Brisbane - Monday October 21st, 1996
Wanda Langford lay quietly beside the long-limbed man who slept deeply, his breathing heavy. The morning’s heat beaded his forehead and dampened his fair hair. Wanda curled herself into a ball and pondered her glorious future.
Jon would be going to Sydney soon, and that was far gayer than this dump. Cooler, too. She frowned at the wide open window where a warm northerly whipped back the curtains. She’d have had the air-conditioning up high and all the windows tightly closed, but Jon hated to sleep in a closed room. Wanda nodded to herself. All that would change. Her slim fingers with their bright lacquered nails curled in anticipation. She’d mould Jon exactly the way she wanted him.
She’d be good for Jon. She’d push him, make sure he succeeded, get rid of his opposition. She watched her sleeping companion from under long, dark lashes. He wasn’t as accomplished as Pat, but she’d teach him to be a real tiger, at love and in the boardroom. He’d set her up by Sydney Harbour, in a mansion overlooking the water. Sydney was the real cream of society. And she’d head the social set, no doubt about that.
A slight feeling of unease shivered her golden skin. She pulled herself upright against the pillows, her long black hair tumbling over her small naked breasts, and hugged her knees, nervously remembering the past two days.
Pat took it all too calmly. Why hadn’t he tried to stop her leaving, challenged Jon, demanded that David give him Sydney so Wanda would be happy? She allowed the memory to play back and the feeling of apprehension grew. Yes, he’d given in too easily.
She’d expected anger, shouting, a really dramatic quarrel, when she’d gone to her husband. Just two nights ago, and then how quickly events had moved. It was like a dream still, and not the most pleasant dream, not the way she’d imagined at all.
Carol Monk, cool in a light floral dress and pink linen jacket, was driving to work. In every garden along her route trees and shrubs exhibited a sudden burst of inspiration, throwing out bright spring flowers as quickly as possible before giving way to their summer cousins who could stand the heat better. Obeying an impulse, Carol pulled up her blue Mazda Hatchback by Albert Park and walked over the grass, carrying her shoes, her stockinged feet enjoying the soft, cool, spiky green. She perched on the buttress of a huge Moreton Bay fig to appreciate the scene; the park with its ancient trees and gardens stretching out around her; a line of tall palms, their dark fronds fringing a radiantly blue sky; the concrete and glass towers of the city just across the way.
There was a shrill buzzing from her capacious shoulder bag and she rummaged inside for her mobile phone.
‘Carol, where on earth are you, darling? Babs is on the phone. She wants to come and see you. She says will 11:00 be all right?’
‘Tell her yes, Molly, and to meet me in my other office. I’ll be in shortly.’
‘But where are you? Have you been held up? You said 10:00. Do you want me to stay longer?’
‘I was seduced by the park. Sorry, Molly, on my way.’
‘Darling, I didn’t quite ... did you say, seduced in the park?’
‘No, by the park, not in. I was taking a walk.’
‘Well, it’s nearly 10:00 now. Do you think you should be wandering around? You’ve got an appointment due any minute.’
Carol heard a door shut in the background and her mother’s voice say sweetly, ‘Miss Monk is on the way. She’s so sorry to have to ask you to wait but she’s been held up. Do take a seat.’ Into the phone she hissed, ‘Carol!’
‘Yes, I hear, I obey. Give her a coffee.’
‘There’s only instant. You’re out of the other.’
‘That’ll have to do her, then. You’re a treasure, Molly.’
Six minutes later Carol parked outside a restored turn-of-the-century worker’s cottage in Spring Hill and checked her reflection quickly in the rearview mirror. Then she left the car and ran up the shallow steps, hardly glancing at the brass plaque which tastefully proclaimed “Monk’s Private Investigators” and pushed her way through the front door.
The reception area was painted in shades of avocado and apricot. Several Joanna Hook tropical prints hung on the walls, their richly coloured birds, fish and broad green leaves standing out from the frames in an almost three-dimensional illusion.
As Carol entered, a buzzer sounded and a petite woman in a smart cream slacksuit, her fair curls cut into a stylish bob, and looking nowhere near her admitted ‘forty-something’, rose quickly from behind the reception desk and made a frantic gesture.
‘Darling, you are the limit. I’ve put Mrs Whatsit in your office with a coffee. The poor woman’s quite demented. Some robbery or other.’
