“Gracie Chamberlain claims she didn’t notice her boss’s dead body.”
Dusty looked at her companion with raised eyebrows. They were breakfasting on the top floor balcony of Villa Depaul, a luxury chateau in a five-hectare landscaped park. The Villa, with a façade inspired by French Provincial architecture, sat graciously amid manicured green lawns, ancient trees, and well-tended floral beds. A faint coffee aroma emanated from two cups on the Parisian style bistro table where the pair was sitting. The coffee was part of the breakfast delivered by one of the excellent cafés that lined the main street.
“That’s where it happened.” Dusty pointed toward the eastern side of the park. From where they sat, she and her research assistant had a clear view of Albert Park’s St Vincent Place precinct, a nineteenth century residential development known as millionaire’s row. In a leafy street amid a line of grand terraces facing the gardens stood the white double-storey Victorian terrace where Ralph Mason had been killed.
“Gracie’s office was on the ground floor. She worked there every day as usual while his cadaver lay in an upstairs bedroom. Can you imagine that?”
“Sounds macabre.” Had anyone been within earshot they would have detected the thirty-six-year-old’s Irish accent. “Ralph Mason was a chef, right?”
Shortly after Sean O’Kelly arrived in Australia five years earlier, Dusty signed him up after learning of his IT qualifications. The generous salary package with retainer, which allowed him to continue his travels around Australia when not working on a case, was tempting enough for him to accept immediately.
“Not just any chef.” Dusty scooped froth from her cappuccino with her finger and smeared it over the tip of a fresh strawberry. The fruit had accompanied her smashed avocado on toast. “He was one of Australia’s most popular celebrity chefs. Better known as Rafe.” She slipped the strawberry into her mouth.
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Her assistant, a hearty eater despite his lean frame, was in the process of devouring a Farmer’s Omelette which included fried rashers of bacon, roast halved tomatoes and cooked spinach served on slices of sourdough toast.
“Never heard of him. Myself and I are not fans of cooking shows.”
Ignoring Sean’s creative use of pronouns, Dusty pounced on his description of Rafe’s television programme.
“Cooking show? Wash your mouth out Sean O’Kelly. Our murder victim would not be pleased to hear you referring to La Cuisine Rafe that way. He insisted on calling it a culinary programme. If anyone had the temerity to refer to it as a cooking show, they would suffer his caustic tongue.”
“Pardon me.” Sean looked suitably chastened although his blue eyes revealed his amusement.
Dusty grinned. “His programme was aimed at educating home cooks in the art of French cuisine by demonstrating the simple dishes, not the complicated ones.”
“Yep. It was one of the reasons La Cuisine Rafe was so popular. The dishes were authentic but easy enough for the audience to reproduce in their own kitchens.” Dusty jerked her head toward the back of the Villa. “He harvested fresh herbs and vegetables for his show from the food garden at the rear of this place. Rafe’s mantra was ‘fresh for success’.”
Sean pointed up at a flock of rainbow lorikeets flying toward the back of the Villa.
“Looks like they’re after breakfast. I assume there are fruit trees in the food garden.”
“Shade and water might be their priority today.” Dusty checked the weather on her phone. “We’re expecting a top of 36 degrees.” She was appropriately dressed for the heat in a sleeveless olive-green shift, her wild auburn hair swept up into a topknot leaving several untamed tendrils wisping around her face.
“Right.” Sean used a serviette to dab at the moisture on his brow. “From what you tell me, Rafe Mason’s killer has been apprehended. The secretary who went to work every day as usual while her boss’s body lay a-mouldering in his bed upstairs has been convicted of his murder. Correct?”
“Correct.” A slow smile spread across Dusty’s face. “So why are we here?”
Sean acknowledged the accuracy of her mind reading with a tilt of his head.
“Because the person who invited us to this ritzy mansion to investigate Rafe’s murder is an executive of the AusBoss Network called Brian Chamberlain.” Dusty paused to sip her cappuccino.
“Husband of the secretary?”
Sean reached for a slice of toast as he considered this. “He doesn’t believe his daughter killed her boss?”
“Right. We’re here to prove Gracie Chamberlain is innocent of the murder of Rafe Mason?”
“No.” Dusty shook her head emphatically. “Brian Chamberlain wants me to prove his daughter is innocent, but I’ve made it clear to him I’m after the truth, whatever it may be. He’s accepted that.”
“Which means he has complete faith in his daughter. Otherwise, he wouldn’t let a renowned cold case investigator take charge.”
Sean was having a gentle dig at Dusty’s lack of modesty when it came to her extraordinary ability to solve cold cases. If Dusty was aware he’d been teasing her, she gave no sign.
