Tag Archives: steamy romance

Remains of a Local Girl: Part 6

beauty-3d

 

Aussie cold case murder mystery, steamy romance.

 

Chapter 36

 

Nigel checked the padlock on the basement door then took his lunch pack and hobbled down to Glenview and up the rocky slope toward Goran Hut. The sun had risen, and the air was crisp and carried the shrill and buzz of the waking forest, but on the western slope of the mountains the shadows would be deep and moist until after midday.

Nigel reached his vantage point from the previous day and settled to wait for the arrival of the police. He waited an hour then stole a little closer. The tent was gone, and the veranda of the hut had been sealed with checkered tape. He trained his scope on the road from town. He waited another half hour then crept from the forest and approached the hut.

He hadn’t been so close to the hut since returning to remove Melanie’s body. He remembered that first night. It was the end of his life and the beginning of something dull and abstract. He could hear Melanie sobbing, and he could smell his brother Vincent’s breath at his shoulder. “Come on, you’re next!”

He had woken so many nights with those words resounding in his head, and he could still feel the thrashing his brother had given him when he refused.

Nigel didn’t step onto the veranda. He approached the window at the side of the hut and looked in. The floor had been torn up. It was completely gone, and the ground had been dug up and piled through a hole in the back wall. He wondered what had happened, what the police were looking for. Before the search started that first night, they had taken Melanie back to the house and only returned a week later to bury her. Why would they take the floor boards? Nigel wondered stupidly as he stood peering through the window, but the sound of a vehicle approaching sent him scurrying back to the forest, and he made his way to his lookout and settled to watch two uniformed policemen packing tools into the boot of their car.

Chapter 37

 

Tom Lloyd pushed open the rusted iron gate of the timber mill and walked up to the administration office. The thought of brewed coffee assailed his senses as if he could smell it. How many times had he shared a cup of morning coffee and a homemade lamington with his good friend George Rose when they would set up on the bench seat in front of the office in the morning sun to talk about the business and gossip of Goran Vale?

Tom sat down and leaned back against the wall of the office building. The sun had cleared Fortress Ridge, and right then it was warm enough to sting a little. He built a cigarette and lit it. He had no whisky and wished he had.

He watched the sparrows and starlings flitting about an abandoned garden as he remembered Melanie playing there and tending the flowers. She had virtually lived at the mill with her father. She had been everybody’s favourite. All the workmen adored her, and when she wasn’t at the mill, she would be skipping from house to house being mothered by the women. Tom’s heart ached as he remembered her smile, and his thoughts turned to Melanie’s mother, his sister.

Eleanor Rose lived alone, secluded within the white concrete walls of the once glorious mansion down by the river. After burying her husband, she had lost her remaining two children to the city. Their visits were apparently rare, and Tom, in recent years, had taken to deliberately avoiding her for fear of meeting the lingering question in the depths of her clear, blue eyes. It was a question she had been asking him since the night of young Melanie’s disappearance, one that haunted the air between them no matter what the circumstance of their meeting.

Tom finished his cigarette and walked around the garden and into the mill. It was an empty barn-like structure with thick exposed beams twelve feet from the ground. It was from one of those beams that George Rose had hung himself. It was from the third beam from the southern wall, Tom recalled as he stood beneath it. The wooden step ladder found lying in the sawdust that morning was still there, over against the wall.

Tom took the ladder and carried it out through the back of the mill and up a small gravel mound to a defunct water tower. The ladder scaling the tower was raised high enough to prevent children from climbing it. Using the step ladder, Tom reached the first rung and carefully climbed up to the level of a timber platform, some thirty feet from the ground. There was a rusted, corrugated iron water tank mounted there, but the platform was broad enough to walk around it. He edged his way around to the far side of the platform, from where he could see the back of the police station house.

Tom had often glanced from the cell in the basement of the station house and seen the water tower. He had never thought much of it. The platform was made of narrow timber slats, splintered and grey from years of exposure to the elements. He could see the gleam of metal from between two of the slats, and he used a splinter of timber to dig out a .22 caliber cartridge.

Chapter 38

 

Kate woke late in the morning and kicked off the bedclothes. She was hot and sweaty, with her body soaked in a man’s scent. What had begun as a cuddle on the couch had moved to the bedroom and escalated into a fervent love making session. Barely a word had been spoken, and with their passion exhausted, Kate ended up with her head upon Ben’s chest and his hand stroking her hair. She had woken alone. Ben must have left for work.

In a bedside drawer she found an old, red t-shirt. She put it on and searched within the bedclothes for the underwear she had lost. She made the bed and took a moment to touch a bottle of aftershave on the dresser. She popped off the lid and sniffed it, drawing the scent she remembered from the night they had danced. There was a comb and a glass dish with coins and buttons and the like, just everyday things. She touched them, and a twinge of anguish gripped her heart as she fought back a tear.

Kate had no idea why, but that damp, musty house felt more like home than any place she could recall. She loved the squeaky floor boards and the antiquated brass doorknobs. It was a cave-like little dwelling, the windows were small and there was an absence of natural light. The kitchen was brighter, though, with its bare window.

She poured a bowl of cornflakes and made coffee and stood at the sink to eat, watching three cats playing in a tree in the garden. She took her coffee and sat at Ben’s desk and swiveled the chair back around to face the living room. The paintings she had hung were still in place. She smiled to herself and wondered how it would be on a cold winter’s night cuddled up on that old grandpa couch with the fire crackling.

If only, she sighed. To be his wife. To be held in his arms and to feel this safe. To feel those eyes every day. To belong to him! God, how I want that. She sobbed, fighting the knot that was swelling in her throat. She remembered his touch, the tenderness of his hands as he caressed her neck. She remembered being swept from her feet in a waltz, and she felt the power of his body pressed against hers. She loved the surrender in the moment as he had lifted her from the couch that morning and carried her to his bed. She could feel his lips and his tongue against her skin as he had lifted her pyjama top and tasted her. She remembered laughing with him and chatting on the way into Sydney, how his eyes would sparkle and flash with his smile, and how she had spent the whole two hour drive hoping he would just take hold of her hand. We could be so good together, she told herself, smiling hopefully, ridiculously.

She cut herself off with another sob as she thought of the way the two neighbourhood children had looked at Ben, and how he had come to life in response to their affection. She picked up her phone and called Leanne.

“Hey, Lea. What are you doing tonight?”

“Hello, stranger. I thought you’d gone feral on me.”

“No. I’m on my way home now. Things aren’t going very well up here. I’ll tell you tonight.”

“Okay. I’ll come over after work. Are you okay?”

“Sort of. I have to go, but I’ll see you.”

Kate tidied the kitchen and straightened up the living room, folding and returning the blankets to the linen closet in the hall. She gathered her clothes and toiletries from the bathroom, pulled on jeans and a jumper, and left the key Ben had given her on the dining table.

She drove down the main street hoping not to run into Ben, and she found her mother’s car parked at Bobby’s house. Gwen was sitting at the kitchen table with a pot of tea and a cigarette. Kate took a cup from the cupboard and poured some tea for herself. “How’s Bobby?” she asked.

“His wounds are healing. He’s pretty upset that you haven’t been to see him, though.”

“I know. I’m on my way now. I just couldn’t face him yesterday.”

“He’s the same big baby we’ve always known, Katie. You and I both know he could never have done what they’re saying.”

“I know,” Kate started. She had spent the previous day wandering around Camden and arguing with herself, but that morning she knew in her heart Bobby couldn’t have hurt the young girls. “I’ll be there at the hospital all day today. I’m going to take his comics and his scrapbooks. Are you coming down?”

“I’m meeting the detectives and Bobby’s lawyer at the station house in a few minutes. Do you want to come?”

“I don’t want to run into Ben. Will you come back and tell me what’s happening?”

“I’m coming back to tidy up a bit,” Gwen said as she rinsed her cup in the sink. “You know they searched the place yesterday?”

“I know. What did they find? Did they say anything?”

Gwen kissed Kate’s cheek and squeezed her hand. “I only saw that big, friendly constable this morning, and he didn’t say anything. I’ll be back soon.”

Kate finished her cup of tea and went upstairs. The bed in Bobby’s room had been moved, and the wardrobe was open. His chest of drawers were gutted, and the contents had been dumped on the bed. She went into her bedroom and found things to be mostly in order, although her bed was ruffled, and there were muddy boot prints on her rug.

On the dresser, there was a photo of her getting a piggy back from Bobby. She took it and flopped back on her bed. She was twelve years old in the photo. It was taken by a boy she remembered, Barry Gosling. He was nineteen at the time, the son of her mother’s boss, and Kate’s first true love.

Well, my first true crush, Kate corrected herself, and she closed her eyes and drifted back to that afternoon at the house with all the redbrick archways. It had been a Christmas work party for her mother’s hospital ward. It was not long after Bobby had been discharged, and Kate remembered how everyone was so proud of him for getting a job and settling into a normal lifestyle.

Kate’s memories followed the years she had spent with Bobby. He had been the most consistent and reliable thing in her life. His routine had been to have breakfast in the kitchen then catch the bus to work in the morning. He would work all day and catch the bus straight home in the afternoon. During Kate’s teenage years, he would sit with her for the evening game shows and soap operas. Then he would  go out to the garage where his room was set up and paint model soldiers or paste magazine pictures in his scrapbooks. And after Gwen moved out, Bobby moved into the main house and took over the cooking and housekeeping responsibilities. He was never a father to Kate. He didn’t possess the maturity to offer emotional support. He was always there, though, and Kate had, so many times, nestled in his arms and soothed herself with one of his oafish hugs.

Gwen presented herself at the bedroom doorway after being gone less than half an hour. She took a breath and looked around the room. Her gaze rested on the manhole in the ceiling. She was shaking her head slowly.

“What is it, Mum?” Kate knew her mother.

Gwen approached and sat beside Kate on the bed. She clasped her hands in her lap and took another nervously charged breath. “They’ve decided to formally charge Bobby with four counts of murder.” She shook her head as she looked away, and she took a moment to continue. “They found clothing from the four girls right there in the ceiling. Right there!”

Kate took her mother’s hands. There were tears in her eyes, and Kate began to cry herself, but she fought through. “There has to be an explanation, Mum.”

“I know, sweetheart. I don’t understand. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“This must be why he made up that story. You know how he’s always raving on about how he worked at the timber mill? And it turns out he never worked there at all. He must have made up a whole fantasy to block out what really happened here. It’s like he can’t face the fact that it happened.”

Gwen was nodding in agreement. “Maybe,” she said thickly. “I know they have it all wrong, but they said they found something else up there that’s absolutely conclusive. They wouldn’t say what it was because it was still being analysed. I can’t imagine what it is.”

“God, I hope it’s not something. Oh, I slept in here, Mum. My God, how creepy. I pulled an old shirt out of the manhole too, and I found a handkerchief. It must have belonged to one of those girls. Oh, my God!”

“It just doesn’t—” Gwen broke into a sob. “It just can’t be true. I know Bobby, and he couldn’t have.”

Kate held her mother. There was a knot in her own stomach, and her skin was crawling at the thought of the clothing in the roof.

“Sweetheart, we’ve got to be strong,” Gwen declared, sitting up and taking another breath. “This is all wrong somehow because Bobby didn’t hurt anyone. And he will need us to get him through it.”

Kate reached for a box of tissues on the bedside table. She sniffled into one and offered one to her mother. “So, what’s going to happen now? Are they going to take Bobby to prison?”

“They’re going to charge him today, and he’ll have to go to court to see if he can be released until a trial. I think if they keep him he’ll probably go to another hospital.”

“Like where you work? That would be okay.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” Gwen straightened Kate’s hair and offered a smile. “You’re going home?”

“Yeah, I thought I’d get out of here. It’s a horrible little place.”

“And what about Ben? I thought you two were getting on.”

“Mum, don’t go there.”

“Why? I’m just saying I like the way he looks at you. He’s got a good heart, that one.”

“Yes, he has, but you know it’s not as simple as that. So, let’s just drop the subject before we end up arguing again.”

“Okay! None of my business. But what time does he get off work today, do you know?”

“About three. Why?”

“Well, I have a few things to pick up from his house, unless you brought them with you.”

“I’ve got your brush and your tooth brush in my car, but if you see Ben again, could you give him that handkerchief on the dresser, please? And that dog collar. It was up there too.”

Gwen walked to the dresser and picked up the chain and handkerchief. “Okay. I’ll tidy up here and call in to see Ben before I leave. Will you be okay to drive, sweetheart?”

“I’ll be fine, Mum, love you.”

 

Chapter 39

 

Ben returned home for lunch to find his house locked up, and walking into the living room, he saw the blankets were gone from the couch. He noticed the key on the dining table, and his heart sank a little. He knew he had no right, but his disappointment deepened upon checking the bathroom and bedroom to find all trace of Kate had been removed.

He opened his phone and called her. The phone rang out to message bank. “Hi, Kate, it’s Ben. Just wanted to see how you are. Call me back, please?”

With the drama surrounding Bobby Ray, Ben understood Kate would be distracted and likely do whatever was necessary to deal with it. He had no right to expect any of her attention. Although she could have kept the key, he argued with himself as he went about making a couple of ham and relish sandwiches for lunch.

He was watching the midday news, eating when Gwen knocked and called to him from the front door. “Come in, Gwen. It’s open.”

“Hello, Ben. I just called into the station, and they said you were here.”

“I’m just on my lunch break. Can I get you a coffee or a sandwich?” he asked, half getting up.

“No no, I’m fine. I just stopped in to thank you for putting us up and to say goodbye. I’m on my way home.”

“Oh, okay. I hope things work out.”

Gwen took a seat. “Kate said you might be leaving, going home to your family.”

“No, I was thinking about it, but I decided to stay here.”

Gwen was nodding thoughtfully. “Because of my daughter?”

“Err, not exactly. But sort of. Yes.” Ben felt his cheeks heat and redden. The older woman was smiling to herself, and he wondered how many men had fallen before him. “I don’t think she’s seriously interested, though,” he added, fishing for a hint of where he stood.

“Maybe if you’re patient and persistent.” Gwen glanced up, her eyes clear and calculating. “I’ve noticed men don’t usually stick around long enough to get to know my daughter.”

“Patience isn’t really my strong suit,” Ben confessed with a chuckle.

“Well, I think the man who does eventually find the patience and persistence to get to know her will be a very lucky man. But of course I’m biased.”

Ben smiled. “This thing with Bobby has got to be hard on you both,” he ventured.

“We’re very worried about him,” Gwen responded frankly. “You know how much he means to Kate, don’t you?”

“I can see how close they are. It’s a tough situation.”

“Can you help him?” Gwen’s hand closed over Ben’s. Suddenly there were tears in her eyes.

“I’ll do whatever I can,” he answered thickly. “He located the remains. He was identified at three of the scenes. They found the girls’ clothing in his bedroom. And the results just came in on an old scrapbook they found up in that attic with news clippings about each of the four girls, and it’s covered in his gluey fingerprints. It doesn’t look good at the moment, Gwen, but I’m thinking there’s a hell of a lot we don’t know. Do you have any suggestions? You know him better than anyone.”

“Believe in him!”

“What?”

Gwen’s face was set in a tragic plea, and Ben felt a wave of pity, but the older woman’s eyes suddenly flashed and set with determination. She nodded, as if confirming something to herself. She smiled lightly and stood to leave, but she kept hold of Ben’s hand and led him to the door, fishing in her handbag. She gave him an embroidered handkerchief and a length of chain. “Kate found those in the ceiling where the other clothes were found. That handkerchief may have belonged to one of those girls.” She squeezed his hands and looked up to meet his eyes squarely. Her smile returned, but there was still tears welling. “I have no idea how to refute what appears to have happened, but I know Bobby is innocent. And if I was a man, I would want to be the man who proves that to my daughter.”

Ben stood dumbfounded as Gwen turned and walked to her car. She never looked back as she drove away. “Definitely, one hundred per cent, Kate’s mother,” he muttered to himself. I would want to be the man who proves it to her? Damn right I would!

That afternoon Ben sat at a speed trap on the edge of town mulling over the fact that in spite of everything, Bobby was merely a child, and as such, maintained basic innocence. Whatever he had done must have been either a reaction to some form of abuse or the product of a more mature person’s influence. Ultimately, Gwen was right. He was innocent. And it was the abuse or the influence that needed to be proven.

Ben tried calling Kate four times throughout the afternoon, and each time her phone rang through to message bank. That evening he had dinner at the pub and spent a few hours playing pool with Phil. “She probably just needs some space until this thing with the big guy sorts itself out,” Phil advised. “Just play it cool and be there if she needs you. It’ll work out.”

Ben left the pub at about 10pm and strolled home to find Kate sitting on the front step chatting with Graham Johnson from the hardware store. “This little house has always had people in, though,” Graham was saying. “How are you tonight, Ben?”

“Good, Graham. How are you?”

“Well, I’ll be in trouble when I get home. Saw this young lady friend of yours sittin’ here star gazing, and look at the time! We’ve been havin’ a nice chat, though, haven’t we?”

“We have! About all the empty houses and their ghosts,” Kate added with a smile.

“Ghosts hey, Graham? Not the one about old Myrtle shimmering in her kitchen window again?”

“Well, some believe and some don’t,” Graham warned, lifting himself from the step with some difficulty and ambling to the gate. “Good night, miss. Nice to meet ya,” he said. “Drop by the store, and I’ll show you those flower pots. You’ll be impressed.”

“I’m sure I will, good night,” Kate called after him.

Rex responded as if Kate had called him, and he trotted over for a smooch. “His flees are getting better already,” she suggested, smiling up at Ben. “He’s hardly even scratching.”

Ben sat down on the step leaving Rex happily sitting in the middle. “Is that an ‘I told you so’?”

“Could be!”

Rex lapped at Ben’s face, and he gave him a rub and pushed him away. He was tremendously relieved Kate had come back, but he wasn’t sure what to offer her.

“I had another visitor earlier,” she said, producing a plastic box with a fruit cake in it.

“Edna?” Ben asked, knowingly.

“She was really sweet. She told me all about you,” Kate teased.

“She did, huh? God, how embarrassing.”

“No! She was really lovely, and so was that old guy. They think a lot of you around here, don’t they?”

“I guess. Looks like you’re being scoped out too,” Ben warned with a chuckle. “Edna and Graham, they’re not just reporters, that’s the editor and chief.”

