Aussie cold case murder mystery. Steamy romance.
It took less than half an hour to unload the furniture, and Bobby saw the two men from the removal company off and returned to where Kate was unpacking boxes in the kitchen. She smiled up at him, and he felt he knew the answer to his question. “Well, do you like it?”
“Yes, Bobby. It’s even bigger than you said, and once we clean it up it will be a wonderful home.”
That was all Bobby needed to know. All the worry about leaving his job and quitting the bowling team, all the decisions about leaving the city and starting afresh in the country disappeared. Everything would be fine now that Kate had said so.
Bobby got on his knees and gave her a big hug over the box.
“Okay, okay. Ya big oaf! How about helping me unpack this stuff?”
“But I want to show you your room,” Bobby sprouted enthusiastically, getting up and pulling Kate to her feet.
“I thought you were going to let me choose.”
“Yeah, but this is the best room, Katie. Just wait and see.”
The front section of the house was a living area, and the back section was a kitchen with a separate dining room and laundry. There was a staircase from the living room to the upper level where the master bedroom looked out onto the main street.
“That’s my room because I’m the adult now. And this can be your room.” Bobby glowed inside, studying Kate’s face as she looked around. “Look out the window, Katie. You can see all the way down the valley as far as the river!”
Kate opened the wardrobe and looked in. She walked around the room, as if checking where things might go, while Bobby waited anxiously. She looked out the window and opened it before turning to face him.
“Well?” Bobby asked. His heart was racing.
“Can I set it up just how I want it?” Kate asked, looking around the room again.
Bobby nodded urgently.
“And can I come and stay anytime I want to?”
“Hmm, okay then, Bobby.”
Kate’s lips curled into a smile that unleashed a thousand butterflies in Bobby’s stomach. He took her into his arms again and gave her a big squeeze. “I love you, Katie,” he said, but the words caught in his throat and formed a lump he couldn’t swallow, and he held on and stroked her soft hair while she swayed against his chest.
Bobby was left to put the beds together while Kate unpacked the kitchen. He had all the parts for his and Kate’s beds in the third bedroom, awaiting her approval of his choice of rooms. He quickly erected them and went down to see what the next job was, and he was presented with a shopping list to be filled while Kate caught up on the few hours’ sleep she had missed that morning.
Bobby stepped out onto the front veranda and sucked in the warm mountain air. His gaze roamed across the valley where there appeared to be more farm houses than he remembered. There was the Walkers’ farm and the Cosgroves’ and the Rose mansion, but there were also three newer houses, and through the trees he could see the grey sandstone walls of Glenview House.
Bobby remembered the nights he had slept in the loft there with the other boys. His daddy had been the boss of Glenview home for boys, and Bobby remembered playing Cocky Laura on the front lawn, and playing hide and seek in the gardens and in the dairy and hayshed. Bobby thought of the school holiday camps in the forest with the other boys, and his chest swelled with pride at the memory of being the son of the camp boss. “They were just usual boys. They were just usual, and I was the special boy,” he muttered.
He gazed up at the town. It had seemed old and small driving through, as if everything had shrunk and weathered in the wind. He didn’t walk directly into town. Instead, he went around the back of the house and found the walking track up to Mill Road. The grass had mostly reclaimed the narrow trail, but Bobby and his father had once laid gravel, which was still there in patches. He could see his father bringing the wheelbarrow up the hill and tipping the piles of stones to be spread. His father had been a great workman. He had worked every day except Sundays and Christmas day at the school and at Glenview. Being a religious man, he wouldn’t work on those days. Instead, he would pack Bobby and his mother off to church to sing and praise the Lord.
Bobby passed the church with barely a glance and strode across the road to the gates of the mill. He stood clutching the rusted iron bars and staring blankly at the hoist of the crane lying like the carcass of a slain dinosaur, caked in a windrow of dust and dry grass and strangled by shrubs and vines.
The gates were unchained and creaked open when he pushed them. He walked up to Mister Rose’s office. ‘Chucky Rules 95’ was painted across the door in big, red letters. The door was ajar, and Bobby looked in to find desks upturned and more symbols and graffiti splashed around the walls. The plate glass windows looking out into the mill were smashed, and as Bobby stepped over to them, he saw that the mill had been gutted.
He slumped against the administration counter. His legs were tingling, and a cold, sickening sensation crawled up his spine. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry, and he stumbled from the mill office, hunched over, and vomited.
The world was spinning as he staggered back to the road and across to the church. He slumped against a tree and slunk to the ground. He sat there with flashes of the past churning in his head: the trucks backing in and the men releasing the chains, bringing the hoist into position and that first jolt of the cabin of the crane as he took the weight of a log. I’ll get a new crane! That’s what I’ll do with the money! I’ll fix Mister Rose’s office and buy new saws, and I’ll get an even better crane than that old one!
Bobby’s inheritance had included almost four hundred thousand dollars, money his mother had inherited herself just before her death. He stood with the strength of a master plan surging through his veins. He would buy the mill—Kate would help him—and he would rebuild it better than it ever was before.
Bobby strode back across to the iron gates and stood building his plan in his mind. He could see it all. He would be the morning shift foreman, just like he was going to be before. Kate would be the manager.
She knows how to be a business manager. She can be the office boss, and I can be foreman! He could see a big new crane, a black one. He had seen it in a magazine. It had an air-conditioned cabin. That’s the one I’ll get.
Bobby strode on into town with his thoughts buzzing around his new vision for the future, but as he approached the milk bar on the clock tower corner, he realized there was a horrible taste in his mouth, and he bought a Coke to wash it away.
There were a dozen cars parked along the main street with people strolling around, browsing the shops. There was a blue cattle dog tied in the back of a utility that was fussing for attention, so Bobby stopped to give it a pat. A heavily set man immediately stepped from the passenger seat.
“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. His puffy face was flushed.
Bobby saw danger in his eyes. “Sorry. I just wanted to give him a pat.”
“You did? Well, who the fuck are you?”
Bobby backed away, but he was shoved forward by a tall, bald-headed man with pale skin and a tattooed neck.
“I didn’t mean anything.” Bobby continued backing away with the two men following, and when he hurried across the road, they stayed with their vehicle, laughing.
Bobby went into an antique store, brushing at his shirt where he had spilled his drink and watching for the two men to drive away. When they had gone he went back out onto the street and saw they stopped in front of the pub. He decided it would be best to keep away from them, so he took a narrow laneway down to the railway station and thought he would walk home that way. He also remembered Kate had told him to find out about the train service to Sydney.
The railway station was at the bottom end of High Street. The ticket office was gone, and the platform was bare. The railway track was still there, but it was rusted and overgrown with weeds. There was a small bus shelter that looked to be in use, so Bobby checked that and found a timetable for buses to Camden. There was one in the morning on weekdays and one returning each night. He always carried a pencil and notebook in case he needed to remember things, and he took it from his pocket and scribbled down the times to show Kate.
