back way out, leading to loading bays and rubbish skips, and she considered re-entering the shopping-centre. But that would attract attention, and the rear of the building offered only one way out, so she kept walking, Tess close beside her, gripping the handle of the trolley.
Talk to me, she ordered.
Tess was flustered. What about?
Anything, so long as we look natural.
They walked on. Sometimes they bumped hips. Their progress and their attempts at conversation were stiff and clumsy. And then Tess glanced toward the men. That was enough to betray them, for Leah heard a shout and the slap of running feet.
Go! she yelled, sending the trolley toward Moustache, grabbing Tess by the hand and streaking toward the car. Behind them Moustache cursed and there was a metallic clang and a meaty thud, as though hed fallen to the ground. He called out to Tatts, who was closing in fast on their right, Forget about me, get the sheila.
But which sheila? Leah wondered. A couple of seconds, thats all she wanted. She reached the panel van with Tess, bundled her in through the drivers door, slid in after her. She ground the starter, crashed the gears and reversed out of the parking bay as Tatts reached Tess’s door. Tess yelped. Tatts had her door open now. Leah braked, accelerated, braked again, throwing him off, then headed for the exit. She checked the mirror. A Magna festooned with aerials was entering the carpark, braking suddenly to avoid running over Moustache, who’d knocked the shopping trolley to the ground and was groggily getting to his feet, angrily booting Leah’s new sleeping-bag out of his way. Leah saw the driver of the Magna open his door as if to offer help, but the exit was coming up fast and she switched her attention to the traffic on the highway. When the road was clear, she pushed her foot to the floor, the old car protesting around her.
Tess had the daypack in her lap, both arms around it protectively, her face pale and aggrieved, as if to say, Its not fair. Leah glanced at the road ahead, the rearview mirror, the daypack again.
Some pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
Private detectives? Maybe. Books and movies glamorise the private eye. He (it was usually a he) was tough, smart, streetwise, ultimately successful where the police were incompetent or corrupt. He operated on the margins of what was legal and respectable, but that was okay, for he did what he had to do to cut through the bullshit and get at the truth.
Leah knew that it wasn’t like that for real private eyes. They were bound by strict regulations and faced a daily grind of lies, evasions, wasted time, belligerent or violent witnesses, wrongly transcribed phone numbers and non-existent addresses.
Like the police, Leah thought.
But there were cowboys in the profession, not averse to theft, industrial espionage, offering bribes, passing prosecution secrets to defence lawyers, even hiring themselves out as hitmen.
Was that who these guys were?
Van Wyk chose a big Yamaha for the hunt, the bike giving him speed and flexibility. He wore leathers and carried a small pack with a tent and sleeping-mat, and the clients first message had taken him to the town of Prospect, way out in the west of the state. When van Wyk was finished there he coasted to a stop on the forecourt of a service station, propped the bike on its stand and went in and called his message service again, idly watching a couple of young guys who were eyeing the Yamaha. The road west stretched empty across a red dirt plain. Good, there was a message: Call your client. Van Wyk dialledthe guys fixed phone, not his mobileand said, What have you got for me?
Ive just had word, the client said, and went on to tell van Wyk that the target had been locatedexcept he almost said the targets name before he could stop himself. Sometimes van Wyk wanted to sit his clients down and slap them about the face and demand to know how serious they were. Emotions don’t come into it when the decisions been made, he wanted to say. Names are personal things, they denote feelings. My job is impersonal. I hit targets.
Plus, the wrong people might be listening in.
When and where?
Ten minutes ago, a Coles Supermarket carpark in Leighton Wells.
Is she still there?
No. Shes with another woman, theyre driving a white 1970s Holden panel van, heading west along the Borung Highway.
Did your man make contact?
What do you mean, not exactly?
Theres another player involved.
Don’t stuff around. Spit it out.
Two other players, to be exact. They tried to jump the target and her friend in the carpark but they got away.
Your man saw it?
Who are they?
Don’t know. They headed after the panel van in a black Range Rover. My guy ran the plates: they belong to a Volvo station wagon.
Are you sure theyre not after the other woman? Do we know anything about her?
Wheres your man now?
Somewhere behind them.
Keep me informed, van Wyk said, breaking the connection.
He bought muesli bars for the hunt. Outside he agreed with the young guys that yeah, it was a cool bike.
Fifteen minutes on the other side of Leighton Wells, Leah and Tess came to a sign bolted to a fencepost: Ingleside Bed and Breakfast 5km, and a bold red arrow. Leah turned off and they found themselves on a well-maintained side road that led toward the foothills of a small, grassy range blotted here and there with lonely stone reefs and the ashen tree trunks left by some long-ago bushfire. A few minutes later, they came to a dam, a barn and a signposted track: Ingleside 1 km. The track wound along a cypress avenue, opening onto a shrubbery, a sloping lawn and a stone cottage with a bright red door, flower boxes, curtains, a TV antenna, a satellite dish. Leah drove on, following arrows past sheds, stockyards and a dense stand of fruit trees, coming eventually to a large stone farmhouse. As she pulled up between a sundial and a set of concrete steps to the main house, a man in khaki work clothes stepped out onto the verandah. Leah called through her open window, Do you have a vacancy?
He had a wry, weather-beaten face. We do.
I’m sorry we didn’t phone you first. We just happened to see the sign and thought a bed-and-breakfast would make a nice change from a motel.
Travelling around, are you?
He nodded, smiling pleasantly, tiredly. Theres only one problem. Normally a gourmet dinner is part of the deal, but the wife and I have to go out tonight, and its too late in the day for her to start cooking. We wont be back till after midnight.
Leah smiled at him. Thats okay.
But Ill check with the chief cook-and-bottle washer. She could have something in the freezer that you can heat up.
That would be fine.
Ill have to ask for payment now, you understand.
Of course. Leah paid, and again found herself giving a false name and address.
The farmer scribbled her a receipt, noted the registration number of the panel van, and handed her a key. Here you go. Settle yourselves in. Ill be along directly.
Leah parked next to the cottage and they got out. It was late afternoon now, the air crisp and scented by gumtrees, dusty grasses, diesel fuel, horses in a nearby yard.
Tess stopped for a moment to look out over the valley and the lengthening shadows. A good place to chill out, she said.
Leah glanced at her. Tess seemed smaller, more vulnerable, less bratty and petulant. Leah hugged her briefly. You can have the room with a view.
As if touched by the antic spirits of kids arriving at a beach house, they trooped into the cottage, hungry for experiences. There were two bedrooms, a well-appointed kitchen and bathroom, a sitting-room with a luxurious sofa and matching armchairs, coffee table, TV and DVD.
Leah showered and changed into jeans and a T-shirt. Shed been carrying the clothes in a shopping-bag since Prospect and shook them out first, thinking: So much for buying a new backpack. For all she knew, it was still lying on the ground outside the supermarket in Leighton Wells.
At 6.30 the farmer knocked on their door with a covered tray. One beef Wellington, one chicken curry, take your pick. Its the wifes cooking, mind you, restaurant quality. Theyll thaw in the microwave.
Tess gave him a delighted smile. Thank you.
The wife and Ill be off now. Youll be okay? Got everything? Theres bread, croissants, butter and milk in the fridge, tea, coffee, jam, Vegemite, cereals etcetera in the pantry.
We found them, Tess said, still smiling.
The farmer winked. Well, see you in the morning then.
Ten minutes later he was back, shyly offering them a bottle. To make up for the frozen dinners.
Leah was touched. Thank you.
Heres my mobile number if anything goes wrong. Bushfire, bushrangers…
Youve got the idea.
When he was gone and the farmyard was quiet they microwaved the frozen meals, heaped the food onto plates and settled onto the verandah. The sun was low, the shallow valley below them striped and stippled by light and shade. There was no wind, only birds settling in the trees and the rubbery snort of the horses behind a tractor shed. Cars crawled across the valley floor, headlights probing the half-light here and there. They heard the distant snarl of a motorbike, and the rumble of an airliner thousands of metres above their heads.
Tess toasted Leah with her glass. To us.
To us, Leah responded, adding, Tell me about the drugs.
Tess went very still. What drugs?
Leah indicated the little daypack at Tess’s feet. The drugs that didn’t burn up in Mitchs car. The drugs in your bag. The bag you wont be parted with. The bag you even took to the shower with you a little while ago.
Tess reached for the pack, swung it onto her lap, clutched it tightly. You mean you wanted to search my bag? What a bitch.
Don’t give me that indignation routine, it wont wash. So, what have you got in there? Coke? Weed? Ecstasy? Speed? A bit of everything?
Tess clasped the bag tighter. Why don’t you leave me alone.
All this time I thought it was me those guys were after, but its you, isnt it?
Tess shook her head, a look stubborn and mulish on her face. Don’t know what you mean.
Or rather, they were after Mitch, who’d ripped them off, but now hes dead, so theyre after you.
This time Tess tried to work an expression of outrage and grief onto her face. I loved Mitch. He was the best thing that ever happened to me, and here you are, attacking him when hes dead and cant defend himself. What a bitch.
Leah ignored her. How did it work? Mitch dealt to the kids at your school, but he was also a courier, am I right? He made deliveries out here, the western areas of the state? Had a regular runwhat, once a month, twice a month? Regular customers, regular drop-off points?