Kate laughed, but catching her eyes, Ben saw a deeper emotion simmering beneath the distraction of the moment. “Have you had dinner?” he asked. She actually looked drawn, and he wondered whether she had eaten.

“I stopped for a steak sandwich on the way back. I’d been with Bobby all day and had nothing but coffee.”

“How is he?”

“He’s a hit with the nurses, and with the cops.”

“What about the bullet wounds, healing okay?”

Rex had waddled off to get a drink from the ice-cream container under the tap. Kate rested back on her hands. She didn’t answer his question. Instead, she cut through the air hanging between them. “I was going to go home after visiting Bobby, but I didn’t want to.”

“I’m glad you didn’t,” Ben responded without hesitation. His heart was suddenly thumping again, and he watched Kate’s averted gaze. In the soft yellow glow from the street lamp, he thought he could see tears welling.

Ben swallowed. He didn’t know if it was the right time to say it but, “I think I’m falling in love with you, Kate.”

She sniffled and turned away, and he waited, wondering if he had said the wrong thing and feeling selfish in light of the situation she was facing with Bobby.

She nodded and spoke shakily. “I feel that too.” She turned to face him, gaining composure with a smile. “I mean, I think I’m falling in love with you too.”

Ben’s heart exploded. He couldn’t take hold of her because it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do just then. “But there’s more important things to deal with for now,” he said evenly. “We’ve got to do what we can for Bobby.”

Kate nodded and sniffled again. “And then we have to talk about something, okay?”

“Of course! Anything!” He stopped short of asking what she meant. “But there’s something I’d like to tell you about. Just to clear the air, I really don’t like you having the wrong impression.”

“Wrong impression, about what?” Kate slipped closer. She got up on her knees and kissed him softly. “You don’t want to drag me back out to the desert do you? I’ll go with you for a visit but that’s it.”

“No, quite the contrary as a matter of fact.” Ben stroked hair from her face and took a breath. “The thing is, I just wanted to say that I’m not really committed to living in Hicksville. I can see a future in the city if things went that way.”

Kate straddled his lap and kissed him again. “If things went what way?”

“I don’t know. If we were together and you didn’t want to come up here.”

“So, you’re saying you’d be prepared to move to the city for me?”

“Absolutely!”

She kissed him again and moaned softly into his mouth. “You’re making me horny now.”

Ben was propped back on his hands, and he allowed her to lead the way. She opened a shirt button and kissed his chest. His penis throbbed against the warmth of her crotch. He was wearing light cotton shorts. She wore a knee-length, flowing skirt, which had hiked up her thighs, and as his erection hardened she ground herself over it.

“Let’s go inside,” she breathed into his ear, and he lifted and carried her sensuously warm body, backing through the door and straight to the bedroom. He dropped her on the bed and landed on top of her. He mauled her neck, and her body undulated and ground against him. He met her lips again and kissed his way down to her belly then lifted her skirt and buried his face into her crotch. She bucked and gripped his head, and he shouldered her thighs apart while she ground herself against his chin. And after her first orgasm he kissed his way back up her body, and with his heart exploding with joy and sheer desire, he made passionate love to her.

 

Chapter 40

 

Kate lay spent in Ben’s arms with his hand tenderly stroking her hair and his chest still heaving from exertion. She lay for an hour after his breathing had steadied and his hand had come to rest upon her arm.

What was the point of expecting rejection? From the start, Stephen Gershwin had insisted on seeing a specialist for a review of Kate’s apparently inoperable condition. And after seeing one, he had pressured her to see another. He never accepted her, but just because one man was too small to accept the woman she was, was no reason to write off the entire gender.

Kate had looked into the possibilities for adoption, and she and Ben would be prime candidates. And if that wasn’t good enough then he wouldn’t be good enough, and after a day spent sitting on the end of Bobby’s bed completely distracted by the prospect, she had decided Ben was a man she would trust, or at least her heart had guided her to his arms.

Her mind was spinning around the possibilities for a future together. Right then she was prepared to move to Goran Vale or anywhere else on Earth Ben McEwen happened to reside. Lying there in his arms, she felt a level of contentment she had never before experienced, and she drifted off to sleep with that feeling warming her soul.

She woke the next morning to watch Ben getting dressed for work. He had showered and shaved, and his aftershave was fresh and intoxicating. “I like a man in uniform,” she said, feeling cheeky.

“At your service, ma’am,” Ben replied, grinning and meeting her eyes in the mirror.

He finished fixing his collar and tucking in his shirt, then he sat down beside her. Kate held his hand, intertwining her fingers. Her belly was aching with glee. “I have to go home tonight. I’ve used up all my holiday time, and my boss said to be at work tomorrow or don’t bother coming back.”

“That’s a bit harsh considering what’s happening with Bobby.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not in the good books at the moment. Which is my own fault, really.”

“Is that with Paul Rissman?”

“Yeah. I haven’t been very nice to him. Don’t you think I’ve been a bit of a bitch with the way I’ve been stringing him along lately?”

“No, I don’t agree, but even if you have been, that’s personal, not professional. It shouldn’t affect your work.”

“No, he’ll be fair at work. He’s just not going to do me any favours, and there’s not really a leave category for a friend in need.”

Ben kissed her, and she responded as best she could, mindful of her breath. “So, I’ve got shifts every day for the next ten straight,” he said, stroking her face and remaining right there where she couldn’t avoid breathing on him. “I could come and see you, call you sometimes.”

“You’d better! And I’ll call you too.” Kate was being kissed again. “What about Friday night, will you come to my place? You could leave early and still get back here to work on time.”

“Friday night? Yeah, sure. I’ll drive in right after work.”

Kate responded to being kissed again, and she melted into Ben’s arms for a cuddle before he broke away and stood to leave. “Say hello to Bobby for me? I’ll see what I can do for him.”

“I don’t know what any of us can do,” Kate replied. She felt a sense of hopelessness for Bobby’s cause and understood Ben was not in a position to do anything about it.

He parted with a final, lingering gaze and left her with a mixture of exhilaration and dread at the two totally disconnected developments in her life. She needed to find some strength and present a positive front for Bobby, though, and while she quickly showered and had her cereal and tea, she put together an argument against her own pessimism.

There was no point worrying about what may never happen, she reminded herself over and over and ultimately convinced herself as she drove down to Camden. She stopped to buy flowers for Bobby’s bedside and pranced into his room smiling.

Bobby’s left arm was in a sling, but he hugged her with his right. “Katie, look what Nurse Parker-May brought me.” There was a bundle of DVD’s sitting on the bed-side table and Bugs Bunny was playing on the television. “But I have to use the ear-plugs if I want to turn it up because it’s a hospital and you have to be quiet,” he explained. “And Nurse Parker-May said I can get up to change for another DVD, but I have to be careful because I’m not allowed to tear my stitches. But what about mister Cosgrove, Katie? Did you tell him not to give away my job? Because I like that job, and I’m going to get better soon. Did you tell him, Katie?”

 

Chapter 41

 

Ben was home for lunch and busy stuffing a rubbish bag in the furnace in the back yard when he heard a meek, unfamiliar voice call out from the back fence. He turned to see Olga Petrov looking over at him. She was smiling. “Excuse me, Officer?”

“Yes, ma’am… Hello! How are you?” Ben approached the fence. She handed him a bunch of white roses. He noticed her shirt sleeves and gardening gloves covered the scars on her wrists. It occurred to him that they always did.

“I wanted to say thank you for helping me,” she said, backing away a little once Ben had accepted the flowers.

“That’s fine, ma’am. I hope there wasn’t too much damage to your kitchen.”

She shook her head, backing away a little further. “Thank you, and please thank your young lady friend,” she said, offering genuine warmth with her eyes but turning away as she spoke.

She retreated into her house, and Ben half-filled the sink and set the flowers in that then rushed off to work before he was late.

That afternoon, he found himself alone at the station with nothing in particular to do, so he took the police Cruiser and drove up to Goran Hut. He walked around the building and found where the floor boards had been stacked. He looked in through the hole in the wall to find the earth had been excavated to a depth of only about three feet. He remembered the skeleton he had discovered was partially exposed, and he imagined all of the graves to have been quite shallow.

Ben strolled up to the Goran family plot and stood before the hole he had dug, mulling over his earlier conclusion that Melanie Rose had once been buried there. At the time, he had assumed it was her remains he found under the hut. He wondered why a killer would choose to bury her there and not under the floor with his other victims. And why would he then choose to come back and remove her remains, if indeed it had been Melanie buried in the plot? Ben had no doubt it was once a grave site. There was no denying the shape of the depression in the ground and the way the layers of soil had been disturbed.

Okay, so Bobby was involved, but there had to be someone calling the shots, he reasoned as he turned and looked back down at the hut. Assuming it was Melanie buried here, and that Bobby helped to bury her, then that other person must have come back and dug her up. Perhaps the difference being that she was the first local girl they had abducted. They had taken their first four victims from down the coast, and this time they attacked a local girl, and that changed things. That was more personal, and it sent Bobby over the edge and drove the other guy underground… So, Bobby’s gone running mad into the forest and ends up in a psych hospital. And the other guy? Well, he must have panicked and thought her body would be discovered here or something. So he comes back and digs her up. And then what? Why not beneath the floorboards with the others? Or is she special? Is she the one you keep as your trophy?

Ben wandered around to the side of the hut and looked in through the window of the smaller room. The floor there had been ripped up and the earth excavated. He ducked under the tape and walked along the veranda to look in the front door. He imagined the horror those young girls had faced, being dragged from a car, probably in the middle of the night. His gut turned as he imagined their final moments trapped in a dingy little hut deep in the forest and so far from home. Each of the four skeletons had been recovered intact, with no evidence of trauma except wounds to their wrists. He imagined they had been dragged into the hut then raped and strangled.

Sitting back in the police Cruiser, Ben decided to drive up the fire trail to the ridge.

So, who does Bobby go fetch for? He reasoned. He doesn’t help just anyone abduct young girls and drag them up here. The person he bows to is someone he has great respect for, possibly even fear. He’s a clown, a fool. He has one master and one only. He is not going to be a reliable accomplice unless he will be completely loyal. The guy in charge is more than formidable. He is someone Bobby idolizes.

At the top of the fire trail, Ben came across Tom Lloyd sitting on the bonnet of his old four wheel drive. He pulled in beside where he was parked on a sandstone outcrop looking down over the valley. “That’s not alcoholic is it, Tom?”

“No, just fruit juice. Would you like some?” He offered his small, silver hip flask.

Ben took a sip out of solidarity with the old sergeant. It was whisky, cheap whisky at that.

“Tom, you said to me a while back that if you thought Bobby Ray had taken young Melanie you would have murdered him back when it happened?”

“And I would have. Still will once he lets on where he’s got her body.”

“I’m thinking he was the junior partner, and someone else was calling the shots.”

“Yeah, like who?” Tom took a swig of whisky and swallowed it smoothly. He had the butt of a rolled cigarette, and he sucked the last of it in.

“I’m thinking of an idol, and I’m wondering who actually was the foreman at the timber mill back when he so desperately wanted to work there.”

“The foreman? That was Vincent Khel on the morning shift and Adam Carter on afternoons. Adam Carter was—”

“Vincent Khel! Nigel’s brother?” Ben interrupted.

“His twin. Although they never looked like twins, with Nigel as skinny as he is, and Vincent was always a big, well fed lad. Same facial features, though, strange that.”

“And how did Vincent get on with Bobby?”

“Not very well. But Vincent was intelligent. He used to get on with Bobby’s dad. He was dux of the school in sixth grade, and James Ray took him under his wing from there on, like father and the son James really wanted. Yeah, James mentored him and nurtured him and fed him up. They even looked alike, being such big men. But no, Vincent had no time for young Bobby. Used to see Bobby hanging around with Nigel a fair bit, but more often than not he was running after the younger boys, trying to fit in with them. Vincent was in charge at the mill and in charge of his brothers as well. Their mother died giving birth to a fourth boy, who was stillborn as it turned out, and after I put their old man in prison, Vincent took over. He was a good young lad.”

“So, he was a leader and someone Bobby idolized,” Ben suggested in conclusion.

“Maybe so, but he absolutely adored young Melanie. They were cousins, you know? He used to let her work the levers in the crane. She’d be up there on his lap, having the time of her life and scaring the shit out of everyone on the ground.” Tom took another swig from his flask and started building a fresh cigarette. “You might be right about there being another man involved, but those Khel boys wouldn’t have touched her.”

“So, he was a grown man with a young maturing girl sitting on his lap in the cabin of a crane. She was what, fifteen, sixteen years old?”

“She was a kid,” Tom spat defensively. “It was nothing like that.”

“And they were cousins,” Ben repeated thoughtfully. He had heard something about some family conflict. “Wasn’t the mother the sister of George Rose, the significantly less successful sister?”

“That’s right. Bethany Rose. She married a loser while her brother worked his arse off and built a business. George looked after them, though. He wouldn’t give them a handout, but he gave them work.”

“So, Vincent Khel was the poor cousin, and young Melanie was the rich cousin, and she was also the girlfriend of the real son of his mentor. Interesting!”

Tom scoffed. “Thin, is what it is.” The sudden intensity in his eyes suggested it was an angle he hadn’t considered, though.

“You said you put the Khel’s old man in prison?” Ben asked as he turned to leave. “What for?”

“Armed robbery. He held up a servo down south. Came back drunk and bragging about it—” Tom paused thoughtfully. His eyes had narrowed and intensified. His face paled noticeably.

“What is it?” Ben asked.

“Melanie was eleven or twelve years old, before her accident. She was taking some eggs up to the Khel’s house after school. Her mother had sent her—”

“Yes. And?” Tom had paused in thought again, and Ben took the flask out of his hand and had another sip. “What happened, Tom?”

“Nothing happened to her. She got scared because they were rowdy and carrying on, so she left the eggs on the doorstep without knocking, and when she got back to her father at the mill, she told him what she had heard the Khels talking about. And George called me, and that’s how Randal Khel ended up in prison, where he’s been ever since incidentally. He killed another inmate and went from 7-to-10, to life.”

“Did Vincent Khel know young Melanie left the eggs?”

Tom turned and walked to the ledge. “Sure he knew, but that was five years before Melanie went missing. He couldn’t have hurt her.”

The old man’s shoulders had dropped, and he sat on a rock. Ben left him looking down over the valley and made his way further up the trail to where it branched back toward Fortress Ridge and down toward the coast. He followed the coast trail until he reached another bare vantage point. From there he could see some fifty miles to Bulli Pass and the ridge of timbered sandstone that sheltered the small beaches below. It was from there that the young girls had been stolen.

Ben returned to town via the Fortress Ridge fire trail. He stopped in front of the Khel farm and took the binoculars from the glove compartment. He focused on the front door, which was closed, and scanned along the front of the house checking the windows for any movement. There were three windows in what he imagined to be the living area of the house and another two that would have been bedrooms. Beneath that section of the house was the row of small, round basement windows almost completely concealed by grass. There was no movement at all, and he scanned the landscape beyond the house where there was a small clearing with a clothes line and a chicken coup and, beyond that, a narrow walking trail that wound up into the forest. It was well worn, and Ben wondered where it led. Perhaps to a cave up under the ridge, he surmised, and he imagined the remains of young Melanie hidden up there somewhere.

He had no idea what he intended to do if he did see Nigel, and after checking the house again and watching the curtains in the windows for a while, he decided to move on and get back to his assigned duties.

He spent the rest of the afternoon on the speed trap again, and upon returning to the station house, found Barry Fitzgerald at his desk, and the only other person at work was one of the detectives from the south coast, Trevor Sanderson. He stepped to the door of the spare office the detectives were using. “How’s it all going, Trevor?”

“Yeah, good. We’re wrapping things up.”

Ben produced the handkerchief Gwen had given him. He had been carrying it in his pocket, waiting for an opportunity to give it to Trevor in person. He had developed a friendship with the laid back detective. “Apparently this was in the attic at the Ray house. One of the women there found it.”

Trevor took the handkerchief and examined it. “We don’t have a Jan.”

“I know. It could be unrelated or perhaps one of the girls had borrowed it.” Ben had taken the small chain Gwen had given him from his pocket. He was feeling the odd shaped links, thinking where he’d seen them before.

“Perhaps it was something borrowed,” Trevor mused. “I’ll look into it.”

Ben sat down across the desk. “So, everything’s cut and dried? He has the intellect of a child, but you’re convinced he’s capable of abduction and murder?”

Trevor opened a file and sorted photographs of various articles of clothing. There were dresses, skirts, swimwear and underwear. Some of the garments had been torn, and all were heavily soiled. “Apparently this was the dress young Melanie Rose was wearing the night she disappeared.” He handed Ben that photograph. “We haven’t found her body yet.”

“There’s too many,” Ben declared as he looked across at the photographs. “You’ve got two one-piece swim suits, one bikini top and three bras… Who’s the other girl?”

“We’re not looking for another.”

“Well, one girl’s not going to be wearing underwear and a swim suit at the same time.”

“No, but there’s also a shoulder bag that one of the girls was carrying. We’re assuming she had additional clothing.”

“Okay, but Bobby still doesn’t strike me as being capable of doing this on his own. What do you think, Barry? You knew him back then.”

Barry had approached and stood leaning in the doorway. He was chewing on a cold chicken wing. “He seemed harmless enough, but did you see the pictures in that scrapbook, and the names?”

“Yeah, and his prints were all over it,” Ben conceded. “I’m not suggesting he wasn’t involved.”

“No, I mean his new scrapbook. The one he’s had with him all the time. He’s got pictures of four girls who look very much like these four, and they’ve got the same names. Or at least he’s given them the same names. How fucking creepy is that?”

Trevor opened the window and lit up a cigarette. “That’s from something very deep down. But they were happy pictures—sunshine, smiles, not exactly hateful.”

Ben looked at the chain again. He suddenly remembered the loop bolted to the floor of the hut with the same square-links, and he understood he was holding a set of cuffs in his hand. He put that realization aside for the moment. “Barry, did Vincent Khel ever go surfing with Bobby?”

Barry dropped his chicken bone into the bin next to the desk and sat down. He took a moment, picking his teeth and frowning in apparent thought. “I only went with him a few times. Sometimes his parents used to take him and otherwise, I wouldn’t know, it’s possible, but Vincent didn’t like him. Nigel may have gone with him a few times, though.”