Bobby wandered along the gravel road beside the railway line. There were stockyards with a few cattle huddled and a truck backed up to the ramp. He watched two men load the cattle, and after the truck drove away, the man who had stayed behind approached and said hello. He was a short fellow with a weathered hat and slits for eyes. He was friendly enough, and Bobby listened to his talk about the cattle sale every second Saturday and about how things were a bit slow that year due to an exceptionally dry winter.
It was after 1pm when Bobby remembered the note in his pocket. He strolled back up High Street to the general store his grandmother used to own. He looked around the back and found his bike rack was still there. He touched it, remembering the paper run and how he used to sit there against the roller door and roll newspapers every morning.
He walked back around to the front of the shop and was about to go inside when he heard a girl scream. It was a piercing scream with enough urgency in it to lift the hair on the back of Bobby’s neck. He saw the two men from earlier, and there was another man sitting in the gutter. There was a girl trying to lift him, and the two men were standing over her.
Bobby’s heart throbbed in his neck. He covered the distance in a few seconds and hit the chest of the puffy-faced man with the flat of his palm, sending him sprawling on his back onto the tray of the utility. He didn’t see the tall man with the tattoos. He just swung his arm and knocked him face first into the gutter as he reached for the girl.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” the girl said shakily. She looked from the bald man, struggling to his feet, to the other man scrambling from the tray of the utility.
“Were they hurting you?” Bobby went on, trying to see the girl’s face. She looked as if she had been crying.
Bobby felt something thump against the back of his neck, and he shot out a hand and clutched the throat of the bald man. He pulled him close then thrust him backward, sending him sprawling on his back in the gutter again. The bald man cried out in pain, and Bobby turned to the girl. She was tending to the man sitting in the gutter. “Come on, Granddad,” she was saying, and she was trying to help him up.
Bobby slipped his shoulder beneath the old man’s arm and lifted him. He supported him easily and turned to glare at his two adversaries watching from the doorway of the pub. “Where does he live, miss?” he asked the girl.
“I’m Alyssa,” she said, smiling. “It’s this way.”
The old man was conscious but incoherent and unable to walk. Bobby lifted him because it was easier than dragging him along. He was like an empty sack and reeked of alcohol. The girl walked ahead, saying only enough to direct Bobby to the back of a house on Mill Road where there was a flat that belonged to the old man.
“In here.” Alyssa motioned for Bobby to put her grandfather on his bed. “He’ll be fine when he sleeps it off.”
Bobby placed the old man carefully. He recognized the face of Sergeant Lloyd. He remembered him walking around the streets with his chest out watching everybody. He used to be the town boss, but he was bigger then.
Bobby tried again to look at the girl’s face. “Did they hurt you?” he asked, touching her chin and lifting it. Her eyes were reddened, but she smiled.
“No, they didn’t hurt me. They were just being disgusting.”
Bobby smoothed her hair. She was trembling, and he thought she was going to faint or something. “You’re pretty.”
“Shut up,” she said, blushing and looking away.
Bobby didn’t understand. “Sorry,” he said, as he always did when he was confused.
Alyssa’s eyes turned upon him again. “I think Granddad messed your shirt.” She pointed to a wet mark that was obviously urine. “Can I wash it for you?”
“But I can go there.” Bobby pointed in the direction of his house, plucking at his shirt.
Alyssa had stepped close. “It’s the least I can do after you saved me and all.”
Her voice was suddenly tender and sweet, and sounding so much like Kate did sometimes that Bobby was unable to resist.
He pulled out his shirt and unbuttoned it then slipped it from his shoulders. Alyssa’s eyes widened, and Bobby thought of what Kate made him do sometimes. “Do you want to see?” he asked, and he clenched his fists together and flexed his muscles. “Katie likes it when I do that,” he explained.
“Katie? Is she your wife?”
“Nope. She’s my sister.”
Alyssa smiled. “Your sister! I see. Can you show me again?”
Bobby turned, and folding his hands behind his head, he flexed the muscles in his back and shoulders. “You can touch them if you want. Katie does sometimes.”
“Oh, she does?” Alyssa felt Bobby’s shoulder and traced the ridge of muscle down the middle of his back. “So, what’s your name?” she asked sweetly.
“Bobby. I just moved into my house down there.” He again pointed in the direction of his house.
“With your sister?”
“Nope. Katie lives in Sydney, but she’s getting the best room.”
“The best room, hey? And you’ll be there all on your own?”
“Yep! Just me.”
Bobby followed into the bathroom where Alyssa rinsed his shirt. She had managed to keep it mostly dry, so when she handed it back, he slipped it on and left it untucked. He thought he could let it dry then tuck it in before Kate saw him like that.
Alyssa had stepped close again. She straightened his collar. “Do you really think I’m pretty?”
“Like a flower,” Bobby said, but he suddenly remembered the shopping list in his pocket. “I have to go to the shop,” he added, edging back toward the door with the girl clinging a little.
She lifted and kissed his cheek. “Thank you for helping me with Granddad, Bobby.”
“Okay. But I have to go now.”
“Alyssa. My name’s Alyssa.”
“Okay. Bye, Alyssa.”
Ben walked out onto the veranda of the station house yawning as he looked up and down the main street and took in the hazy scent of freshly cut summer grass. Two hours of paperwork had welded the discs in his spine together, and he had a stretch as he watched a shaggy, grey dog amble by with an urchin of a child trotting along behind clutching a plastic bucket and a fishing pole. Ben walked out to the edge of the road and waved as the Carters rumbled by in their late-sixties Ford station wagon. There were grubby faced children hanging out the back windows, and the muffler was only a few inches from dragging along the road. He had been meaning to have a closer look at the car, and he made a mental note to check the registration on it. He turned and strolled down past Tebbit’s garage. “Afternoon, Henry. How’s business?”
“Fine. Fine. Good lot of city folk passing through today.”
Ben acknowledged his good fortune with a parting wave and continued on to the front gate of the Ray house. He straightened his tie, slipped his hat under his arm, and approached the front door. It was open, and through the screen he saw a woman on her hands and knees sorting in a box. He cleared his throat. “Afternoon, ma’am.”
“Oh, hello, Officer.” Kate stood, brushing at her frock. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes, ma’am. Just a routine visit. I was hoping to speak with Bobby Ray. Is he home?”
“Speak with him about what?” Kate’s face had reddened.
Ben noticed her full lips and warm, brown eyes.
“Just some routine questions about an incident some years ago. We’re hoping he may be able to help us with our inquiries.”
“Bobby knows nothing about that.” Kate opened the screen door and stepped close. “We’ve been over this several times. He doesn’t even remember the girl.”
“And you would be?” Ben asked politely.
“Kate Harrington. I’m a close friend of Bobby’s”
Ben rubbed at the band on his hat. Her perfume was fruity yet soft. It seemed to be floating from her long, dark hair as it lifted upon the breeze. He took a photograph of Melanie Rose from his pocket and handed it to her. “Her family have long since given up hope of ever seeing her again. Her mother still prays for news.”