“Exactly.” She placed another strawberry into her mouth.
“Right. The police must have had good reason to think she did it.” He pushed his empty plate away with a satisfied pat on his stomach. A faint tang of omelette lingered in the air.
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Dusty nodded. “They didn’t find her story credible. Gracie told them she had absolutely no idea her boss’s corpse was in his bedroom during the four days she went about her work as usual. The body must have already started decomposition by the time she arrived for work on Monday; he’d been dead for forty-eight hours by then. Yet Gracie reported for work each day, let herself in the front door, made her way along the hall past the two front rooms and through the kitchen to her workspace. On the way, she also passed the staircase leading upstairs.”
Sean O’Kelly wrinkled his nose. “She must have caught a whiff of the decomposing remains of her boss wafting down the stairs.”
“Apparently not. And she stayed in the house all day without realising something was not right. The police didn’t believe she could have spent four days on the property without detecting the unsweet fragrance of decomposition.”
“Didn’t she even notice her boss was missing?”
Dusty acknowledged the irony in his tone with a grin. “The police wondered about that too. But Rafe was on a break from filming. Gracie claimed she thought he’d met someone and decided to stay at their place for a few days; something he’d done before.”
“Right.” Sean pulled the pot of marmalade closer. He spread a spoonful of the sticky orange jam on a slice of toast. “He wasn’t a married man then.”
Dusty gave him a knowing look. “Definitely not married.”
“Right. What is the case against the secretary? Just the fact that she failed to notice her boss’s cadaver was upstairs while she was working downstairs?”
“Nope! Much more than that.”
Almost fifteen months had passed since the rotting corpse of Ralph Mason had been discovered in the upstairs bedroom of his Victorian terrace.
The third day of Melbourne’s annual Moomba Festival was in full swing along the banks of the Yarra River on this cloudy autumn morning in 2019. Flashing lights and thumping music marked the festival atmosphere. Adventurous people, strapped into seats in the Sky Flyer, were being rotated around a gigantic tower, thirty-five metres above the ground. Others sought their thrills on the giant ferris wheel, spinning in cages against a backdrop of palm trees. Family groups swarmed past game stalls festooned with soft toys under brightly striped canopies.
In the crowd, absorbing everything around her with eyes the colour of spring green clover was a petite young woman wearing a pair of patterned yellow leggings teamed with a white T-shirt and gold sandals. She paused from time to time to examine prizes on display or items for sale. The thirty-five-year-old was on her way to rendezvous with a crew of volunteers preparing a special machine for her. Weaving in and out of the crowd, she continued toward the river. Rows of spruikers bellowed encouragement to passers-by. From food stalls came the tempting aromas of steaming sausages, burgers and piping-hot potato chips.
Resisting all temptation, she continued on toward the set-up point for a favourite Moomba event. This year she would have an entry in the popular fund-raising contest. Through a donation page on social media, she had already accumulated $10,000.00 for her chosen cause. Today was to be the culmination of her money raising efforts – the pièce de résistance.
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The approaching melodic jangle of trimbles reminded her of parades in her hometown of Claigan when members of the Salvation Army paraded along the main street beating their trimbles with the heels of their hands. As the sound drew near, she saw the source was a trio of young women wearing full bodysuits in vibrant pink. Orange ribbons flowed out from their trimbles when they brought them down in a full arc.
Following the pink women was an eight-foot-tall stilt walker, a breath-taking human replica of a butterfly. A long purple skirt covered her stilts, aqua silk wings rippled from her arms. She smiled down on the diminutive redhead craning her neck to admire the glittering headdress of purple feathers and shimmering beads. Clowns, jugglers, and buskers entertained her on the way to her destination.
She had almost arrived when her attention was caught by a small boy holding a stick adorned with a head of fluffy fairy floss. He laughed as the candy caught on his tongue. Her eyes fixed on the pink floss in a vacant stare. The noise and bustle of the festival faded into the background. A long-forgotten memory stirred, at first nothing more than a tantalising scintilla of recollection appearing as a distant hazy image. As the image gathered momentum to cover the span of years, it took on definition. A stick of pink fairy floss in a child’s hand. A smiling woman bending down at eye level with the child. Her mother! A sharp clear image of her mother encouraging her daughter to put her tongue to the fairy floss.
Now she saw her own happy face. It was the day the carnival came to their small town. The excitement of being there had almost overwhelmed her that day. She had clung to her mother’s hand as they walked around the bumpy ground of the football oval from one exhibit to another. The memory that had been hidden in the attic of her mind all these years sent tendrils out to other recollections. No. She would not unlock the door to the dungeon where sad memories were imprisoned. She blinked away thoughts of the past. The small boy with the fairy floss had gone. Crowds milled around her as though she were a bollard in their path.