Youre dreaming, Tess said. Why don’t you get a life and stop talking dirt about Mitch.
Leah leaned forward, her face hawkish in the light of the candle. So what did our hero do, Tess? Decided to rip off the big boys? Thought hed make his regular run, only not go back with the money but take off into the sunset with you at his side? How romantic
Tess snapped. Shut up. Just you shut up. It wasn’t like that.
How was it, then? Enlighten me.
But Tess was mute.
Leah waited. Eventually she said, as the darkness crept over the farm buildings and the bulky shapes altered, blurring into the greater darkness, But thats only half the story, isnt that right, Tess? When Mitch was killed you thought youd take over the distribution, keep all that cash for yourself.
Leah thought back to the murder of Mitch, and how quickly Tess had recovered. Clearly shed sampled some of her own merchandise, to save from falling in a heap. Leah almost felt pity for the girl.
But she kept pushing. So much for the grief-stricken girlfriend. It was greed, pure and simple.
Tess let go of the leather pack for the first time and put her head in her hands. She said something, her voice muffled by her hands, distorted by sobbing.
Leah said sharply, Speak up, I cant hear you.
Tess raised a suffering face and wailed, You don’t know what its like.
Leah was determined to be unimpressed. So, tell me.
You don’t know what its like for me.
Yes I do. Poor little rich girl. No one loves you. No one cares. So you go off the rails. A cry for help. Poor baby.
Leah was being deliberately harsh. Tess’s self-destructive behaviour probably was a cry for help. But Tess was also a spoilt child, so she was apt to be evasive, to shift blame, to avoid facing up to who she was and what shed done. Leah watched Tess collapse, thoroughly wracked with sobbing now. She waited. She waited for five minutes before the girl grew calmer.
Start at the beginning. Mitch supplied the girls at your school, you got involved with him, maybe you were his go-between. Then heor both of youconcocted this plan to rip off the people he worked for. How am I doing so far? It went wrong and they came after you. Hes dead, so now theyre out to get you.
Thats not the beginning, Tess protested. It starts long before
Leah ignored her. Youve been supplying the local dealers ever since I hooked up with you, havent you? Either you’re familiar with the network or there was a list of contact phone numbers with the drugs. That guy at the flats in Prospect, the guy in the shopping-centre this afternoon. They were Mitchs customers, right?
Tess shrugged miserably. So what? What do you care?
How much money have you made?
In a small voice, Tess said, Fourteen thousand.
Is there any of the gear left?
A bit, Tess said. Then she seemed to muster a semblance of dignity and determination as insects flicked about the candle, attracted by the flame. Why don’t you listen? Youre just like all the others.
Leah blinked. Sorry?
You told me to start at the beginning, but wouldn’t let me even start. You just want to know about me and Mitch and a few pills. None of thats relevant.
It is if you’ve got gunmen after you. What do they want the drugs? The money? Revenge?
Tess’s fists clenched and she pounded them on her knees. Why aren’t you listening? No one ever listens to me.
Okay, try me.
There was a considering pause, then Tess began. I loved my father, she said slowly. Thats the real beginning. He would have protected me. He was the most fantastic dad, then he died.
She swallowed a couple of times. Hed already been married before. His first wife was killed in an accident. Theyd had a son, Ian, my half-brother, who was about four when my father married my mother. I was born soon after. I was never really close to Ian, and hed always say to Mum, Youre not my real mother. Sometimes I feel like that, too. She and I fight all the time.
When Dad died she married again. Two years ago. Dad hadn’t even been dead a year.
Leah went cold. Has your stepfather been
Tess looked at her knowingly. Yeah, well, he is a bit of a sleaze, though hes never touched me.
Ian? Ive always adored him. You know, this gorgeous older brother, a bit wild when he was growing up, probably because he hated it when Dad married again and gave him a new mother and baby sister he didn’t want. She smiled sadly. He left home as soon as he could, went to uni, started making money buying and selling shares online, always got these beautiful girls hanging off his arm.
Leah was frustrated. What had all this to do with Tess’s running away and being followed? There had to be more. But Tess went on, Anyway, I don’t care about my family; in five years Ill be independent of them. When I turn twenty-one I can tell them all to get stuffed.
Tess, you don’t have to wait till then. If you’re sixteen and can show the authorities that you
Oh, I know all that, Tess said scornfully. What I mean is, my dad set up this trust fund for me. No one can touch that money, and it all comes to me when I’m twenty-one, so they can all go to hell.
Leah sat back in distaste. So you talked Mitch into the rip-off, right? Get yourself some running-away money, set yourself up somewhere until you get rich legally? Nice one.
Tess wouldn’t look at her. Leah pushed on. What were you going to do? Dump the poor guy once your trust money came in? Dump him once youd sold all the drugs?
No! I loved him!
Leah sighed. Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Another question: what does your mother think of this trust fund?
Pissed off, thinks of it as rightfully hers, not mine and Ians.
The trust funds for both of you?
Separate trust funds. Ians twenty-one, so hes already cashed in.
The story still seemed weak and unconvincing to Leah. There was a trigger somewhere, one strong enough to make Tess run. So you go on this crime spree because your mum didn’t wait for a decent interval before marrying again, is that what this all boils down to?
I cant stand my school. I’m always getting into trouble. They hate me there. I’m way behind, Ive failed everything, whats the point?
Maybe so, but thats not enough, Tess.
Tess was biting her nails. Theres this teacher, she muttered finally.
A teacher was mean to you? Gave you detention? Big deal.
Tess took a ravaged finger from her mouth. What would you know, Miss Perfect?
Tess, tell me what the matter is.
His names Mr Vale. I had him at my last school, no, the one before last, the school where I did Years 7 and 8. Swimming coach. I reported him then and I reported him again last week, but no one listens.
Do you even care? At my old school he was always touching me and stuff, when I had my bathers on. I couldn’t believe it when he turned up at Penleigh.
Maybe there’d been complaints, Leah thought, and the school had quietly encouraged Vale to move on rather than take action against him. She shrugged inwardly. That had happened with priests in some parishes. Who did you report him to?
My mother, but she was too busy running around trying to find another husband. Plus I was always in trouble about something, you know. She was used to that.
Leah nodded. She herself had always been a handful for her elderly parents. What happened at Penleigh?
Tess squirmed in her seat. I was better at avoiding him, you know, being older and everything, but last Friday morning he cornered me when I was training. I used to swim every morning at six o’clock when I had the pool to myself. He made me touch his thing and showed me these gross pictures he’d downloaded.
Tess was rocking a little, her arms wrapped tightly about herself.
Who’d you report him to?
Dr Heyward, the principal.
All shes interested in is the public image of the school, stupid cow.
Leah tried to picture the scene: a high-powered principal, intimidating and no doubt concerned with the image of her high-powered school, trying to gauge whether or not a chronic troublemaker was simply trying to make more mischief. Tess, no school principal is going to ignore that kind of thing, not these days.
What would you know?
Did you tell your mum this time?
You must be joking.
What about the police?
Yeah, right, like anyone would believe me. I got done for shoplifting last year.
Did you tell this Vale character you’d reported him?
I’m not stupid. The principal must have told him there’d been a complaint, because he got me into this corner and said stop making waves, no one would believe me because I was a known troublemaker and expelled from two other schools. I was just garbage as far as he was concerned. He said he had money and powerful friends, and it was his word against mine.
So you ran away because no one listened. I can see how that
I ran away, Tess said, because he threatened to kill me.
Kill you, said Leah flatly, registering her doubt.
Tess stormed at her. Thats exactly what he said. He meant it.
Okay, okay. So you ran away from school. Why not simply go home? Why hook up with Mitch and bring all that trouble down on yourself?
Mitch never judged me like you’re doing, like everyone else in my life.
You could have tried explaining things to your parents, to your mother at least.
Yeah, well shes overseas, isn’t she? Shes never been around for me.
Where is she?
India, for two years. My stepfathers the High Commissioner, okay? Thats why I’m a boarder.
Ian? Id just be an annoyance. He spends all day online, trading shares and gambling.
Leah stared out at the tricky night. A chilly wind had picked up in the past thirty minutes. The candle flame bent and guttered. She glanced at her watch: ten oclock.
We should get some sleep, she said, and have an early start in the morning. A rule of thumb is the bad guys always sleep in.
That earned her a grateful half-smile from Tess. Leah leant forward and touched her wrist. Which room to you want?
Can we share?
In one room there was a queen-size bed; three singles were in the other. It was clear to Leah that Tess wanted the security of sharing the room with her but, in truth, Leah herself wanted the comfort of sharing with Tess. Everyone wins, she thought.
* * *
Something woke her: a drifting odour, a small sound, a subtle realignment of the air molecules-something. She glanced at the red numerals of the digital clock beside her bed: 4:02. Two hours before dawn.
Then she heard a distant shout, sounds of effort and strife.
Leah rolled out of bed, crossed the room and placed her hand over Tess’s mouth. Tess woke immediately, ready to thrash about to free herself, until Leah whispered, Shhh. Its me. Somethings going on.
Tess relaxed, tried to speak. What? she whispered, when Leah had removed her hand.
Someones out there. Get dressed.