“We don’t know anything about what happened to her.” The guarded tone in Kate’s voice had vanished. “Bobby apparently knew her, and they say he was the last person seen with her, but he doesn’t remember anything.”
“How long have you known Bobby Ray?”
“My mother worked at the hospital where he was a patient. When he was released, Mum offered him a room to rent. That was back in eighty-nine, and he’s been living with us ever since. We’re like family now.”
“And he still has a problem with his memory?”
“Yes, he does. Something happened to him. It’s why he was admitted to hospital in the first place, and his family abandoned him, so he was committed. He had complete amnesia at first, but over the years that’s improved a little. We think his father may have abused him, though. We’re not sure.”
Ben donned his hat. “There’s a chance that being here will stimulate memory recall. I would like an opportunity to introduce myself to Bobby. Maybe then he’d feel comfortable coming to me if he does remember anything about the girl’s disappearance. I’ll stop by again on Monday at ten.”
Ben turned to leave, but Kate touched his arm. “Wait.” Her face had reddened again, only that time there was no aggression in her eyes, and she was lightly smiling. “I didn’t say Bobby wasn’t home. I just asked why you wanted to see him.”
“So, he is here?”
“Yes. He’s around back in the garage. Come through, and I’ll introduce you.”
No, it’s not fruit it’s more like flowers, Ben decided, following in the perfumed trail swirling after perhaps the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He found himself watching her hips roll gently as she walked, and he thought she had glanced back before he lifted his eyes from her long, tanned legs. He was chastising himself as she glanced back again and flashed a knowing smile. “Just through here, Officer.”
Ben first saw Bobby Ray from behind. He had on a white singlet with the muscles in his shoulders bulging from beneath it. His neck was thick, and his head was square. He turned at Kate’s call, and his big, jolly face was split in two by a wide grin.
“Bobby, this is Officer—”
“McEwen, Ben McEwen. Pleased to meet you, Bobby,” Ben offered his hand, and it was crushed. “That’s some contraption you’re building there.”
“It’s a home gym. It doesn’t fit in the house, and there’s more air out here, isn’t there, Katie?”
“Yes, there is, Bobby. And all the ladies in those other houses will be able to watch you working out.”
“Aw, I don’t care about that. I don’t care about that, Officer McEwen. She’s just teasing me.”
Ben had read in the file that Bobby was intellectually disadvantaged. He immediately warmed to the man.
“Well, this is amazing. I’ve seen some home gyms in the shop but nothing like this. Do you think I could come around sometime when I’m off duty and you could show me how it works?”
“Yes! Yes, you can come around anytime you like! Can’t he, Katie?”
“Sure he can, Bobby. We’ll look forward to it.”
Ben felt himself blush. He pressed on. “I hear you actually grew up here, Bobby. This was your family home, wasn’t it?”
Bobby nodded. “Mum and Dad had the big room, but that’s mine now, and Katie has the best room. She’s gonna come and stay anytime she wants.”
“I see. Anytime she wants. That’ll be nice.”
Ben met Kate’s blush that time. He pressed on again. “Well, I guess you’d know all the old families here, then, Bobby. You’d know the Carters, the Cosgroves. You’d know old Sergeant Lloyd?”
“I know everyone!” Bobby declared proudly. “I used to deliver the papers for Grandma, and then I worked at the timber mill. But they stole everything from the timber mill! The police should have stopped them!”
“Really? You worked at the mill? Wow! You worked for Mister Rose, then. He used to run the whole town, didn’t he?”
“Yes, Mister Rose was the boss, and I was going to be the morning shift foreman, wasn’t I, Katie? But my daddy was the boss of the school and of Glenview. He was the kids’ boss, and Mister Rose was the adults’ boss. And Sergeant Lloyd was the town boss, but he’s too small now.”
Ben met Kate’s eyes. She was studying him. He could feel her searching his soul. She sat down on the bench press and folded her arms. She looked up again and gave the slightest nod.
Ben was standing by the open roller door. He looked out at the farms dotting the river flat. “So, do you remember which was Mister Rose’s house, Bobby?”
“Aw, everyone knows that, Officer McEwen. That’s easy. It’s the one with the pine trees and the big white wall. Can you see it? It’s right there on the river. I’ve been there, you know?”
“I’m sure you have, Bobby.” Ben stepped to his shoulder and looked out over the flat with him. He measured his next question. “You would know his son Alex?”
“Alex Rose used to tease me.” Bobby turned and stepped away. He picked up a spanner and knelt beside his gym to tighten a nut. “He didn’t like me very much. None of those kids liked me very much, only my friend Nigel. We used to go fishing and camping in the forest, even when my daddy didn’t know.”
“What about Alex’s little sister? She wouldn’t have teased you, would she?” Ben watched Bobby’s eyes. They were set upon the nuts and bolts he was wrenching. He had begun to sweat. “Young Melanie was a friendly girl, wasn’t she?” Ben went on, crouching down and picking up a piece of string to fiddle with.
“She got sick in the river. She went away after that.”
“Where did she go, Bobby? No one knows where she is.”
Bobby sat staring at his hands. He left the spanner and started rubbing his fingers, plucking at the calluses. His eyes were glazed, his jaw set. “Talk, talk, talk. Sometimes there’s too much talking when people should be doing their jobs.”
“That’s true, Bobby. Sometimes there is too much talk.” Ben retreated quickly. “I’ll come back sometime and see how your gym’s going, okay?”
Ben nodded to Kate and strode from the garage. She followed and caught his arm. “What was that about her getting sick in the river?”
“That was earlier. There was a flood, and she nearly drowned saving a young boy. It was a few years before she disappeared.”
“But he remembered her!” Kate’s eyes were wide, her face pale. She was trembling. “That’s the first time he’s ever acknowledged anything about her.”
Ben handed Kate the photograph of Melanie Rose. He smiled. “It’s okay. If he’s got something bottled up inside, it’ll be good for him to deal with it.”
He strode back to the station and jotted down a few notes about his meeting with Bobby Ray then added the page to the file and put it aside. He relaxed back in his chair and lost some time thinking about the woman he had just met. He wondered what her situation was, what her relationship with Bobby was and whether there was any romantic attachment. Or perhaps she’s married? He had gathered she wouldn’t be living there in Goran Vale, although he didn’t catch whether she was living nearby. He ended up staring at the framed photograph beside his computer screen. He picked it up and wiped the glass surface.
Sylvia had been the daughter of his father’s long-serving head stockman. As children she and Ben had whiled away the seasons playing in the red dust that passed for a sand pit beneath the clump of coolabah trees separating the main homestead from the cottages and stockmen’s quarters. They had schooled together by radio and later shared a seat on the bus for the hour-long ride to high school and back each day. Ben remembered her laugh. It had been more of a screech, and he had always teased her about its resemblance to the sound of an excited cockatoo.
At eighteen they had gone to separate universities and for three years were only in contact during the holidays. At twenty one they became engaged, but Sylvia had insisted they wait a year or so because she wanted to travel before settling down to raise a family. She spent the better part of the next two years exploring Europe and visiting with various girlfriends from university while Ben, under strict instructions, had built their family cottage amongst the coolabahs. Their wedding was the event of the outback town calendar in ‘97.