“Nigel? That’s the fellow your sergeant’s been after?” Trevor asked.

“He’s a strange one,” Ben explained. “He’s also a cousin of Melanie Rose, and he was hanging round the Ray house the night we brought Bobby in.”

Barry was looking over the photographs. “They’ve been up there three times, and he’s never home. The sarge thinks he’s hiding out.”

Ben picked up the handkerchief. “Could we have a quick look at the database to see if there’s a Jan missing from somewhere?”

The only linked computer was in the sergeant’s office. The three men filed in, and Barry sat down and opened the search window. “It could be Janet or Janelle, or they could be initials.”

“Try New South Wales females with the initial J between eighty and ninety,” Trevor suggested.

Barry entered the criteria, and five names appeared. The third name was Justine Anne Nolan, missing from a Camden hotel, Friday December 5th 1986. She was nineteen years of age at the time of her disappearance.

“There’s a Jan,” Trevor said with interest, and he opened the handkerchief to inspect it again.

“That local girl was November, wasn’t she?” Ben asked knowingly. “She disappeared November 22nd, and Bobby was in hospital in Camden on December 5. He was under guard in hospital when someone abducted another girl.” Ben held out his hands, challenging the detective. “He’s not your main man!”

“It’s still a long shot that the hanky is hers,” Trevor suggested cautiously.

Ben tried to contain his excitement. “But if it is, then someone else abducted her and put something of hers in that house with the other clothes! Right? So let’s go.”

“Okay, but not so fast.” Trevor printed out the details of Justine Nolan’s disappearance and stood looking at the page and rubbing his jaw. “There’s nothing here that can’t wait until morning, and I want to run this by Grier and your sergeant. At best the big guy had an accomplice, and we’ve still got his scrapbook.”

“I’ve seen Nigel poking around the Ray house quite a few times over the years,” Barry declared. “If you’re looking for someone with access, it’s been empty ever since old Isabel was taken in by her family, and Nigel has had plenty of opportunity. Who knows how long that box of clothes had been there? He could easily have planted it.”

“So, tomorrow morning, then?” Ben checked with Trevor, and he handed him the chain. “Will you ask the sarge if you can take me down to Camden with you?”

“Sure, why not?”

“That was in the attic with the handkerchief, by the way. I think you’ll find it fits neatly through the loop that was bolted to the floor of the hut, and that if you make a slip knot on each end it will match the injuries to the girls’ wrists.”

Ben could feel the lack of sleep the previous night beginning to overpower his thoughts as he walked home. He showered and changed, and felt a little fresher, though he didn’t feel like cooking, so he wandered down to the pub, intending to have a counter meal. He bumped into Phil, and after a beer, Phil called his wife and asked if she would set another place for dinner.

Dinner was half an hour off when they arrived, and while Phil was in the shower and his wife was busy in the kitchen, Ben was left to be entertained in the lounge room by the children. They rumbled him. The five and seven year old were teaching the two year old how to ‘get Uncle Ben’. They were swinging off his neck, pulling at his arms and legs and jumping on his belly. And they were giving him cuddles and reminding him of what was missing in his life.

After dinner, the children were put to bed, and Ben thanked his good friends and was strolling on home when he saw the frizzy-haired ex-reporter, Ollie, leaving the pub and swaggering toward his car. He called over, “Are you all right to drive, Ollie?”

“No, I’m just getting’ my kit.”

Ben approached and held the door while the old man pulled an overnight bag from behind the driver’s seat. “Is Arthur putting you up?”

“He has to if he wants any business from us blokes out of town. It’s either that or teach the missus to drive.”

Ben joined in a chuckle. There was something wrong with the picture of Ollie’s wife behind the wheel of a car. And not that she wouldn’t be capable, but that generation of women just didn’t drive.

“You know, Ollie, you said something the other day that’s been chewing on me. You said Bobby Ray’s old man was involved in incest with his father and sister. What happened there, exactly?”

“No one knows, exactly. Back then, what happened in your family tended to stay in your family, but there were rumors!” Ollie had settled back against his car and folded his arms. He was nodding to himself thoughtfully. “From what I understood at the time, the old man was doing the wrong thing with the girl. She was the oldest of the kids at about twenty, and James was maybe fourteen. It started when the other two boys signed up in the army and went on for about six months before the girl was sent away pregnant. And there was also another boy, a year or so younger than Olga—Clive Petrov. He and Olga were from some other father—could have been incest too, I suppose—then there was the two boys by old man Ray, and then James was the youngest.”

“So, what about James? This molestation of the girl was going on in the next bedroom, was it?”

“No, the old man used to take them for walks in the forest. Apparently it went on up at Goran Hut with the old man and the Petrov brother, and James used to have to watch. He told us that himself once, but the next day he came to school with cuts across his back where his father had whipped him with a razor strap. He never said anything about it after that, and we didn’t know whether to believe him or not at the time. We were never really sure what went on in that family, and we probably made up most of what I remember. Although you could always try asking Olga yourself.”

“So, Olga Petrov is the older sister that was abused?”

“Yeah, she was the one. She was sent away pregnant and came back about ten years later, after the old man died. Then the mother demanded we call her by her maiden name, and Olga, being by a different father, was never a Ray in the first place. And her brother Clive, he hung around for a while working at the mill. We used to keep an eye on him always watching the schoolgirls. He took off somewhere over in Western Australia then came back to help set up one of the hippie communes, the one that killed themselves in 72, just over the river in that big old farm house on the hill. Except Clive was gone before that happened. Anyway, the two women lived there in the old house up behind you, and they took James in after his accident because his wife wanted nothing more to do with him. Then the mother passed on, and Olga’s been tending those white roses ever since. Good luck getting a word out of her, though.”

“So, that was the original Ray family home?” Ben asked, feeling his skin crawl a bit.

“It was built by the Petrovs, actually. They settled here after escaping the Russian revolution back in 1920. The father worked in the logging camps. The mother died early on and the only child was a daughter, Bobby’s grandmother. She kept the house and lived there all her life. I think she actually poisoned her husband, but like I said, she was a sweet old dear, and he was a maniac. And the police at the time didn’t even bother to investigate.”

 

Chapter 42

 

Ben was alone at the station the next morning until Sergeant Edwards arrived at nine. Detectives Grier and Sanderson arrived together a half hour later, and there was a closed door meeting between the three of them. It ended with Trevor leaving the sergeant’s office and motioning for Ben to come along.

The drive down to Camden passed in conversation about the possible implications a positive identification of the embroidered handkerchief would have on the case. They were joined at Camden police station by a Detective Griffin Pollack, a gangly giant with a pronounced Adam’s apple and a severe stoop. From the back seat, he directed Ben to a small Victorian cottage in a leafy, well gardened street not far from the hospital.

Ben waited at the car and saw a tiny, greying old woman buckle at the knees at sight of the handkerchief. Both men caught her from falling to the ground, but she had lost consciousness, and Ben called for an ambulance.

After dropping Detective Pollack back at the station, Ben turned to Trevor. “I’d like to talk to Bobby. I’ve got an idea that may jolt his memory.”

“Oh?”

It was a short drive back to the hospital, and Trevor told Ben to wait while he lit up a cigarette.

“This is the same hospital he was in back in eighty-six,” the detective started casually. “So, the other person involved would have been one of his visitors.. They drop in to see the big guy and come across young Justine Nolan at the pub afterward. Maybe chat her up or wait ‘till she leaves and follow her.” He sucked hard on his cigarette. “You’ve got a theory on who it was?”

“I’ve got a feeling it was Vincent Khel and possibly his two brothers. I think they targeted young Melanie at least and coerced Bobby into helping abduct her. I think if we get Bobby’s mind focused on that timber mill and challenge his fantasy about working there he’ll give us Vincent.”

Trevor was nodding agreeably. He waved for Ben to go on. “Well, I heard Grier is getting a search warrant to go after Nigel Khel’s gun today, so if we can get Bobby to talk, there may be an interesting interview with Nigel to be had.”

Trevor sucked on his cigarette one last time and stepped on the butt. “Let’s go have a chat.”

Ben was relieved that neither Gwen nor Kate were at the hospital. There was an officer stationed outside the room, and Bobby was sitting up watching television. He smiled broadly. “Hello, Officer McEwen. Is Katie with you?”

“No, she’s not, Bobby. How are you feeling?”

His smile ended, and he shrugged. “I’m okay. Nurse Fletcher and nurse Parker-May are my friends now, but I want Katie to take me home soon.”

“Well, Katie’s very worried about you, Bobby. The last time I spoke with her she was very upset about these young girls that you were friends with.” Bobby was eying Trevor, and Ben glanced back at him. “Have you met Detective Sanderson?”

“He showed me pictures, but I don’t know any beach girls.”

“But you used to go to the beach didn’t you, Bobby? You used to go surfing on the weekend.”

Bobby started plucking at his fingers. His head had lowered, and his eyes were fixed downward. He didn’t respond verbally, but he shrugged again.

Ben sat on the end of the bed and continued, warmly. “I’m trying to help you, Bobby. Kate and Gwen asked me to come and see you because they’re very worried about you. But I can’t help if you won’t talk to me.”

Bobby responded without looking up from rubbing at his fingers. “I don’t like talking sometimes.”

“Okay, so I’ll go back and tell Kate that you wouldn’t talk to me. Is that what you want?” Ben offered an ultimatum with his tone. “Should I go and tell Kate that you don’t care if she’s sad?”

“No, don’t! Don’t say that to Katie!”

“But she’s worried about you, Bobby. You’re in a lot of trouble with Detective Sanderson and with Sergeant Edwards, and Katie asked me to come and see you so I can help. But you have to tell me about the timber mill. You have to tell me about when you worked there.”

“About the timber mill?” Bobby’s head lifted, his eyes wide. “I worked at the timber mill. I always worked there because I was the one who worked the crane. I was the best one who could work the crane.”

“But I don’t think that’s true, Bobby. I don’t think you really were the best one who could work the crane.”

“Yes, I was! I could do it better than anyone! I could do it the best!”

“No, Bobby,” Ben was shaking his head slowly. “No, everyone says Vincent was the best one who could work the crane. Everyone says Vincent was the best worker in the whole timber mill.”

“He wasn’t!” Bobby’s eyes welled with tears, and his jaw quivered. “He is not the best worker! He’s dirty and disgusting! He’s a dirty dog animal!” A nurse appeared at the door, and Trevor restrained her. Bobby’s chest lifted and his face set in twisted anguish.

Ben’s gut clenched at the thought of what the child giant may have been through. “Why is he disgusting, Bobby? Vincent loved her, didn’t he?”

Bobby broke into a chesty sob. “He did not! He didn’t love her! He said he had a surprise to give her, but he’s a Satan spawn, and I’m stronger than he is now.”

Ben touched Bobby’s arm, but he turned away and bit into his pillow. The nurse pushed past Trevor and elbowed her way in front of Ben. He moved back to the door and checked with Trevor. “Is that enough to bring Nigel Khel in?”

Trevor nodded and motioned that he would wait outside.

Ben approached the bed again. Bobby was crying, and the nurse was stroking his head. “Is he going to be all right?”

“I think you should get out of here and leave him alone.”

Ben backed away, and as he stepped from the room, he slumped against the wall. His heart was still pounding, and he took a moment to collect himself.

He left the hospital and found Trevor finishing his cigarette. They drove out of Camden and stopped at the roadhouse for a short lunch break before returning to Goran Vale.

“You know, Trevor, there’s still a piece missing.”

“And what piece is that?”

“The piece that links your four girls with the two from here. I’m not so sure the Khel boys had anything to do with your girls. And I’ve a feeling Bobby has a wound deeper than the one we touched back there in the hospital room.”

“Care to elaborate?” Trevor asked.

“Not yet…I’m thinking of the scars on the wrists of an old woman, too old to have had anything to do with the Khel boys. But let’s just see what Nigel has to say.”

Upon returning to the station Ben busied himself at his desk. Detective Grier was preparing the search warrant for the Khel residence. Sanderson and Sergeant Edwards were locked in the sergeant’s office. Barry Fitzgerald arrived to begin his shift at three, and Detective Grier returned shortly after.

The meeting broke up in the sergeant’s office, and Ben and Barry were instructed to accompany the two detectives. Nigel Khel was to be brought in for questioning, so two vehicles were taken. They arrived at the Khel farm to find it apparently deserted. The door was loosely closed and rattled with the force of Barry’s fist. It obviously wasn’t locked.

Grier motioned to enter. Guns were drawn, and Barry pushed the door open. There was no movement inside. Ben squeezed in through the doorway and covered the room. Nigel was not there. The detectives strode in, and another door was kicked open to reveal a bedroom with an unmade single bed and a wooden chest of drawers stuffed with clothing. Through another open door was a small room with a combustion oven and a work bench stacked with bricks of wrapped clay and an array of unpainted figurines.

The main living room had an open fireplace and a wooden table with a single chair. There was an unfinished meal of eggs and beans on a plate and a tea pot that was still warm. There was another door. It had a latch in the closed position and an open padlock. Trevor nodded and raised his gun. Ben slid the latch and pulled the door open. Barry slipped through the open door and cried out, “Fuck me!”

The door led to a basement, which was a single room with dusty shafts of sunlight streaming through small, round portholes. In the middle of the room was a glass casket containing two human skeletons. They were laid out and pinned in place against what appeared to be cushioned, white satin. Both skeletons had a shriveled, leather-like coverage of skin. They were adorned in identical white gowns, and one of them wore a crown. Kneeling either side of the casket and at the base, as if in prayer, were three life-size, clay statues. They were clothed in trousers, shirts and boots.

“That’d be Vincent and Jake,” Barry surmised. He was the first to find his voice.

“And Bobby’s father?” Ben asked. The figure kneeling at the base of the casket strongly resembled Bobby.

Barry bent over to look closely, and he lifted hair from the figures face. “That’s James Ray all right but. Jesus, is that real fucking hair?”

There was a loud crash in the other room, and suddenly Nigel Khel was gasping for breath in the doorway. His eyes were bulging, his face an ashen grey. He had a rifle in his hand, but it clattered to the floor, and he let out a strangled, inhuman gasp as Trevor launched himself and pinned his gaunt, haggard frame against the stairs.

 

Chapter 43

 

Bobby looked over at the light girl lying across the mattress in the corner. Vincent and Jake were standing above her. They were laughing, and the light girl was crying. He saw her through the eyes of the big man. He was kneeling over her. Bobby could feel her cold skin in his fat, dirty hands.

He hugged his knees to his chest. “Don’t hurt her again,” he said aloud, and he opened his eyes to the half-darkness of the hospital room. He closed his eyes again and remembered the smell of the big man. He hated the stench of his hot onion breath. He remembered it as a child, and he remembered it as he tried to pull against his father’s shoulder.

He was seventeen when his father had taken the first beach girl. Her name was Lisa. She was a blond girl with such big eyes. Bobby had been meeting her on Saturday mornings. His father had been there at the beach on a few Saturdays, and one time he had offered to drive Lisa home. He had told Bobby to drive, and he had squashed Lisa in the middle of the seat. He told her not to cry because God loved all of his children.

Bobby remembered Carla and Louise. They were his friends, but his father had pulled them into the truck and insisted their evil thoughts needed to be cleansed as well. And he remembered Maria. He remembered his father pinning her to the slatted wooden floor of that dark, little hut, and he could feel her soft arms as she struggled and cried. He could feel her tender, white skin in his fingers as he tried to hold her arms still and stop the chain from cutting into her wrists, to stop it from tearing her skin as his father squashed and pulled at her body.

Bobby remembered the blood seeping from under the chain, and he remembered how cold her skin was. He stood, and he saw Melanie between their fat shoulders. He saw Vincent and Jake laughing, and he saw the fat onion man lying down on top of her.

“Daddy, don’t purge her,” Bobby cried, and he pulled against his father’s shoulder, but his father was too heavy, and he brushed away with his arm and scowled with his onion breath.

“Daddy, don’t purge her again! She’s my special one, Daddy!”

 

Chapter 44

 

Tom Lloyd stretched his legs out in front of the bench seat and rested his head back against the wall of the mill office. It was a crisp autumn morning, but there was enough intensity in the sun to warm his bones. He had another swig from his hip flask and checked his hand for steadiness. The alcohol eased his nerves, and at a certain point in his journey into inebriation, he reached an almost numb calmness.

He rolled a cigarette and thought of Melanie tending her father’s office garden. He smiled to himself. Her memory had warmed since her remains had been discovered.

It was closure, Tom reasoned.

The previous afternoon, he had passed his sister in the doorway of the station house. Their eyes had locked for the first time in years. The silence between them still ached with the sorrow of what had happened to young Melanie, but in the tears welling in his sister’s eyes, Tom had recognized tremendous relief, and with the slightest nod of her head, he had received absolution.

He had spent the previous evening at the bar of the pub, remembering his good friend George and privately toasting his memory. It had been a festive night with a party atmosphere taking over the main street, and there was talk of a tulip festival that year.

Yes, closure, Tom reiterated coldly, and he took another long pull on his hip flask.

He stood from the bench seat and butted out his cigarette. He strolled down the hill to the clock tower corner and along to the station house. He knew Barry Fitzgerald would be on duty and alone. He found him sitting at his desk eating a cream bun. “Morning, Barry.”

“Tom! How ya going?”

“Fine. I just need to have a chat with old James. You’re shipping him out today, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, later this morning. What do you want with him?”

“I just have to look in his eyes, Barry, after all these years, for Melanie.” Tom opened his coat. “Come on, you should check I’m not armed.”

Barry smiled. “You’re not armed are you, Tom?”

Tom chuckled. “I’d like to be, but no. Five minutes, okay?”

Barry nodded, and Tom turned and opened the basement door. He walked down the narrow staircase with his gut tightening, and as he met the decrepit old man’s eyes, he immediately rolled over to face the wall.

Tom stood for a moment looking at him, remembering him as a fat, middle aged, God fearing school headmaster, and picturing him raping young Melanie in her new, white party dress. He addressed the aluminum shutter that had recently been fitted over the single window in the basement. It was latched with a bolt, but being fitted internally, there was no locking mechanism, something Tom had found out from Carl Evans, the local builder who had installed the shutter. He slid the bolt and opened the shutter, folding it back either side of the window, and he opened the window and looked out at the newly installed barbed wire fencing.

Tom stood for another moment looking at the monster’s mangled head then turned and walked back up the stairs.