Are we leaving?
What do you mean, soon?
Shhh. I need to check outside. I want you dressed and ready to go.
Moonlight was leaking into the room and Leah’s eyes were adjusting to the dimness. She saw the fear in Tess’s face and said, Its okay, Ill be careful. I just don’t want us walking out into a trap. I need to know if the car is secure, for example.
Youll come back for me?
Leah was pulling on her jeans. Yes.
Hysteria rose in Tess’s voice. But what if you don’t?
I promise, Ill be careful and Ill come back for you.
Do I wait in here? Tess asked, hunched in misery.
Leah pushed both feet into her trainers. Movement gave her time to think. Where could Tess hide? She glanced around the room. There was a massive, ancient wardrobe in the room, the false faade above the double doors effectively concealing a storage space for suitcases. A minute later she had hoisted Tess into the gap, saying, Lie curled up on your side. A cloud of dust puffed out. Leah sneezed.
Bless you, Tess said, in a small, lost voice.
Thanks. Now, try not to worry. Ill come back, I promise, but if something goes wrong then stay where you are until you hear friendly voices, like the farmer or the police. If its anyone else, lie still and don’t make a sound.
Leah left before Tess could protest. She slipped out of the bathroom window and ran half-crouched to the panel van. She locked it, first checking that no one was concealed inside. Then she ran to a corrugated-iron water tank on a stand constructed out of railway sleepers. Here it was quiet and cool. The wind had dropped, and for the next three minutes she listened intently and tried to pinpoint fugitive odours in the still air. Shed soon know if anyone nearby smoked, sweated, chewed gum or was wearing insect repellent, deodorant or aftershave.
Then she heard the tinkle of car keys, the soft brushing of a sleeve or trouser leg, the minute crackle of a foot falling on dry grass. She concentrated. Someone was down on the long slope of bushes, shrubs and ornamental trees beneath the cottage. She unfolded the main blade of her Swiss Army knife and set out to investigate.
It was not dawn but the forerunner of it, a queer half-light that teased and distorted. Leah could see trees but not the branches and twigs that scraped her face as she crossed the dying lawn. She could see her thighs but not her feet, only a variegated greyness that was the treacherous ground beneath her. And so she tripped over the body beside the wattle tree.
She fell heavily, scraping one knee and skinning the palms of her hands. She lost the knife. Down here at ground level she had no trouble identifying the obstacle as a body. Even when shed tripped she knew shed hit something far softer than a log of wood. Now she could see the legs, the pelvis, the upper body, the head. She touched the mans neck. There was no pulse, only stickiness. Her fingers probed, then jerked back. Hed been shot in the forehead.
It wasn’t the farmer, so who was he?
And she hadn’t heard the shot, which meant a pistol fitted with a silencer.
Who would have a gun like that?
And where was the killer?
Feeling nauseated, she searched the mans pockets. Nothing. She knew that if she had a police team here she could do something with his fingerprints and dental records, even his clothing labels, but she was alone, and being hunted, so contented herself with stripping off the dead mans wristwatch and pocketing it.
Suddenly she was bathed in light. She flinched, ducked, scrabbled toward darkness. A motorbike headlight. The bike was propped on its stand under the fronds of an umbrella tree. The man who’d switched on the light stepped away from the bike and held up one hand. Its all right, no need to be afraid, I—
But as Leah took in the thin face, floppy pale hair, lean frame and casual clothing, she also registered the pistol.
She darted around the wattle tree and ran.
Dawn light was leaking into the sky as they accelerated away from the cottage. Leah pushed hard, negotiating farmyard potholes and corrugations that jarred the steering-wheel, sending shocks into her wrists and forearms. Once or twice the panel van fishtailed in loose gravel and she was hoping they wouldn’t hit a kangaroo appearing for its dawn feed. Then they were through the gate and on the dirt back road, tyres scrabbling, kicking up dust. She figured that speed was their only defense if the killer was still around.
Do you think the farmer heard us? Tess asked.
I doubt it. The cottage is pretty secluded.
But hell find the body eventually, Tess said.
Hell call the police.
Tess fell silent again.
Leah was thinking. Who, exactly, had been the target this time? Me, she decided. They must want me very badly. Who was the man with the gun? Cop, or a friend of a cop ? Leah knew plenty of police officers who owned motorbikes; in her view, biker cops and the Hells Angels were different faces of the same coin. So, a cop, ex-cop, or hired gun? A lot of trouble to go to.
Then Tess asked the question that shed been asking herself: How did they find us?
Exactly, Leah said. We’ve changed vehicles, outrun them, holed up somewhere off the beaten track. Did you make any calls from the cottage?
Tess looked out of her window. What do you take me for?
A liar, Leah thought. They were approaching the intersection with the main road they’d traveled on yesterday. Leah could see a lonely truck, its headlights and sidelights illuminating the hazy dawn. She glanced in the side mirror, half-expecting to see headlights coming up fast from the rear. Tess saw her doing it and gasped.
Is there someone behind us?
She knew it didn’t mean anything. The light was tricky: bright enough to drive by, murky enough to conceal. She braked at the intersection and then pulled out onto the highway, accelerating hard toward the west. There were bars of morning sunlight now, fog wisps above dams, tricky shadows, and once a trotting fox with a rabbit in its jaws. Leah stared moodily at the road ahead, occasionally glancing at the rearview mirror. There was very little traffic.
Then, an hour later, there was a Range Rover filling the mirror.
Tess had propped her bare feet on the dash and was dozing, but now she swung her feet to the floor and craned her neck to see. Oh no, she whimpered.
Put your shoes on.
Because this could get wild, and we might have to run for it.
Tess let go of the daypack, leaned forward and reached down with both hands to slip her shoes on. Thats when Leah snatched the daypack.
No! Tess wailed.
Leah fended her off easily. She could hear and feel the rattle of pills, some in bottles, others in small congregations that suggested ziplock plastic bags. Tess was reaching for the pack, her face distorted. You cant!
Yes I can, Leah said, winding down her window and tossing the pack onto the road. She saw it recede in the mirror, a flat black shape like roadkill behind them. She saw smoking tyres as the Range Rover braked, and then the passenger Moustache was out of his door.
Good, they’ve stopped to pick it up.
Tess was screaming, You know what you’ve done? You’ve thrown away fourteen thousand bucks cash and another fifteen thousand in gear, stupid bitch.
Leah was about to reply that shed thrown away thousands of dollars worth of trouble, thinking that Moustache and Tatts were finished with them now, when she saw the Range Rover again, coming up hard behind. All of the details clarified in the mirror: the menacing snout of the Range Rover, the tinted glass like banded eyes, the barrel of a shotgun poking through the side window.
What? said Tess sulkily.
They picked up the bag, but evidently they still want you.
Tess curled into a ball in her seat. Go faster.
I’m trying to.
It was no good, the Range Rover was too powerful. Leah braked suddenly, hoping it would flash past, but the other driver anticipated, braking too, then veering sharply, the bullbar slamming into Leah’s door. She lost control, the steering-wheel wrenching with a force that numbed her wrists, the vehicle going into a skid that turned into a roll. Her seatbelt snapped and she could do nothing as she tumbled about the interior like a sodden towel in a dryer. Her head smacked the mirror, her foot Tess’s shoulder. And then they were sliding along on the roof, the metal shrieking on the surface of the road, before settling in a culvert. Leah found herself on her side, staring out of the side window at the teeth of a broken beer bottle in the roadside grass.
Tess was screaming somewhere above her. Get me down.
Leah untangled herself, got a shoulder beneath Tess, unclipped her seatbelt and lowered her. She kicked at the passenger side door and it opened tortuously, metal grinding against metal, until they could step out onto gravel and weeds.
The Range Rover was there idling, watching, the morning sun at a shallow angle behind it. Otherwise the world seemed empty, flat and limitless. Hot metal ticked as it cooled and, thinking of spilt fuel and fire, Leah took Tess by the arm and moved her away from the panel van, ten metres, twenty, thirty, all the while watching the Range Rover, until Tatts lowered his window and called, Thats far enough.
Moustache got out. He carried a double-barreled shotgun. Then Tatts emerged. Both men began to close in, Moustache cracking open the shotgun and feeding a shell into each barrel. Leah tucked Tess behind her back. It was futile, and Tatts laughed.
You’ve got your drugs and money back, Leah said. Leave it at that.
Sorry, no can do.
Leah shook her head in disgust. What is this, some stupid code of honour?
Moustache shrugged. What can I say? Mr Stannage is not a happy boy.
Leah felt a chill. Carl Stannage was major league: drugs, prostitution, protection rackets, insurance scams… She gestured at the vast open sky and deserted farmland. Two armed men against two unarmed women. Yeah, really honourable.
But then the empty landscape wasn’t so empty and she heard the soft growl of approaching tyres, a blue Magna coming in behind the Range Rover. It was fitted with aerials and tinted windows and Leah realised where shed seen it before: the shopping-centre the previous afternoon. The Magna came closer. Tatts and Moustache saw it and Moustache quickly shoved the shotgun in through the open side window of the Range Rover. Tatts gestured, smiling broadly, waving the driver on. Its okay, he called, all under control, no ones hurt.
The Magna idled.