Ben remembered his father’s hollow voice choking out the words over the two-way radio. “Come home, son,” was all he had said, and in that instant Ben knew a life-altering incident had occurred. The commotion had been at the home of Sylvia’s parents. Ben’s mother had rushed to him and held him. She had wept, not spoken. His father had approached with his eyes void and his hands shaking. “It’s Sylvia, son. There’s been an accident.”
The knot in Ben’s chest tightened, and he fought back the tears welling in his eyes as he touched the face of his woman. Again he forced an inward smile, though, and he replaced the photo and tidied his desk for the end of shift. It was a warm, sunny afternoon, and his car was badly in need of a wash.
When Bobby was faced with an issue he would retreat into silence and could usually be found working out on his gym or thumbing through his scrapbooks. From the open window of the room she had been allocated, Kate could hear the clanking of metal resounding from the garage.
She made up her bed and sorted her face creams and perfumes on the rickety wooden dresser Bobby had set for her. She had a suitcase to unpack, and she positioned trinket boxes and figurines. She had brought a few stuffed teddy bears because she knew Bobby loved them, and she considered the times he would be alone and how he would probably visit her room touching things. There was a rug for the polished wooden floor that she laid by the window and an antique, leather-cushioned chair with a wooden backrest that she placed with a view across the fields to the river. She dragged her treasure chest over to use as a step to hang the curtains. Inside she had stored her dollies and some boxes of teenage dress jewelry that Bobby also liked to discover and investigate. There was a collection of Jimmy Barnes and Madonna tapes, worn thin and hidden but too precious to let go of. There was an assortment of photographs from the same era that she treasured but could never display in public for fear of death by embarrassment.
Standing on the chest, Kate noticed a trapdoor in the ceiling. There was a rusted metal catch she managed to turn, but when she lifted the panel, it only moved a few inches and seemed to jam against something heavy. She was extended as far as she could reach, but she pushed again. Something fell on top of the panel forcing it closed, but a piece of blue cloth was protruding, and she pulled it out. It was a man’s cotton shirt, torn and stained with black marks that could have been oil or grease. She tossed it aside and returned to straightening the curtains, but her phone rang.
“Hey, lover, how’s it going?”
“Fine, Paul. We’re getting things sorted.” Kate sat on her bed and flopped back.
Paul’s voice was whiney. “I’m missing you already. Len and Eric bailed on me and I’ve got the weekend free.”
“Why don’t you go without them? Or ask your brother. He likes motor racing, doesn’t he?”
“Thought I might give it a miss altogether and maybe go for a drive. Are you up for a visit?”
Kate twirled a thatch of hair and chewed it. “I don’t know. I only just got here.”
“What about tomorrow? I could fly up in the morning. Maybe stay over and drive back Monday.”
“Don’t you have to work Monday? You won’t make it back in time.”
“No, that’s okay. I can cover that. How do I find you?”
Kate sighed. She didn’t feel like seeing Paul, but she knew he would end up calling from right there in Goran Vale the next morning, anyway. She thought about denying him outright, but she had been rejecting him quite frequently of late and decided it best to concede. She was reluctantly giving him directions when Bobby poked his head around the door, grinning. She waved him in and dispensed with her boss.
Bobby flopped on the bed beside her. “I’m bored, Katie.”
Kate rolled over onto her side and squeezed and wiggled his nose. “Do you want some more jobs? I’ve got a whole big list pinned up on the fridge.”
“Aw, I saw that, but it’s Saturday, and those jobs are for work days.”
“Well, how about we walk into town and see if there’s a video shop? We could get you a membership card and see how big the comedy section is.”
“And the Sci-Fi! That’s my new favourites now, Katie.”
Kate fixed her hair and put on sandals. She picked up the old shirt she had thrown on the floor and found another piece of cloth protruding from the pocket. It was a small, lacy, white handkerchief with the letters ‘JAN’ embroidered in pink. There was also a chain on the floor that must have fallen from the shirt pocket. It was a strange looking stainless steel thing with square links and a ring at either end, some sort of dog collar, she assumed, and she placed it and the handkerchief on her dresser and tossed the shirt in a rubbish box in the laundry as she passed.
She found Bobby sitting on the front step waiting, and they strolled into town with him chattering away, telling her who lived where and who owned each shop, although she assumed his information may have been outdated.
There was a sign displaying video hire at a fast-food takeaway at the far end of the main street. Kate dragged Bobby into the antiques shop along the way. She picked out a vase and bought a bunch of carnations from a gift shop, sending Bobby ahead to choose some videos.
While waiting at the counter of the video shop for a buxom, sad faced girl to sign Bobby up for membership, Kate watched Ben McEwen washing an old, faded red car in front of a quaint little cottage across the street. He didn’t look as tall as he did when in uniform, but his back and shoulders were rippling beneath his wet t-shirt, and Kate suddenly felt the weight of her dress against her own skin.
Bobby was standing beside her prodding her with some DVD’s to look at. She agreed they were wonderful and would be thrilling to watch, and found herself peering over her shoulder as they walked back along the main street. She was hoping to wave at least, but Ben never looked up from what he was doing.
From the clock tower, Kate was led up a hill and presented with a timber mill. Bobby had already tried to sell her on the idea of buying and rebuilding it earlier in the afternoon. He was bouncing around pointing at things excitedly.
“We’ll see, Bobby. You know it’s a big decision to start a business like that, and we don’t even know if the owners would want to sell it, do we?”
“But I could ask them. I could ask Mister Rose.”
“Yes, maybe, but come on. I’m hungry and I want some dinner.”
Kate turned and crossed the road, and Bobby was soon striding along beside her. He told her about going to church on Sundays, and he pointed out each of his classrooms when they were walking past the school.
“And that’s my daddy’s office, Katie, but I used to say Mister Ray when I was at school because I was just one of the school kids.”
“Well, it wouldn’t have been fair to the other kids if he treated you differently, would it?” Kate always approached the subject of Bobby’s father carefully. Apparently he still lived there in town somewhere but was extremely ill. Bobby’s doctors suspected he had been an abusive parent, but Bobby had that locked away in his child-like mind. “I bet you were proud to have your dad as the headmaster, though.”
“My dad was smarter than any other dad in the whole town, Katie. He was intelligent, but me and Mum were a burden! We were such a burden, and sometimes we were an embarrassment. But Grandma Petrov said me and Mum were special. She said don’t listen to Daddy when he has his moods because he had them ever since he was a little boy with Aunty Olga. That’s what Grandma said.”
“Well, you are special.” Kate slipped beneath Bobby’s massive arm and cuddled herself with it. “Your grandma’s right about that.”
Kate really was starving by the time they got home, and after dinner she mostly slept with her head in Bobby’s lap while he watched his movies. Bobby finally went off to bed, and it was close to midnight when she was watching an old, black and white Dracula movie, and he came downstairs in his blue cotton pyjamas and sat in a chair.