“Thanks, Barry. Something I just had to do.”

“Okay, Tom. See you at the pub tonight?”

Tom nodded in agreement and left the station house to walk briskly back up the hill to the old timber mill. He didn’t know how long it would be before Barry checked on the prisoner, so he had to hurry.

He reached the garden bench puffing and struggling to get air into his lungs. He took a moment, had a swig from his flask, then picked up his rifle and walked up the gravel mound to the water tower. He slung the rifle over his shoulder and climbed the ladder to the wooden platform. He edged around the rusted water tank and lay down.

It was a perfectly clear morning, and there was no wind. He trained the crosshairs of his scope on the open window of the station house cell. He took a slow, steadying breath as he marked the point at the back of James Ray’s head. “Closure,” he said to himself with the hair lifting along his spine, and he gently squeezed the trigger. Then he worked the bolt of his rifle and put a bullet into the left side of the old man’s back, just below his shoulder blade.

 

Chapter 45

 

Two days after the murder of James Ray and unequivocal surrender of Tom Lloyd, Ben approached the spare office where Trevor Sanderson was packing his files and stationary into a box. “What will they give old Tom?” he asked.

“Life, I’d imagine. First degree, he’ll probably die in prison.”

“That’s a shame. He was a good cop.”

Trevor nodded in agreement. “Saved us a trial, though,” he said with a chuckle. “Although I’m still wondering about that Nigel Khel. He’s been happy enough to brag about wiping his brothers out and skull-axing Bobby’s old man in the name of the Lord, but I think you were right. He didn’t seem to know anything about our girls. Then, DNA on the clothing only places Bobby and his father, except with young Melanie and Justine Nolan.”

Ben walked Trevor out to his car. “So, what’ll happen to Bobby now?”

“Dunno. His doctors have got some work to do by the sound of it, but the charges have been dropped. They’re not going to prosecute the poor bastard. He was just a kid.” Trevor started his car but hesitated before driving away. He took out his packet of cigarettes. “By the way, Nigel Khel’s rifle checked out. It was all rusted up. Hadn’t been fired in years. Apparently a guy by the name of Toby Miller has been bragging over at the pub about being a pretty good shot with a rifle, though. And they say he was the little boy Melanie Rose pulled out of a creek way back when.” Trevor lit his cigarette and grinned. “Good luck with that.”

Ben spent the next two weeks wondering what would come of his relationship with Kate. He had all but lost touch with her. She was, of course, consumed with grief over what had happened to Bobby, and she and her mother were constantly at his side in the hospital and later, in the psychiatric clinic his doctor had transferred him to. Ben allowed Kate all the space she needed and waited for her to call, when and if she felt like it. She had called four times in the two weeks, and on each occasion there had been awkward silences filled with the realization they actually didn’t know each other that well. It was just too early in their relationship to have to deal with such a dramatic situation, Ben reasoned. And he maintained hope that when he saw Kate again they could regain something of the feelings they had confessed to one another.

He spent his evenings working on his house and cleaning up his junk room, and he gave Alyssa Lloyd a few more lessons in preparation for her driving test. The evening of her test he came home to find her sitting on his doorstep. She was grinning proudly.

“So, where is my car?” she asked, unable to contain a gleeful little giggle.

“You passed? Quick, show me.” She produced a driver’s license, which Ben examined closely. “What a mug,” he teased with a chuckle. “What, did the camera flash scare you or something?”

“Shut up! It’s not that bad.”

“No, I’m only kidding. It’s great. Congratulations! And come on in and we’ll do the paperwork to transfer your car.”

“My car! Yes!” Alyssa pushed Ben on into the house and stood at his shoulder to watch him sign over the registration. He handed her the keys, and she kissed his cheek, blushing excitedly.

“Are you going to the memorial service tomorrow?” Ben asked. There was to be a service for Melanie Rose as she would be laid to rest.

“I’m going with Mum and the kids. Will you be there?”

“Yeah. I didn’t know the girl, but I’ll put in an appearance.”

“I see Bobby’s back,” Alyssa said, drawing a nervous breath.

“He is, is he?” Ben had seen Gwen’s car at the house for the past few days. He wondered whether Bobby had returned home, whether he would be returning to Goran Vale to live. “Are you going to see him again?” he asked.

“I don’t think so. It’s all a bit too real for me, what happened with him and his dad.”

“Yeah, I guess. And you’ll be busy making friends down in the city, I expect.”

“I hope so. I’ve already found a few things to do now that I’ve got a car! My very own car!” She giggled again, excitedly.

“Alright. Get out of here. I’ve got jobs to do.”

Ben waved Alyssa off and went back inside to flop on his couch. He sat looking at his two paintings, wondering whether Kate would be at the service, then he lay down and closed his eyes and remembered the feel of her lying there cuddled up in front. He remembered the scent of her perfume and the touch of her soft hair against his cheek.

 

Chapter 46

 

“Stephen should be home any minute. Are you sure you won’t have another cup of tea?” Andrea asked.

Kate stood and stepped away from the dining table she had chosen for Stephen Gershwin four years earlier. It was all that was left of the furniture she had picked out, and looking around the familiar room once more, she felt little connection. She was over that failed episode in her life, and she felt genuine happiness for her friend Andrea.

Kate had called by to congratulate her on her pregnancy. She wasn’t rushing off to avoid Stephen, although she had no particular interest in seeing him. “No, I’ve got a bit of a drive, and I had better get going,” Kate explained, and she offered a hug that was returned with what she deemed to be tremendous relief. “It’s okay,” she consoled. Andrea was crying. “Come on, we’ll all get together soon and catch up properly.”

It was a good run out of the city, and Kate experienced a feeling of relief as the traffic subsided and the road opened into freeway. Her mother had already canceled her life in Sydney and moved into Bobby’s house. It had all happened so quickly. After twenty-five years at the institution, she had suddenly resigned, taken her long service payout, and leased the old Goran Vale National Bank building with a plan to gut it and set it up as a modern café. And as Kate turned off the freeway and wound up into the forest for the first time in several weeks, she had the distinct sense that she was going home. The antiquated town in the mountains was no longer boring and ugly, and as she rolled on by the ‘Tidy Town’ sign she felt a warm, welcoming sense of familiarity that surged as a nervous little thrill when she passed Ben McEwen’s house with the lights on.

She found her mother in the kitchen cooking dinner. Bobby was apparently working late, something to do with a tractor breakdown. “How did you get on with the lease, Mum?”

“Two years with an option to buy. I could have gotten three or four, but if I can’t make a go of it in two years, I don’t suppose I ever will.”

“And what about the upstairs part, did you have a look?”

Gwen shrugged and nodded as she sat down across the dining table with her cup of tea. “It’s just an office. It was probably the bank manager’s office I suppose. It’s quite big.”

“Are you going to be using it?” Kate asked.

“Might consider sub-letting if I can find a dependable tenant,” her mother replied.

Kate had been wondering about the fact that there were twenty or so businesses in Goran Vale plus numerous farmers in the area, and the closest accountant was an hour away, in Camden. Ever since her mother had announced her decision to move to Goran Vale, she had been lying awake at night churning over the possibilities.

“I bumped into Ben this evening,” her mother said with an exaggerated sigh.

“How is he?” Kate asked, more than happy to play into whatever her mother might be up to in regard to Ben.

“He asked about you. I see you haven’t spoken to him.”

“I’m going to see him tomorrow. It’s just been strange on the phone.”

“Strange, how?” Gwen asked searchingly. “He’s a good man, sweetheart.”

“I know, Mum. God!”

“Well, what’s the problem? Why have you shut him out?”

“I haven’t shut him out. It’s just—”

Her mother’s hand closed over hers. “You’re not being fair to the man, Kate, and you’re not being fair to yourself either.”

“Fair! What the hell has fair got to do with it?” Kate’s blood was suddenly boiling, but she couldn’t contain her tears. “It isn’t fair! Nothing is!”

“So, give this one a chance.” Her mother’s tears had started as well, but she was smiling. “He’s a really nice man, sweetie. I think you’re underestimating him.”

“Well, I’m going to try, but you should have seen him with these two kids who came around selling raffle tickets. They were all over him, and he loved it, Mum.”

“Okay, but that isn’t everything! Why don’t you think for a moment about what you can give a man instead of worrying about what you can’t? You’ve got so much to offer, and any man would be lucky—”

“Stop it, Mum! I hate it when you say that.”

“I don’t care what you hate, miss! I’m going to keep saying it until you listen! There’s more to life than having children, and I know how warm and loving and smart and funny, and how damn well—” Gwen broke into a sob. “How damn well wonderful you are!”

“Mum.”

Kate was crying, and her mother came around the table to hold her.

“And any man would be so lucky to have you, sweetie, and it’s time you realized that.”

Kate sobbed into her mother’s neck and had her hair stroked with the tenderness she had always known. The last time she had been with Ben she had confessed to falling in love with him, and this had all been sorted in her mind. Then as soon as he was out of sight, she had gone to water again. But she had to believe he was more of a man than Stephen. She did believe that. When she was with him she knew it. Looking into his eyes she knew he was the man she needed, and she so wanted to trust that he could love her completely.

“What’s this old thing?” Gwen asked, tugging at the worn and faded leather jacket Kate was wearing.

“It’s his,” Kate confessed, and she giggled and sniffled her tears. “He let me wear it once and I stole it, and now I practically live in it.”

“So, what are you wearing tomorrow? I’ve got a brown suit. That should be all right, shouldn’t it?”

“Yes, I don’t think we have to wear black, just dark and plain, I think. I’ve got slacks and a jacket picked out. Maybe I should give this one back. He’s probably missing it.”

“That’s a good idea. You should go around and see him right after the service. But you’ll have to come and get changed first.”

“And what am I supposed to say? He must think I’m a total bitch by now.”

“Well, you could thank him for helping Bobby. That should be enough if you wear a little perfume and lean close when you’re talking, and perhaps if you managed a slight touch when you hand him the jacket.”

“Mum! You old tart.”

“Yes, but men are such simple creatures, aren’t they? And so predictable. You can undo any number of wrongs with the right outfit, something short and pretty—lots of leg and some cleavage. You won’t need to do much talking.”

“But shouldn’t I do some talking? If he is still interested, shouldn’t I tell him I can’t have babies?”

Gwen kissed Kate’s forehead and smoothed her hair. “I honestly don’t know, sweetie. Yes, he does deserve to know early on, I suppose. I’m sure you’ll know what’s right, but I think if I were you I’d just tell the truth about why you’ve been avoiding him. I don’t think he’ll bat an eyelid, and I bet as soon as you get the words out he’ll take you in his arms and kiss you. He won’t hesitate!”

Kate lay awake most of the night with only one thought rolling over and over in her mind. It was the thought of confessing to Ben that she can’t stop thinking about him, and that she will never bear a child, and being rejected. Riding in the back of the car on the way to the service the next morning, she responded to Bobby and her mother’s conversation where necessary, and she otherwise sat in a daze that was only slightly jolted when the car stopped at Goran Vale cemetery.

Ben was standing on the edge of the small gathering. He was dressed in a navy blue suit that accentuated the width of his shoulders. He was holding a small child while another one tugged at his coat. Kate felt like bawling right there and then, but she contained herself as her mother squeezed her hand.

After the short graveside service, Gwen took Bobby to speak with Melanie Rose’s mother and offer condolences, and Kate slipped her arm within Bobby’s to offer him support. The old woman peered up from behind a black lace veil. Her eyes were watery, and her tiny hands were trembling as they closed over Bobby’s. Kate had listened to the service distractedly, feeling little other than a distant sorrow for the family, but she instantly choked up and began to cry. The old woman was nodding. She was too upset to speak, but she obviously wanted Bobby to know she didn’t hold him responsible for the death of her daughter.

Bobby shuddered slightly as he sucked in a breath. “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them, Misses Rose.” His voice was a thick, anguished whisper. “I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to stop my daddy.”

Eleanor Rose burst into tears, and people gathered around comforting her. Gwen took Bobby away, and Kate was left dabbing at her tears. She had made eye contact with Ben a few times, and she took a breath to compose herself when he approached.

He nodded at first, and took a moment to speak. “Hi. How are you?”

“I’m fine. It’s all just a bit sad.”

Ben glanced back at the gathering. “Shall we walk?” He motioned toward the car park.

It was only a short walk, about twenty yards. Ben didn’t speak, and Kate couldn’t. Her heart was thumping, and when they reached the car park, his hand touched her back and her knees buckled.

She turned to face him, and he fumbled for her face. “I’ve been thinking about you,” he said softly, stroking her hair as she leaned into him and fiddled with his coat.

“I’ve been thinking about you too,” Kate uttered, and he sought her eyes, then he kissed her softly, and Kate responded with the passion exploding from her heart.

He kissed her lips and her face and her eyes. “Ben… Ben… Wait!” He kissed her deeply once more, and she responded, but some of the gathering were approaching. “Not here, Ben. Let’s go somewhere.”

Kate managed a wave to her mother as they drove by. It was less than a mile to Ben’s house, and once he pulled into the driveway, he took her into his arms again. They kissed and cuddled for a few minutes in silence, then Kate pushed him away.

She straightened her clothes and her hair, and she faced him squarely. “We need to talk,” she started.

He touched her face again and leaned in to kiss her softly once more. “I want you, and I’m not waiting,” he declared.

Kate’s heart burst in rapture, her face flushing. “But you don’t know me.”

Ben stroked her hair from her forehead and kissed her softly again. “So, tell me your secret,” he said easily.

“My secret?” Kate mumbled.

He lifted her chin. His eyes were shimmering with intensity. “Tell me what’s wrong,” he whispered, and he kissed her again, softly yet deeply, with his lips caressing her open mouth and his essence flooding her soul.

“I can’t have babies,” Kate uttered, and she sought his eyes. “It isn’t possible for me to bear children, Ben.”

His eyes softened. They wavered a little without breaking contact. “Absolutely impossible?” he asked, and Kate’s heart sank.

She nodded. He bent to her and kissed her again, softly. He lifted and touched her face once more. “That must be hard for you.” His voice was tender and caring.

He kissed her again, and she responded to his passion. He kissed her mouth and her face. He met her eyes again. “You know, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known couldn’t bear children.”

Kate sniffled, her heart sinking a little again. Was he patronizing her?

“That would be my mum,” he explained, offering a grin.

“Your mum?”

“Yeah. Mum and Dad adopted us, both my sister and I. And we’re about as close as any family I’ve ever met. Maybe even a little closer.”

He kissed Kate again, smoothing hair from her face.

“I mean, I can’t know what it’s like for a woman to not actually be pregnant and give birth, but I know it doesn’t make any difference as a family when the children are adopted, like, if you ever wanted to adopt, that is.”

Kate kissed him that time. She couldn’t contain the glee that was clenching her stomach and causing her to smile and cry at the same time. “You’re seriously adopted?” she uttered, stupidly.

“Yeah, it’s no big deal.”

Kate’s heart was instantly filled with warmth and confidence. She could see her entire life, and it made perfect sense. She lifted so Ben could slip into the passenger seat beneath her. She settled upon his lap and kissed him again as she loosened his tie and started tugging at his shirt, feeling cheeky. “So, where’s your dress uniform, Tex?” she asked teasingly.

And Ben laughed. Kate laughed too. And as he carried her into his quaint, cozy little country house, she rested her head upon his shoulder knowing it would soon be their cozy little country house, and that she was being carried across the threshold by the man who would be her husband.

Of this Kate was absolutely certain……

The end, hope you enjoyed!

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Remains of a Local Girl: Part 5

beauty-3d

Aussie cold case murder mystery, steamy romance.

 

Chapter 28

 

Sergeant Edwards was a lanky, stoop-necked man of fifty-eight. Ben stood at his shoulder while Barry Fitzgerald walked around the small wrought iron fence that enclosed the Goran family graves. “Can you see it?” Barry asked, pointing to the ground. The three graves were in a line. He was indicating that there may have been a fourth, unmarked grave, as was a local legend. It was commonly believed the ground had sunk in that spot in the past ten years.

Ben stepped over the fence. “It looks like a depression in the ground right here,” he suggested, getting on his knees and feeling the shape of the earth beneath the long grass. “It’s like when you pull out a stump. You can fill the hole, but the ground is never compacted enough, and over time it forms a depression.”

Ben and Barry took a shovel each and carefully lifted the grass from what appeared to be the grave site. The earth was damp and soft, but they had no idea of what depth they might find human remains, so the task of removing layers of soil was slow and meticulous. Barry went back to town mid-morning and brought drinks and food, and he brought two men from the local council.

Still nothing was uncovered by lunchtime, and the hole was beyond waist deep. Sergeant Edwards had a thoughtful expression marring his narrow face. “I don’t know if we’re going to find anything, men, but I have to agree the layers of soil are uneven, and it does look like the ground has been disturbed before. I’d say if there was ever a body there it’s been moved.”

“What now, then?” Ben asked. “We should go a little bit deeper, shouldn’t we? At least another few feet.”

“Barry, you had better go and get some sleep. I’ll leave you with it for the afternoon, Ben. I’ve got Senior Detective Grier arriving at two, and we’ll see if she can get anything more out of Bobby Ray. You keep the fellows going, and take that down another few feet. Call in if you find anything.”

Ben was left with the two council workers, and they scraped away at the increasingly dense earth and took the hole down to bedrock that afternoon. It was a long, frustrating day, and Ben had a sore back and blistered hands. He called into the station and found Sergeant Edwards chatting with Detective Grier, a sharp featured woman of fifty with a spool of black and grey hair pinned to the top of her head with blue spikes. He reported that the site had been empty and asked if Bobby had offered any further information.

Susan Grier smiled and shrugged. “He confessed to dreaming about a girl. He can’t identify her or the other men involved in attacking her. The young woman, Alyssa Lloyd, claims to be responsible for the roughing up she got last night. Bobby Ray has been released.”

Ben nodded and left his superiors to deal with it. He returned home, where there was a note pinned on his front door:

Mum’s here now and we’ll be staying at the motel

Thanks so much for your help last night

K.

The bed had been made, and the kitchen had been cleaned. Ben had a beer, then a shower, then another beer, and he was about to put some dinner on when Kate rang and invited him to dine with her, her mother, and Bobby at the motel restaurant. Half an hour later he was seated across from a strikingly attractive woman with hair of deep burgundy and Kate’s eyes and smile, introduced as Gwen.