A car appeared from the opposite direction, towing a caravan. The driver slowed. Tatts waved him on, less patient now, more desperate. Its okay, he called, nothing to worry about.
If you’re sure? the driver said.
When the car was gone a truck appeared. Tatts and Moustache waved it on. It was clear they were losing control of the situation, so Leah shouted, Look, its over, okay? Leave us alone. Head on back to Melbourne.
She saw them confer, distractedly waving on a farm pickup and then a school bus. Finally Moustache turned and fixed Leah and Tess with a quivering finger, shouting, If we see you two again, you’re history, understand?
Oh, tough guy, Tess shouted back.
Leah elbowed her. Shut up, for Gods sake.
When the Range Rover was gone, the driver of the Magna emerged. Leah saw a tall, sandy-haired man with a quizzical face. He was casually dressed in trousers and a short-sleeved shirt, a heavy-looking watch on his wrist.
Leah began to back away. I saw you at the cottage this morning. Who are you? What do you want?
He ignored the questions. Why were they waving a shottie at you?
Leah froze. Shottie was a cop word for shotgun. I asked you who you were.
The man held up both hands. He had to shout over the sound of an approaching truck loaded with hay. I tried to tell you earlier but you ran off. I’m a private detective.
Did you shoot that other man?
He was going to kill both of you. Hop in the car and lets get out of here.
But Leah wouldn’t budge. I saw your car in Leighton Wells yesterday. You’ve been following me or us.
The man gestured impatiently at the truck to wave it on. Look, lets get out of here before were knee deep in helpful strangers.
Not till you tell us why you’re following us.
The man sighed. Tess, he said. Following Tess. Ive been hired by her school to bring her back.
He gestured them into the back of the car, saying, Theres no room in the front.
Leah saw that that was true. The front passenger seat and dash area was crowded with a laptop, probably for wireless messaging and making notes, CB radio, mobile phone, police scanner, and three vinyl and hard-shell bags that would probably contain a digital camera, a camcorder and a cassette recorder. The car was also fitted with a satellite navigation system, and an Esky sat in the footwell. There was even a plastic container, mercifully empty. Leah knew from her own experience that surveillance work often meant being cooped up in a car for hours with nowhere to pee. The work of private detectives was mostly routine and boring. They did everyday legwork for lawyers and insurance companies, taking statements, checking records, finding witnesses. They secretly filmed workers compensation claimants and cheating husbands and wives. They spent a large proportion of their time in front of a computer screen or in a car, which was like a mobile office.
The modern detective at work, she said.
The man appeared briefly perplexed, then realized what she was looking at and his face cleared. Yeah.
I’m Leah. You know who Tess is.
He nodded. She waited, watching him start the car, glance in the mirror and accelerate away. Finally she said, Do you have a name?
What? Sure. Theo Reed.
Don’t think Ive ever met a Theo before.
He shrugged, eyes fixed on the road. Guess its not that common.
Have you got ID? You are who you say you are?
In answer he fished inside his jacket, pulled out a thick envelope and passed it over his shoulder to Leah. Inside she found several A4-size pages stapled together. It was a contract between Penleigh Hall Church of England Girls Grammar School and Abbott Investigations Ltd., and countersigned by Dr Susan Heyward for the school and George Abbott for the company.
The school hired you, not the parents? Isn’t that unusual?
Reed shrugged. You’ll have to talk to the office about that.
Leah returned the contract to Reed. George Abbott is your boss?
Are you going to tell him you’ve found Tess?
Already have, said Reed. Text messaged him on the mobile last night, once Id found the cottage, and again just now, before getting out of the car.
Tess seemed agitated. Are you taking me back to school?
I wont go. You cant make me.
Leah joined in. Tess has good reasons not to return to that school.
Theo took his hands off the wheel briefly as if to say, Well, what can I do about it? All I know is what I was hired to do. He paused. Legally the schools got a duty of care. Anyway, shell be safer there than out here with guys trying to kill her.
Leah sat back in her seat and gazed at the endless struggling crops beyond the sagging fencelines. She said, Look, were glad you came along when you did, but much as I hate to say this, its time we involved the police.
No! Tess said.
No, Theo Reed said.
But you shot a guy, Leah said. The farmers probably already found him, and the bike. Hell report it for sure.
Theo turned and flashed her a look before watching the road again. Did you pay cash for the accommodation?
Did you give him your real names?
Of course not.
Is the panel van registered in your name?
Then you have nothing to worry about.
Except a massive manhunt, which is bound to happen if they decide theres a connection between the body and the crashed van. And what if someone saw us get into this car?
They didn’t. The road was clear at that point.
But someone will remember those guys in the Range Rover, and seeing a blue Magna parked nearby.
They’ll remember the Range Rover and those two thugs, thats all. This car is pretty anonymous.
Leah shook her head. She was well acquainted with the flexible standards of private detectives. Many of them were ex-cops, and knew all the tricks. Many of them were crooked. But maybe she and Tess needed a man with Theos standards right now. Hed saved their lives and could take them to safety without involving the police.
The man you shot back at the farm. Who was he?
You followed him?
Kind of. I was following you, and noticed that he was also following you. He didn’t spot me.
Leah thought about that as she watched a phone line dip and rise, dip and rise, between poles alongside the road. Birds on a wire. The dead man was after me, she thought, not Tess. Tess had goons after her, I hador havepissed-off cops.
So it would be wise not to bring in the police.
They rode in silence, lulled by the movement of the car. Tess was biting the inside of her cheek, now and then chewing her nails. She said, Leah, I don’t want to go back.
Leah reached out and folded her hand over Tess’s. I know.
You cant make me.
Well think of something.
You cant make me go back to that place.
Leah felt immensely tired. She felt safe now, but not rested, and knew that nothing was finished until things had been settled for Tessand that meant more work, and time, and concentration, and anxiety.
She stared out of the window, then at the back of Theos head. Theo, who do you report to?
And he informs the school?
Who at the school exactly?
Theo shrugged. Whoever signed the contract, I suppose.
In other words, Dr Heyward, the principal, the woman who didn’t want to believe Tess.
Look, Theo, why don’t you take us to a motel in the city, not the school, not your boss. If someones trying to kill Tess I want to do some digging around before we announce ourselves.
She didn’t think hed buy it, but he shrugged good-naturedly. Sure.
He began to slow the car. Theyd come to an intersection in the middle of a broad plain under the vast sky, nobody and nothing about, only their car, a distant blue mountain range, wheat struggling to grow in red soil, and a couple of stunned crows perched on the rim of a scummy sheep trough. That was the universe. The city was an unimaginable place to Leah just then.
Where are we going? she asked, as Theo turned off the highway.
Short cut, Theo said.
Horsham. Thats where we strike the Western Highway to Melbourne. Check the map if you don’t believe me.
It was a fast dirt road, that was something in its favour. The big car floated above the corrugations. Soon the other road was far behind them and they were surrounded entirely by failing crops on low hills stitched together by dry creek beds, tired fences and sheep pads. Tess fell asleep. Leah’s eyes grew heavy.
She shifted position. Something was digging into her. She frowned. The dead mans watch. She dug one finger into her hip pocket to fish it out.
But just then Theo seemed to be fighting the steering-wheel. The car was swerving in the powdery dirt and gravel at the side of the road. She ignored it at first, trying to retrieve the watch, the steel band catching on the stiff seam of her pocket. Then it was free and she was reading the inscription on the back of the watch, To Theo, from your loving Anna, when the car slowed and carefully pulled over, and Leah heard, Might as well get out and stretch your legs, girls, weve got a puncture.
In the long days and hours of his ride through the endless wheatbelt country, van Wyk had come to realise how ill-equipped he was for this assignment. He was used to city streets, alleys, corridors, shadows. He was used to working close, in and out, no fuss, no trace. Out here, he felt exposed. Hours might, go by and hed not see another human being, much less signs of habitation. There were no shadows out here, nowhere to hide in waiting.
Hed felt better when he finally spotted the blue Magna driven by the private detective. Yesterday, in Prospect. His skin had tingled then. The hunt was on. Now all he had to do was follow the Magna until it led him to the target.
In the past, hed always worked from a profile of the target: photographs, home and work details, routine movements, the names and addresses of friends and acquaintances. This time all he had were photos. How do you anticipate the movements of a kid whos done a runner?
So thank God for the unwitting private eye, who had all the know-how, gadgetry and technical back-up to tap phone calls and follow the kid.
The whole thing had almost come unstuck after the debacle in Leighton Wells yesterday. The detective guy had thought hed lost the target, according to his logbook, but the silly bitch had later used her mobile phone, and that had led the Magnaand van Wyk on the Yamahato a bed-and-breakfast place in the foothills.
Van Wyk had thought hed have his chance then God, had it only been a few hours ago? Amazing how time flew when you were having fun. Hed dismounted from the Yamaha and wheeled it off the farmhouse track, into the shelter of some tree on the lawn, scouted around until he knew the layout of the place, saw the farmer leave with his wife, and ascertained where the target was.
And there was the second woman. Oh well, two for the price of one. He watched and listened for a while, using night-vision binoculars. Saw them getting undressed for bed and an old hunger had stirred in him for a moment. Youre a professional, hed chided himself.