His face was blank. He looked pale, and Kate thought he might be feeling sick.
“Are you okay?”
“I had a bad dream.”
He rubbed his face with both hands and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He didn’t appear to be about to offer any more information.
Kate thought of the missing girl. Her heart quickened.
“What was it about, Bobby?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t move. I was awake, and you were at the door, but I couldn’t move, and I got scared.”
Kate lifted his hand and held it. “What do you mean, you couldn’t move?”
“I was too heavy. I was trying to sit up, but I was too heavy.”
“Did you see me in the doorway, Bobby? What did I look like?”
Bobby sniffled again and rubbed his face. “I couldn’t see you, Katie. I couldn’t turn my head, but I knew you were there, but it was only a dream.” He tucked his legs up on the chair. “I might wait and go to bed when you go to bed, Katie. I’m not tired anymore.”
Alyssa lay staring at the ceiling. Sunday was her only free day, and she lay there in bed thinking about what she would wear. Her window was open, and the air was warm. She had sorted through her wardrobe in her mind and decided against jeans, settling on a short, floral-print dress that she had bought the past summer but never worn. It was predominately red, though, and her legs were white. She thought of a yellow, flowing skirt to her knees and maybe a light-pink t-shirt. She could tie her hair back with a pink ribbon too.
She got out of bed and dressed, adding a loose cheesecloth shirt to conceal her flat chest, but leaving it open. She took a book and collected an apple from the kitchen and went down the back to see her grandfather. He was shaving. He smiled back at her.
“Hi, Granddad. You look better today.”
Tom Lloyd usually looked well in the morning. He had on his pressed woollen trousers, and his white shirt was freshly ironed. His shoes were polished.
“It’s a beautiful day, princess. And look at you. All dressed up for your prince, are you?”
“I don’t have a prince, Granddad. I’m thinking about kissing some frogs, though. You never know.”
“What’s the book you have there?”
“Nothing special.” Alyssa’s book was one she had started on the previous night. “It’s just a silly romance.”
“Nothing silly about romance,” Tom ventured warmly.
Alyssa thought for a moment. There was something she wanted to ask her grandfather, but she wasn’t sure how to word her question. She sat down on the wooden chair beside his dresser. He was shaving there with a bowl of soapy water that smelled of lavender, and she watched him while his soft, grey eyes would roll to meet hers.
“Something on your mind?” he asked, knowingly.
“Granddad, why did Grandma leave you? Was it because of your age difference?”
Tom smiled. “It wasn’t because I’m old, princess. It was because I’m an old fool.”
Alyssa picked up the silver-framed wedding photograph her grandfather kept polished. “She was so much younger than you, though, wasn’t she?”
“Twelve years, sweetheart, but we never noticed.” Tom dabbed his face with a hand towel and busied himself searching for change in his other woollen trousers.
Alyssa replaced the photograph. “So, is it okay for the man to be quite a bit older than the woman?”
Her grandfather smiled. “What’s his name?”
“No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just something in the story, in the book.”
“In the book, hey? And the book guy is a big, strapping hero type?”
“You could say that.”
“Well, if he’s good to the book lady I don’t think a few years makes much difference, but I don’t know if your mother would agree.”
Alyssa straightened her grandfather’s collar. “Don’t get drunk today,” she said to him. “Where are you going?”
“Now, love, don’t worry about that. I’m just going down the street to see a few of the lads. We’ll probably have a cup of tea.”
Tom chuckled. “No seriously, love, I’ve got an appointment with young Ben this afternoon, and I wouldn’t want to be drunk for that, now would I?”
“Ben? What does he want?”
“Don’t know. Maybe he wants my permission to come a’ courting.”
“Huh! Tell him to drop dead.”
Alyssa followed her grandfather out and saw him off. She went around to the veranda of his flat where there was a lounge chair in the sun. She enjoyed her apple and watched for any movement from the houses below. The adjoining yards were all fenced with wire and some palings and bits of tin. She could see all the way up to Tebbit’s garage to her right and through the yards to the forest to her left. There were a few children playing, and Nicole Peterson from next door hung out her washing while her husband, Gary, read his paper in the sun. The woman in the house below came out and watered some pot plants she had on the step. Alyssa assumed she was Katie, and when she looked over, Alyssa waved, a little too excitedly, she thought.
It was a while before Bobby came outside. Alyssa tugged her skirt down and picked up her book. She didn’t read a word, but she turned the pages. He was tearing up cardboard boxes and stuffing them into an oil drum. He had been in and out of the garage a few times, and she had felt him looking over. After a while he approached the fence.
“What are you doing?” he asked flatly.
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m reading.”
“Oh.” He was toeing the dirt. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I’m going to the river for a swim,” he announced.
Alyssa’s heart fluttered. “Well, it’s a nice day for a swim,” she heard herself say.
Bobby picked up a piece of rusty wire and scrunched it into a ball. “You’re really pretty today. That’s a pretty shirt.”
“Is it? Thanks!” Alyssa was suddenly comfortable. It was easy to communicate at Bobby’s level.
“Is Katie going swimming with you?”
Bobby shook his head. “She’s having a visitor, but I don’t like him. His name’s Paul, and he’s got a funny mouth. That’s a pretty dress too.”
“This?” Alyssa felt her face flush a little that time. “I bet you say all girls are pretty.”
“No, I don’t. Katie’s pretty, and so is her friend Leanne, but some girls are ugly, but I don’t say that to them because it’s rude.”
“I see. Well, thank you for the compliment, Bobby. I’m glad you don’t think I’m ugly.”
Bobby tossed the ball of wire at the oil drum and turned back with his hands folding behind his head. A thoughtful expression that had briefly marred his face vanished, and he grinned openly. “You can come if you want.”
“Come where, swimming?”
“Yep. Have you got a bikini?”
“A bikini!” Alyssa’s face heated again. She stifled her laugh. “Do you have Speedos?” she shot back boldly.
“Yep! They’re blue. Wanna see?”
“No, wait!” Bobby was about to pull down his shorts. “What about we wait until we get to the river?”
Alyssa hurried inside and took her two bikinis from the drawer. She put on the black one and looked in the mirror. She tore it off, horrified, and put on the yellow and white striped one. She pulled on shorts and the cheesecloth shirt, tying it at her waist. She raided the kitchen for some cold chicken and fruit, made up a picnic basket with a towel and blanket, and with her goose bumps tingling, she hurried back outside to find Bobby waiting on his side of the fence with a towel slung over his shoulder.
He took her basket and leaned over the wire netting to lift her. Alyssa ended up sitting in the crook of his arm and sliding down his body. Her face was on fire as she tugged her shirt down and smoothed her hair behind her ears. Bobby claimed her hand and led off around the side of his house and along the road.
The township of Goran Vale ended suddenly. The last few houses on each side of the main road were abandoned. Beyond them the country expanded to a broad, sweeping plain, heavily grassed and dotted with small farm houses. To the east the plain ended abruptly at the base of a forested mountain range. To the west there were gently sloping hills, mostly treed but some cleared of timber, and in the distance the peaks of the Great Dividing Range were a deep blue against the cloudless sky.