Bobby sat quietly throughout the meal, and Ben avoided talking about his situation as much as possible. The women spoke freely, though, and Ben learned that Gwen was a psychiatric nurse, and that she was involved in Bobby’s treatment and care when he was institutionalized in his early twenties. She was particularly interested in his dreams.

“They’re not necessarily accurate reflections of actual events. They’re more likely to be representative of emotions experienced during incidents that have been subdued.”

“So, it doesn’t mean he actually hurt the girl,” Kate confirmed as she squeezed Bobby’s hand.

“I don’t like it when girls are being hurt, Katie. I didn’t mean to hurt Alyssa, Officer McEwen. I like Alyssa. She’s my friend.”

Ben checked with Kate before responding. “I don’t think she’s badly hurt, Bobby. You frightened her more than anything. What were you thinking?”

“I don’t remember what happened. Alyssa was crying, and I was laying on her, and I ran away. I thought I was having a dream.”

“Well, we’ll have a talk to Doctor Matheson about that, won’t we, Bobby?” Gwen had the soothing, conciliatory tone of a mother. “And what’s happening over this side of the table, hey, Bobby? Do you think Katie likes Ben?”

“Mum!”

“I think she does, Gwen. And I think Ben likes Katie too. He took Katie for a date, and when she came home her hair was mussed up.”

“Bobby! Sorry, Ben. They’re so embarrassing.”

“Huh!” Gwen exclaimed. “We can see the pair of you stealing glances. Now, Ben, don’t take any notice of Katie’s ‘I’m so cool’ bullshit. She’s a big romantic underneath.”

“Mum! God!”

“I can see where Kate gets her tact from, Gwen,” Ben’s laugh was tentative, but it was well received.

“Well, tact is overrated, and sometimes it’s best to just say what you think,” Gwen argued. “Bobby taught me that.”

Ben had been stealing glances, and he had caught Kate’s glance a number of times during the meal. Gwen claimed the bill and took Bobby home, announcing that Kate and Ben looked like they needed some time alone. After an awkward moment of silence, Ben managed to say something.

“Well, I spent all day digging what we thought may have been Melanie Rose’s grave site, but we didn’t find anything.”

Kate looked up from the table cloth she was fiddling with. “He couldn’t hurt a girl,” she stated simply and categorically.

Ben nodded. He thought of her concern the previous night. She had obviously been worried Bobby may have been involved in the abduction and murder of Melanie Rose. That concern must have passed, though, and right then she had a light in her eyes that Ben recognized as determination.

“There’s no way Bobby would have possessed the maturity to abduct someone when he was, what, twenty years old. He was a big, goofy kid when Mum brought him home back then. There’s no way he could have murdered anyone.”

“Who’s Doctor Matheson?” Ben asked. He wasn’t about to argue, and what she said made sense. He was still only a child.

“That’s Bobby’s old doctor and one of my mum’s flings from a few years ago.” Kate suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry about Mum.”

“Why? I liked her. Straight to the point and no mincing words!”

Kate had taken to fiddling with the tablecloth again. She went on, offering only a brief upward glance as she spoke. “Thanks for putting me up last night. You’re a good friend.”

The softness and sincerity in her tone touched Ben deeply, but he had to swallow the platonic connotation. He nodded a reply and couldn’t help yawning. After a long day, and having only a few hours’ sleep the night before, he was quite tired. He stood and waited for Kate to walk ahead.

“You’re staying here at the motel?” he asked, wondering whether she would have to walk back to Bobby’s house.

“No, we’re all staying at Bobby’s place. I’ll be okay with Mum there.”

“Can I walk you?”

“Oh, I have my car, lazy, huh?”

Ben ushered Kate from the restaurant. He held the door open and touched her back as she slipped past. Her skin was warm and clingy through the thin fabric of her blouse, and there was nothing platonic in the tingly rush that surged through his chest. She gave a final, fleeting glance as she got into her car, holding his gaze for longer that time.

Ben strolled home and stripped off. He folded back his bed clothes, and he slipped in and drew from his pillow the scent of that long, brown hair.

Was that hurt he had seen in Kate’s parting look, or perhaps anger? He wondered about that and about whether he should have called her again after the chinless guy had answered her phone.

Maybe I did over-react a little, he mused, but sleep came quickly.

 

Chapter 29

 

Ben woke late the next morning. It was a day off work, and he lay staring at the ceiling, wondering what a local person would want with nails at Goran Hut in 1984. At least the paper bag was from Johnson’s Hardware in 1984, which meant it could have ended up at the hut within a few years of that, perhaps even late 1986. And what would be the use of nails at that time? The only timber was the walls, which were bolted, and the doors and the floor. Obviously nails would be to either make or repair something. Perhaps they were to repair one of the doors, or maybe the floor. But why would anyone wish to repair anything at Goran Hut?

He cooked up a big breakfast of eggs, bacon and tomato. He ate, then took a shovel, a crowbar and a thick pair of leather gloves from his garage. He rolled through town and down to Goran Hut Road. A light speckle of rain showered his windscreen, and by the time he arrived at the hut it had become a downpour. He gathered his tools and hurried inside as the sky opened up and a clap of thunder shook the ground.

As Ben suspected, the doors were constructed with bolts, and the only nails were those in the floor. He broke a rusted nail off the clump in the bag and got on his hands and knees. There were several types used in different areas of the floor. He matched the one from the bag with an area in the corner of the main living room along the wall separating the bedroom. He got up to get the crowbar and caught sight of a figure standing by the hole he had dug the previous day.

Thick sheets of rain were slashing the tin roof. The sky was black, the daylight reduced to a dull grey. Through the gloom he recognized the frail, emaciated form of Tom Lloyd with his head bowed and a whisky bottle clutched in his hand.

Ben walked out onto the veranda and called to his friend. There was no response from the older man, and Ben yelled to him again, but the thrashing of the rain on the tin roof of the hut was deafening. Tom’s vehicle was abandoned in the trees with the door open and rain teeming in. The old man stood motionless, and Ben decided it best not to disturb him.

He returned to the hut with his crowbar. The floor was constructed of broad hardwood planks, six inches wide and eight feet long. There were three rows of nails, one at each end and one in the middle. The plank closest to the wall had the small steel chain and loop bolted to it. Ben chose the third plank from the wall and wedged the crowbar and levered. It creaked and gave way. He lifted it clear and got on his knees to have a look beneath.

His heart instantly clenched, an icy chill surging through his being. The rain water was flowing through a furrow in the ground, and partially exposed was a human skeleton. There was a hand, a skull, a ribcage, part of the right leg and a complete right arm. The skeleton was intact except for the hand, which was lying separate and appeared to have been washed about twelve inches along the furrow in the ground.

Ben turned at the feel of another presence in the room and met the dead eyes of Tom Lloyd. “She’s here, Tom,” he uttered thickly. “They must have moved her.”

Tom approached and dropped to his knees. He took a breath, and his head moved up and down in slow acknowledgment, then it shook as his eyes welled with tears. Ben touched his shoulder and felt the older man’s body convulse. He began to sob and collapsed onto the floor, and Ben moved back and stood by the door. He gave the old sergeant a few minutes, and when Tom stood, he approached again.

“I need to call this in, Tom. Will you stay here?”

Tom nodded. “It was the retard?”

“We don’t know. It looks like he may have been involved.”

Tom took a swig from the bottle he still held. He took another deep breath, which seemed to fill his frame. He shook his head slowly and deliberately. “I’ll wait here,” he said, and he wedged the whisky bottle under his arm and took a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and started building a cigarette.

“We don’t know for sure what involvement Bobby Ray has had here, Tom. He must have remembered the girl was here somewhere, but there were others involved.”

Tom glanced up as he licked his cigarette and rolled it. “I’m not going to do anything stupid.” There was no emotion in his voice. “Let’s just get her out of here.”

Ben didn’t have a radio in his car and wasn’t carrying a phone. God what an idiot. Of all days to forget my phone. He drove back to town and sat for a moment outside the station house thinking of the implications for Bobby Ray. No doubt he would be brought in for further questioning, but Ben doubted he was capable of murder. He thought again of Nigel Khel and wondered if he had any involvement. He had been a friend of Bobby’s back then, and he was following him to Goran Hut the other night. Perhaps he was concerned about the girl’s remains being discovered. Perhaps Nigel Khel was the one who moved her, and in that case, why would he?

Ben fronted his sergeant and explained the situation. Sergeant Edwards immediately called Detective Grier. “Thanks, Ben. Send Barry in, would you?”

“Should I stick around?” Ben asked.

“No, we’ve got it. We’ll see you next shift.”

Ben was pleased to be freed. It would be a painstaking process to retrieve the remains, and there would be no identity established for at least 24 hours. He was more concerned with what effect the situation would have on Kate, and he decided to drop in and let her know what was happening. He hurried to his car and rolled down the hill. The rain had set to a steady downpour, and he got soaked as he ran to the veranda. He pasted his hair back and knocked then waited wringing his hands.

“Hello again,” Kate offered amicably. She had come to the door with a big, pink dressing gown wrapped around her body, hugging herself against the cold wind howling through the open doorway.

“May I come in for a moment?” Ben returned formally. “I have some news about the missing girl.”

Kate moved back, and he stepped inside the house and closed the door. He was dripping and remained near the door so he wouldn’t wet the rug on the floor. Kate kept a good distance. She waited with folded arms and a questioning look on her face.

“We found her remains up where I found Bobby walking the other night. It looks like someone killed her there at Goran Hut and buried her beneath the floor. They’re up there now. They’ll probably want to question Bobby again.”

“He did see her killed, then?” Kate’s voice trailed off weakly.

“It looks like he may have. It’s hard to say what would have happened, but he must have been there at least.”

“Well, what’s going to happen now? Bobby’s not here. Mum took him to Sydney to see his doctor.”

“I don’t know what they’ll do exactly, Kate. I’ll try to keep you informed as best I can. They’ll be all day up there going over the site and probably won’t even have identified the remains until tomorrow. Anyway, don’t worry. I’m sure everything will be fine for Bobby. I can’t imagine him, you know… he seems too placid for anything violent.”

“Well, he didn’t hurt that girl, but he’s not that placid when he gets stirred up.” Kate seemed to be explaining something she had already conceived. She moved a little closer and sat on the arm of the lounge chair. “I love him like a brother, but he does get violent sometimes. He put three men in hospital once.”

“Yeah, I know. That was the assault charge back in ninety-eight, wasn’t it? But it was self-defense.”

“They were friends of mine. Well, one of them was, only one time he got a bit rough with me in front of Bobby. And Bobby hit him, so his two friends tried to do something, and all three of them ended up in an ambulance. He’s gentle until provoked.”

“So, now you’re saying you think he may have done it?”

“No. I’m saying he hates any violence toward women. Even when it’s on TV he freaks out.” Kate stood. “Do you want some coffee, you’re all wet?”

Ben followed and sat at the dining table. Kate put the kettle on and fished a towel from the laundry. She seemed deep in thought, and Ben waited for her to speak again.

She finished making the coffee and sat down opposite. There were suddenly tears in her eyes. “So, what did he actually do to that other girl, Alyssa? Did he try to hurt her?”

“Hey, no, he didn’t hurt her,” Ben offered warmly. “I’d seen Alyssa here with him a few times, and it sounds like she instigated things, and they got a bit out of hand. I think he frightened her, but when I found him he was the one who was shaken up.”

“And she’s all right? I want to go and see her.”

“Sure! I’ll go with you if you like.”

Kate sniffled and smiled lightly. “So, what are you doing today, anyway? Are you working?”

“No, I’m off today. Thought I might sort through my spare room. I think there’s a box of old CD’s in there somewhere.”

“Oh. I was going to call you. It’s a good day to watch movies, don’t you think?” Kate was fiddling with a teaspoon and blushing slightly.

“It is! It’s perfect with the rain and all.”

Ben’s heart was thumping. He sat looking at Kate as she toyed with the teaspoon, with her head bowed and her hair still ruffled from bed. He could see her supple neck and could easily close his eyes and remember the delicate texture of her skin, how it felt and how it tasted. He could smell her soft, intoxicating scent, and he thought of the way she had moaned into his mouth when he kissed her.

“Bobby said something odd last night,” she declared suddenly. “He had a nightmare and came downstairs pretty upset about it. He said he hates how soft her arms are. I asked him whose arms, and he said something about her not being very strong and that he wished she was strong like he is now.”

“He wished she was strong enough to fight,” Ben suggested.

“That’s what he said. Then he went into his shell, and when I woke him up to go back to bed, he couldn’t remember the dream at all.”

“Perhaps his doctor will be able to sort it out. What your mum said about not taking him too literally made sense. Like his dreams are just metaphoric. I can relate to that.”

Kate shivered and hugged herself in her dressing gown. “Anyway, I’m glad Mum’s taken over. Bobby’s always been more open with her.”

“Hey, that’s a good movie right there!” Ben was craning his neck to see the television screen. The movie about to begin was Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon and Robin Williams.

“I know. I was waiting for it to start. Do you want to stay and watch it?”

“I would, but I’m all wet. I really should go home and get changed.”

“Well, we could watch it at your place. It’s too creepy here, anyway.”

“Okay, let’s go.” Ben’s heart rate surged again.

“Well, I have to put something on. Would you bring your car right up to the steps so I don’t get wet? As close as you can, please? I’ll only be a minute.”

The rain was still bucketing down, and Ben got soaked again on the short run to where he had parked on the street. He drove into the driveway and as close to the house as he could. Kate jumped into the passenger seat squealing and giggling, and clutching a plastic grocery bag that appeared to have clothing in it. “Stop at the shop, we’ll get some munchies.”

By the time they arrived at Ben’s house, the movie was fifteen minutes in. Ben quickly changed into dry clothes and settled on the end of the lounge. Kate had her legs tucked up under a frumpy floral skirt at the other end. He was taking up one cushion, and she was taking up two. And there was a cushion between her feet and his thigh that remained the forbidden zone throughout the movie.

Ben did place his hand on the cushion sometimes, and Kate’s woolly, pink socks poked from beneath her skirt after a while, and her toes crossed the line, but the thought of reaching over and touching her was not something Ben felt sure he would be welcome to do.

With the rain having set in and a brisk southerly whistling beneath the doors, it was quite cold, and Ben brought out a blanket Kate cuddled up in. Following Good Will Hunting was a choice between John Wayne on one channel and a Doris Day musical on another. They agreed on the western, but Kate soon dozed off.

The next few hours for Ben were spent at a depth of peace he had not felt in some years. He loved the sound of the rain on the roof and the way it consumed the day, emptying the streets and hunting everyone indoors. His small, antiquated living room would usually serve as a fine sanctuary for his solitude, but he welcomed the presence of another being. It had been so long since he had felt at home, and right then he had a sense of warm contentedness. Of course, the presence of a beautiful woman dozing on his lounge on a rainy afternoon was not entirely real. He understood she didn’t truly belong there, but for the moment he was basking in the fantasy.

John Wayne had finished saving the day, and Ben flicked over to a Star Trek rerun. Kate’s pink sock had edged its way across the forbidden zone, and it was lightly resting against his thigh. He noticed her eyes had opened, and mid-way through the second Star Trek rerun she spoke.

“Can I stay over again tonight?”

 

Chapter 30

 

Tom Lloyd sat in a small vinyl covered kitchen chair across the desk from his good friend and former subordinate Barry Fitzgerald. They were in the outer office of the police station house, and through a plate glass window was a meeting between Detective Grier and Sergeant Edwards. Tom could hear some of what was being discussed and understood they were planning to bring Bobby Ray in for another interview.

Barry was fiddling with a pencil, doodling on his cardboard desk protector. He expelled a breath and spoke. “It must have been someone local. There was nothing going on up at the hut the next day. There was no grave.”

“They buried her there later,” Tom uttered. “The retard was there, though. He was involved.”

“Maybe, but who the hell else? It had to be someone local for them to keep her and bury her, what, days later? And then come back and move her!”

The mental picture of sweet young Melanie being raped in the pretty, white dress she had worn to the Tulip Festival dance had haunted Tom ever since her disappearance. His gut was in a knot, and the hate was a sharp pain in the twisted centre.

Barry stabbed at the shape he had been scribbling. “They must have been worried about Bobby talking. That’s why they dug her up and moved her. They knew he would talk eventually.”

“He needs to talk some more,” Tom spat. “Get the fucking retard in here and belt it out of him. Find out who else, Barry!”

“Okay, Tom, settle down. From what I’ve seen of him he’s being co-operative enough about it.”

The meeting in Tom’s old office was finishing up. Detective Grier had gathered her shoulder bag, and she came out and walked past Tom without acknowledging him. Sergeant Edwards stood in the doorway for a moment then approached. He pulled up the vinyl kitchen chair from in front of Ben McEwen’s desk and sat next to Tom. He leaned back with his hands folding behind his head. His eyes settled upon Tom’s. “You okay?”

“I’m fine. What’s next?”

“Are you sober?”

“Yes, I’m sober! Don’t fuckin’ worry about me. Just get that retard in here!”

“We’ll get to him when we’re ready, Tom. And if you want to be involved in this you had better stay sober. If I smell it on you, you’ll be out the door immediately, understood?” Tom nodded his compliance and sat back as the sergeant went on to explain that the remains were being analysed, and they expected to have a positive identity by the morning. Tom took his tobacco pouch from his pocket and began building a cigarette. It had been hours since his last drink, and his hands were shaking, but it was the thought of sweet, young Melanie that was gripping his soul. And the vision of her crying for help in that hut that night while he was relaxing on the veranda of the station house was trembling through his being and twisting the knot in his gut.

 

Chapter 31

 

Ben woke at first light and lay for an hour staring at his lounge room ceiling. His thoughts were dreamy and disjointed, spanning events in his childhood growing up with numerous foster brothers and sisters who had been taken in for short periods by his parents, to thoughts of having a family of his own in the future. His elder sister had a family. He had two nieces and three nephews back home, and he was looking forward to seeing how they had grown since his last visit.

His attention settled on the television, and he flicked it on and watched the morning news with the volume on its lowest setting. He made coffee and a bowl of cereal and moved to the computer. He was playing euchre when the bedroom door opened and Kate wandered out yawning and cuddling herself against the sharpness of the mountain chill. “God, Tex, it’s only seven o’clock.”

“Well, go back to sleep. You don’t have to get up yet.”

“What are you doing, though? Do you have to go to work?”