She began to walk briskly and continued at a vigorous pace until she reached her goal. The four-person crew of engineering students that had laboured for weeks to prepare the unique vehicle she had ordered, greeted her with beaming faces and broad grins. They stepped aside to reveal their masterpiece. She brought her palms together in awe. During the construction stage, she had seen only photos and videos. The turquoise of the flying motorbike was more vibrant than it had appeared on screen. Its matching helmet and cape were both edged in white, the bold contrast highlighting the turquoise. She gave the crew an emphatic thumbs-up. Her entry would be sure to stand out from all the others.
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“I’ve got someone special to ride this today. He doesn’t know exactly what he’s in for yet.” Mischief gleamed in her eyes in anticipation of the reaction she expected. “I’m sure he’ll take it in his stride.”
The smile that brightened her face was the smirk of someone about to throw a curveball. Her thoughts of the past now stored away; renowned cold case warrior Dusty Kent was in the mood for fun after a harrowing few days closeted in a lavish villa with a group of murder suspects. It had been a crucible-like atmosphere where tempers flared and accusations flourished. But the investigation was now finished. She couldn’t wait to see her research assistant’s face when she presented him with this surprise.
Her smile faded when a poster attached to the scaffolding behind the motorbike caught her attention. Dusty stared at the billboard for National Missing Persons Week depicting a collage of faces, the faces of the missing. She knew what it was like to yearn for a long-absent loved one to return home.
Her mother’s face, that much loved face she had just seen in the unbidden recollection, had once featured on a poster such as this. She too had been smiling into the camera, obviously happy and relaxed. Dusty had experienced a sharp pang to see her looking so cheerful on a poster pleading for information about her whereabouts. She had wanted that familiar face to reflect the pain and anxiety she must be feeling at being separated from her daughter. It was irrational to feel that way about a photograph taken before the tragic event, but she had needed to know her mother yearned for reunion. Instead, she had had to live with the cold silence of not knowing and years of wondering, throughout her childhood, if she had done something wrong; years of fantasising about the day her mother would walk back in the door; years of yearning to know what had happened.
All that was over now, the dreams, the wondering and the living in limbo. Two years ago, Anna Kent had been confirmed dead. A victim of homicide, her body had been found buried in bushland. When Dusty was given that news, the last irrational flicker of hope had been obliterated. What had remained was a dull, aching emptiness.
The tendrils began to reach out once again toward the dungeon. Unable to resist their urgent demand, she felt the door open, felt the anger that had been confined in that dark place rush out like a blast of heat from a fire. The rage her young self had directed at her mother had been intense. It swept over her after the shock, the confusion and the tears. How could her mother leave her? Why did she just suddenly go? Without saying goodbye. At first the anger simmered behind hope, the enduring hope her mother would come back. Every morning she woke up and hurried to the kitchen hoping to see her mother preparing breakfast. When school finished, she ran to the gate and looked along the road for her. As the months went by and the day of her sixth birthday drew near, her hope increased. Mum would not miss her birthday. But that day had ended in tears and a violent tantrum. The mother she thought had loved her so much did not care about her. The betrayal cut deep. She had remained angry with her mother for years. It had been an understandable reaction from a child. She knew that. She also knew her mother would understand. Yet the shame she had experienced for the animosity and resentment she had felt never left her.
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Dusty Kent, you’re being maudlin. Pull yourself together. And she did. She locked the unwelcome feelings away again, took a deep breath and shook her head. As always, when her loss threatened to drag her mind into a dark place, she reflected on the way her mother would want her to live her life. Anna Kent, that beautiful lady whose red hair she inherited, had loved to laugh. Dusty put a hand up to her shoulder-length mop of wild auburn hair with a nostalgic smile.
Lost in her thoughts she turned away, almost colliding with a father carrying his daughter on his shoulders. Reflected in the huge bubble she held in front of her was the child’s laughing face, misshapen as though in a distorting mirror.
One thing Dusty knew was that her mother would wish her to find laughter in life. I will honour that wish today and every day, Dusty promised. The investigative journalist waved to the grinning father and daughter as they went on their way.
She skipped a few paces in a sudden rush of contentment, then stopped to look around, marvelling at the overcast weather conditions. The pungent fresh tang in her nostrils suggested rain might not be far away. Only ten days earlier the city had been sweltering. Melbourne had experienced above average March temperatures following a heat wave in the last week of February. It had been in those oppressive conditions that she had begun her investigation into the fatal strangulation of Ralph Mason.
**The Chapter #1 previously published on this blog has now become Chapter #2.