Nestled quietly in the forest half a mile out of town was the abandoned Glenview House. All that was visible from the road were the steeple-like peaks of the roof and a flagpole with the tattered remains of the Australian flag greying in the sun. “That’s Glenview where my daddy used to be the boss,” Bobby declared, peering up into the trees.
“Your daddy?” Alyssa remembered when the school principal, Mr Ray, ran Glenview. “Is your daddy Mister Ray?” She also remembered the story of the night her father’s cousin, Melanie Rose, went missing, that the retarded son of Mr Ray was the last person seen with her.
“Yep, my daddy was Mister Ray. He was the school principal and the boss of Glenview. But he’s sick now. Gwen told me when he got sick, and she took me to see him at the hospital, but my mum wasn’t there. And then Gwen took me to see my mum at our house, but she wouldn’t open the door, and then last September she died. But she was buried somewhere else, not here in Goran Vale. Because Gwen said my mummy’s family were very religious, and they had a special place for my mum to be buried. But they didn’t tell us.”
“So, you’re Bobby Ray.” Alyssa also recalled the end of the story where the retarded boy had wandered half dead from the forest. “And who’s Gwen?”
“Gwen’s Katie’s mum. She’s a nurse at my hospital.”
Bobby was grinning stupidly and trying to catch a passing butterfly, and Alyssa swept aside any negative thoughts. She was walking with a hulk of a man who had warm, kindly eyes. He had introduced himself by rescuing her from an embarrassing situation, and she could count four times he had remarked on how pretty she looked. He dressed well and owned his own house. He was single and obviously adored his sister.
Bobby had released her as soon as they stepped out onto the road, but his hand would occasionally brush against hers as they walked. She had settled to listening to his chatter about who lived in each of the farm houses and about his adventures as a child, fishing and camping in the forest with the boys from Glenview, and each time his hand would brush against hers, a thrill would surge through her body. Her heart was thumping, and she could almost feel her blood coursing through her cheeks as she caught his hand and slipped hers within it. His hand closed and crushed her fingers, but after a little while it relaxed.
Alyssa’s face ached with her smile. Bobby was still chattering away, and he seemed to be holding her hand absently, but he was indeed holding it.
The main road held to the eastern edge of the plain, and several gravel roads branched off to service the small farms. About a mile from town there was a sandstone track cut into the forest that led to historic Goran Hut. Alyssa had dared to go up to the hut by day as a youth but never at night. Legend had the ghost of Herman Goran still patrolling the forest with his double edged timber axe, and the thought of that had been enough to keep a young Alyssa within the town limits after dark.
Bobby had given Goran Hut Road a wide berth. He had crossed to the other side of the road and noticeably quickened his pace. His eyes lit up at the next distraction, though. It was a rusted shell of a tractor in the scrub by the side of the road, and he ran to it and climbed onto the small metal seat.
When he had finished working the gear lever and trying to turn the steering wheel, which wouldn’t budge, he leapt down and claimed Alyssa’s hand again, and for the next half an hour, Alyssa was led along with her heart fluttering wildly and her cheeks constantly flushed.
As soon as they reached the river, Bobby stripped off his t-shirt and shorts and dived into the water. Alyssa laid the blanket and shyly removed her shorts and shirt. Her skin was fair, and she had chosen a place in the shade, but she applied sunscreen anyway. Bobby was duck-diving and splashing about. He was calling to her to come in, but she staved him off for a while.
He strode from the water and approached. He was a magnificent human being. His body was chiseled perfection, rippling and taut. He was tanned to a light golden-brown. His hair was blond, and his eyes were clear-green, and right then they were dancing with mischief.
He stooped and collected Alyssa in his arms. She clung to his neck without protest. One of his big hands was clutching her thigh and the other was pressing beneath her breast.
He carried her into the river. “You have to swim first, and then you can sit on the blanket.”
The cold water swallowed her but did nothing to extinguish the heat that was gushing all through her body.
He was gentle. He floated into the middle of the river with Alyssa clinging to his shoulders and with her body lightly caressing his side. He kept an arm around her, holding her close to his chest, and his massive thigh was pressing between hers.
Alyssa wanted to be kissed right then. She stared into his eyes, but he was seemingly oblivious to the state she was in.
“See, I told you it’s not cold,” he said, and there was a maturity in his voice that she hadn’t heard before. There was no animosity, just mellow warmth and a hint of confidence.
“Have you had a girlfriend before?” Alyssa asked softly.
“Daddy always sent my beach girls away coz they were evil, but Doctor Matheson said I don’t have to remember about that. But after the hospital, Julia Ferguson was my girlfriend, and she was a beach girl. And she taught me how to please a woman.”
“Oh, she did, did she? And did she please you too?”
Bobby blushed. He turned away, grinning. “I used to dive off that rock. Wanna see?”
He pushed away from Alyssa and left her giggling to herself. The thought of what Julia Ferguson may have taught him was tantalizing, but the sight of Bobby scaling a rock wall distracted her from that immediate train of thought, and when he flung himself off the rock ledge there was a wave that washed over Alyssa’s head and drowned any thought of sex.
Bobby had returned to the boyish goof he obviously was, and Alyssa found herself sinking, or rising, to his level. She couldn’t decide which. She jumped off the ledge a few times and played and splashed about with him for an hour before they had a picnic lunch. She had decided that one way or another the afternoon would lead to a kiss.
Ben swiveled in his chair and assessed the situation. He couldn’t put it off any longer. There were clothes slung over the back of the couch, and the dining table was crowded with newspapers and unopened mail. His desk was cluttered with open books, sets of keys, a camera, tangled up headphones, CD covers, and some pens that worked and some that didn’t. The floor was gritty beneath his bare feet, and the kitchen sink was full of cups, cutlery and pots from the night before.
He sighed. It was mid-afternoon already, and he had committed himself to having the place straightened out and enjoying the Sunday night movie in clean, tidy surrounds. He typed ‘thanks for the game guys’ in the chat box and closed out of Yahoo euchre. He made three loads of washing and put on the first one. He found a big cardboard box for the mail and newspapers and put that aside to be sorted later. He did the dishes and vacuumed the floor. He had spent an hour in a frenzy, and the place looked okay, he thought.
He left the last load of washing and strolled up the gravel lane behind his house. Olga Petrov was in her garden with her floral bandana and wide brimmed straw hat as usual. She never acknowledged Ben, but he always tried his luck. “Hello, Olga. Nice day, isn’t it?”
She stood and looked around. Her eyes were sharp, narrowly set and distrusting. Ben felt them burning into his back as he walked on by, and as he turned onto the road in front of her house, he glanced again and waved. She was a strange woman, perhaps sixty-five or seventy years old, Ben imagined, and he had seen her there in her garden every day of the five years he had lived in Goran Vale. She had an amazing crop of white roses that she continually fussed over.