“No, I’m off today and tomorrow. I need to drive into Sydney, though.”

“Me too. I need some clothes. I might drive down today, before Bobby gets back. Mum said they’d be back tonight.” Kate had stepped close. She was inspecting what Ben was doing. “What did you have? I’m hungry.”

“Just cornflakes. There’s plenty there.”

She wandered into the kitchen and returned with a bowl of cornflakes and a cup of coffee. “So, what do you have to do in Sydney?”

“I’ve got to meet my sister at the airport for lunch. I’ve got to tell her I’ve decided not to go home.”

“Really? You’ve decided to stay?”

“Yeah, told my boss the other day, so there’s no turning back now. I’m not looking forward to telling sis, though.”

“Are you close?” Kate asked, peering over her coffee cup.

“Yeah. The hardest thing about not going home is leaving sis. It’s going to feel permanent now.”

Kate opened one of Ben’s Alpha magazines and sat quietly eating her cornflakes. Ben absently played euchre and enjoyed her presence at his dining table. He particularly liked the way her hair was in rats tails and that she still had on her pyjamas. They were blue with yellow flowers and little birds on them. The feeling of contentedness he had experienced the previous afternoon when she was dozing on his couch had returned and filled his house with warmth.

“Is that smoke?” Kate asked suddenly, looking up at the window beyond Ben’s shoulder. “It looks like it’s coming from inside that house.”

The house was the one directly behind. Ben pulled boots on and jumped his back fence. He banged on the door. “Olga! Are you there?” There was no answer, and the door was locked, so he shouldered it open and stormed into the kitchen to find a pot of oil boiling over, and the stove, bench and part of the wall were on fire. He wet a tea towel and was attacking the flames when Kate appeared with his fire extinguisher. They quickly had the blaze under control.

“Good thinking, ninety-nine!”

“Well, you know, fire, fire extinguisher… Duh!”

“God, hang on a minute.” Ben saw Olga’s legs through the living room doorway. She was sprawled on the floor. He rushed to her and checked her breathing and pulse. He scanned the room for a phone but couldn’t see one. “Stay with her, Kate. I’ll get an ambulance.”

“Is she alive?”

“She’s breathing. She’s unconscious, but her pulse is okay.”

Ben leapt back over his fence and had an ambulance on the way immediately. He pulled his coat off the back of the door and returned to where Kate was shivering in her pyjamas. “Look at her wrists,” Kate said as he wrapped the coat around her shoulders. Both of the old woman’s wrists were scarred with wounds that appeared to have been made from something bound around them. “Would that be from handcuffs or something?”

“Maybe. Or possibly wire or rope. Whatever it was must have cut her badly. She must have either struggled hard or been tied up for a long time. Her name sounds Russian or something, Petrov. It could have happened back there.”

“God, it’s horrible to think what it could have been,” Kate uttered as she smoothed the old woman’s hair from her face. “Was she one of those war prisoners or something, do you think?”

A siren shattered the morning silence, and within a few minutes the old woman was being loaded onto a stretcher. Ben helped the paramedics carry her to the ambulance and returned to where Kate was standing in a hallway with her mouth open and her face set in awe, staring. He approached to look over her shoulder into a small room that was filled with white roses and candles, and in the corner was a dressing table with a porcelain statue of Saint Maria. “My God what is this place?” Kate uttered. There was a rocking chair with several large, eerily life-like porcelain dolls seated upon it, and there were more dolls on the bed. It was a single, brass bed made up with an intricately woven white lace quilt. Mounted on the wall above the bed was a metre-high carved wooden crucifix.

“We shouldn’t be in here,” Ben said, tugging at Kate’s sleeve. And as they left the room, another door opened, and there stood a skeleton of a man, pale and emaciated with a hideously scarred head and lifeless grey eyes fixed toward the floor.

The fire truck had arrived, and Ben left the two volunteer bush fire brigade guys to check things out and lock up. “That was so amazing,” Kate declared as he helped her back over his fence.

It was a paling fence as high as her shoulder. “Did you climb over this before?”

“Yes. I can climb a fence!” she declared, pushing him playfully when he landed beside her. “I’ve never seen so many roses, though. That was so beautiful.”

“Looked like a shrine to me.” Ben wondered what was in the old woman’s past and decided he should look into that. “You know that was Bobby’s father, don’t you?”

“The old man? Oh, my God, was it really?”

“Yeah, so I found out the other day. They’re brother and sister, so the woman’s Bobby’s aunt, I guess.”

“But he used to be huge. I saw photos. He was a giant,” Kate declared. “How could he be so thin?”

“Apparently he used to be an intelligent man too—a school headmaster. They must have been pretty severe head injuries,” Ben suggested.

“Yes, I heard about that, but it’s weird seeing him in real life. I wonder if Bobby wants to see him.”

The morning warmed up quickly, and they took Ben’s car and left the top down. As they rolled into the Sydney suburbs, the conversation turned to Kate’s dreams of travel.

“Well, Europe of course! You know, real history! I want to go to St. Petersburg and see the Winter Palace and walk the halls of the Tsars of Russia. And I want to go to Buckingham Palace and meet our Queen, well, maybe not meet her, but wouldn’t it be great to see her in real life?”

“I’ve always wanted to see a medieval castle,” Ben confessed.  “Or Russia’s not a bad idea, but how about Siberia? I was looking at the train that goes from Vladivostok all the way across to Moscow. Built on human bones they say that journey is. Now, that would be fascinating! Or what about Africa, the Sahara?”

“Umm, I don’t think so. But you could drop me off in Morocco and pick me up when you’ve finished with all the explorer stuff.”

“But what about the desert stars? How magnificent would it be lying back on a Sahara sand dune gazing up at them, digging your fingers into the Earth and spinning through space? What about the great American deserts, The Grand Canyon? Imagine the stars at night sitting on the edge of that.”

“Five stars is all I need,” Kate shot back dismissively. “When we get to America you can drop me in New York, thanks. I’ll take in a few Broadway shows and go shopping then hop a flight across to California. You’ll find me sunbathing on Malibu when you’re done with the scorpions and rattle snakes.”

“Well, what about Alaska?” Ben tried playfully. “Those deep alpine forests, and maybe a trek into the wilderness, somewhere completely untouched by human beings.”

“Ooh, Alaska? Mmm, how about I wait for you in Paris?”

“Paris? That’s nowhere near Alaska. You’re cheating now.”

“No, I’m not! I’ll wait for you in Paris, and while you’re recovering in hospital after being mauled by an Alaskan grizzly bear, I’ll have time to slip over to Rome and Athens, have a look at some more history. But guided tours of course!”

“Of course!” Ben conceded with a laugh. “And what about movies? What kind do you like?”

“The kind with Matt Damon in,” Kate returned flatly. “Hey, I almost became an actress once. I joined this theatre group and had some lessons and that, but as soon as the curtain was drawn I froze.”

“I tried competition dancing once, but I froze too,” Ben confessed in reply. “I was fine until the music started and there were all those people watching.”

“I know. I think you’ve got to switch off to all that somehow,” Kate went on. “But what else do you like doing? What are you doing in Hicksville for chrissake?”

“I don’t know. It’s quiet like home but handy to the city. It’s not so bad, except I can’t figure out what I’m doing long term. Which sucks because I’m a pedantic planner. I have to know what I’m doing for the next fifty years or I’m just not happy. Pretty good at scaring women off with that, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh?” Kate’s eyes sparkled. “How many women have you scared off? I know what you mean about mapping everything out. I do that too.”

“No, not as bad as I do! I’ve got a house picked out, and I know how many kids we’re having by the second date. It’s pathetic, but I can’t help myself.”

“Really! So, where’s the house you picked out for us?”

“Don’t know. We only had one date, didn’t we?”

“Ah huh. And just as well by the sound of it.”

Ben laughed. “See what I mean?”

Kate was slower to respond. She seemed to measure what she said next. “Most women would like a guy to be thinking about home and family, but maybe the second date is a bit full on.”

“Well, I didn’t literally mean the second date. I just meant I get into that frame of mind pretty quickly, and more than one woman has run away screaming.”

Kate laughed that time. “Well, back to my original question. How many?”

“How many what? How many women have I scared off? I dunno, half a dozen? I’ve got to learn to relax.”

“I scare guys off too, you know?”

“What, you? How?”

“Easy. Just being myself. Just knowing what I want, or don’t want.”

“You are kind of pushy,” Ben suggested with a chuckle.

Kate smiled. “A lot of guys can’t handle it when a girl has a mind of her own. I’ve scared off a half dozen easy! Probably more like a dozen!”

Ben didn’t quite know how to respond to that, and the ensuing silence allowed him to drift back to the events that morning. “It’s really strange about that old woman. I wonder what happened to her. She never speaks. It’s like she doesn’t trust anyone.”

“Bobby’s great grandparents on his dad’s side were Russian. It’s one of the things Mum found out. They apparently escaped before the revolution. Their name sounded something like that lady’s name too. That’s what made me think of St. Petersburg and the Tsars.”

“So, that’s Bobby’s aunt. Interesting!” Ben suggested. “I’ve never taken much notice of her before. Goran Vale’s full of eccentric old weirdos.”

“The flowers and the statue were really beautiful. It must have been a prayer room for her. Like her own little church.”

“The figure was Saint Maria Goretti,” Ben explained. “She was twelve years old when she was taken from her steps by the boy next door, Alexander, who stabbed her to death because she refused to relinquish her purity.”

Kate had turned with a questioning look on her slightly animated face.

“Mum was a Sunday school teacher,” Ben added with a smile.

“Actually, now that I think about it, Bobby has mentioned an Aunt Olga. He talked about her helping roll up newspapers at his grandma’s shop. I think that Russian name might’ve been the grandmother’s maiden name.”

“But Olga is his father’s sister. In which case her name would be Ray, unless she was married, of course.”

“I suppose. Or she could have been illegitimate and given the mother’s family name. I think I remember something about illegitimate children. I think there was a brother too.”

“Would have been quite a scandal back then,” Ben suggested. “Probably a different father if they weren’t given the family name.”

“Yeah, could’ve been,” Kate agreed with a yawn, and the conversation faded to an easy silence as they rolled through the inner-city and crossed the Harbour Bridge. The expressway was abandoned for cluttered side streets lined with snug little, hundred-year-old terrace houses, towering apartment buildings and bumper to bumper parked cars.  “I’m right there,” Kate said, indicating her driveway. “Drive in. You can park in my spot.”

“This looks nice, Kate. You must be close to the ocean.”

“I’m close to the ocean and the harbour, but I can’t see either.”

Ben locked up his car, and they took the elevator to the second floor. He was led into a small, brightly furnished living room that opened to a tiny balcony overgrown with plants. Kate went to work with her watering can.

“I think it’s nice, anyway. Even without the view it must be exciting being this close to the water and the city.”

“If I sold up I might be able to afford something waterfront down the south coast. I’ve been thinking of Wollongong, maybe trying to find work down there. It’s not too far to be able to keep an eye on Bobby, to help him with his finances and that.”

“He’s lucky to have you, Kate. You’re a good sister.”

“Well, he was abandoned by his family. I never met his mother, but Mum did, and she said she shut the door in her face when she went there once with Bobby.”

“So, you and your mum adopted him?”

“He grew on us. He really is a sweet guy.” Kate’s voice trailed a little. “I can’t imagine him doing anything—”

“Well, don’t imagine it, then! Keep your faith in him, Kate. The way I see it, it’s more than likely there were other men involved, and I’m betting they forced him somehow.”

“Forced him?” There was hope in Kate’s tone.

“Yeah, just think about what you said. What is he now, in terms of emotional maturity, what, late teens? And how old was he back in eighty-six? Probably the equivalent of a twelve-year-old would be my guess. And he was apparently quite skinny. I’m guessing whoever else was involved in abducting that girl either physically forced him or manipulated him somehow. And what did they make him do? Hold her down or something? Is that why he’s so screwed up? He hates how soft her arms were. What, did they make him hold her arms while they hurt her?”

Kate didn’t respond, and Ben waited for a moment before continuing.

“Anyway, I’m sure it will all be sorted out soon enough.”

“He wasn’t any different back then. I remember when Mum first brought him home. He was the same as he is now. It’s like he doesn’t get any older. He’s just a big kid, but he was sexually active. He had a sexual relationship with that girlfriend not long after he came to live with us.”

“Well, he would have been physically mature, and add some hormones and you’ve got sex. But there’s no way he would be intellectually capable of planning an abduction and murder, even now!”

Kate quietly finished watering her plants then offered a smile. “Do you want a coffee before you go?”

“No, I think I’d better get moving. I’ll pick you up around four, I guess. Maybe five at the latest.”

“Okay. I hope all goes well with your sister.”

Ben almost tried to kiss Kate goodbye. It was just an urge, and he halted himself and waved awkwardly instead.

He found his way to the expressway and slipped into the traffic headed back across the bridge, then cruised on through the city toward the airport on the south side. He found his sister waiting at a small café they had visited together once before. It had been nearly six months, and they hugged for a long time.

“So, how are the rug rats?” Ben started, and for the next ten minutes he listened to his sister talk. She hardly stopped for a breath when she got going, and Ben barely got a word in.

“And how are you, Ben? What’s news?”

“They offered me a transfer. Old Charlie Gillard must have finally retired.”

“He did, but you’re not coming home, right?”

“No, I’m not, sis. How did you know that?”

“No one ever comes back,” she said with a shrug. “I know we always go on about it when you call, but we’ve known for years you’d never be coming home. And it’s okay. I think Mum and Dad are going to sell up and move into town.”

“Serious?”

“They’ve been talking about it. But what about you? No lady friend to introduce yet?”

“Not yet. I’m working on it, though.”

“Not too hard, I hope.”

“What? Give me a break!”

“Well, that mister serious face isn’t getting any better, is it? Actually I think it might be getting worse as you get older. No one’s going to come meet your big sister if the look of you is anything to go by.”

“God, am I really that bad?” Ben tried to check his reflection in a stainless steel milk jug.

“No, I’m just teasing. But you know what you’re like. And everyone’s waiting for you to bring a girl home so we know you’re okay, you know, since Sylvia.”

Ben took a breath. It felt so good to see his sister. He had missed her more than he realized. “I’m okay, sis. You should tell Mum not to worry.”

The waiter served their orders, and the conversation lightened and covered news of what everyone from home was up to. Ben saw his sister to her next flight at three and was back at Kate’s apartment by four.

Kate seemed pensive on the drive out of the city. She was sitting quietly staring at the road ahead. “Are you okay?” Ben asked after half an hour or so.

“I’m okay. I just ran into an old girlfriend, and I don’t really want to talk about it.”

Over the next hour Kate was a little brighter, but whatever had upset her seemed to be lingering. They were approaching the roadhouse at the Goran Vale turnoff. “Hungry?” Ben asked, hopefully. He was starving.

“Yes, but I can wait.”

“How about we stop and pick up a burger or something?”

“No thanks. I’d rather wait until we get back.”

“It’ll only take a minute.”

“I’d really rather not stop here, Ben.”

The turn off flew by, and the air thinned and cooled as they skirted the bluff. The evening mist was rising as they rolled on past the rusted ‘Goran Vale is a Tidy Town’ sign. They pulled into the driveway of Bobby’s house to find the living room light on and the door open. There was a figure sitting in the shadows on the front step.

“Hi, Mum. What are you doing out here?”

Gwen was smoking a cigarette. She butted it out on the step and stood, taking her daughter in her arms.

“What is it?” Kate asked thickly.

“They’ve taken Bobby into custody. He’s been charged with murder.”

“Murder? Oh, my God! What’s happened? What did they say?”

“They didn’t say anything.” Gwen sniffled. “They were waiting when we got back, and they just took him away. And they wouldn’t let me see him. They had him in an interrogation room or something. They sent me away.”

“Ben?” Kate’s eyes had reddened and welled with tears.

 

Chapter 32

 

Ben charged into the station house with Kate and her mother. Barry Fitzgerald stood and met them at the front counter. Sergeant Edwards, Detective Grier and Tom Lloyd were in a meeting in the sergeant’s office, along with two men Ben didn’t recognize.

“What’s happening, Barry?” Ben asked, calming himself deliberately. “What have they charged him with?”

“It’s not just the girl Melanie,” Barry started to explain, but just then the unmistakable percussion of a gunshot pierced the air, and it was followed by another shot a few seconds later.

The meeting in the sergeant’s office erupted, and everyone scurried about clutching at their guns. The windows were checked, and the front door was secured. Ben took Kate and her mother into the sergeant’s office. Someone called out from the cell below. “Get an ambulance!” Ben left the women and rushed down to see what had happened. Kate was behind him. She screamed. Bobby was lying prone on the floor of the cell. There was blood oozing from his head.

Barry had secured the small barred window. It was too dark to see anything outside. Detective Grier had her bloodied hands pressed to Bobby’s chest. He had been shot twice. Gwen shouldered her way in close, cradling his head and pressing the corner of her blouse against the wound above his ear. “God, no! Bobby!”

It was only a few minutes until the ambulance arrived, and Bobby was taken away. Gwen was permitted to ride in the ambulance. The three detectives left in escort. The area around the building had been secured, with no sign having been found of the shooter. Kate was anxious to go to the hospital. Ben had agreed to drive her.

Barry pulled them both aside. “The body wasn’t Melanie Rose. It was a girl from the south coast in eighty-four, and in her file was a description of a young guy who matched Bobby. That’s why they arrested him.”

Ben kept to himself on the forty minute drive to Camden hospital. Kate sat huddled to the passenger door offering nothing of her own thoughts. She left him to join her mother in the waiting area as soon as they arrived, and Ben went in search of food. He had a meal at a pub and returned to the hospital an hour later to find Bobby was still in surgery. Apparently one bullet had grazed his temple, and the other had lodged high in his chest, beneath his left shoulder. He would be fine.

“Typical hick town attitude! String him up, why don’t they?” Kate’s demeanor had changed from shock to anger.

Gwen looked to Ben apologetically. He spoke hesitantly. “I wouldn’t brand the whole town for what one maniac did.”

Kate shot him a look that had him as a part of the town. “They’re not putting him back in that cell if they’re going to let someone shoot at him through the window.”

“Of course not!” Ben felt his cheeks redden. “The back of the station is sealed, and no one could have gotten at the window. It’s hard to imagine how they did it, but we’ll get whoever’s responsible, and they’ll go for attempted murder.”

