She kissed him. It was a closed-mouth kiss—mwa mwa mwa, without the sound. Shouldn’t I be kissing her? It didn’t matter. Her essence was flooding into him—warming him—making his legs tingle.
She put his right hand on her left breast. “This doesn’t mean we’re on together.”
Jason nodded and shook his head in quick succession. Yes—I mean no. She was kissing him again. He moved his fingers, squeezing gently. She had on a bra under her uniform. Of course she’s got a bra on, idiot. She was still a junior, her uniform the maroon chequered dress, and on such a warm afternoon, she wasn’t wearing a jumper. Her breast felt soft but firm. She pushed that side of her chest forward. Jason was kissing her back—mwa mwa.
Her essence flooding into him smelled sweet. It was different going into his mouth. He had smelled it in her hair while waiting in line behind her at the school canteen, but it was like tasting it now. More than sweet, it was exciting and fruity and tender like a girl. Jason would never be going back to where he was before that moment. His life meant something else now.
“Me and Michael will probably be getting back together,” she said.
Michael was Jason’s best friend. He had dropped out of school. Jason was a senior. He had on his grey trousers and white shirt. When April became a senior next year, she would wear a grey skirt and white blouse. You could see that girls were wearing bras through white blouses.
Jason still had his hand on her breast. He didn’t really know what to do about that. He squeezed again, kind of exploring. Mwa, mwa. He had been watching kissing in movies lately, in anticipation of trying it. He had been thinking about it a lot since April started going with Michael.
She removed his hand from her breast and got up from the couch. “I have to go. Don’t say anything, alright?”
Jason did the yes/no head shake thing again. He then found his voice. “That was nice, April.” He liked saying her name just then.
She blushed a little—pointed to the door. “I have to go.”
She opened the door and vanished, leaving a sunny void that Jason sat staring into. April lived two houses down. Jason’s family had moved from over the other side of Everly Cove the previous summer, and he had been infatuated with her from that first day when he had seen her walking by his house. He had been too shy to do anything much about it, other than spending a lot of time in the front yard hoping for the next time she would walk by, then failing to say anything when she did.
His friend Michael always had one girlfriend or another and had gotten around to April at New Year. It was weird because it gave Jason the chance to be closer to her, while the pang of jealousy, watching Michael kiss her and walk with his arm around her, stung. Jason was a boy, though—Michael, a young man.
There was dust and tiny fibres floating in the sunlight where April had disappeared. It was after-school Thursday. Jason was going to remember Thursday February 17th 1985 for ever. It was how it felt right then. Time had not stopped—it had started. Boyhood with its skateboards and fishing books was over. You can’t taste her like that and just forget about it. He had moved to the open door and leaned with his head rocking against the frame. April stood there at her post box talking with her mother. The sun was warm against his skin, stinging a little as a moment passed. He listened to her laughter, watched her raking at her long dark hair and holding it in the breeze. He slid down and sat on the doorstep. She walked inside with her mother, and he looked up at the top of the doorframe—at the cracks in the paintwork. What if she doesn’t get back with Michael? What did she kiss me for if she wants to be with him? He remembered the feel of her breast—rubbing at the palm of his hand where he had held it. He could still sense her sweet essence, but he didn’t know whether he was tasting or smelling it, or feeling it. “Yahoo!” he hollered, pumping the air with his fists and making Mr Barrett from across the road look over.
“Hi, Mr Barrett. Hi, David. Hi, Mandy!” David and Mandy were the Barrett children, playing shuttlecock in their front yard. They waved back.
Jason had chores. That night he had to pack for the weekend. He had an orthodontist appointment in Melbourne. It was a six hour drive, and his parents had decided to make a weekend of it in the city.
On Monday morning he claimed the bench seat next to the school gate where April would have to pass by. It was almost nine o’clock when she finally arrived with some girlfriends. She glanced, smiled and did a small four-finger wave, making Jason beam with excitement. He had bought Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell tape in Melbourne. April had said she loved it. He had it in his shirt pocket but resisted the urge to hold it up and show her.
He saw her at recess and lunch, but she was with her friends again. The big question was whether or not Michael would be waiting at the gate after school. As a high school drop-out he wasn’t allowed on the grounds, but being unemployed meant he would have nothing better to do than wait for April if they were going together again.
Jason collected his bag and hurried from the gym change room. Rounding the corner of the school administration building, his heart was thumping with a mixture of fear, dread, hope and urgency. It exploded with glee when he saw April standing by the same bench he had been sitting on that morning. There was no sign of Michael, and she waved excitedly when she saw Jason.
He got to her without running. He had managed to give the impression of coolness.
“Tracy said you’ve got Bat out of Hell.”
Jason extracted the cassette from his pocket and flashed it.
April took it off him. “Is anyone home at your place?”
Jason shook his head. “Nope.”
April smiled. She actually bit down on her lip and tossed the smile over her shoulder as she led off toward home. Jason wanted to kiss her again. He couldn’t wait.
Home was three houses along from the school, on the same side of the street. Jason fumbled the key into the door with April still smiling at him. She pushed him into the house, the feel of her hands against his back sending a rush of tingles swarming all over his skin. He was beyond apprehension, though, and he turned, grabbed her and pressed his closed lips to hers.
Her body softened and relaxed as her lips parted, and he tasted her essence again.
“Wait… Put it on first,” she mumbled through their kiss.
She had the cassette out of its box. Jason slotted it into the player and waited for the sound so he could adjust it. He watched April sit on the lounge. Her cheeks were flushed and her dark eyes were sparkling. She was chewing on her lip and staring.
“Up,” she said about the volume. “A bit more.”
The intro to the title track, Bat out of Hell, surged through Jason’s body as he approached April, with her eyes following his and her chin lifting. The music was coursing through his veins as he lowered over her and kissed her again. I’m doing the kissing now. Mwa, mwa, mwa, until he accidentally touched her tongue with his and was startled by the warm, wet contact.
He looked at her lips and saw they were glistening. They were slightly parted and inviting.
“Do you know how to tongue kiss?”
He shook his head.
“Do you want to try?”
“Poke your tongue out.”
Jason poked out his tongue.
“Not that far. Just to your lips.”
April was doing it, and he copied, resting the tip of his tongue on his bottom lip.
“Now we just touch a little bit,” she uttered, lifting to meet his lips as he instinctively lowered to her, and that time there was less fish mouth and a softer, wetter, more fluent connection. Their tongues also caressed, with Jason mimicking what April did with hers, and with her magic essence whooshing through every inch of his body.
“See—it’s easy,” she said at some point.
The song had changed. Jason had been pushed back to be sitting beside April with his arm around her. She had taken over, which he didn’t mind, except he had heard it usually happened the other way around. He wondered if he should touch her breast again. He moved his free hand to her waist and was about to do it when she suddenly flopped back against the arm of the lounge, huffing and wiping her mouth on the back of her hand.
“This doesn’t mean anything, you know?”
Her eyes rolled. “Because it doesn’t. That’s why!”
“Are you going to get back with Michael?”
“Pft—who cares about him?”
“I don’t care about him.” Jason grinned all the way down to his belly. So, no Michael, eh?
April had picked up the cassette cover and pulled the jacket out to have a look at it. “Is there anything to eat?”
Jason hurried to the kitchen and brought back two ice-filled glasses of Coke and the biscuit jar. There was no more kissing to be done for the time being, but April kept pushing his thigh with her feet, kind of absently but playfully. She still rested back against the arm of the lounge. Jason’s thighs were thin. He hadn’t filled out at all like Michael had. He had gangly teenaged boy legs and knew it, but he liked April’s feet touching them.