On the front veranda of her house was an old leather lounge chair, and seated in it was her decrepit brother, staring blankly up into the forest as usual. That was James Ray, the severely brain damaged and disfigured former school principal and, so Ben had come to understand, that was Bobby Ray’s father.
Ben strolled on past the old door factory and along to Mill Road and Tom Lloyd’s flat. The door was open, and he found Tom watching cricket on television.
“Come on in, Ben. Get yourself a glass.”
Tom had an open bottle of beer. Ben took a glass from the sink and sat down beside his old friend on the couch. “How we doin’?” he asked.
“Getting’ slaughtered. It was all over by lunch.”
They chatted about cricket for a while, but the conversation soon turned to the current drug-related crime wave that was at the forefront of police business. There had been several shop break-ins, and homes had been targeted too. Ben often called in to listen to Tom talk. He saw something in the old policeman that was deeper than the alcoholism.
“So, how good is your memory, then, Tom?”
“My memory? Crystal clear. Why?”
“Do you remember Bobby Ray?”
“Of course! Skinny runt of a kid. Used to do deliveries from his grandmother’s store. Always hanging around the mill. He ended up involved in young Melanie Rose disappearing, but I don’t think he had anything to do with it. I think whoever took her hurt him pretty badly. He ended up in a nut house. Has something happened?”
Tom had his eyes set intently upon Ben’s. His gaze was usually distant and non-committal. Ben felt that after five years he had just met Sergeant Lloyd.
“I’m surprised you haven’t heard he’s moved back to town. His mother died a few months ago and left him the house. He’s none the wiser about young Melanie, though. I’ve spoken with him. He seems genuine.”
“Back when it happened, if I’d thought he’d murdered her I’d be getting close to the end of a life sentence about now. I always thought they were picked up by someone down for the festival that year. No leads, though.”
“You said he was a skinny runt of a kid. He’s filled out. He’s been up on assault charges too. Back in ninety-eight he put three guys in hospital, but it went to self-defense.”
“Yeah, well, he had a temper. His grandfather was a cruel bastard. A full on Bible basher. Used to rant scripture while he was thrashin’ the hell out of his kids. Bobby’s dad came through that all right, though. He was a big man, no surprise Bobby would’ve filled out, big and kinda pushy. Kept up the church going and worked his arse off at the school and over at Glenview. He was kind to take in young Isabel. That was Bobby’s mother. She was a pretty girl, half-witted like Bobby but gentle and sweet. Came from religion too, and money!”
“You said Bobby used to hang around the mill. He worked there, didn’t he?”
“Hell, no! George wouldn’t have him. Don’t know how many times he applied for a job, but they wouldn’t have a moron operating the machinery. Wouldn’t be safe. I think George relented and let him do some tidying up round the place right at the end. Not sure. Stretchin’ the memory now. Might’ve been the week or so before Melanie went missing. She and Bobby were gettin’ round together, and I think George took pity on him.”
“You seem convinced he wouldn’t have been involved in harming her, though, Tom? He had a temper and a possible motive, being denied work.”
“No, his temper was just flipping out when the other kids at school teased him, but he took a lot of that too. I couldn’t see him dragging young Melanie off somewhere. And if you saw him when he turned up after a week in the forest you’d swear he’d been tortured or something. No, he got in the way of whatever happened to her.”
“So, what actually happened with Bobby’s father? And what about his grandparents? I’ve heard rumors they were a weird bunch.”
“His grandfather on his father’s side died back in the late sixties from heart attack. Could’ve been poisoned according to talk, though. And yeah, he was a strange one. His grandma was a sweet old girl, though. Passed about ten years ago. And there were a few years after the mill closed down when things got crazy here, and Bobby’s parents were ostracized for what part Bobby may have played in Melanie’s disappearance. His mother stayed indoors, and that drove her the rest of the way around the bend, and his father buried himself in his work at the school and virtually lived over at Glenview.”
“Glenview, that was the boys’ home, wasn’t it?” Ben had only ever seen the dilapidated mansion from a distance. It was long since abandoned when he arrived in town.
“It was kind of a halfway house for boys coming out of reform schools and rich kids gone wrong and the like.” Tom lit the cigarette he had been rolling and sat back nodding as if confirming his memories were accurate. “James Ray and Vincent Khel ran the show. James was the principal. He was a qualified psychologist as well as a school teacher, and the three Khel boys all worked for him. Vincent was working at the mill as well, but he virtually lived at Glenview, and young Jake Khel helped out when he wasn’t terrorizing the neighbourhood, jeez he was a little mongrel, that one. And Nigel was always there too. He used to help out the old gardener.”
“What about Bobby, did he work with his dad at all?”
“No. He was more of a mummy’s boy, or actually a grandma’s boy. If ya go back to where his parents met, James was fresh out of uni and teaching at the school. He met young Isabel through the church, had a fling with her and knocked her up. Then he did the right thing. She was only half-witted, though, just like Bobby, and James tolerated them at best. He couldn’t sign the papers quick enough when they wanted to commit young Bobby to that nut house.”
“So, Bobby’s mother locked herself up in the house and went crazy, but what happened to his father? He looks demented or something.” Ben occasionally had a cigarette when visiting Tom. He had rolled a thin one. He lit it up and sat back listening attentively.
Tom refilled their beer glasses. “Well, like I said, James Ray buried himself in his work at the school and over at Glenview. Two of the Khel boys were burned to death in a car accident here in the main street, and that Nigel Khel was never the same after crawling out of the wreck. So it was just James and old Amos, the gardener, and they had women coming in to do housekeeping and cooking, but Glenview was going down hill fast. They stopped taking in boys that next year, and James kept the place up as a dairy farm with a few fruit trees. He was workin’ on the windmill one day back in ‘92 and apparently fell and busted his head on one of the cross members. Old Amos found him the next day still alive but with half his head eaten away by foxes. There were rumors of young Isabel slippin’ something in his sandwiches, they were only half eaten and left in his lunch box under the windmill. But there was no trace of nuthin in his blood. He spent a while in hospital, brain damage left him a vegetable, and he’s been wastin’ away in that old chair on Olga’s veranda these past ten years.”
Ben had always assumed it was burns that had disfigured the old man. “Foxes ate half his head, huh? Bit gruesome, isn’t it?”
“Peeled his scalp back to the bone, all the way from his eyebrows to the base of his neck. Looked like they started lickin’ at the blood and got carried away, which isn’t unusual, except it’s strange they stopped there. They were bad that year too, pinchin’ shoes from doorsteps and knockin’ over rubbish bins and the like. Some of the men took to huntin’ them down and ended up with over a hundred pelts that winter.”
Alyssa poked her head in the door smiling, but her smile ended quickly.
“Hi, Alyssa,” Ben offered politely. “How are you?”
“Hello, princess. What ya got there?”
“Hi, Granddad. It’s just a picnic basket. Hi, Ben.”
Ben usually avoided Alyssa. He had felt at one time she had a bit of a crush, and he hadn’t known how to deal with it. In avoiding her he felt he may have hurt her feelings, but he didn’t know what to do about that either.