“It was probably your real killer.” Gwen’s voice was calm and confident. “It may be someone worried about what Bobby knows.”

Kate sat next to her mother. “They said the remains were not even the same girl, Mum. They said it was some other girl.”

“Bobby was identified, though. That’s why he was arrested,” Ben added.

“Meaning?” Gwen held her daughter’s hands in solidarity.

Ben saw years of hardship in Gwen’s eyes, along with intelligent defiance. “Meaning there’s a missing person’s file attached to the girl whose remains were identified, and in that there must be a reference to a witness having described a person fitting Bobby’s description at that time. There may be other evidence to link him to her. I don’t know. I’ll find out.”

“Whatever evidence there is, it’s wrong!” Gwen turned to Kate. “Bobby didn’t kill anyone, sweetheart.”

The two women began talking between themselves. Ben backed away and took a seat at a discreet distance. Kate went to get coffee after a while, and she brought him one and offered a little warmth in a forced smile. It was another hour before the doctor came out and took Kate and Gwen to see Bobby. Ben learned from the nurse at the administration counter that Bobby’s condition was stable. He decided to go outside and wait, and he was joined by one of the detectives lighting up a cigarette.

“Sanderson,” the man offered with a grunt. “Some night, hey?”

Ben shook his hand. “Ben McEwen, constable.”

“Family friend?”

“I guess. More an acquaintance.”

Detective Trevor Sanderson, from the south coast police precinct, was a short, broad-bodied man of thirty-seven. He sucked his cigarette down like it was much needed air. “It’s good to get a break in this one. I’m guessing all four of our girls are up there somewhere. Probably under the floor like that one.”

“All four? What, serial killings?”

“Three from Austinmer Beach in eighty-four and five, and one from Woonona in eighty-six. He matches descriptions given in two of the Austinmer cases, and there was a Dodge utility in the one from Woonona. Apparently he drove one, same colour.”

The other detective approached, and Sanderson sucked down another half inch of his cigarette and nodded a goodbye. A little while later, Kate and Gwen emerged from the front entrance of the hospital, noticeably happier. Ben decided to keep what he had just learned to himself. Tomorrow will be soon enough to get into that, he thought.

The forty minute drive back to Goran Vale passed in an awkward silence for Ben. Kate had taken the back seat and spent the entire time staring out the window, and Gwen seemed lost to her own thoughts.

Goran Vale was asleep when they arrived. They rolled through town and stopped at Bobby’s house so Gwen could pick up her things. “You don’t mind if Mum stays with us, do you?” Kate had leaned forward and spoken from Ben’s shoulder. Her voice was soft and entreating.

That night Ben lay awake listening to the wind howling beneath the doors then to the beating of the rain on his tin roof. He eventually dozed off, and during the night he felt Kate slip under his blanket and spoon in front, cuddling herself with his arm. He could taste her hair on the pillow, and he breathed the scent of her neck. He woke in the morning afraid to move for fear of disturbing her. His hand was on her warm belly, and he lay for an hour listening to her breathe. He pretended to be sleeping when he felt her stir and slip from beneath the blanket.

 

Chapter 33

 

Nigel Khel worked massage oil into his thigh, gently until the pain began to dissipate then more vigorously in an attempt to free the muscle from its usual morning cramp. It was a ritual he had performed every morning of the fifteen years since being discharged from hospital after the car accident that killed his brothers. At least, an accident is what it had been deemed, when Nigel knew full well he had veered headlong into the truck on purpose. He had intended to kill his brothers and to take his own life. His survival had been an act of God, he acknowledged, and as such, he had dedicated his life in service of the Lord. He had resurrected the Lord’s children and cared for them. He would protect them with his life and would sacrifice the lives of those who endangered their Earthly sanctuary. Nigel had become their guardian angel. The pain in his leg was merely the Lord’s way of reminding him of his duty.

He hobbled over to the basement door and peered down into the dimly lit room. There were five round, porthole type windows along the top of one wall allowing some daylight to enter, but they were half buried beneath ground level and hadn’t been cleaned in the thirty-five years since Nigel’s mother had passed away. “Well, I haven’t got time right now, but I’ll clean them when I get back,” Nigel said, and he pulled the basement door closed and secured the bolt-latch and padlock.

He heard voices outside, and he edged along the wall to look out the window. It was Sergeant Edwards and a woman Nigel didn’t recognize. He remained motionless against the wall as they knocked, waited a moment, then knocked again. They spoke between themselves, muttering something Nigel couldn’t understand, and after peering in the window they left. Nigel waited until they were out of sight and hurried across the road and into the forest.

He had worn a narrow walking track through the scrub between Fortress Lane and Glenview House, and from the back of Glenview there was an old road that Mr Ray had graded through the sandstone, which led to the fire trail above Goran Hut. There was a heavy dew making the rocks slippery, though, and it took him an hour to climb over the ridge and emerge at his vantage point above the hut.

He slipped off his back pack and leveled his scope. There were even more cops than the previous day. There was a police tent, and people clothed in blue overalls were crawling all over the place. Nigel wondered what they were doing there in the hut. He wondered what could possibly be of interest to the police inside there.

He adjusted his scope to focus on the Goran family plot and Melanie Rose’s grave site. It had been left as a hole in the ground and abandoned. The absence of respect sickened him. Who the hell do they think they are?

Nigel set his rifle scope on one of the figures and touched the trigger gently, chuckling to himself at the power he held in his hands. He moved his scope around and sought another figure, then he released the trigger and placed the rifle down as he rested back against a rock. Better to wait and see what they’re doing, he thought, and he took a pouch of marijuana from his shoulder bag and rolled a smoke. He had food and drink, and was set for the day’s vigil.

 

Chapter 34

 

Ben approached Tom Lloyd’s flat and knocked, but all was silent inside. He saw a curtain move up at the main house. A moment later, Alyssa appeared at the back door.

“How are you, Alyssa?”

“I’m okay. Granddad’s at the station.”

“I figured he might be,” Ben replied. He had hoped to catch Tom for a quiet word.

Alyssa sat on the step. “How’s Bobby?”

“He’s going to be all right. He’s in a bit of trouble, though.”

“Granddad said they think he murdered a lot of young girls, not just the one from here.”

“That’s what they’re saying.” Ben sat down beside her. He placed his arm around her shoulder and gave her a hug. “Are you okay?”

She sniffled and nodded. “I just hate this place.”

Ben held her quietly for a moment. He thought he understood what she meant. She dabbed at her tears with a handkerchief that appeared to have been in recent use. “I’m never going to have anything here, and I’m never going to get out of here either,” she announced, sniffling again then meeting Ben’s eyes.

“You don’t have to stay here,” he said thickly.

“And what about Granddad? Who’s going to take care of him?”

“It’s not for you to—”

“And what about the kids? If I wasn’t here they’d end up roaming the streets at night. Mum and Dad are too busy.”

“But it’s not your responsibility,” Ben argued softly. It was neither Alyssa’s responsibility nor his business to be interfering. He allowed her to sob for a few minutes, his respect for her growing. “What you need is a car,” he eventually declared. “That way when your folks get home you can get done up and get the hell out of here for a few hours. And I know just the car for you too!”

“A car? But I can’t drive. I’ve only got my learner’s.”

“Well, we can fix that.”

“And I haven’t got any money to buy a car. Actually I’ve got some but not much.”

“Yeah, well, this is a very cheap car as it turns out. Have you got your learner’s plates? I’ll go and get it.”

“What, now?”

“Sure! Got anything else to do?”

“Well, I’m supposed to be sick but as long as Mister Barlow doesn’t see me.”

Ben had already decided he wanted to get rid of his car. He didn’t want anything for it and had been wondering how to go about offering it to Alyssa. He was pleased to have an opportunity to do so.

He returned to find her waiting excitedly, and after fixing on her ‘L’ plates, they spent a few hours driving around town and between the river and the bluff.

After dropping Alyssa home, Ben had lunch at the pub and played pool with some of the local men. Tom Lloyd sat up at his usual bar stool mid-afternoon, and Ben joined him for a beer.

“They dug up four girls, Ben. They’re doing his house next.”

“That would be the young girls from the south coast?”

“Haven’t identified the other three yet. They’re pretty confident.”

“And what have they got on Bobby, exactly? I was talking with one of the detectives last night. He said they had him identified twice, and they had his car at the scene of another.”

“That’s right. His truck matched, and the descriptions are spot on. He used to go surfing there every weekend too. There’s not much doubt about it.”

“So, what are they going to get from the house after all these years? What could they be hoping to find?”

Tom drained the last of his beer and showed it to the barman. “They only need a single strand of hair.”

“And the young local girl?” Ben asked.

Tom took out his tobacco pouch. His jaw was set grimly. “That moron will have to tell us what happened to her. The loss of memory’s wearing a bit thin, isn’t it?”

“I’ve still got my doubts,” Gus Lloyd offered from the stool beside his brother.

Barry Fitzgerald spoke up from the stool alongside Gus. “I used to go surfing with him sometimes. He was interested in the girls all right. I think I even remember one of them.”

“One of the missing girls?” Tom asked, cocking his head around his brother.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one of them before. Big eyes!”

The bar tender joined in, declaring he had always suspected there was another side to young Fetch.

“His granddad had an evil streak,” an old farmer called from along the bar. “There’s obviously something in the bloodline.”

Ben thought of Kate’s analogy of the town stringing Bobby up. He left the pub and stood for a moment watching the activity in front of Bobby’s house. There were two police cars in the front yard, and officers from forensics were crawling all over the house. All the neighbours were outside, gathered in small groups and talking amongst themselves.

Ben strolled up the hill and was surprised to find Kate’s car parked in his driveway. The front door was open. He found her sitting on the back step patting Rex. She smiled back over her shoulder, but she had obviously been crying. “Hi,” she offered then turned back to the dog.

“Where’s your mum?”

“She’s still at the hospital. I think she’s going back to her place for the night.”

“And how’s Bobby?”

Kate took a moment to respond. She lifted Rex’s paws from her lap and brushed at the hair he’d left on her jeans. “I think he’s got fleas. You should get him a collar.”

“I give him flea baths.”

“A collar would work better. I think it gets into their bloodstream that way. It’s better than a bath.”

Ben sat on the step and gave Rex a pat. “Okay, I’ll try it.”

Kate stood immediately. “I might go and have my shower.”

Ben took Rex for a walk up to Johnson’s hardware store and bought him a flea collar. It was something he had been meaning to do. When he got back to the house, Kate had finished her shower but had closed the bedroom door, and she didn’t appear for another hour or so. He was cooking lamb chops with potato and peas. She checked the potatoes and set about mashing them.

“What’s happening at Bobby’s house?” she asked shortly.

“They’re searching it for evidence to prove the charges against him.”

Kate didn’t speak again, and Ben waited a moment before continuing.

“They found more remains. It looks like there were at least four young girls.”

Kate’s only visible reaction was to sniffle and wipe her nose on her wrist. Her eyes never lifted as she sorted plates from the cupboard and dished out the vegetables.

Ben served the meat, and they took a plate each into the dining room. “Thanks,” Kate offered as they ate. “I haven’t eaten all day.”

Ben nodded and held her gaze for a moment. Her eyes were reddened, and they soon averted. He wasn’t sure what to say. “I like your mum.”

“Oh?” Kate’s eyes lifted again, and she smiled.

“No, I mean she’s a nice person.”

“She is! She’s too kind for her own good.”

“Doesn’t look too bad for a mature woman either,” Ben added, hoping for another smile.

It flashed, and Kate looked over at Ben’s plate. “Are you going to eat that?” There was a shriveled chop that Ben had pushed aside. She took it with her fork before he answered. “Mum’s always been pretty hot, Never had any trouble getting a new man. Just can’t seem to keep ‘em.”

“She mustn’t have found the right one yet.”

“The right one? Is there such a thing as the one?”

“I don’t know about there being only one, but I think you can find the right or wrong type of person. And I don’t think the right type of person is easy to find.”

“We’re all pretty complicated,” Kate suggested, almost evasively. “Do you want some wine? I noticed we’ve got a cask.”

Ben chuckled. “We have, have we? And should I get it for us?”

“Well, you’ve finished, and my fingers are all greasy.”

There was a cask of cheap white wine in the fridge. Ben poured two glasses and took them back to the table. It was a few minutes before Kate’s eyes seemed to focus, and she looked up from the wine glass. “Mum had Bobby’s house cleaned out before he moved in. She had some charity take all the furniture and old clothes. It was completely empty when we got there.”

“Well, they won’t be there long. They’ve probably finished already.”

Kate took another moment before looking up again. “How old were they?”

“Around sixteen to eighteen, I think. Just innocent young girls… It’s, um…”

“It’s horrible! It makes my skin crawl to think of Bobby having to—” Her voice trailed off, and Ben waited for her to settle. Her eyes welled with tears. “How were they killed? Were they raped?”

“I don’t know, Kate. They’ll piece together as much as they can.”

“I don’t think I want to know, anyway.” She sniffled and dabbed at her eyes with a square of paper-towel then collected the two plates. After a moment Ben followed her into the kitchen, and they washed and dried the dishes in silence.

He went to his shower after they had finished cleaning up, and when he returned, Kate was talking with some children at the front door. She was smiling broadly as she waved him over. “First prize is a set of pots and pans. I think you need to buy some tickets, Officer McEwen.”

The children were a brother and sister belonging to one of the local families. The boy had a biscuit tin for the money, and the girl had a book of raffle tickets and a pen.

“I definitely need pots and pans!” Ben declared as he approached the door. He nodded a hello to the children’s mother, who was waiting at his front gate. “Wait ‘till I get some money. How much are they?”

He returned with ten dollars and sat down on the step to write his name on the five ticket stubs. The little boy sat beside him, and when he had finished, the little girl gave him a thank you hug and kiss.

“They like you,” Kate suggested after they had moved along to the next house.

“I always buy their tickets but never seem to win.”

“Is that why you got a hug?”

Ben grinned. “Don’t know, but that’s why I buy the tickets.”

“You big softy!”

“Actually, I think those two miss their dad. He left town a few years ago.”

“Oh.” Kate sat on the couch and picked up the television guide. “So, what’s on TV tonight?”

“Don’t know. We could get a movie from across the road.”

“I don’t feel like getting dressed,” Kate complained, tucking her feet up under her dressing gown on the couch.

Ben had on track pants and a t-shirt. “I’ll go. What do you feel like watching?”

“Comedy! Get something with Steve Martin, and some chips too, and chocolate!”

Ben’s heart was thumping and his stomach tingling with warmth as he saw to Kate’s wishes. He brought her chocolate and chips and an old Steve Martin movie. She was playful and light-hearted throughout the movie, but once again that bloody cushion was between her feet and his thigh. He sat the whole time wondering whether to reach across and maybe rub her foot or something.

After the movie, she brought coffee and sat on the floor with her head at his knee. She looked up at him with a thoughtful frown and seemed to struggle to get out what she wanted to say. “You really liked those two children.”

“I guess.”

“And what about kids of your own? You want lots?”

“Me? I dunno. Six would be good, or just one or two.” Ben’s heart was pounding. He wanted to touch her hair.

“I bet you’d make a good dad,” Kate went on. Her eyes had lowered, and she didn’t look up as she spoke that time.

Ben felt the softness of her hair with his fingers. He touched her lightly, smoothing a wisp of silk from her shoulder. He didn’t know how to respond verbally. He leaned forward a little, attempting to get her to lift her eyes. They were teary, and she turned her head away.

“What is it?” Ben asked softly.

“Nothing. I just… I think I might go to bed.”

Her eyes flashed past Ben’s as she stood and turned away. She took her coffee and left him, closing the bedroom door.

Ben tidied up and found sleep quickly once settled on the couch. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, Kate slipped in front of him and spooned back, taking his arm and cuddling up to it. She said nothing, and he felt it would be best to just hold her.

 

Chapter 35

 

Bobby felt keys being forced into his hand. He knew those keys because of the tiny spanner on the key ring. He was in the basement with the round portholes, and he remembered his truck was parked outside. Nigel was pushing him up the stairs while the dark men were crouching. He could see between their fat, sweaty shoulders. The light girl was lying on the mattress in the corner. She was looking at him. She wanted him to come back, but the dark men were laughing.

He ran to his truck, but the trees were angry, and he looked back in through the porthole. He was on his knees rubbing at the grimy glass, but the light girl turned away, and the dark men moved around her. He could see the light girl crying, and he could feel the fat onion man undoing his belt. He could feel her soft arms, and he was suddenly driving through the lashing trees.

Bobby’s heart clenched, and he screamed for Katie.

“It’s okay. It’s only a dream.” The voice was soothing. “It’s okay… It’s all right now.”

“I want Katie.” Bobby swallowed hard. His throat was dry, and his chest was hurting. “I want Katie, nurse Fletcher. I want to go home.”

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The Trelor Sect Killings…

childrens-2

He was saving them. He was gathering them unto his spiritual flock, and he would shepherd them there. He was protecting them from the evil materialism and godless destruction of nature that had become the modern world. How long would it be until the end of humanity was brought about in nuclear devastation? This was the way to peace and salvation, Warren Trelor reasoned as he depressed the trigger and discharged a bullet into the back of Star’s head.

The woman’s bloodied hand slipped from the door handle, and her body slumped with her head coming to rest against the door frame at an odd angle. Her eyes were wide but life had abandoned them. Her mouth was open, and there was a strained gurgling sound, then her body convulsed softly in a final nervous spasm.

Trelor met the eyes of his daughter as they lifted from the woman’s face. “She’s in a safer place now, Summer,” he said. “Lock the door now and wait till I come for you.”

Summer didn’t quite close the door. She watched through a tiny crack as the woman’s body was dragged away. There had been sounds of fighting and screaming, and there had been other gun shots. She understood that the adults were being executed. She had been told to stay in the room with the children, and they were all huddled on a bed in the corner with tears dripping from their faces and snot dripping from their noses. They were past crying, though. She had soothed them, and they were all calm in their trust of her.

There had been single gun shots at short intervals. The massacre had been in progress for only ten minutes. There had been two more shots in the time since Summer had closed the door. There was another, and then another that sounded like it came from the back of the house.

She peeked from the curtain to see Joel Dixon lying in the doorway and her father stepping over his body and stalking away toward the kombi van.