Bat out of Hell had run through to the end and clicked off. Jason returned from the kitchen after tidying away the glasses and biscuit jar. He didn’t usually tidy stuff away. He stood there wondering about more kissing, and was about to kneel on the floor and move in when April spoke.
“Do you want to go for a swim?”
“Yep. Where?” Swimming means a bikini – hell yes!
“My granddad’s place. We swim there all the time.”
Jason waited at April’s post box while she quickly got changed. He had pulled on board shorts. He really hated his skinny legs, but the shorts looked better than his Speedos. He had to wear Speedos for swimming practice and competitions. He would have to take off his tee-shirt in a minute, and his arms and chest were as underdeveloped as his legs.
April came out with only a breezy little skirt over her bikini bottoms. Her top was tied on with strings around her neck and back. It was white against her golden brown skin. Jason gulped and followed.
Granddad’s place was two blocks over, across from the police station. He lived alone in the house, with April’s grandmother having passed away some years earlier. He wasn’t home but that didn’t matter. The man who lived down the back yard in a small caravan was there skimming the pool.
He wasn’t really a pastor. It was a nickname he had earned by carrying a small leather Bible around everywhere and quoting stuff from it all the time.
“Hi, Pastor,” Jason said as well. He had met the man a few times before. Jason’s father sold boats and was often down at the wharf. The Pastor worked at the local fish market and helped out with maintenance of the trawlers.
“Are you kids swimming? I’ll get out of your way.”
He had been cleaning the pool wearing long trousers and a buttoned up shirt. Apart from the always-handy Bible, he looked like a pastor. He set up in the shade of his caravan awning with a glass of lemonade and opened the Good Book to read.
“Don’t worry about him,” April said, floating over to caress her body against Jason’s.
Jason was worried about The Pastor, or conscious of him there. He kissed April back, though, and they spent an hour splashing around and sometimes just cuddling and kissing.
The Pastor suddenly rushed by the pool and toward the street. April and Jason watched him. He stopped and called out to April’s granddad. He yelled urgently. April wrapped a towel around herself and followed. Jason was by her side as they saw The Pastor pulling her granddad along and speaking harshly to him. They were in an alleyway across the street. The older man appeared drunk, stumbling and trying to get back to the fence The Pastor had pulled him away from.
The next day, Jason learned that beyond the fence a girl had been sunbathing—a young nurse who had only just moved to town, and April’s granddad had already been warned by the police to stop trying to peep at her. There was talk around that the matter had escalated to the point of a complaint, with the police considering formal charges.
The incident had ended the absolutely enchanted afternoon for Jason. April was extremely close to her grandfather and having none of it. Her granddad was no peeping Tom, merely a drunk who got distracted or something.
She was waiting for Jason after school again the following day, and they spent an hour at his house before his mother got home from work. They did so most afternoons over the next few weeks before Jason received the shocking news that his father had gotten a transfer to Melbourne and they would be moving immediately.
“Of course I’ll write to you,” April assured him. It was their last afternoon together.
They had played Meatloaf every day. She would be keeping the cassette. It wasn’t much, but was something Jason had bought especially for her, and he hoped it would hold them together somehow.
He was trying not to cry. “Promise you’ll write to me?”
“Yeah—it’s not like you’re moving to another planet. It’s only Melbourne.”
April was smiling. Jason didn’t get how she could be so relaxed about it all.
“Do you know I love you?”
She blushed. “Don’t say that, Jason.”
“But why? It’s true.”
She disappeared into the sunlight in the doorway again. Jason’s chest ached. It shuddered and he started to cry. He watched April walk up the steps to her door. She was looking at a flyer she must have found in her post box. She had it open, reading it. She never looked back.
“Take the frigging door off its hinges and chuck it out the back,” Jason’s partner said, rocking back in her chair and grinning at him over her coffee cup.
Natasha Royal was new to Baine & Associates Investigations. She had fired the place up and was attempting to fire Jason up.
Jason had been sleeping in the spare room for two weeks. He and his spouse of eight years were at stalemate.
“Well, at least open the damn thing. You don’t have to knock on your own bedroom door for Christ’s sake. Barge in, and if she has kittens, just tell her it stays open or you’ll be putting a boot through it.”
Jason chuckled. “Thanks, Nat… She would have kittens.”
“She’d probably frigging wet herself and have to crawl into bed with you anyway,” Natasha shot back at him as she took a phone call.
Jason nodded a goodbye and loosened his tie as he headed for the stairs and car park. He had to hurry if he was going to be in time to pick up his boy from after-school hockey training.
“Jason!” Nick Finlay, another of his colleagues, called to him. He was also on a phone call, but he hung up as Jason approached.
“Boss want’s someone to do a cold case over in Everly Cove. That’s where you’re from, isn’t it?”
“What sort of cold case?”
“Bones at a soccer field… Young female, about 20 years’ cold.”
Jason sat down. He checked his watch. “Boss want’s you, eh, Nick?”
“He won’t care… Get in, put a file together, and get out… You got anyone you want to visit back there?”
“I guess… And I’m good here,” Jason liked the idea of getting away from home for a few days. His case load was fairly light—nothing that couldn’t be put on hold. He had no family in Everly Cove, but it would be interesting to see the place again.
“I’ll tell Boss to pencil you in?” Nick asked. His phone was ringing.
“Yeah, good. Thanks, Nick.”
Jason hurried to his car and made the school in time to see the boys finish up their team talk after training. He had two children: Micky was twelve and his little girl, Chelsea, almost fourteen. He tossed Micky’s gear in the back seat, and they stopped at McDonalds on the way home for an ice cream cone and a drink.
The house was quiet, with Chelsea next door and Raelene in the kitchen. “Hey,” Jason offered, leaning around the edge of the wall and nodding his spouse a greeting.
Raelene didn’t quite nod, just a quick glance and lift of an eyebrow. She was peeling potatoes over the sink. “I won’t be able to make it on Saturday—work… Can you say hello to your parents for me?”
Jason patted the wall trim as he turned away. “I might not make it myself,” he said in parting. “Job’s come up and I could be away for a week.”
Jason and Raelene had been avoiding the same room at any time, let alone bedtime. Jason was responsible for it. The sound of Raelene’s voice annoyed him. Her face annoyed him. It was a weird situation, though. He loved the children. They were not actually his, but that didn’t mean anything. He wasn’t their father but he was their dad, with Micky only four and Chelsea six when he and Raelene had gotten together.
Gotten together… Jason chuckled at the notion as he caught the tennis ball he was tossing up at the ceiling while lying on his spare room bed.
There was a gentle knock on the door. “We need to talk.” Raelene’s face was red.
She shook her head, huffing slightly. “About this… Everything!”
“We have talked. What else is there to say?”
Raelene looked down, picking at the paintwork of the door frame. Jason waited.
She half giggled, sardonically. “We can’t go on like this, Jason.” She giggled some more. “I can’t believe I said it like that. What a cliché.”
“Do you want to break up?” There was a knot in Jason’s throat as those words squeaked out. It was the obvious next move, but it still hurt. He suddenly remembered how it used to be when they first met—got a flash of that.
“Yes,” Raelene said. “I want to break up.”
“What about the kids?” Jason tossed back.
“I know… It’s complicated.”
“I might move into the apartment. The tenants will be out in a couple of weeks. If we don’t re-let it, I could crash there.”