Then he spotted the private eye. Hed already located the Magna, parked down by the road gate. Theo Reed was watching the cottage from a nearby clump of bamboo. Van Wyk saw him glance at his watch as if deciding whether to announce himself to the women there and then, or wait until morning.
Then the farmer and his wife returned, and that seemed to settle the matter for the detective. Van Wyk saw Reed duck away from the sweep of headlights and begin to retreat down the slope of lawn, shrubs and trees.
Right to van Wyks position. Van Wyk shot him in the head with the silenced .22.
Working quickly then, hed hunted in the mans pockets for keys and wallet, and run back to the Magna. A quick search revealed paperwork that detailed the case and the guys name: Theo Reed.
What to do? There was an extra element of risk in entering a darkened building and shooting not one but two people. And what if a noisy disturbance resulted, shouts, screams, glass breaking, lights coming on?
Best to wait until 4 a.m., when they would both be sound asleep.
Except hed tripped over a concealed sprinkler in the lawn and the bitch who was travelling with the target had blundered in. He hadn’t wanted to risk another shot, so on the spur of the moment had decided to pose as Theo Reed.
But the woman ran.
Leah, he knew her as now.
She was the one to watch. Shed evaded him in the darkness and got the target out of there before he could get close enough to kill them.
And so van Wyk had pushed the Yamaha into a dam and shoved the body of the private eye into the boot of the Magna. No sense in the farmer reporting a crime before van Wyk had finished doing what hed been hired to do. Then hed set out after the women, pushing the Magna hard, coming upon the crash scene and the Range Rover hoons again. Who were those guys? Then, still posing as Theo Reed, hed saved Leah and the target.
Good. It would be a close shooting after all, now that hed got the targetboth targetsonto this lonely back road.
Two quick shots, up close, then vanish.
But first, fake a puncture.
The wind was blowing sullenly through tussocks of grass and drooping wires. The arse-end of the universe, as Leah’s father would have said. Well, this was it, this place, far from anywhere.
Leah stood close to her open door, keeping it between herself and the man posing as Theo Reed. Who was he, really? Fortunately Tess was on the other side of the car, but wasn’t likely to stay there, for shed stepped into long grass at the edge of a rain-eroded ditch and was walking the length of the car, examining the tyres. Cant see any puncture here, she called across the roof of the car.
Leah and the killer were on the drivers side, nearest the middle of the road, standing on corrugations and an underpinning of rock that had broken through the gravel laid by roadbuilders long ago. She made no attempt to examine the tyres but watched the killer, just as he watched her.
He knew. A silent communication passed between them and he immediately fished inside his jacket, beginning to close in on her as he did so.
Leah pulled the door toward her as if in fear of him, as if it would shield her. The killer sneered. Futile, he started to say, when she shoved the door hard away from herself, slamming it against him.
He stumbled back with a soft groan of pain, momentarily holding both arms around his stomach.
Leah! What are you doing? Tess protested.
Leah ignored her. She sprang around her door, quickly kicking hard before the man could raise his gun. He fired uselessly into the ground, the bullet whining out over the dying wheat. He stumbled, fell onto his back and was raising the gun when she stamped on his wrist, forcing him to let go of the weapon. She scooped it up: a .22 target pistol, a killers gun, a close-work gun.
Leah, said Tess, he was helping us.
Leah shook her head. He was hired to kill you.
Leah had put it together in the past couple of minutes. The school had hired private investigators to find Tess and bring her back because police involvement might mean media attention and embarrassment for both the school and Tess’s high-profile parents. But the swimming coach, Vale, had taken advantage of this. Needing to silence Tess, hed monitored the movements of the private detective who was tracking Tess and passed the information on to a hired killer, who had shot the detective, taken on his identity and now intended to complete his assignment.
Tess was watching Leah, open-mouthed with shock. Who would hire a detective to
Hes not a detective. The dead man I saw back at the farm was the detective.
Tess took it in. Oh.
Open the boot of the car.
I want to stuff this character in the boot where he cant get at us or escape.
Take him to the police? Something like that.
Leah’s eyes didn’t stray from the man on the ground, who was watching assessingly. She heard Tess remove the keys from the ignition, walk around to the back of the car, open the boot lid.
And scream. Leah flinched. She didn’t dare shift her gaze. What?
Theres someone already in the boot, Tess said, her voice high, breaking with strain. He looks dead.
Theo Reed, Leah thought. She said nothing, merely watched the killer. Then she said, Search the car. You might find handcuffs.
The man on the ground gave her a slight twist of his lips, a fleeting look of disgust. She ignored him.
Two minutes later, Tess called in triumph, Found them.
Leah motioned the killer to his feet and trained the pistol on him while Tess cuffed his hands behind his back. Now I want you to climb into the boot with the real Theo Reed, she said.
The man swallowed. Hes dead.
Then he cant hurt you, Leah said.
The mans eyes were wide, panicky. Its not right, he said. Not… he searched for the right word … not healthy.
Leah shook her head. I’m not interested in your welfare, she said, and fired a shot past his ear.
He flinched and shuffled, bent over, to the boot of the car, and rolled in and began to heave about as if he were sharing a too small bed with someone.
Now, Leah said. Melbourne.
But first she took out her mobile phone, dialled, and asked for Jill Blair. She hadn’t called anyone in a long time.
The voice was remote, surprised at nothing in a chaotic world. Yeah?
This was going to be tricky. Sergeant Jill Blair had been at the guesthouse when Leah had been assaulted. Although shed played no part in the incident, and professed dislike for the male officers involved, she hadn’t actively supported Leah. Leah Flood.
There was silence. Then, I hope you’re keeping your head down, Leah. You’re not exactly on anyones Christmas card list.
I know that, Jill, Leah said. Look, do you want a crack at Carl Stannage?
Don’t ask me how I know this, but a black Range Rover is heading for the city right now, probably along the Western Highway. Leah read out the registration number. The plates are false. Its being driven by a couple of Stannages goons. You’ll find drugs, cash and shotguns.
More silence. The Western Highway. Is that where you are right now?
No comment. You’ll also find damage to the passenger front bumper bar, maybe traces of red paint. If so, it will match the paint on a red Monaro that crashed and burned outside the town of Prospect a few days ago.
Leah, what are you getting invol—
But Leah had broken the connection.
You cant take me back to school, Tess said.
I hate it there.
Vale wants to kill me so I cant report him.
This was getting repetitive. I know that, Tess.
So where will you take me?
Leah had thought long and hard about that. Her old house was out of the question, her parents lived on the Gold Coast, and she didn’t want to bring trouble down on the few friends and acquaintances she had left.
Tess shrank sulkily into her seat. Now and then a muffled thumping came from the boot, muffled shouts, the frame of the car shaking minutely as the killer thrashed about in fury. I hate motels.
Where do you suggest, then? Leah demanded. Do you have friends you can stay with?
Their parents would turn me in.
Then it has to be a motel. Ill stay with you until everythings sorted.
What if that takes weeks, months? And what if other people come after me? Youre going to stay close to me every minute of every day?
Leah sighed, conceding Tess’s reservations. Ahead of her the fast dirt road climbed past a rusty iron barn and stockyards to the brow of a low range of hills. Beyond that would lie a broad plain and Horsham and the Western Highway to Melbourne.
You could take me home, Tess said. Hawthorn. Its empty, no tenants or anything.
Leah brooded. For as far as anyone knew, Tess was still on the road somewhere out west, the detective from Abbotts following her. But things were falling apart for Vale, and he would soon think to look for Tess closer to home.
Too dangerous. What about your half-brother?
Ian? I don’t know. He lives in Southbank and hell probably have some chick with him. Usually his girlfriends don’t like me.
Then it has to be a motel.
I need stuff, Tess wailed. Clean clothes and stuff.
Leah thought it through, then slowly nodded. But we don’t linger, okay? We go to your house, grab a few things, then find a motel, agreed?
Agreed. Tess jerked her head. What about him?
Let me deal with him.
Tess directed Leah to a leafy street in Hawthorn, where even the humblest dwelling fetched close to a million dollars, and pointed to a large Edwardian house set on a broad, grassy corner block. At one time the house had been screened from the street by a tall box-hedge, but the hedge had clearly been torched recently. In fact, Leah realised, as she looked up and down the street, several similar hedges had been burnt to the ground. It was one of the hazards of living in the better suburbs of the city.
The gates were open. She drove in, white gravel complaining discreetly and expensively under the Magnas tyres. There was a three-car garage at one side of the house, a fenced swimming pool at the other.
She parked behind a Saab Cabriolet and they got out. The air was still, warm, drowsy. You didn’t hear blaring radios, angry shrieks or accelerating tyres on these streets.
Do you know the car?
Its Ians, Tess said, as they reached the front door.
I thought you said he doesn’t live here.
Tess shrugged. I guess its his house as much as mine. Anyway, Ive lost my key and can never remember the security code.
Leah was expecting Tess to press the buzzer for the intercom, but the girl tested the doorknob. It was unlocked. Leah barred her way suddenly. Wait. She took out the killers pistol. Let me go first.
Someone hired that guy to kill you, right? How do you know hes not waiting inside? How do you know he hasnt killed your brother and
Tess shrank back from the door. Okay.