“I have to go,” she said and left abruptly.
Tom chuckled. “She doesn’t like you much, does she?”
Ben sighed as he shrugged and held out his hands. “I better go too. Got some washing to do.”
“I hear your transfer came through,” Tom said.
“Yeah, it did. Haven’t told me folks yet, though.”
“Don’t wanna disappoint them, hey?”
“Don’t know. Maybe,” Ben offered in reply. “Hey Tom, you said Nigel Khel crawled out of a wreck, and his brothers burned to death in it. Is that the wreck in the front yard of their house?”
“Yeah, that’s it. It happened down on the corner of the main road and Fortress Lane. We had what was left of the car at Tebbit’s garage for a while, but Nigel had Henry drag it up the hill when he got out of hospital. A couple of kids who saw what happened said his two brothers were stuck in the passenger side and burned alive screaming, but there was nothing Nigel could do other than sit there watching.”
“Jesus! No wonder the poor bloke’s screwed up. See ya later, Tom.”
Ben thought about calling in to see Bobby. He saw him there in his garage, but he decided against it. He strolled back along Mill Road and down the hill to the pub. There were only a few patrons watching the cricket, and Ben stopped for a beer with the publican, Arthur Briggs.
“You’d remember Bobby Ray wouldn’t you, Arthur? He was a retarded boy, used to live down the street a bit.”
“Young Fetch? Sure I remember him. And I see he’s put on a few pounds.”
“Fetch? What, did he go running after everyone or something?”
“The other kids used to work him over a bit because of how thick he was. You know what kids are like. How did he end up with the name Fetch, Ollie?”
Ollie was a frizzy-grey-haired ex-reporter-come-farmer set up at the end of the bar. He swirled the last of his beer. “He used to run after the other boys when he first started school. That’s how he earned the nickname, but the whole clan were crazy.”
Ollie lit up a smoke and continued after the fashion of a respected local authority on matters of town history. “The grandfather used to starve ‘em for days and whip ‘em with a razor strap. That was the three boys and the girl. The two elder boys joined the army, and there were rumors about the girl and the old man, some sort of incest thingy. And word was that James was involved in it too. He was very young at the time, though, and the girl disappeared. Then James turned out to be a smart young fellow, the only one in the family with any sense. And Bobby was a good kid, but he was thick as a stump, and those other kids used to wind him up somethin’ awful.”
“He was a fighter, though.” Arthur filled another schooner for Ollie. “By God he used to do his block. But he’s different now, the way he handled that pair of scrappers out the front here. If they hadn’t wised up and backed off he would have killed ‘em cold blooded. Same eyes, all crazy and fierce, but he’s got the physical strength to back it up now.”
Ben finished his beer and strolled back out onto the street. He thought for a moment about his washing but decided to walk down and pay Bobby a visit after all. He wouldn’t try to press for information about the missing girl. He would just call in to see how the home gym was going, and it occurred to him he might be fortunate enough to spend a few minutes with the lovely Kate again.
He could see Bobby was still in the garage as he approached the house. There was a silver Range Rover with the number plate ‘RISSMAN’, in addition to the car he had seen the day before. The front door was open, and he heard Kate squeal and laugh. There was a man’s voice too. Ben knocked and stepped back.
Kate approached the door giggling and looking back over her shoulder. She turned, and Ben greeted her with a smile.
“Ben. Ben will be fine, ma’am. I was out and about and thought I’d call by and say hello to Bobby. Am I intruding?”
“No… God, no! Um… Ben this is, um, a friend of mine, Paul. Paul, Ben’s the local cop.”
A tall, weak-chinned man had appeared behind Kate. His hands were upon her shoulders. Ben nodded.
“May I go around the side? I can see Bobby’s there in the garage.”
Kate squirmed from between her friend and the screen door. She opened it and shuffled Paul back a bit. “Can you check on dinner for me, please? I’ll just be a few minutes.”
“What do I do?” Paul asked.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. Just… I’ll be there in a minute.” Kate slipped through the door and closed it. She was blushing and avoiding Ben’s eyes.
“Is everything okay? I really didn’t mean to intrude.”
“No, it doesn’t matter. He’s just… I don’t know… It’s fine. And I wanted to ask you a favour.”
Kate had stepped close. Her blush had faded, and her warm, brown eyes were enticing.
Ben wondered in that instant if any man had ever denied her anything.
“I was wondering if I could help with your investigation.”
“Help in what way?” Ben sat back on the porch rail. It gave him a little more room to breathe.
She smiled coyly and shrugged. “I don’t know. In any way I can. I might be able to check the newspapers from when the girl went missing. I saw there’s a library near your house. Maybe they have something there. Or you could let me see the police report.”
Ben met her smile and wondered how she knew where his house was. “Ma’am—”
“Kate! Not ma’am. Kate. You were saying?”
“Kate, I really don’t have the authority to invite civilians into the station to look into missing persons.”
“So, take that one little file home and invite me to dinner. I’ll sneak a look while you’re busy cooking.”
“I can’t cook.”
Ben hadn’t stopped smiling. “You’re pushy!”
“What about…?” Ben motioned to the door.
“He’s nothing. He’s just my boss. I’m sending him home after dinner.”
“Okay. Around six, and it’ll be fresh pizza, not frozen. And white wine?”
Kate stepped to the door and smiled back over her shoulder. “Or beer.”
She stayed at the door while Ben walked back to the front gate. “What about Bobby?” she called after him.
“Next time. I got what I wanted,” he called back.
Ben strode back up the main street with his stomach doing flip-flops out of pure glee. That went well, he declared to himself proudly. He couldn’t quite figure out how he had managed to get a dinner date, in three minutes flat, when his expectations had only extended as far as a few words and another sniff of that fruity, flowery perfume. And my God she’s beautiful! The thought bubbled out of his overflowing enthusiasm, but the cloud he had been floating on burst when he walked into his house and realized what he had gotten himself into.
He quickly fed the dog and cats and put two meat pies in the oven. He rummaged under the sink for rubber gloves and disinfectant and attacked the toilet. He scrubbed it and the bathroom. He mopped floors and got out the Spray’n Wipe to clean the television and coffee table and every other dusty surface he could find. He pulled the lounge suite apart and found money and bottle tops. He dusted and vacuumed and put everything back together, then he took to the windows with the windscreen cleaner from his car and some scrunched up newspaper.
By the time Ben had finished cleaning and had his house, he hoped, presentable, he had missed the Sunday night movie so he showered and fell into bed.
He woke the next morning with his first thought a continuation of his last: She wasn’t married. She wasn’t seriously attached. The guy with no chin was some sort of business colleague, there for dinner and being sent home after that.
Ben was showered, dressed, and walking to work, and his mind was still spinning around how she had insisted on a dinner invitation. He walked on past the clock tower and looked down the hill to find the silver Range Rover backing out of Kate’s driveway. Kate was standing on her veranda clutching the hem of a short, pink robe and waving.
His heart turned to stone.
More coming soon…