Raelene nodded. “I’d thought of that. We have about the same amount of equity there as here. It’s pretty simple, really. We’ll have to see a lawyer, but…” She shrugged.
She rested back against the door frame. Jason tossed his ball.
“The kids could visit me. They could stay on weekends sometimes.” He hated the idea of leaving Micky and Chelsea.
“I’ve met someone,” Raelene declared, her face reddening again. Her eyes were tearing up.
Jason’s gut tightened. His skin tingled as a wave of nausea rushed through him. The mental picture was not of Raelene with another man, rather of another man with his children. He thumbed the tennis ball, squashing it in his fist.
“The kids can stay with you anytime you like,” Raelene said, reading his mind, it seemed. “Leon won’t be moving in here.”
Leon. Jason remembered a Leon from Raelene’s work party last Christmas. He was divorced with children of his own. That was good. Kids of his own is good.
April rolled over to face away from her husband, hoping he would not want to snuggle. They usually had sex one night a week, but rarely more than once, and never at any time other than at night, and never anywhere other than in their bed.
These were simply facts. April didn’t rationalise them and had no need to, as the infrequency and predictability of sex with her husband suited her. It meant that such was a chore ticked off the to-do list—that a duty had been performed.
He rolled over the other way. “Good night, darling.”
“Night,” April replied, and she closed her eyes and slept late the next morning until she woke to the feel of someone cuddling up behind her.
“You have to get up,” Mandy, her cousin from down the street, said into her ear. “What are you doing still in bed?”
April opened an eye and groaned. “Leave me alone.”
“Eric said he had to go get the sausages. He’ll see you there.”
“Where are the kids?” April opened an eye again and saw that it was after nine. Kristen’s soccer game was at ten.
“Watching TV. I think they’re ready.”
They were minding Eric’s sister’s two children for the week.
Mandy rolled away from cuddling up behind April and rested on her back. April rolled onto her back as well, kicking off the covers. It was too hot for them. After a while, with both women staring up at the ceiling, Mandy spoke.
“How do you know when you’re in love?”
April looked at her younger cousin. “Are you?” She hadn’t managed much excitement in the question.
“How do you know?” Mandy repeated, looking at April that time. Her eyes were glazed and her smile dreamy.
“I don’t remember,” April said. It was true, she didn’t. “I think falling in love is different to being in love… I think the magic gets burned off… It’s like you get this burst of romantic energy and little by little you use it up.”
“But don’t you renew it?” Mandy asked. “Don’t you get more when you do stuff? When you have kids and that, doesn’t it feel romantic again?”
“I guess… How would I know?”
There was probably some truth in that, but April had fallen pregnant as a teen. Her only child’s father had been a high-school dropout and total loser. She couldn’t remember how she felt about Eric when she met him. She could remember none of what she felt before he had cheated on her—though Mandy was not aware of Eric’s affair.
“I think you know you’re in love when you look in the mirror and see that look on your face,” April said, manufacturing some enthusiasm. “Can you stop thinking about him?”
“Do you want to have his babies?”
“Okay, then—sit up.”
Mandy sat up. It meant she was looking at the dressing-table. April looked at her face in the mirror.
“See?” she said. “Stop smiling if you’re not in love.”
Mandy laughed, and April tickled her, making her squeal and squirm back onto the bed. She had her best girlfriend shrieking and rolling around, eventually relenting and leaving her there. “I’ll have a quick shower. Check on the brats, would you please, sweetie?”
Eric managed the Everly Cove Woolworths supermarket and always did the sausage sizzle at the school sports carnival. April never usually went, but had to with the children. Mandy sat with her watching the games. They chatted. The guy Mandy had it bad for was one of the local police officers. April had seen him around. “Yes, he’s very cute, sweetie.” He looked a bit stiff actually, but… whatever.
“I thought I might come with you tomorrow,” Mandy said, changing the subject at last. “Is that okay?”
“Yeah—of course.” April would be taking Eric to the airport in Canberra. It was a five hour drive and totally boring to do alone. The children would be returned to their parents that night. April was looking forward to six weeks of freedom. She had organized holidays from work.
“Can we call in and see Granddad?” Mandy went on. Their grandfather was up for parole, nineteen years into a life sentence for murder.
“Of course we can see Granddad. Duh! Like, as if we’re going to drive right by and not see him.”
“I know. It’s just weird to think he’ll be coming home soon.”
“No—I mean, it’s great, but it will be so different seeing him not at the prison. I can’t even remember him from before.”
April sat quietly for a while, churning inside, as she always did when she thought about it, and more so now her grandfather would be coming home.
“He didn’t do it, you know?” How many times had she said that? “I don’t care what anyone thinks around here when he comes home—he did not kill that girl… Granddad wasn’t like that. He isn’t some monster. He was just a drunk and really sad after Grandma.”
Mandy squeezed April’s hand, intertwining fingers. She was just smiling warmly, supportively. She always did when April huffed and puffed about something.
“Dad’s waiting for what the cops find with the remains they dug up over there,” Mandy said. “He’s always going on about there never even being a body – about how his dad’s locked up when the girl could have been a runaway or something and not murdered at all.”
“Except they found blood and hair, and the silly old fool confessed,” a deep voice resonated from behind. It was Morgan Oldfield, a retired fisherman who had spent his life there in Everly Cove. He once worked with the girls’ grandfather, back when it had happened.
Across the field there was a police tent and taped exclusion zone around the site of the gruesome find a few weeks earlier. The remains of a young woman had been exposed by plumbers working in a trench between the new and old amenities buildings. There were a line of porta-loos set up for use. The grave site was being guarded by two police officers so the kids could have their soccer games.
“Wonder if it turns out to be her,” old Morgan muttered as he looked across at the site.
“When do you think they’ll know?” Mandy asked him. Both girls turned and welcomed him to sit down. He was the grandfather of Mandy’s new boyfriend.
“What, young Brent not keeping you informed?” There was a cheeky grin and cocked eyebrow. The old man’s brows were white and overgrown. He had a funny face all in all. “You probably don’t have time for such talk… Too busy kissing, I expect.”
Mandy giggled through a blush. “That’s not all we do!”
“Oh? I see…” Two eyebrows were raised that time.
Mandy went bright red. “No, that’s not what I mean. I mean we talk lots, and we go out and walk on the pier. We’re not always kissing!”
The old man chuckled. April joined him. She was curious, though. “So, when do you think the police will have an identity, Mr Oldfield?”
“Any day now, love. Brent said the results are back. They’re just not ready to release them yet… It’s all a big hush-hush secret.”
“Well, even if it is the remains of Grace McKenna, Granddad has already done his time. It won’t make any difference, will it?”
“No, love. Lester was tried, convicted and sentenced. He’s done his time.”
“I think Dad knows something,” Mandy said. “He was looking up investigating firms the other day. He was trying to find some guy from back then—a detective, I think—Baine or something or other. He found that he’s set up a private investigating firm in Melbourne. He said he doesn’t trust the police.”
“Interesting,” old Morgan muttered, rubbing a whiskery chin. He had thick white whiskers. “I’d reckon your dad does know something. He used to get into a fight at least once a week down the pub—never believed his father was guilty.”
“Me either,” April said emphatically. “I don’t care if it does turn out to be that young nurse. Granddad didn’t kill anyone.”
“Jason! Come in.”
Jason took the seat across the desk from Jack Baine. He had first worked with Baine when he was in the police force. Jason had spent six years in the service before getting out to start up a security business with a friend. That had turned out okay—he still had an investment there—but it was totally boring. Baine was a senior detective out of the South Melbourne station where Jason had been based. He had also bumped into the huge, square-headed man when he was a youth.