Summer knew what was planned. She needed to get to her aunt and make her stop her father from killing the children. She snuck from the door, tip-toeing along the edge of the narrow hallway to avoid stepping in the trail of smeared blood. She looked in the living room where the adults were all lined up against the wall, dead. She saw her Aunt May sitting on the floor in the kitchen. Her head was slumped forward, her arms by her side. Her hand moved, and she made a sound with her head lifting a little then rocking forward again.

“Aunty, you have to wake up!” Summer implored. She was on her knees beside the woman. “You have to wake up and stop him! You have to stop Daddy,” the young girl pleaded, crying and trying to hold her aunt’s head upright.

There was a loud yell from outside. Summer recognised the voice of her friend Bert Dixon. She crawled past the prone man lying in the doorway and snuck with her back pressed against the side of the house until she could see around the corner. It was her father fighting with Bert. She watched the two men thumping and trying to strangle each other, hoping and praying Bert would win, but her dad was strong.

***

It had been only a week since Summer’s eleventh birthday. There had been a party where the women had dressed her up. They were all dead now, those women. They were lined up against the wall in the living room covered in blood with their eyes and mouths open. Summer could smell the blood. It was a thick, syrupy smell like sour milk and lemons.

The men had all bathed and combed their hair for her birthday party. They were nice men. They played guitars and sang. They were all dead now too. They were all lined up against the wall with their eyes and mouths open and blood all over their shirts.

“Summer! Now put that down!” Trelor commanded, but Summer depressed the trigger of the rifle she had picked up off the ground and discharged a bullet into her father.

She had been taught how to use the rifle by her aunt. She had been shooting targets since she was eight.

She fed another bullet into the chamber and worked the bolt forward and down. She pulled back the hammer until it caught. Then she lifted the rifle to her right shoulder and looked through the sight on top of the barrel.

Her father was sitting on the ground holding his stomach. He looked up from his bloodied hand and met his daughter’s eyes. Bert Dixon staggered to his feet and swayed there against the kombi van. He held out his hand to Summer, motioning for her to give him the rifle.

“It’s okay now, Summer.”

His voice was strange. He was struggling to breathe, but it was more than that. It was as if he was in another dimension or something, and Summer didn’t believe him—that it was okay now.

She aimed the rifle at her father’s chest, at the left side, imagining where his heart would be, and she depressed the trigger, discharging another bullet that made his eyes pop open and seem to focus on the far off distance.

The rifle was then taken from her grasp and she was led back into the house and into the room with the children. She was told to stay there, and she did. She waited until she heard someone sneaking along the hallway, and she peeped out to see her aunt edging along the wall toward her room. And a while later there were police lights and people everywhere. And Summer made sure to collect her shoulder bag as she was taken out through the back of the house and placed in the police bus.

In her shoulder bag she had her makeup and jewelry, her small beaded purse with her money, and a bone handled hair brush that she took out to brush her hair….

****

The Children’s Room is a romantic suspense novel featuring two of the children who survived that massacre. The setting 35 years later…

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Sue goes topless in her back yard…

The Biker Next Door

Feeling both neighbourly and brave, Sue makes a large pitcher of ice tea and takes it out to the back deck with three glasses. She approaches the fence. “Would you men like to join me for a cold drink?”

“Absolutely!” Cal answers with a smile.

The older man smiles too. “Yes, ma’am.”

Sue waits for them to walk around, out their side gate and in hers. She put a shirt on when she was inside, but she hasn’t buttoned it. She’s tugging at it, checking herself out – her bare belly and bikini boobs. She doesn’t mind the thought of the old guy looking.

I WANT Cal to look…. What’s that about?

She has no idea what she’s thinking as she ushers the two bikers to her outdoor setting and pours them ice tea. She’s sitting between them. Roach is across the corner of the table. Cal is close beside her. His legs are open and one of them keeps touching hers. He has on faded Levis, the crotch is full – his package perhaps appropriately proportioned with his very large hands, she’s thinking.

Roach is a jolly character. He’s telling all about his younger days when he was a member of a hippie commune. Cal is teasing him about his story changing so much every time he tells it.

“Well, we used to smoke a bit of pot, and that LSD leaves you wondering what was real and what you only imagined,” he explains to Sue at one point.

“So, have you been married long?” Cal asks. “What’s your husband’s name again?”

“It’s Josh. Yes, we married young…. Seven years.”

“I’ve had two marriages,” Roach tosses in. “That’ll do.”

“One for me,” Cal confesses when Sue looks to him. “I didn’t quite make seven years.”

Roach grins and winks at Sue. “She wised up.”

“Is that true?” Sue asks Cal.

“Yep. Saw through me. Sent me packing. Married an accountant.”

“Oh. That’s not good.”

“What bit?”

Sue giggles. “The accountant.”

Cal laughs. He has a warm laugh.

His leg is pressing against Sue’s again.

Roach finishes the last of his drink. “That was good, Sue. It hit the spot.”

“Would you like some more?”

“No – we’d better get back to it, eh, boss?”

“Yeah, we have a load of concrete coming soon.”

Sue stands with them. The older man ambles off while Cal holds the door open for her to take the tray back inside.

She passes by, brushing close and glancing back.

He looks her up and down, slowly, deliberately. He meets her eyes. “Happily married, yeah?”

The tingles swarm and heat Sue’s face. She nods. “Yeah.”

“Fair enough,” he says with a wink and smile, and he’s gone.

***

Shit…. Oh, shit!

Sue’s legs are wobbly. She puts the tray on the counter and calls Janie.

“Hi, Sue, what’s up?”

“Shit, Janie. Oh, my God!”

“What?”

“Can you come over?”

Janie only lives two streets away. Sue gives her nothing over the phone.

“What?” she implores as Sue closes the door behind her and slumps back against it.

“The biker guy next door made a pass at me.”

Janie’s jaw drops. Her eyes bulge.

“Well, not exactly a pass…. He looked me over and asked if I’m happily married or just married.”

Janie looks Sue over too. “And you were dressed like that?”

Sue nods. She’s grinning, kind of gleefully.

Janie shakes her head. “And where did this happen, pray tell?”

Sue fills her in on the introduction over the fence and the ice tea.

“I can have the neighbours over for a cool drink, though – surely?”

“Is he still out there?” Janie’s peeping from the kitchen window. “Oh, my God. He’s hot.”

“Janie!”

“Oh, don’t worry. He’s busy shovelling concrete.… What a hunk! Nice going, Peggy Sue.”

Sue peeps over her incorrigible friend’s shoulder. “Shit!”

“What?”

“He took his shirt off…. That’s not even fair,” she whines.

“Well, we should too,” Janie says, craning her neck as Cal walks behind the edge of the house and out of view. “We should go for a swim and sunbathe.” She checks her watch. “It’s only midday. We’ve got hours until the kids get out of school.”

“What do you mean, we should? Do you mean to show off for them?”

Of course that is what Janie means. She’s a terrible flirt.

She turns to face Sue. “Take those off. You’re not wearing shorts.”

“But do you think we should?”

I want to. I think I called Janie for this exact reason. She always pushes me out of my comfort zone.

Janie’s eyes roll. “Of course we should. He said he’s only going to be around for a week, didn’t he? And you’re going to miss out on a chance to get a bit of attention at least? Get real, Sue. This is perfect. This is clean, honest fun.” She takes Sue’s hand. “Come on – you have to lend me a bikini too. Plus we need sunscreen. It’s hot out there today, and I don’t want to burn.”

The two women have a similar build. Sue gives Janie a blue chequered bikini to wear, and pulls on the bottoms of her white one. They apply the sunscreen in the kitchen and take a couple of big beach towels outside. The guys are resting on their back deck with beers. Sue glances and smiles. Their heads lift with interest.

The pool is in-ground with a concrete boarder. There’s a patch of grass next to the fence where the girls leave their towels. Sometimes they lie on the other side of the pool to sunbathe, but that would be too far away from the men, Sue has decided. Janie is obviously thinking that as well. She raises her eyebrows cheekily.

They wade into the pool, which is only waist deep – for the kids. While they float around chatting, the men resume work in their yard. It’s a clear view through the fence. Sue can’t keep her eyes off Cal as he shovels up piles of dirt and wheels it away in his barrow. His muscles are flexing and quivering. His skin is glistening with sweat.

He’s just eye candy. It’s perfectly reasonable to enjoy watching a muscular, shirtless guy working. There’s nothing unfaithful in that.

“Plus you know Josh has eyes too,” Janie tosses in when Sue explains what she’s thinking. “He even checks me out when I come over for a swim.”

Janie doesn’t know the extent of Josh’s interest in other women. Sue has never confided much about it to her. She once overheard her husband telling a male friend how he only hires attractive chicks at the shop, which seems to be true – they are all slender, pretty young girls employed there. He’s also embarrassingly obvious at the beach, so much so that Sue avoids going these days.

I’m dreading the day Cynthia grows up and starts bringing teen girlfriends home. I know Josh wouldn’t go so far as to actually do anything, but I’m not looking forward to him ogling and making everyone uncomfortable.

Josh really is too wimpy to be bad, though. He’s no worse than his friends – just a typical guy checking out girls – which of course makes this alright.

Janie motions to the towels, biting a smile, and with her big brown eyes wide. Their shirtless Adonis is working along the fence now, spreading and turning the soil in the garden there. He goes inside to answer a phone. The girls quickly get set up.

“I’m glad I did my bikini line last night,” Sue says, adjusting her pants.

“Me too…. Are you going to show him your front first?”

Sue giggles. “Janie! Tart!”

“Dude! How much did you shave off? Is that a landing strip?”

Sue plucks a bit more at her pants. She’s dark-haired down there, and it’s almost visible through the wet white fabric. “Can you see that much?”

“Yeah, but that’s good. You look hot,” Janie assures. “He’s going to love it,” she adds teasingly. “Plus you’ve got the nipples going…. I love your nipples. Mine are so huge.”

Janie’s plucking at her top, fixing it just right. Sue does hers and settles back, closing her eyes. The screen-door of the neighbour’s house slams closed, and she hears footsteps approaching. She squints a peep to see Cal pick up his shovel and resume turning the garden soil. She feels his shadow.

“Hey, ladies…. Nice day for it, eh?”

His voice is deep and rich.

“Hi, Cal. This is my friend Janie.”

Janie’s beaming. “Hi!”

“Hello, Janie. Nice to meet you.” He has a quick look over them both and nods with a grin. “Don’t burn there, eh….”

Janie and Sue exchange an excited glance. Adonis resumes turning the soil. He keeps looking over at them both. He’s checking out Sue’s body quite a lot. She wants to get her bikini wet so it’s see-through again. She motions to the pool and silently mouths the words to Janie, “I’m going to get this wet again.”

Janie’s eyes widen and she smiles. “Slut!”

“I know,” Sue whispers back. “You’re a bad influence.”

Sue lowers into the cool water and can’t resist a little rub of her pussy. She actually did shave to a very narrow strip of pubic hair, which feels nice – sexy. She emerges from the water dripping. Cal is looking at her, but she keeps her gaze averted. He’s looking at her legs. She reaches back and wrings her hair, with his eyes lifting to her boobs. Her nipples are tight again, of course, and visible through the almost translucent fabric.

She kneels on her towel, still facing the gorgeous man watching her. She plucks at her pants. Her landing strip is certainly visible through them, and they’re creasing into her a little bit. She tugs the waist up and exaggerates that for the guy. He’s staring now, blatantly. She glances and meets his smile.

“Got a second, Cal?” Roach calls from the back door.

Cal flashes another smile and actually winks at Sue as he turns and walks away.

Sue glares at Janie. “Oh, my God!”

Janie’s glaring back. “He totally winked at you. The dirty dog!”

They both giggle. Sue lies down beside her girlfriend. They’re on their bellies this time. Sue feels reasonably confident about having her bottom checked out, as she’s sure it will be in a minute.

“Undo your top,” Janie says. She’s pulling the knot at the back of hers.

“Are you serious?”

“Come on – you don’t want tan lines.” She undoes Sue’s top as well.

Sue lets her.

I feel a bit unsure about this, but as long as I remain lying flat, I guess….

Janie closes her eyes. Her head is resting upon her folded arms. Sue can see the side of her boob. Janie shifts, straightening her towel, and Sue sees her nipple. Janie has both strings undone. The one around Sue’s neck is still tied, but as a flurry of excitement filters through her, she undoes it and lets her bikini top fall away.

Janie opens an eye. She’s grinning. “Should we take them off completely?”

“No way!”

“I will if you will, Peggy Sue.”

“Janie!”

“Why? No one else can see – only him.”

“Yeah, but I’ve never gone topless,” Sue argues.

“He’s topless,” Janie points out. “Why shouldn’t we?”

“Because!”

The idea is thrilling. I’m not brave enough to actually do it.

“Because, why?” Janie persists. She’s giggling now.

“You’re teasing, aren’t you?…….”

R-Rated romance novella. High level sex scenes. View on  Amazon US  Amazon UK  Amazon AU

Slow burn with plenty of heat

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BOOK REVIEW: This is one of the better romances of this kind I have read. It’s a letdown when the hero is a shallow playboy type and the heroine allows her attraction to him to overpower her better judgement. The mix here has the heroine not being overpowered at all. Maggie is a terrific character – her strength not wavering until the final scene, and even then we have to wonder who it was that lost control and succumbed to the attraction – or indeed whether they both did. There is a depth of honesty and realism in these characters that handles the tryst between the powerful bad boy and intrepid good girl way better than some bestselling books of late…. This is a fast read but not a quick fix story. It’s sexy and highly entertaining.

Preview on Amazon

“Bittersweet” alright!

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BOOK REVIEW: What a thrill ride! This picks up at the height of tension we were left with in the first part of the story. It picks up there and never backs off. Right to the final confrontation we are on the edge of the seat – heart in mouth. The style of storytelling here is sharp, gripping, take-no-prisoners. The action, including the love making, is graphic and powerful, but in that it is just keeping up with the mood of the story. The characters portrayed here are gritty and real. The bad guys are total scum and not easily defeated – more tension! The hero and heroine earn every bit of the ending…. Awesome, powerhouse read!

Available on Amazon

Going on about love after 5 minutes…

Beauty Skin Deep

Kate was pleased to be accompanied by others struggling to learn the steps. The lesson began with men lined up together and women lined up opposite. There was no touching. It was just a matter of following the steps to learn the pattern of movement. One two three, one two three. It was quite simple really, and Kate was soon walking through the eighteen step routine that zigzagged along the wall.

When it was time to take partners, that silly tingle in her belly returned. Her eye level was in line with that damned dimply chin, and Ben’s hand closed over hers as another big, warm paw pressed against her back. And she forgot the steps immediately.

“Are you ready?” he asked as the music started.

“Uh huh,” was all Kate could offer in reply, and the hand upon her back firmed, and she was drawn close to that powerful frame. She then completely surrendered as control of her body was taken from her. And she was rising and falling to the music and being swept along in a dizzy haze that took her breath away.

“Are you okay?” Ben asked softly. He seemed to be there in the cloud with her.

“Uh huh…” Kate uttered again.

“You’re doing very well.”

Kate wasn’t game to look at Ben’s face. She clung to one rippling shoulder and stared at the other one. The force of his body was against her hip, and his powerful thigh was driving between her legs and lifting her. The heat of his groin against her sex was something completely unexpected, and it was wonderful.

An hour passed in an instant, and Kate swayed against Ben’s chair while he changed his dance shoes for the boots he had worn earlier. His hand returned to her back as he guided her from the hall to his car. He opened the door for her, and she turned to him and placed her arms around his shoulders. He met her lips softly at first, but his passion was soon crushing her to his body, and she moaned into his mouth. He drew back and touched her cheek, caressing her face, and his hand moved to the back of her neck as he bent to her again.

Kate was on her toes, or perhaps her feet had left the ground. She wasn’t sure. The hand upon her back had slipped beneath her top, and she could feel its coarseness against her skin. The heat from his kiss was swirling in her head, and she clung to his hair as he mauled her neck. She was pinned against the car, his manhood rigid against her belly as he again lifted and kissed her open mouth.

“Is there a motel?” Kate asked, with her words ending as Ben’s lips again met hers, only that time he seemed a little restrained.

He smoothed hair from her face and delved into her eyes. He kissed her again, softly. “I’m a little out of practice.”

“Oh? I hadn’t noticed.” Kate held the man’s eyes. They wavered but quickly regained their intensity.

He kissed her again, deeply and with more tenderness and control that time. Kate responded, though she suddenly felt unsure, and her confusion was leading her beyond the heat of the moment. She wanted to know what he was thinking. He lifted and took to fiddling with her hair at her shoulder. He seemed to be struggling with something, and she waited.

After a long moment of silence, in which passion almost audibly faded, Ben looked up with a light, disarming smile. “I haven’t made love to a woman since Sylvia.”

Kate understood the significance of that statement immediately. She recoiled inwardly. “Love? Who said anything about making love, cowboy?”

His smile broadened with a hint of resignation. “Yeah, I know. Lame, huh?”

She had begun fiddling with the front of his shirt. The thought of the housewives of Goran Vale flashed to mind. “No, it’s actually quite sweet, but it’s not very realistic.”

He lifted her chin and smoothed hair from her face. He kissed her again, softly yet confidently. “Oh, it’s realistic. It’s just too soon for a word like that.”

He wasn’t reading her at all.

“We should go. It’s getting late, and I have jobs tomorrow before I leave.” Kate got in the car and closed the door. Ben stood for a moment then walked around and got in the other side. “Can we skip the restaurant and stop at that roadhouse again?” she asked.

He nodded and drove off. It was a good fifteen minutes before he spoke. “I’m sorry, Kate. I didn’t mean to spook you.”

“Well, you did spook me, cowboy—going on about love after five minutes.”

Ben smiled. “I know. I can usually go a good ten minutes before bringing that up too. It’s a form of premature ejaculation.”

Kate laughed. “Speaking of—that! You know what we could have been doing right now if you weren’t such a sap, don’t you?”

“I know. Damn it. I think there’s a motel just up ahead, though.”

“Nope. Too late. Moment’s passed, and all I want is a steak sandwich now……”

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Ben scores his first date with Kate…

Beauty Skin Deep

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.

“Afternoon, ma’am.”

“Oh… Officer?”

“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.”

“Frozen pizza?”

Ben hadn’t stopped smiling. “You’re pushy!”

“Tomorrow night?”

“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.

“Me too!”

………………….

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