Leah turned the knob fully and pushed the door gently. She looked along a cool, dimly lit hallway. Music sounded faintly. She stepped in, Tess huddling close to her back.
Can you tell where the musics coming from? Leah whispered.
Tess pointed, perplexed, toward the end of the hall. It seems to be coming from down there, Ians old room.
The door was ajar. Leah peered in. The air was stale; every light was on. One wall was lined with books; a built-in wardrobe with sliding doors took up a second wall; a sound system, plasma wide-screen TV and DVD crowded a third wall. The fourth was mostly window, looking out onto the grounds of the house next door. A huge computer hummed on a desk, the flat-screen monitor displaying an online gambling site. The wardrobe was open, revealing stylish suits and shirts along a rail, and several pairs of soft, expensive-looking shoes. Otherwise the room was empty.
He must have moved back home, Tess said.
Where would he be?
Then there were footsteps in the hall. Leah tensed, aimed the gun at the door, and the face of the man who appeared there shifted from amazement to fear in an instant. Whoa, he said, Jesus, and ducked back into the hallway.
Leah was about to follow when he called, Tess? What are you doing here? Whos that with you?
You can come in, Tess shouted. Shes a friend.
Tess’s half-brother edged warily into the room, wiping his hands on his trousers, trying an uncertain smile. Whats going on? Why the gun?
Tess embraced him tightly, then turned and introduced Leah. He hesitated, then reached out a hand to her with a broad, charming smile. Leah tucked the gun inside her waistband and shook his hand, feeling a momentary twinge of attraction as she took in his graceful good looks. Ian Quant was tall, slender, loose-limbed and beautifully dressed, and she could see why Tess had adored him when she was little.
But as she looked closer, she saw a ravaged edge to the good looks, signs of exhaustion and strain. Maybe hed been online all day and night, gambling, trading shares.
Now he was looking at Tess with faint irritation. How come you’re not at school?
And Tess said, How come you moved back in here?
Tess was determined. No, you.
He shrugged. It made more sense, you know? This place is empty, my apartment block in Southbank was one continuous party scene, I needed some private space.
Mum and Rob
They know I’m here. Now its your turn.
Tess turned to Leah for help. You can tell him better than me.
Leah related the whole story. His face went blank, then sceptical, then frankly disbelieving.
Its true, Tess said. Have a look in the boot of our car if you don’t believe us.
He swallowed, ran his hand through his hair. No thanks.
Ive just come to collect some gear.
Why? Where are you going?
I’m taking her to a motel while I follow things up with the school and the detective agency, Leah said.
She can stay with me. Ill look after her.
Yeah, Tess said.
It could be dangerous here.
I don’t mean here, Ian said. My apartment in Southbank.
Leah nodded. You should contact your mother, Tess. Shell want to know you’re okay and where to contact you.
Ian laughed harshly, one arm around Tess. Were talking about a woman who once said, in all honesty, that shed still have her shape if she hadn’t had a child.
Leah grimaced. But the dysfunctions of this family were none of her business. Tess, will you be okay now?
Leah looked at her watch. It was early afternoon. I hope to know more by the end of the day. Meanwhile, both of you be careful who you open the door to.
Abbott Investigations occupied the ground floor of a two-storey shopfront in a side street near Glenferrie Road. Leah parked the Magna directly outside it and watched for a while. No one came in or out. She could see a receptionist through a plate-glass window, a middle-aged woman who moved from her workstation to a bank of filing cabinets and back again. There seemed to be a waiting area and an inner office.
Leah waited until the footpath was clear and opened the boot. The killer stared at her malevolently, his eyes slitted with hate. Leah grinned. Still alive, I see.
Ill get you, girlie.
I’m sorry, Leah said, but youve gone and called me girlie, and she slammed the boot lid.
She entered Abbott Investigations and flipped her wallet open and closed at the receptionist. Detective Sergeant Jill Blair, she said. I need to see the boss.
The woman stood, an expression of faint alarm on her pleasant face. My husbands just through there, she said. Ill let him know that
Don’t bother, Leah said, stalking past the woman and down a short hallway to an office door. She opened it and walked in on a plump, tired-looking man wearing a jacket and tie. He was fiddling with an array of black boxes the size of cigarette packets. Transmitters, Leah thought.
Police, she said. Sorry to barge in, but this concerns one of your agents, Theo Reed.
It was important to get them on the hop; take charge of the situation; lead, never follow.
Theo? Is he all right? Ive been trying to
The mans soft jaw dropped. He seemed genuinely shocked. I beg your pardon?
You hired a hitman to top Tess Quant, Leah said harshly. The school hired you to find Tess, and you assigned Theo Reed to the case. He passed on information to you, and you passed this information on to the hitman.
Abbott swallowed, then seemed to grow thoughtful. He was not as soft as he looked; this wasn’t a job for a soft man, or woman. Are you also saying that this hitman, whoever he is, killed Theo? Why would he do that? Why would I want him to do that? His hand went out. If I might examine your warrant card and make a call?
Leah took a step back but was otherwise still tense and focused. Your firm owns a blue Magna, correct?
I don’t see what
Theo Reed is lying dead in the boot. He was shot in the head. I didn’t shoot him and I didn’t put him there. The man who did shoot him is also in the boot, alive, in handcuffs. Come and see for yourself.
This was a test of sorts. Would Abbott bluster, turn dangerous, be curious, not curious enough?
Curious. That was a good sign. Leah motioned him to lead the way out to the car. Something about his bearing spelt ex-cop to her. They were standing on the footpath, Leah fetching the keys, when he said mildly, I know who you are.
She ignored him, slipping the key into the boot lock.
Youre Leah Flood.
She stood facing him, the key in the lock, about to turn it. So?
My daughters on the police force. She thinks they did a shitty thing to you. So do I. For what its worth.
She gave him an abrupt nod. She didn’t want to talk about it. Plus, why should she believe him? He might be trying to undermine her. She watched him, waiting to see what hed do or say.
You have plenty of support, you know. My daughter hears things. I hear things. The police are anxious to shake off the old culture, the one you came up against.
Leah felt that she was losing control of the situation. She clenched her fists. You hired a hitman, on behalf of someone else.
No. Youve got it all wrong.
Okay. Lets look at it another way. You passed information on to another person, and this person hired the hitman.
Abbott threw up his hands. Maybe, but it was done innocently on my part. Theo reported to me, I reported to Dr Heyward at the school.
Leah was inclined to believe him. She needed to eliminate him as a suspect, thats all. She opened the boot.
Abbott moaned softly in distress. Thats Theo. Oh God, his poor wife.
Leah pointed, saying, He was shot by that man. The murder weapon is in the glovebox, a silenced .22 pistol. My prints are on it, sure, but with any luck youll find the killers prints on the shells and magazine inside the gun, and you may find gunshot residue on his hand and sleeve.
Abbott nodded. I can do something about that.
Abbott nodded again, then glanced shrewdly at Leah. Theo was licensed to carry a .38 revolver.
Leah began to back away. She patted her jacket pocket, indicating that she now possessed the .38, then darted across the road and along it to Glenferrie Road, where she walked rapidly for two blocks, occasionally glancing back over her shoulder. She was not followed but Abbott was bound to phone someone. She hailed a passing cab.
She took it for several blocks and caught another cab. Then another. She hadn’t come this far by trusting a man like Abbott, or anyone else.
It was a twenty-minute cab ride to Penleigh Hall Church of England Girls Grammar School. What a mouthful, and it all denoted snooty indifference, if the woman at the front desk was any indication of the spirit of the establishment. She tipped back her head and stared down her nose at Leah.
I’m afraid that Dr Heyward does not see anyone without an appointment.
Already she had lost interest in Leah and was closing down her computer, flicking intercom switches and checking her handbag for car keys.
Which is her office?
The woman stopped what she was doing and stared at Leah, appalled. Are you applying for a teaching position with us? I’m afraid youll have to follow standard procedures and
I’m not after a job, certainly not in this place.
The woman peered at Leah. An expensive, eye-watering perfume, stale as the day was long, wafted from her. Are you related to one of our pupils? A staff member? Unless its an emergency, we have certain rules
It was time to cut through the suffocating formalities. Its about Tess Quant.
The woman froze. Oh.
I need to see the principal at once.
Do you have information for us? I’m afraid theres no reward.
Leah put her hands on the wooden rail that encircled the reception desk, seat and switchboard, and leaned in, snarling, Because this stinking school stuffed up, someone tried to murder Tess. I saved her. I know where she is. So unless you want me to go to the media, I suggest you get off your fat arse and take me to the principal. Now.
The woman went white, reached for the intercom. Like a whip, Leah slapped the womans hand away and said, No, take me there.
Leah followed as the woman hurried along the corridor. Doors on either side opened on to high-ceilinged offices and conference rooms. The wood panelling gleamed from a hundred years of polishing; original oil paintings hung on the walls; the ornate plasterwork was free of dust. Leah thought there was probably some credence to Tess’s claim that the school placed its public image ahead of the education and welfare of its pupils.
The receptionist came to a heavy, partly open door marked Principal, knocked and was about to poke her head around it when Leah pushed past, finding herself in an airy corner office lined with books. Ivy on the cloistered walkway outside filtered the afternoon sun and dust motes winked in the gauzy light. Books and folders were heaped on an antique table and there were files and a laptop on the desk, which sat solidly on a densely woven rug.