“You know what this is about, right?” Baine asked, picking at something in his teeth. “I didn’t toss it your way because you might be a bit close.”
Jason frowned. He couldn’t imagine. “What are you going on about, Boss—too close to what?”
“The remains have been identified as that young nurse Grace McKenna.” A look was being sent over the top of silver framed glasses. The question in it: can you handle it?
Grace McKenna. Shit. Jason never said that—rather, he just returned a look of manufactured nonchalance.
His boss chuckled. “That’s the look you gave me back then, kid.” He closed a blue folder and pushed it across the desk. It was a polished mahogany desk—always shiny and clear. Baine had a computer on a bench along the wall. He had no electronics in front of him, just an empty inbox and a silver trophy mug with pens and pencils. “What the hell, being a local, you might get special treatment from the boys over there, anyway. Sergeant Harris knows to expect you. We go back a ways. He said he’ll give you what he can.”
“Who are we working for?” Jason lifted the cover of the file—pages of notes and a photograph of the girl he remembered seeing around town as a youth in Everly Cove. He hadn’t taken much notice of her, but when she was reported murdered he was visited in his home in Melbourne and interviewed. Baine was the detective. He’d shown him that same photo.
“The old man’s son,” Baine answered, resting back in his creaky leather chair. “It’s all there… Wilfred Barrett is the guy’s name. Cops are fed up with him whining about wrongful convictions, so he wants us to liaise with enforcement. Just keep an eye on the investigation and let him know what’s going on… It’s all cleared with the sergeant. They’re more than pleased to not have to deal with the guy.”
“Sounds easy,” Jason said, shrugging. “That’s it—just keep the guy informed?”
“Yep. Take your golf clubs if you like.”
Baine’s secretary, Marcy, came in. She was a buxom woman, always immaculately presented and wearing bright red lipstick. “I’ve got you in the only bed and breakfast in town. You’ll have to find somewhere for evening meals.”
“Yeah, I know the B&B.” Jason took the sheet of paper she offered and slipped it into the folder. Marcy used a cloth and rubbed at a mark on the boss’s desk. She was the reason it was always so shiny. Everyone wondered if the two of them were on together. They looked a well matched couple.
“So, what actually happened with this girl, Boss? The old man abducted her and what—murdered and buried her?” Jason checked what he had read on the first page of the file. “At the soccer field?”
“There was no soccer field back then. It was scrub and a creek running through, as I recall,” Baine pointed out.
“There was a soccer field—or sort of one. We used to play sometimes, but it wasn’t full size. It was just a vacant block there in the middle of town.”
“No, this is a new one—near the high school. The grave is older than the field.”
“And they caught the man?” Marcy asked. “The girl was a young nurse, wasn’t she? A good Samaritan helping sick people…”
“Yeah, we got the perp. Jason here used to swim in his pool. He’s lucky he and his girlfriend weren’t murdered and buried in the scrub too.”
“I swam there once,” Jason clarified for Marcy. “And it was hardly my girlfriend. Just some girl from school.”
Baine and Marcy continued talking. Jason zoned out and drifted off into the memory of that girl from school. He hadn’t been down that lane in years. It smelled the same. It always had. It was kind of a cool lilac. It must have been her soap. It wasn’t a perfume or a shampoo. It was in her skin and had absolutely filled him when he kissed her. The thrill of those first kisses still resonated within Jason’s soul. He believed they were the most intense of his life so far. Which is ridiculous… Of course a first kiss is going to be intense. But why hadn’t his first time making love with a woman measured up? That had been a few years later with his then girlfriend Sarah Pickard. They were together for two years in college. There had been other women too, before meeting Raelene. But no, April Anderson was the one he remembered most fondly—even though she had merely toyed with him for a time or two—April Anderson, soft skin and lilac.
“You with us there, kid?”
“What? Er… Yes.”
“Take my Cruiser. I’ve already got the trade-in valuation. Might as well put some kilometres on it.”
“Your Cruiser? Seriously?”
Jason liked the boss’s Land Cruiser. He’d driven it a few times around the city. The idea of taking it on a road trip was appealing.
“But don’t bust it up,” Baine shot at him as he was leaving. Then he chuckled. “Or if you do, make sure you write it off completely. The insurance is worth more than the trade-in.”
Jason shared an office with Natasha Royal. He plopped down in the chair across her desk. She was typing on her laptop, focused, it seemed. She glanced once then again. “What?”
“We split up.”
She stopped typing, looking over the screen. “You split up. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?”
“Good,” Jason answered emphatically. “All good, except with the kids.”
His partner joined him in a frown. “But now you can find a girl and make more kids.” Her eyes lit up with the tease. “You’re not bad looking for a white guy. Someone will have you.”
“You’re not bad looking yourself, Nat. What are you doing when I get back from this job?”
“Huh. Wait till I tell my man you’re getting fresh with me.”
Jason chuckled. “Tony? No, me and him are buddies. I’ll sort Tony out. I’ll tell him you’ve decided to move on up, shall I?”
Natasha laughed and resumed typing. “The way your last woman walked all over you—you’d be my bitch by the end of a week.”
“Yeah, probably would, Nat… You all good here, then? The boss reckons a week, maybe ten days.”
She waved him off. “Go and have fun. Get laid. Come back happy.”
Jason stopped at the door. “Hey, Nat?”
“You’re a cool partner…”
She smiled sincerely. “Come back happy, Jason. You’re cool too when you’re happy.”
After giving his children an extra-long hug that night, Jason was on the highway headed east out of the Melbourne suburbs. The Land Cruiser was leather appointed luxury—silent and powerful. I need to update the Mazda. He drove for only a few hours before his eyes were threatening to close, and he pulled into a truck parking bay and wound his seat back for a short nap.
It was verging dawn when Jason opened his eyes to a sign post pointing toward Ninety Mile Beach. There was good coffee at the take away shop there, he recalled. That small local road wound through farmland and patches of forest before ending dead-stop at a tiny township and the brilliantly blue Tasman Sea. The morning was crisp and glaringly bright with the sun glistening off the calm water.
Jason parked and strolled out onto the sand, working his cramped muscles. The 90 miles of beach were a gentle arc in the island continent, scrubby trees crowding over a narrow strip of lightly golden sand stretching to the horizon in the east and west. There was little development along the coastline there—a natural paradise.
The coffee was as Jason remembered. He gobbled down a meat pie in a couple of bites then sat on a log rail in front of his car, sipping the strong caffeine and letting it filter through his veins. The expanse of ocean drew his gaze and his mind. It would take a few hours to pack once he returned home, but he would be buying all new furniture for the apartment. He had no idea what the future would hold for him and his children. Would he become their mother’s ex in their eyes? He would have no formal authority over them—no opportunity to guide them beyond giving advice and hoping to influence their choices in schooling and the youthful relationships they would be getting into soon.
Jason had a chuckle at thought of his own youthful relationships again. He took his wallet from his pocket and checked his secret compartment. There was a note he had written to a girl in college—a love note that she had screwed up and tossed back at him. It was still creased but had ironed quite well over the years of being sat on. He opened it and read: Sweet Tracy I can’t captain a debating team with you in it because I love you. It was written on ruled notepad paper, browning a little. Tracy was a girl he had been infatuated with, but she never allowed him beyond friend status. It had felt like love to him at the time. There was a receipt for a bracelet he had bought another girl once. He wasn’t sure why he still had that. The other item in the secret compartment was the one he was looking for: a photo of April Anderson in a bikini. It was actually half a photo. Jason’s school buddy Michael had been trimmed out of the picture—surplus to requirements.