‘Didn’t she call the police?’
‘Of course, but she’s not at all happy with them. I told her you’d be sure to find her jewellery. That’s what she’s mostly upset about.’
‘Did you?’ Carol smiled fondly at her mother and shook her head in mock despair. ‘Thanks, Molly. What if I can’t find it?’
The green eyes, a mirror image of Carol’s own, twinkled responsively. ‘Don’t be silly, darling, of course you’ll find it. How long do you need me?’
‘Oh, you can run now. Thanks for filling in for me.’
‘You need a secretary. I’ve told you before. Someone to keep your files in order, take your appointments, send out your accounts. I don’t know how you manage your affairs. Look at these bills. Months old and never been posted. Shall I drop them in the box for you?’
Carol snatched the bills away. ‘No thanks, Molly, I know exactly who owes me what and I give a good deal of leeway to some who can’t get the cash up front. We have an agreement and I won’t have them hassled for money.’
Molly cast up her eyes. ‘Your father was just the same. All heart and no business sense.’
‘Yes, but don’t worry, like Dad I seem to muddle through.’ Carol came around the desk and kissed her mother on the cheek. ‘I’d better see Mrs Jordan-Whyte.’
‘Of course, that’s who she is. Well, I’ll slip away and leave you to it.’
Carol watched the door close behind her mother then went into the next office, whose decor matched the Reception area. She entered with a brisk, efficient step and a confident smile she hoped was suitable for the build-up Molly had given her. She greeted her new client, settled herself into the executive leather swivel chair behind her solid teak desk and pulled a notepad from a drawer.
‘My secretary has been giving me your details, Mrs Jordan-Whyte. Now, tell me about this robbery?’
Half an hour later Carol farewelled her relieved client and tucked a cheque for a substantial retainer into her cash box. She checked her watch, gathered up her bag and a coffee mug and left the office.
A short walk around the corner brought her to Bertini’s General Store. She entered the shop and waved to the woman behind the counter. ‘The usual, Mrs B. I haven’t had breakfast yet.’
Ten minutes later, armed with a brown paper bag and the mug, now filled with coffee, Carol set off for her next appointment.
Carol’s other office was unorthodox but, as she pointed out, had the advantage of being mostly quiet, fairly private, open to the fresh air and offering an unobstructed view of the street and anyone entering the detective agency across the road. The only disadvantage was having to share it with thirty or so other tenants, but they were very small and only occupied it for brief periods during the day. Carol could be flexible about this, never taking it over before 9:00 in the morning or after 4:00 in the afternoon and usually vacating the premises for the other occasions, unless she felt like socialising with the neighbours. This morning she settled herself high on her perch, took a sip of coffee, produced a thick sandwich on dark rye from the paper bag and started to eat.
Five minutes later she saw Babs’ silver Mercedes round the corner and pull up outside the agency. Carefully holding her long denim skirt away from the grass stalks, Babs came across the playground below Carol and craned her head to see her friend, a look of resignation in her cornflower blue eyes.
Carol grinned and waved her half-eaten sandwich.
‘I’ve told you before, it’s an engine. A train’s when carriages are attached. Actually, it’s a steam locomotive. Do you want to come up?’
The old engine had been rescued from the Railway Department by the preschool which shared the wide, landscaped park, for the children to love and crawl all over. It was ideal because it was impossible to break. Not long after it had arrived, the children and Carol had sorted out their mutual agreement as to tenancy.
Babs looked at the huge mass of dark green metal towering above her and thought of her pantyhose and pristine white blouse.
‘No, thanks. I’ll leave it for you and the kids. For goodness sake, Carol, I can’t stand here, twisting my neck like this. Take off your engine driver’s hat and come down.’
Carol shook her head. ‘Can’t, I’m eating. Anyway, you’re early. I didn’t expect you for another half hour.’
‘Eleven for 11:30? I know.’ Babs shrugged. ‘I came early to see if you’d like to have lunch, but I see you’re having it.’
‘Breakfast.’ Carol sipped her coffee.
‘Nice to be some people. When’s lunch?’
‘Later, or not at all.’ Carol’s eyes twinkled. ‘What’s wrong, Babs? You look all put out.’
‘I can’t shout it all over the park. Come down and talk like normal people.’