Dr Heyward, the receptionist said, this person has news
Leah cut her off. I’m here about Tess Quant.
The principal regarded her gravely for a moment, then nodded at the receptionist. Thank you, Mrs Webb. Ill handle this now.
If you’re sure?
With a sniff, the woman was gone. Dr Heyward rose from behind her desk. She wore a linen jacket over designer jeans, dangling earrings and bright lipstick. Her hair was long, chaotic, scraped back from her assessing face by a pair of huge red hair clips. Half-lens spectacles hung from her neck by a fine gold chain. Her nails were short, pink, and well cared for. She was no more than forty years old; Leah had been expecting a stern, remote, sixty-year-old.
Are you a detective from Abbotts ? Have you found Tess?
Yes, Ive found Tess, no, I’m not a detective, Leah said. She paused. But I used to be a police officer.
Dr Heyward stared at her for a long moment. Are you from the press?
A frown. Then who are you?
Leah decided to be frank. My name is Leah Flood. I was
The police whistleblower! Dr Heyward exclaimed, her brow clearing.
Brave woman. But whats your relationship to Tess? And where is she?
Shes somewhere safe, and not coming back to school. And shes not hurt, not that youve asked how she is.
The principals lips had gone thin and tight. Whats your role in this?
I’m looking after Tess’s interests, since no one else seems to be.
Dr Heyward raised an elegant eyebrow. I see. And you’re including myself and the school in that judgment.
It might interest you to know that Tess has been a problem child ever since she came to us, but lets forget that for the moment. Please, make yourself comfortable. Would you like tea, coffee, something stronger?
Leah remained standing. I want answers. I want action.
Oh, bully for you, Ms Flood.
You may call me Leah.
Leah it is, the woman said dryly. And what, exactly, do you expect me to do for you?
Leah felt obscurely as if she were a kid again, hauled before the principal for some wrongdoing. Thered been several such occasions when she was young. You can be straight with me. for a start.
Dr Heyward seemed to curl her lip but said nothing.
Tess told me that she was sexually abused by a member of your staff and you did nothing about it.
Dr Heyward didn’t move a muscle. Long seconds ticked by, and then something seemed to go out of her, as if shed deflated by a minute degree. Brian Vale, the swimming coach.
Dr Heyward began a series of slow nods. Finally she said, I did do something about it. I acted promptly, but Tess had already made up her mind about me and run away. I very quickly found two other pupils who have been abused or claim abuse.
Leah hadn’t realised how on edge shed been, waiting to hear something like this, until she let out a long, ragged, relieved breath and sank into a chair. Thank God.
Dr Heyward nodded and also sat. She wasn’t about to admit dereliction of duty, though. She wasn’t about to admit something that might get her, or the school, sued. She was watching and waiting to see what Leah would do or say.
Leah said, You hired Abbotts to find Tess?
With her familys permission of course.
The detective who was following Tess passed news back to Mr Abbott, who kept you informed.
Who was in the loop?
I don’t follow.
Its all a matter of timing. Before investigating your friend, the child molester, did you absent-mindedly or carelessly or viciously pass on to him any information from the detective following Tess?
I don’t like your tone. As soon as
Leah wouldn’t let her finish. Vale had a very good reason for wanting to get rid of Tess before anyone else found her. He feared exposure, and needed her dead. He almost succeeded.
Dr Heyward went white. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Vale hired a hitman. All the hitman had to do was follow the detective, all the way to Tess. He killed the detective. Tess and I were next, only we got lucky.
What nonsense. Get out. If you have Tess, I should like to see her at once.
If you don’t believe me, check with Mr Abbott, Tess said. He has a dead agent and a live killer on his hands, and would welcome some answers from you.
Dr Heyward regained her composure. Brian Vale was never in the loop, as you put it. He had no way of knowing anything about the search for Tess. No access to me, my office, my phone. In fact, I suspended him immediately.
Leah swallowed. Had she got it all wrong? If Vale had no access to information, then who had hired the killer?
It might interest you to know, Dr Heyward went on, that the police found evidence on Brians laptop that he belongs to a paedophile ring. As a result, theyve been through the entire school, confiscating computers, interviewing staff and students. Its been hell.
Leah went cold. Maybe the members of Vales paedophile ringsome of them wealthy, all of them secretive and in constant contact with each other via the Netwere behind this. But how had they got their information?
Dr Heyward was staring at her with mingled compassion and triumph. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to—
Who else? Leah demanded. Who else knew where Tess was at any given moment?
Why, her family, of course.
What, you just kept phoning and e-mailing India?
Dr Heyward gestured in faint embarrassment. Well, not exactly. We contacted the High Commission as soon as it was apparent that Tess had run away, and some time later got a return call from Tess’s mother who, it turns out, is in Paris. Apparently she has left her husband. She said she didn’t want the police involved and asked us to hire Abbotts to find Tess. Dr Heyward shook her head wearily, a woman obliged to deal politely with the rich, careless parents of indulged and neglected children. I could be charitable and say that Tess’s mother is a tad distracted at the moment. Ive been sending her regular updates by voice mail. Meanwhile her husband is traveling around India on official duties and is content to leave it up to his runaway wife. Dr Heyward shook her head again. That is one seriously dysfunctional family, if you don’t mind my saying so.
Leah nodded. Ain’t that the truth.
Meanwhile the best cooperation we’ve had is from Tess’s half-brother.
A moment later she sprang out of her seat, and was running before she reached Dr Heywards highly polished door.
It was 4 p.m., and the roads were choked: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift workers heading for home, schoolchildren in cars and buses, couriers and delivery drivers making the final run of the day. Leah could see that she stood little chance of catching a taxi. She hurried from the school gates to the nearest shops, where she waited in agitation at the kerb, punching a number into her mobile phone.
Jill, its Leah again.
Hey, thanks, we caught those two bozos in the Range Rover. It was just like you said, shotties, speed, ecstasy, cash…
Jill, this is urgent.
Pause. Yeah? What?
Leah explained. Her ex-colleague listened, and at the end of it said, So you’re saying the half-brother hired a hitman?
I don’t know, it all sounds a bit far-fetched. Whats this got to do with those characters in the Range Rover?
Look, Jill, Ill explain later. Meanwhile Tess is with her half-brother right now and
Jill was all business. Address?
Leah gave it. Hes probably got more sense than to try anything so soon but
Well sort it, Jill said, breaking the connection.
Leah waited in a swirl of grit and exhaust fumes and, twenty minutes later, was in a taxi. Progress was slow, jerky, with short, speedy runs followed by long periods of idling in traffic or at lights. She tried to keep still, but felt her body urging the traffic to move.
To distract herself she tried to work it out. Ians mother died when he was little and his father married again. He found himself with an indifferent and unloving stepmother and later a little sister. Then his beloved father dies and his stepmother remarries. Hes a damaged kid, like Tess. As he sees it, he has no one. Tess means little to him. But Tess also inherited a trust fund from their father, money that would come to him if she were to die.
But why wasn’t his own half a million dollars enough?
Hed moved back to the family home. Had he been forced to sell his apartment? Was he hiding from creditors? Leah saw a young man who liked to gamble, who might make and lose fortunes and owe money to the wrong people.
Or maybe he was simply greedy. Maybe he didn’t think that Tess was entitled to any of their fathers money.
It was 5.05 when she reached Tess’s home. She paid off the driver at the kerb and hurried in, running swiftly over the lawn to avoid the noisy gravelled drive. The Saab was no longer parked outside.
She paused at the front door. It was ajar. She pushed it gently, then stood with her back hard against the adjacent wall. The door swung open; no one yelled or charged or shot at her. She darted inside and crouched behind a hallstand and listened. The house was silent.
She ventured further into the house and came to the study doorway. She could hear the soft whirring of the computer. Otherwise the room was dark. Someone had closed the curtains, she noticed, as she poked her head around the edge of the door. The only illumination came from the computer monitor. She could smell stale cigarette smoke, stale perspiration, the odours of a man who might spend all of his waking hours cooped up in a cave. Why hadn’t she noticed them before?
And then something sharper, cleaner, fresher. She entered the room, trying to put a name to it. Aftershave, that was it. Something tangy. And just as her mind was processing that information, the door was slammed behind her and the main light was switched on.
Leah swung around. He must have been in one of the other rooms along the hallway, and followed her in. Allynson, Sergeant Allynson, ringleader of the men who’d made her run the gauntlet. Friend of the man who’d committed suicide.
Sergeant, Leah said, automatically and obediently acknowledging his rank.
Allynson laughed harshly. Not any more, he said. Its plain John Allynson now, 7-Eleven proprietor, thanks to you.
Leah reached for the .38 in her jacket but heard a sound to her left, and began to swivel around to meet the new danger. Too late. A strong arm clamped around her windpipe, another around her waist. She struggled to get at the .38 but Allynson, laughing, reached in and snatched it away.
The other man let her go. She turned around. Senior Constable Summers. Or maybe it was plain Rob Summers now, taxi driver or cleaner or… Hed been in the room all along, concealed behind the sofa. Both men wore jeans, trainers and T-shirtsand latex gloves. Both had put on weight. They had the vicious, puffy faces of disappointed men who’d turned to drink.