I wonder what ever became of you, April. I was probably silly to write you those few times. Some stupid, dreamy teenager rubbish—I can’t even remember what I wrote.
Jason grinned to himself. It felt nice remembering April.
Must look you up when I get to town. Bet you ended up modelling in frigging Europe or something, but I wonder…
April woke and lay staring at the ceiling. Eric was finishing off his packing for his trip to Paris. His family were English but lived in France. April had wriggled out of the invitation. She didn’t get on with them.
She was driving, so she took her little car, picking up Mandy on the way past her house. By lunchtime the girls were waving goodbye from the terminal drop-off zone. Eric gave a wave back and disappeared into the building.
“You know, last time he went over there he cheated on me,” April announced.
Mandy’s mouth hung open.
“It’s no big deal. I didn’t want to say anything—have it all over town.”
“No big deal? Oh my gosh, April!”
“Oh, don’t carry on. It was three years ago now. We’re over it.” April thought about that for a few seconds. “Actually, it never really bothered me.”
“It never bothered you?”
“Nope. Might even do it myself next chance I get.” She giggled.
“Oh, you would not,” Mandy cried. “Hussy!”
“Well, why the hell not? You know, I was thinking about what you asked the other morning… I don’t think I’ve ever been in love. I don’t even know what that is.”
“You’ve never felt in need and on fire—completely distracted by a guy?”
April glanced. She was negotiating merging lanes of traffic. She had been distracted by guys before, but ‘in need’ or ‘on fire’? Maybe during sex.
“That doesn’t sound so amazing, Mandy. Sounds like horny to me.”
Mandy blushed. “No, not just horny. I mean you just can’t get the guy out of your mind. You spend half your time day dreaming and the other half dreaming at night. When you wake up in the morning, you just smile.”
“You’ve been smiling a lot lately,” April pointed out.
“I know. I can’t help it… I want him to ask me to marry him. Already!”
“You’ve been wanting him to ask you to marry him since you were ten, Mandy.”
Mandy laughed. “Yes, I suppose I have… But I can’t believe Eric. How am I supposed to look at him now? It’s going to be weird.”
“It’s been weird for me too,” April agreed. “Weird that I don’t even care.”
A few moments passed in silence as they drove along an expressway headed out of Canberra city. Mandy suddenly spoke what had obviously been on her mind.
“You’re so tough, April. You always handle stuff so well.”
That was true, although April had to suppress a rise of emotion right then. She rarely cried. She sometimes did when alone but never in front of anyone.
April was sixteen when she became pregnant with her daughter, Heather. She had moved out of home and raised her child alone on the single mother’s pension. It had been a tough first few years. She refused to leave her baby with childcare and wouldn’t burden her mother or aunties, so she spent that first five years on the minimum income. There had been boyfriends but only passing interests. When Heather started school, April began work in a bakery, serving at the counter. She was offered an apprenticeship and qualified as a pastry cook. A position became available when the new supermarket opened, and she secured that, soon becoming the bakery manager. She had achieved that without any influence from Eric. He was the assistant store manager at that time. They started seeing each other after staff meetings and kind of gravitated toward moving in together and marriage. It had been a slow progression. Not a lot of fire at all, April considered as she drove.
When Heather finished high school with one of the highest rankings in the state, April used her savings to set her up at university in Melbourne, where she was right then in her second year of a medical degree.
“Heather doesn’t know about Eric either. I’d prefer she didn’t find out, okay, Mandy?”
“Of course. I won’t say a word.” Mandy intertwined fingers. “I still think he’s a creep now, though—even if you don’t care.”
“I do care,” April replied. “I do, Mandy. I just… I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m thirty-five and I might as well be seventy. I feel like I’m wasting time.”
“Well, do something. Shake your life up!”
“How? Do what? I’m not having an affair. If I was going to do that I’d be doing it properly and booting Eric out.”
“Now there’s a thought… The arsehole cheater!”
April glared at her cousin in mock horror. Mandy never swore.
“Well, he is. That’s the lowest thing, to cheat. Like you said—if you’re going to do it, leave properly.”
“You think I should leave Eric?”
“No… Well, I don’t know. He’s just an a’hole now that I know what he did.” Mandy glanced and smiled. She had an idea. April knew her looks.
“What? What are you scheming, Mandy?”
The younger woman shrugged. “Nothing. I just realised what you need.”
April frowned. “And what would that be?”
The smile broadened. A blush appeared, making Mandy very pretty—adorable in fact, April thought. The girl bit her lip, raking it with her teeth. Her eyes were alight. “Find a new man and have a baby.”
April peered over her sunglasses. She wanted to scoff but she would be lying if she did, since the same idea had occurred to her plenty of times lately. There was a new owner of the news agency at her shopping centre, a single man who had been making her think twice about how her hair was done in the mornings. She used to pin her hair up. Lately she had been wearing it down, letting her long dark curls bounce about her shoulders. She had to pin it up for work but not until she got there.
“Well, why not?” Mandy challenged. “Find a nice guy and fall in love… It’s the best feeling!”
“And have babies?”
“Yeah—but with a guy this time. Like, fall in love first, then get married, then have a baby… How hard would that be? Guys would be all over you if you were single. You’re really hot.”
April couldn’t help smiling. She loved being around Mandy with her absolute positivity. The girl wanted her fairy tale and would have it. Nothing else even mattered.
“I think you like that idea, April—to have a real man to take care of you… You’re not really so tough, are you?”
April tried to suppress another rise of emotion but couldn’t contain it that time. Tears welled. “No, I’m not so tough,” she replied, sniffling. “I’d like to be taken care of.”
“Okay. I’m going to find you a real man. Eric the cheater is history. Let’s cancel his plane ticket. They can keep him over there.”
April giggled a little painfully. “Okay…” She was about halfway serious.
The expressway narrowed to a highway skirting the eastern edge of the New South Wales Alps. They crossed the border back into Victoria. The prison that held their grandfather was a minimum security facility. It had farming enterprises that the prisoners worked, the visiting area in parkland with bench seats and gardens.
“Hello, Granddad,” both women cried in unison, getting hugs and taking a hand each to hold while they sat talking.
Lester Barrett was seventy-six years old. He had battled the first fifty plus in the real world. The past twenty, he had spent in the relative ease and security of the Victorian prison system.
This was Lester’s garden. When he had been transferred from high security to the Winton Park facility, the visitor’s area was in an open grassy yard with a couple of shade trees. Lester had gained the privilege of upgrading and maintaining the facility through several years of good behaviour. The prison warden often took his meal breaks in Lester’s garden. He would offer Lester a cup of his herbal tea occasionally.
“But you can’t just stay here,” his sweet young granddaughter was saying. “You have to come home, Granddad. We all love you and miss you so much.”
“I know, sweetheart. It’s just daunting to think of having to think! There’s a lot to be said for being without a choice. You get your meals. There’s exact time limits on any activity. There’s a bedtime and a wake up buzzer.”
“So, we’ll get you a buzzer,” April went on, fussing with his shirt collar. “Plus you can wear whatever shirt you want instead of these boring grey things.”
“But I like grey.”
Lester adored April. She was his favourite, though he would never say. She reminded him of her grandmother—Lester’s wife, who had died of cancer in her early thirties. April was not the image of Eileen but she had her personality.