‘Wait a minute, then.’ Carol handed the mug, paper bag and her shoulder bag down to Babs who received them with amusement, in spite of her obvious agitation, and lined them up on the grass. Carol landed next to her and leaned against the engine. She smoothed her skirt back into place and regarded her friend with an affectionate smile.
‘You won’t want to sit on the grass, I suppose.’
Babs grimaced. ‘Do you have to be so, so rural? What have you got against offices - and chairs, for goodness sake?’
Carol gathered up her things. ‘Nothing, Babs. Come on, we can sit in your car. It’s too nice a day to be inside.’ She swallowed the last of her coffee, stuffed the empty mug and the remains of her breakfast into her bag and followed Babs to the Mercedes.
When they’d settled themselves inside, Carol leaned back against the head rest and eyed her friend. ‘Okay, tell me your troubles.’
‘Carol!’ Babs breathed. ‘You’re not going to believe - you should have been there last night, you’d have had hysterics. It was absolutely awful.’
‘Tell me?’ Carol offered.
‘Wanda’s left Pat and is living with Jon Price!’
Carol’s brow creased. ‘Since when?’
‘Since now. They were all at the casino last night, even Pat. Some last minute goodwill gesture, I gather. Anyway, it was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen and I’m furious with Wanda for inflicting it on us all. My God, Carol, you should have seen her. She was vicious.’
Carol caught the reluctant admiration in her friend’s voice and smiled slightly. ‘Oh, I’m sure she’s magnificent when aroused. So, what happened?’
‘About ten o’clock, she came swanning in with both of those hunks. Of course, Pat was right out of his depth, I told you how he is. Wanda dragged him everywhere, introduced him to all her set. She told us, quite blatantly, “This is my husband, Pat. I’m leaving him and moving in with Jon.”’
‘Absolutely! I was so embarrassed. If I could have, I’d have hidden under the table. But Pat didn’t seem to care that he was being totally humiliated. He and Jon acted like the best of friends.’
Babs’ eyes were wide with lingering disbelief. ‘Wanda told us, in Pat’s hearing, that they’d spent the afternoon talking it through with Jon, and Pat was happy for her, pleased she was going to a good man who’d look after her. But, you know, Carol, I don’t think she was very happy. She seemed on a real high, laughing and carrying on with both of them, but she was hell bent on punishing Pat. She told us that, as he couldn’t make her happy, she had his blessing to go with Jon.’
Carol blinked. ‘How extremely civilised,’ she said carefully.
‘Well, you might think so, but I caught Pat looking at her a couple of times as if he could have killed her. It made me shiver. All that lot set so much store on face, as Wanda calls it. She made sure Pat lost face last night, with interest.’
Carol shuddered. ‘I’m glad I wasn’t there.’
‘I wish I hadn’t been. But that wasn’t all. When they left, Wanda said goodnight to Pat and drove off with Jon, She’s moved in with him already. So that’s that!’ Babs still sounded shocked.
‘You do have exciting friends, Babs.’
Babs uneasily twisted a strand of her gold hair. ‘Well, Wanda’s not my flavour of the month at the moment, but I expect I’ll forgive her. You can’t say life’s dull when she’s around. It’ll be awfully embarrassing, though, if she and Jon are going to be an item all over the place.’
‘You told me they’d been having an affair for months.’
Babs sighed. ‘Yes, but at least they were discreet about it. Honestly, Carol, I cringe inside every time I think of that scene - and poor Pat’s face. No one’s that civilised. Pat’s the strong, silent type, but even his fuse must be burning pretty fast at the moment.’ She smoothed her hair. ‘It’s a good thing Jon’s going to Sydney at the end of the month to take over the company.’
‘More loss of face for Pat?’
Babs nodded. ‘Wanda said it was all very hush-hush but Jon was promoted over Pat because he’s much more brilliant. Pat will stay in Brisbane because his father thinks a state office is all he can handle. It’s not official yet, but she and Jon are off to Sydney.’ Babs frowned indignantly. ‘Later I found out she’d told practically everyone, strictly in confidence, of course.’
Carol remembered Jonathan’s desperate face, his hint of ‘something even better’ that would be broadcast soon enough. She thought, The poor fool. Anyway, it’s nothing to do with me how he screws up his life. I’m not likely to see either of them again.