Leah said, Did Jill set this up?
Allynson laughed. Jill? Nah. Shes on your side, stupid cow. But she did let slip to someone, and that someone rang us, and here we are.
Leah watched him. Clearly he knew that the police had been called to this address, but equally clearly he didn’t seem concerned. Hed probably made a few calls and Jills request for police attendance had been countermanded or passed off as a false alarm.
He seemed to read her mind, and gave her a sneering grin. Thats right, sweetheart, no ones coming to this little party, only you and me and Rob. Cosy, eh?
Leah said, The young woman who lives here, Tess, her life’s in danger.
I wouldn’t know about that, Allynson said.
Was she here when you arrived?
He shrugged. We saw a sheila drive off with some bloke in a Saab.
Her half-brother, Leah said. Hes been trying to kill her.
So forget about your beef with me for the moment and call it in: descriptions, make of car, time, direction, everything. There could be something about the car in one of these filing cabinets, like the rego number. Call your mates, or call it in anonymously, I don’t care, but theres no reason she should die just because you two heroes hate my guts.
Shed said it heatedly and could see that Allynson believed her. He began to bite his lower lip as he thought the issues through, now and then glancing at Summers for support.
He watched while Leah searched the filing cabinets. Eventually she found a folder labelled CAR, which contained registration papers for the Saab. She passed it to Allynson, who took out a mobile phone and a moment later turned away to mutter into it, careful not to give his name or the name of his contact.
He completed the call and pocketed the phone. All sorted. Now were going to sort you out.
Leah tensed. Allynson began to crowd her with his body, Summers flanking him as if to grab her if she gave Allynson the slip. She backed toward the bookcase, half hoping that she could bring it down on the two men. She reached out a hand, tugged on a shelf. It was rock solid.
They grinned, still advancing on her. She said, Are you going to kill me?
Allynson gave her a look of mock surprise. Why? Do you deserve to die? What do you think, Rob? Does she deserve to die?
Well, Summers replied, a mate of ours offed himself because of the filthy stuff she spread about him, ruining his name and his career, so an eye for an eye sounds fair enough to me.
Fair enough to me, too, Allynson said, and he lunged.
At first Allynson and Summers played with Leah, shoving her between them to keep her off balance. One man would slap her face, the other punch her in the stomachnot with any force, but with contempt. Then Summers fondled her painfully and Allynson ripped her shirt at the neck. She fought back, kicking, punching, scratching, ducking and weaving, but they were too big, too solid, too close to her.
When the shot came, Leah expected pain, a punching impact, a sensation of the bullet tearing through her flesh, tendons, bones. Instead, Allynsons neck erupted and his heavy frame was propelled against her. He must have moved into the line of fire at the last moment, his hands reaching for her. He tried to turn, spraying her with blood. He toppled, some of the light leaking from his eyes, then fell to his knees, taking her with him.
She didn’t know why Summers had shot him. She crawled out from under Allynsons massive weight, intending to shelter under the desk, but heard him whisper, Help me. He was bleeding profusely. She tore off her ruined shirt, packed his wound with it, then used her belt to bind it in place. She was splashed with blood now, sticky with it, her hands and knees sliding on the polished floorboards.
Meanwhile she was dimly aware of shouts and movement above her head and all around the room. She tried to map the movements with her ears, not daring to look up and invite eye contact and another shot. She could hear several people. Suddenly Summers was on the floor with her, frightened, bewildered. No gun. Dimly she realised that it wasn’t Summers who’d shot Allynson.
Then some of the shouts resolved themselves, became coherent, orderly. Police! voices said. On the floor! Now! Hands behind your heads!
Leah couldn’t get up. Somehow shed got Allynsons head in her lap. She put pressure on the bandage, wiped his ashen face, and tried to transmit something essentially human and compassionate to his frightened eyes. And she stayed there until other hands prized hers away from Allynson and ambulance officers took him away. Kind arms helped her to her feet and Jill was saying gently, Leah, everythings okay, everythings okay.
It was evening now and they were sitting in the kitchen, a costly room fitted with granite benchtops, teak panelling, copper and stainless steel saucepans hanging from hooks. The table and chairs were the only welcoming objects in the entire room, Leah thought, as she sat hunched over a mug of tea, staring at the wooden table top and years of scars and scratches. She glanced across at Tess, who was chewing at her thumbnail, her face tense. But Tess had also matured in the past few hours. Leah could see resolve in her face, and signs of a furious internal accounting. An old expression popped into Leah’s head: Wake up to yourself. Well, thats what Tess seemed to be doing.
Tess caught Leah’s glance and sat upright, shoving both hands into her lap and arranging a grin. Bad habit, chewing your nails.
It seemed to be a way of saying that shed identified another flaw in herself and would deal with it. A thumping sound came from the study along the hallway. The crime-scene technicians were still in there, taking photographs, videotaping, dusting for fingerprints, diagramming blood spatters and gunshot trajectories. Allynson was in hospital. He was expected to live.
Summers was in custody.
So was Carl Stannage. Hed been questioned in relation to the arrest of the men in the Range Rover, and when hed denied knowing them or owning the vehicle, and called in his lawyer, the police had placed him under surveillance. Instead of staying put, hed come gunning for Tess, and walked in on the scene in the study. Hed thought Leah was Tess, fired at her, and hit Allynson instead. But by then the police were pouring into the house after him.
I’m sorry I got you into all this, Tess said.
Leah nodded. She wasn’t about to absolve Tess. The younger woman had a long period of questioning and adjustment ahead of her. She had to take responsibility for her actions and their consequences. After that she could start to feel better about herself.
Am I in trouble?
With the police?
Leah shrugged. You should be. You were selling drugs.
The old Tess would have brought an armoury of responses to that accusation: indignation, buck-passing, denial, putting a favourable gloss on it. The new Tess nodded and said, I know.
Leah went on: But you were under the sway of Mitch, and people were trying to kill youa notorious drug dealer and his crew, and your own half-brother. I don’t think the police will charge you with anything, but youll probably have to give evidence in court.
Tess nodded again. She rubbed her wrists, which were red and raw.
Are you okay?
A bit sore.
Shed been bound hand and foot by her brother and stuffed into the boot of his car. Police had intercepted the Saab on the South Gippsland Highway. Hed been heading for an area of swampland and drainage channels near Koo Wee Rup.
You were lucky.
Don’t know how he thought hed get away with it, Tess said.
Your brother was panicking, not thinking clearly, Leah said. You were the last person he expected to see this afternoon, and when you told him that wed caught his hired killer, he just lost control.
Tess nodded. When he was tying me up he said it wasn’t personal but he needed my share of the inheritance. He said hed gambled away his entire share and owed a lot of money to bookmakers and loan sharks, who were threatening to break his legs and burn him alive. Five hundred thousand dollars, gone poof!
Leah brooded on that, a young guy desperate and afraid enough to murder his half-sister. If he hadn’t lost all of his money, if he hadn’t been afraid, then hed have led a blameless life. But life was one big if-only. If only I hadn’t joined the police force. If only I hadn’t reported Allynson and his crew.
She drank her coffee. There was an answering machine connected to the kitchen phone and it was blinking madly. Every now and then the phone would ring and the machine would take the message. Leah had turned the volume down, but not off, so they could screen the calls. The media, mainly, and George Abbott, and Dr Heyward, briskly apologetic and asking Tess to consider coming back.
No way am I going back to that school, Tess said.
What will you do?
My gran in Adelaides coming to get me, my mothers mother, Tess said, and described a kind, strong, principled woman. Shes taken me in before.
How long will you stay?
In a low, fierce voice, Tess said, I don’t want to go back to Penleigh, I don’t want to go to another boarding-school. When Mum comes back from India, I don’t want to live with her. I’m going to live with Gran and go to school in Adelaide. Maybe go to university. Thats what I want.
I think thats great, Leah said, then paused. You should probably ring your mother.
No. The police can do that. What about you?
What about me?
Tess grasped Leah’s wrist, suddenly needy. Will you stay here with me tonight?
There was a pause. Leah?
Can we, you know…
Stay in touch?
Yeah. Can we? Would that be okay?
Of course, Leah said, and realised that she meant it.
Tess relaxed. They told me you saved someones life. Someone who wanted to hurt you. I mean, God.
Leah shrugged. Saving Allynsons life had been instinctive. But it had earned her some grudging respect from the police who had swarmed through the house afterwards. In other circumstances they might have harassed her or arrested her on some trumped-up charge. They were wary around her, but it was coloured by respect, not hatred.
At least, thats how things stood here, now. Leah knew enough not to go back to her house. She certainly wasn’t about to rejoin the police force. There were still those who hated her and wanted to do her harm. Some men had long memories.
The only standing offer had come from Abbott, the private detective, not ten minutes ago. Would Leah consider joining his firm?
Leah had said shed think about it, but what she saw, in her minds eye, was not a Leah Flood shadowing some philandering husband, drinking stale coffee in a stakeout vehicle and pissing in a plastic container, but a Leah Flood standing with her thumb out, somewhere along a beckoning highway in the vast emptiness, waiting to see what might happen next.