Mandy squeezed his hand. He looked to her. She was smiling gaily, with a twinkle he noticed differently. “Dad’s been taking care of your house, Granddad. It’s really nice.”
He nodded his appreciation.
“Except the back is full of junk,” April added. “We didn’t want to sort through your old shed and that because who knows what treasures there are in amongst the trash.”
“Have you decided if you’re going to stay in The Cove?” Mandy asked tentatively.
Lester had been avoiding thinking about that. His son, Mandy’s father, had offered him a place in Melbourne—a fresh start where no one would know him.
“I think I want to give it a try at The Cove. I hope people will let me.”
“They have to let you!” April demanded. “Anyone complains and they’ll be getting poison bread. I’ll slip a few drops of arsenic into the mix. Give them something real to complain about instead of this bullshit.”
Lester smiled. April flared up as easily as Eileen used to.
“Then I’ll set their houses on fire,” she went on. “Anyone who even dares make you feel unwelcome—see what happens to them.”
“Plus the police have to help you settle in,” Mandy added softly. “My Brent said they have to, and he’s going to make sure no one bothers you.”
Lester cocked a bushy brow. “Your Brent?”
Mandy blushed. “My boyfriend.”
April added to that. “Who she wants to marry and have babies with.”
Lester pulled little Mandy close. “Well, I’d best get home in time for the wedding, I suppose.” She was blushing bright red, but that twinkle in her pretty eyes outshone any of that.
Lester’s two girls spent the visiting hour there with him talking about all the changes at The Cove, things he had heard over and over but never tired of listening to. His mental picture of the small town was from the nineteen eighties. Apparently you didn’t even use money these days, all of that had gone electronic. His bank had moved from the main building in the centre of town to a small shop in some new mall complex. You did your banking on-line—using a computer or something or other. There were computers in the prison library, but Lester had yet to investigate what they were for or how to use one.
His girls had all of that sorted. He would be getting lessons from each of them.
Their hugs were what he had been living on over the years. The ones today were extra-long and cuddly. They left him with tears welling in his eyes.
The garden was emptying out. He nodded to Roger, the guard on duty, and returned to his rake and wheel barrow and the pile of leaves he had gathered before visiting hour.
The parole board meeting next week was apparently a mere formality. Lester would miss his garden, but he was ready to face the real world outside. He had some time left. He was fit and healthy—set to live well into his eighties, he hoped. And one thing he wanted in that final chapter of life—one thing he had been missing desperately these past twenty years—was the smell and sound of his beloved Pacific Ocean.
A garden is no damned place for a fisherman. Neither is Melbourne city.
The two headlands were an eerily welcome sight for Jason. He had parked at the lookout before negotiating the windy road down the cliff-face into the sleepy little fishing village of Everly Cove. The town was nestled around a pebbly beach between two massive sandstone rock formations jutting out into the ocean. Atop the northern headland towered the defunct lighthouse, which closed down when Jason was a child. The southern pillar of rock was covered in lawns and gardens and adorned by a huge sandstone mansion, built by the Mulvane family, who founded the fish markets. It was now the residence of the town widow.
The road down the cliff-face brought Jason into the southern end of town where there seemed to be more houses than he remembered. There were new developments—gated communities it seemed, or at least sectioned off and with a decorated stone wall entrance. No doubt there were rent-a-cops circling the streets in small black and white security cars, Jason considered. Well, ain’t The Cove a big city now?
The main road found the shoreline, where he rolled along peering up the side streets. This all looked as he had last seen it. There were more businesses and taller buildings back a ways, but along the waterfront everything looked the same. The fisherman’s bar still needed a coat of paint. There were bearded men with beers leaning on the window ledges looking out at the docks—nothing new. Jason’s old takeaway shop was still there. He would be good for burgers and fish & chips—dinners were covered. He hoped they still did the same battered savs and maybe the malted milkshakes. There were people strolling along the foreshore. It was a nice, warm early spring evening.
Jason turned left and drove up and down the streets. He found a new shopping centre and that the hospital had been expanded. His old high school had huge sail like structures he imagined were shade for the students while outdoors—perhaps an advancement in health and safety for the hot summer months. The orange brick buildings were kind of overgrown with trees. It was all still there, but time had moved on. The police station had been converted to a boys scout hall. There was a new station and court house over near the bed and breakfast. He slowed as he passed. It looked big—all glass and chrome. The landscaped gardens were impressive. There was a utility and trailer parked, with the name David Barrett on the side. The Barrett’s had lived across from Jason’s house. There had been a boy named David. Jason’s contact was the father, Wilfred. Better get settled and have a chat with the sergeant before reporting in with him.
There was parking out front of the B&B, an old style timber house surrounded by more beautiful flower gardens, overlooking the bay and lines of fishing boats. There was a new marina on this northern end of the bay, populated with sporty looking pleasure craft.
“Hello… Mrs Reeves? I’m Jason Ford. I have a booking.”
The elderly woman who had answered Jason’s knock on the open door was squinting up at him. Her eyes suddenly shot open. “Oh, of course! Mr Ford… Linda and George’s boy come to see us. Come in. Come in.”
“You remember me?” Jason was following.
“Oh no. Well, yes, now that I have a close look I can see your young self in there. Oh yes, the town’s expecting you.”
“The town’s expecting me?”
The busy old woman chuckled. “Of course, dear. You’d be here to poke into the whats and wherefores of that body they dug up over by the school. Big time police officer and all… Now, I’ve got you out back here. You don’t want one of these frilly rooms I give to my honeymooners, do you? You want something basic and functional, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am. Basic is fine. I’m not with the police anymore, though. I’m a private investigator.”
“Oh yes, that’s what I meant… Here at the behest of Wilfred Barrett. His private police, hmm?”
“Yes, that’s it. A private cop… You know an awful lot about this, Mrs Reeves.”
She smiled. “Well, we talk around town and…” she whispered behind her hand, “Sergeant Harris? He can’t keep a secret.”
“Oh, I see. Well, that makes my job easier.” Jason dropped his bag on the floor and looked out the window at the roof-tops of the town centre and the few tall buildings amongst them. “Yes, this will do fine, Mrs Reeves. Perfect.”
He had a single bed, a desk and a chair. A bathroom across the hall was labelled Gents. Presumably the ladies’ bathroom resided elsewhere in the rambling old house.
“Fine. Now, breakfast is in the main dining room we passed there, between seven and eight. You will be eating with us?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be there at seven.”
“Lovely! Enjoy your stay, Mr Ford.”
Jason kicked off his shoes and flopped on the bed. It was firm yet soft, just about right. He closed his eyes and, sometime later, opened them to darkness and slight confusion until his mind quickly came to terms with where he was. Someone had closed his door. He peeped out. All was quiet in the house.
A quick shower to freshen up had Jason ready to go find food. He strolled down the hill to the takeaway shop across from the beach. Mrs Keno still ran the place, he noticed. She was a large Greek woman who hadn’t changed a lot in twenty years. The menu hadn’t changed much either—still offering a range of greasy battered seafood snacks.
“Two pieces of fish and a bag of chips, please?” Jason requested, putting a bottle of Coke on the high-top laminated counter next to a stand of football cards.
Mrs Keno placed his fish in the boiling oil and scooped a serve of chips into the deep fry basket. “And how is big city life treating you, Jason?” she asked, wiping her hands in her apron.
“Well enough thanks, Mrs Keno. It’s home now, I suppose. I hardly remember The Cove.”
“Well, you were only a boy… Town’s changed a lot over the years.”
“I can’t believe you remember me.”
“Ha! Skinny legged thing you were.”
“How’s Anthony going these days?” Anthony Keno was a boy Jason used to hang around with a bit. It had been good having a friend whose parents owned the milkshake shop.
“He’s in Sydney with a young family—three boys,” Mrs Keno replied, huffing unhappily.
Jason learned of what became of a few other kids he went to school with while his fish and chips were cooking. He took his paper-wrapped meal across the road and set up at a bench facing the cove to watch the few fishermen still cleaning up or working on their boats. The oily, salty meal tasted good—like biting into 1985. He scolded his fingers digging it out of the paper wrapping to eat it, as he always used to do. It wasn’t easy to find a traditional fish & chip shop anymore, everything being healthy and served in Styrofoam these days. You got a plastic knife and fork. Where was the fun in that?
Along the walkway was a bar with music playing and a generally young looking crowd. Jason went in for a couple of beers. The music was karaoke with a range of talents on display over the hour he sat and watched, clapping and laughing along. In spite of the afternoon nap, he began tiring, though, and soon returned to his rented room for a nights’ sleep.
“Ah yes—Mr Ford. Come on through,” a huge bellied sergeant greeted him at the front counter of the police station the next morning.
He took a proffered chair across the sergeant’s desk. A file was produced from a drawer, and the sergeant put on glasses and opened it. He rubbed his chin. Jason waited for him to speak.
“Son, the remains have been positively identified as those of the nurse Grace McKenna.” He peered over his glasses. “What are your instructions from Barrett?”
“I haven’t met with him yet. As far as I know I’m to liaise with you on his behalf—report on any progress in the case.”
“The case won’t be re-opened. This development is not entirely unexpected. There was never a body found. The original file concluded the method of disposal had not been definitively established. Melbourne are having a look, but there is no great interest in pursuing this with the perpetrator having served his sentence. They’re going to add a passage or two and return the file to the archives. There are more pressing matters, you understand?”
Jason did understand. He nodded. “I can pass that information on. Seems I’ve wasted a trip.”
“Ah no,” the sergeant said with a grin. “It was well worth the trip to save me having to explain that to Barrett.” He handed Jason the file. “There’s a summary in there. If Barrett won’t accept this, bring him in. I’ve a feeling it won’t go down well.”
Jason accepted the sergeant’s handshake. He nodded his thanks for the file and left. It was a cardboard folder with a few pages of information: a crime scene report, charge sheet and judgment summary.
It was only a few blocks to the Barrett house where he had arranged to meet Wilfred Barrett at ten. There was an hour to kill, so he drove to the new shopping mall for a look around and to find a coffee and slice or something. There was a bakery and a food court. Jason sat watching the morning shoppers and had a browse through a local paper, taking in the prices of properties that were not a lot cheaper than Melbourne.
He gave Baine a call. “That’s all he said, Boss. They’re not interested. It’s not worth wasting assets on something that amounts to nothing.”
“Figures,” Baine replied. “I warned this Barrett fellow that might happen. Just give him what you’ve got and see what he wants to do.”
“Fine, Boss. Will do,” Jason said and pocketed his phone.
He strolled outside into the warm sunny day and had a stretch, then he got in the Cruiser and almost hit a car, backing out of his spot. It was a little blue thing that had flashed past, doing considerably more than the 10kph speed limit, he reasoned. The driver had slammed on brakes, screeching to a halt and nearly hitting another car. It was a woman with a mop of dark curls tumbling around her shoulders. She had parked her car and approached Jason’s window with an awfully angry expression on what was otherwise a pretty face.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
Jason opened his mouth but she cut him off.
“What’s this frigging great truck? No wonder you can’t see where you’re driving. Where’s your eight children or your trailer full of cows—or is this all for you?”
“Sorry…” Jason offered. “I looked. I didn’t see you.” He wanted to mention that she had come out of nowhere but thought better of it. “Sorry,” he repeated and turned to continue backing out of the rather tight parking spot.
The woman stormed off, heels clacking on the pavement, hair fluttering out behind. Jason was checking out her bottom when she flashed a look back over her shoulder and caught him. He shrugged and smiled guiltily and drove away before she had a chance to attack him again.
He still had fifteen minutes to waste, so he meandered along the small pebbly beach and parked for a last, nostalgic look out at the cove. If the meeting went well he would be on the road in an hour, but it was nice to see his old home town again.
He pulled up in front of the Barrett house and was walking into the yard when the little blue car from the shopping centre flashed into the driveway. The curly-haired woman got out carrying a loaf of bread. She looked him up and down. “You’re the private investigator from Melbourne?”
“That would be me,” Jason replied amicably.
Her eyes rolled in a follow me motion. She opened the front door of the house and went in. “Uncle Will, the investigator guy’s here.”
Jason poked his head in the door. A tall, thin man greeted him with a firm handshake. “Will Barrett… You’d be Jason Ford?”
Jason was ushered in and to a seat in a tidy lounge room. It was a small, older style house, just like the one across the road where he used to live.
The angry woman returned and sat on the lounge next to her uncle. They both looked to Jason expectantly. Another woman came in with a tray of teacups and a teapot. She placed it on a low stained timber table in the middle of the room.
“So, I had a meeting with Sergeant Harris this morning,” Jason started.
“Yes—and?” the angry woman asked. Her uncle patted her knee, giving a small hand gesture to be quiet and let Jason talk.
“Well, the remains have been identified as those of Grace McKenna. The police are satisfied these findings are consistent with the original conviction against Lester Barrett. It’s unlikely they will be doing anything more than adding a note to the file.”
The older man was nodding. The angry woman appeared ready to let fly.
“Hey, I’m just passing on information here, lady.”
“Information that’s bullshit,” she said, still with an aggressive edge to her tone, but her brown eyes softened a little as she held Jason’s gaze.
He experienced a jolt of interest in the matter. He often had to process the mundane—track down people to serve papers on or sift through file after file to find evidence of one company ripping off another company. It was rare to be assigned anything exciting to actually investigate. “Well, if you think it’s bullshit, why not investigate the matter privately? The cops don’t care much for what you think. They have a crime, a perpetrator, and now they have the victim… They’re happy.”
“That’s why you’re here, Mr Ford,” the thin man said calmly.
Everyone looked at him—both women and Jason had the same blank expression.
Wilfred Barrett went on, addressing Jason. “My father never murdered that young nurse. As far as I can see it—and I’m no legal expert—the prosecution could not prove he did and we couldn’t prove he didn’t. He was convicted because of his confession.” He glanced either side at the two women, including them as he continued. “We know he didn’t do it, sir. We want you to do what the police were never motivated to do. We want you to investigate who actually did kill the girl. We want you to assume Granddad…” He checked again with the two women, obviously granddaughters. “…didn’t do it”
The woman who had brought the tea was crying. The angry woman had tears welling too. The man appeared resolute.
Jason felt alive. He suddenly wanted this.
“Tell me what you can, please?” He had addressed the man but looked to the two women as well. “I was here back then. I was a kid. I met your grandfather a couple of times—used to know April Anderson. She must be—”
The man and tea woman turned to the angry woman. She was blushing. “I’m April Anderson,” she mumbled.
Jason gulped. “You’re April?” He suddenly saw the teen girl in her eyes. “You’re April.”
“And you are?”
“Jason… Jason Ford.”
“Oh boy, it’s Bat out of Hell,” the other woman exclaimed, smiling.
“Hi, Jason. How have you been?” April asked. She had changed, the anger gone. There was warmth in her eyes, and a small smile accompanied the remnants of her blush.
“Bat out of Hell?” Wilfred asked in confusion.
The tea woman squeezed his arm. “Private joke, Dad. Don’t worry.” She met Jason’s glance. “I’m Mandy. We’re cousins. This is my dad. April used to talk about you all the time.”
April was blushing again. Jason found his voice. “I’m good. I’ve been going fine, thanks… You look good. You grew up.”
“You did too.”
“We tried to find you once,” Mandy announced.
“Mandy!” April scolded.
“She’s still got your letters,” the girl added defiantly.
“Cut it out, Mandy. Seriously!” angry April shot at her wide-eyed, grinning cousin.
“Yes—enough with the fun and games. You can catch up later,” Wilfred commanded. “How much do you know of what happened back then, Jason?”
“I know quite a bit. I was interviewed by the police at the time and took an interest in all the news reports I could find. Jack Baine, my boss, was a detective involved in the investigation. I know that basically, Lester Barrett was found asleep in his boat the morning after the girl went missing. He was still drunk. There was a shoe belonging to the girl in the boat, along with her blood. Witnesses stated that he had carried and dragged what could have been a body into his boat the previous night and set out to sea. Back at his house, police found more of her clothing and blood on the kitchen floor, also hair and blood in the back of his station wagon. Then there was the previous charge for peeping on the girl. He was facing a court appearance over that after being warned several times and continuing to harass her. And then there was his confession—that he had abducted and killed the girl and dumped her body at sea.”
The three listeners were just staring.
Jason went on. “But let’s say all of that, which seems pretty clear-cut, is untrue. It’s circumstantial and pointing to a wrong conclusion… I think the key question would be: why did your grandfather confess? Why would he do that?”
“Because he was too drunk to remember what happened, and he believed the evidence like everyone else,” April replied.
“He doesn’t remember,” Wilfred added. “He talks about flashes of memory. He saw the girl dead. He was on the boat. I’ve asked him why he was so obsessed with that girl, and he brushes the question off. That she was killed, hurts him deeply. I don’t think he actually knows whether or not he did it… Not to this day.”
Jason accepted the cup of tea Mandy poured him. He sipped the strong brew. “My first question is still why… Why was he obsessed with the girl?”
“He wasn’t a pervert,” April declared emphatically.
“That’s good. So, he never bothered any other women or girls back then? I don’t remember hearing anything at the time.”
“No, he never did,” Wilfred assured. “But he did sneak around spying on that nurse,” he added grimly.
“Well, that’s one angle we need to approach this investigation from. And one I’m sure the police never bothered much with, given the confession.” Jason drank down the last of his tea and motioned to the pot, requesting permission to get a refill. “What else do we have? Is there anything else you can think of that you believe the police never looked into? Do you have a suspect?”
“There were a lot of men coming and going from Granddad’s house back then—fishermen types—drifters,” April said, pouring more tea for Jason and herself. “The house was never locked. Anyone could have murdered that girl and used Granddad’s car when he was drunk. He was always drunk.”
“There’s one thing I’ve always wondered about,” Wilfred offered ponderingly. “There’s an old woman who has lived on Lorton Island for forty odd years and has never been seen over here on the mainland—never, other than one day back then I saw her across the road staring at Dad’s house.”
Jason had his notebook out and a pen ready. “Her name?”
“I don’t know. I approached her once but she wouldn’t speak to me.”
“She seems friendly enough now,” Mandy suggested. “We saw her when we were over at Lorton Island last week.”
“People call her The Witch… It’s cruel,” April added. “We can go and see her.”
We? Jason let that slide for the moment, though it thrilled him. “What about that preacher guy who lived down the back?”
April acknowledged that question. “The Pastor? No, he was really nice. There were other men hanging around who used to creep me out, but he was different. He tried to help Granddad and stop him from watching that nurse all the time. He used to help me steal Granddad’s wine and pour it down the sink.”
“The police cleared him,” Wilfred added. “He was the one person they did at least interrogate—since he lived there with my father. He came and went a few times afterward. His old van is still there in the junk down the back yard.”
“What was his name?” Jason enquired.
No one knew.
“I heard it mentioned but can’t recall,” Wilfred said, peering over the top of Jason’s notebook.
“So, we need to figure out why your granddad was so interested in Grace McKenna, and we need to have a chat with the lady on Lorton Island… That’s a good start… What are the chances Lester will simply tell us why? How long has it been since you last asked him?”
“He brushes you off,” April said. “If you mention anything at all about it, he just brushes you. And he’s good at it.”
“Did she look like anyone?” Jason asked, showing the photograph from his file. They all studied it. Heads were shaking slowly. “Does she look anything like his wife?” Jason tossed out there.
April picked up the photograph to study it more closely. “Not really.”
“What about someone from before he married? Could she resemble a girlfriend from his youth? Are there photo albums we could check?” Jason reviewed his information. “When did he marry?”
“He and Mum married in 1955. Mum died in 1960,” Wilfred said. “There are stacks of photos from all through the years. Dad was an amateur photographer.”
“Did he ever photograph women?” Jason asked.
Wilfred shook his head. “Not as in models. He often photographed people around the wharfs—anyone strolling around were fair game.”
Jason noted that. He scratched his head. They were all just staring at him. April had a beautiful light in her eyes, and a tiny smile was tugging at her full lips. “I think we go see your granddad’s house first thing—look through his stuff for any clues about why he might have been infatuated with the nurse. Would that be okay?”
“Certainly!” Wilfred declared. “Anything you need, Mr Ford. Better get it done before the old bugger comes home, though.”
“Jason will be fine, sir,” Jason offered with a smile.
“Then I’m Will,” the older man returned. He was smiling too. They all were.
“Then we’ll have to go and see this lady on the island… Is there a ferry or something. I think there used to be one from up the coast somewhere.”
“We can get a boat,” April said. “When? I’m ready anytime.”
Jason’s skin tingled. “The house now. The island in the morning?”
Wilfred stood. “Where are you staying, Jason?”
“With me,” April answered before Jason could. She held his gaze steadily.
Mandy squeaked. She was blushing and smiling her head off.
“Guess I’m staying at April’s house,” Jason said to her uncle.
His eyes rolled. “On second thoughts, I don’t want to know.” He shook Jason’s hand and crushed it. “You fill me with hope, Jason.” His eyes were watery.
“Me too,” April said. “We’re going to do this, aren’t we?”
It was more so a statement than a question.
“We’re going to give it a shot,” Jason replied, taking in all three faces. “We’ll give it a damn good shot………..”
Full novel to be posted in 5 parts over the next week or so.
From the back cover:
Jason Ford is back in town after twenty years to investigate remains of a young woman unearthed at the local soccer field. April Anderson still has his unanswered schoolboy love letters hidden in the bottom of her jewellery box. Her hubby is overseas visiting his parents. Surely it’s okay to offer an old friend the spare room… Nothing problematic in that, right?
Wrong! All kinds of wrong. All levels of it… But will it ultimately be wrong if it turns out to be a new happily-ever-after?
Both times Jason has encountered April there’s been another dude with a claim. This one is overseas and out of the picture for the next few weeks. And April isn’t happy in her relationship. Not that that should be any of Jason’s business… Except there’s the tiny detail that Jason actually did see and develop feelings for April before this current guy did – back when they were at high school together… Surely that gives him some small level of entitlement, doesn’t it?
Happy reading, G.S.Bailey