Within two weeks of its release in November 2020, Tooting Moon achieved #1 New Release!
I was on Sindbad’s back ready for my ride. Instead of getting up from his sitting position as he was supposed to, the camel turned his head in my direction and bellowed a snort of protest. Lugubrious brown eyes stared at me from behind great wide nostrils that resembled portals to secret caves. This dromedary didn’t like me. What was his problem? A prejudice against Irishmen?
Relaxing my grip on the saddle handles, I turned to tell the tour guide I was getting off. That’s when Sindbad rose with sudden and unexpected speed. One minute the camel was on the sand, legs curled under his body. The next minute he’d sprung to full height.
“He’s the tallest camel on Cable Beach.” This had been the proud declaration of Hugh, a tanned and muscular Australian tour guide in his early thirties, when he introduced me to Sindbad. At the time, having only seen the camel seated, I thought Hugh was exaggerating. He wasn’t.
My stomach lurched. I toppled to one side. I think I yelled. Or screamed. Or swore. Probably all three. The next minute I was flat on my back on the sand. All six feet of me spread lengthwise like a misplaced cadaver.
One of the cameleers, a cheerful blue-eyed blonde in her twenties who had earlier introduced herself as Iris, ran over to me. I managed to scramble to my feet before she had a chance to check my pulse.
“Are you all right?” Her tone was serious, her expression concerned, but she couldn’t hide the hint of amusement in her eyes.
“Nothing broken.” I reassured her as I retrieved my brand new Akubra hat which had become separated from my head during my descent. I brushed the sand from the back of my shorts. Luckily the beach had provided a soft landing.
With the delicacy of a trained handler, Iris coaxed Sindbad into a sitting position again. I ignored the waiting back of the camel and looked up at Dusty, astride a dromedary called Aladdin and looking cool and relaxed in a pair of turquoise cotton shorts and white strappy top. She made no effort to hide her amusement. Even Aladdin appeared to have merriment in his sultry brown eyes.
“I think I’ll pass on the camel ride.” I tried to sound nonchalant.
Sindbad turned his head in my direction, his mouth wide open. His fat lower lip flopped down to expose square yellow teeth that looked like three inch high tombstones. I recoiled.
“Don’t worry,” said Dusty. “Camels are herbivores.”
I gave her a look which I hoped expressed my scorn for her flippancy. Dusty tossed her head back and laughed.
“Come on, Sean. A sunset camel ride in Broome is an iconic tourist attraction. You don’t want to miss out.”
It had been almost a year since Dusty Kent and I worked our last case together in Port Douglas. Four years ago, just after I arrived in Australia from Ireland, Dusty took me on as her assistant after learning about my IT qualifications. An investigative journalist, she had already established a reputation for solving the cold case murders she wrote about. In fact, she had solved every case she’d accepted. My role as research assistant had broadened into adviser, listener and friend during our travels to various Australian cities to solve murders. Now we were over two thousand kilometres north of the Western Australian capital of Perth.
I was about to reply that any interest I might have had in this iconic experience had vanished when Sindbad, sounding like a baritone bull with a sore throat, bellowed with the triumph of a conqueror.
That did it! I wasn’t going to let a dromedarian Shrek get the better of me. I put my foot in the stirrup and took a firm hold of the saddle handles. Iris was quickly at my side supporting my back with her hand.
“You need to sit down very gently,” she urged in a soft voice. “Then you won’t spook the camel.”
So it was my fault Sindbad got spiteful? My fault he didn’t like the way I sat in the saddle chair? I held on tight to the handles, swung my leg over the camel’s back and lowered myself into the saddle.
“Perfect.” Iris gave me the thumbs-up.
No reaction from Sindbad. But I didn’t trust him. I sensed he would take the first opportunity to assert his dominance.
Hugh appeared on the other side of Sindbad with some last minute instructions for me on how to stay safe during the camel’s ascent to full height.
After a glance in my direction to check if I was ready, Iris gave Sindbad the command to rise. I held my breath, leaned back as instructed and gripped the handles. The camel half rose on his front knees, at the same time extending his back legs to full length for support then straightening his front legs to stand on all fours. Smooth. Graceful. Trouble free. I relaxed a little but remained on guard against further tomfoolery from the contemptuous camel.
“Bravo,” said Dusty.
We were soon on our way. Cable Beach is a twenty-two kilometre stretch of white sand bounded by sand dunes and ochre red cliffs that runs along the edge of the Indian Ocean. Already on the beach were long caravans of camels with eager riders on their backs. Dusty had booked a private tour so it was just the two of us riding side by side with the handlers leading Aladdin and Sindbad.
“Are you sure camels are herbivores?”
“Yep. It’s true.” Dusty’s response had the earnest ring of sincerity. “On the other hand…” Now she looked at me with an all too familiar mischievous sparkle in her eye. “I read an article the other day about a man in India having his head bitten off by his camel.”
“The poor camel had good reason for its behaviour. The owner had left him tied up in the searing heat for hours.”
“Right. Sounds like he deserved to lose his head.” But who could predict what a camel might deem as ‘good reason’ to chomp a person’s head off? Sindbad managed to take offence simply because I didn’t sit on him with the required amount of gentleness. I maintained a watchful eye on the back of Sindbad’s head as our camels galumphed along the white sand accompanied by the sound of waves crashing into shore. The camel caravans ahead of us created long shadows on the sand as the sun began to set across the water.
To my amazement, I saw several people strolling along the beach without a stitch of clothing on.
Noticing my reaction, Dusty smiled. “This is the nudist end of Cable Beach.”
That some of the naked bodies were not unpleasant to my eye was an agreeable surprise. I apparently slipped into a deep state of concentration. We’d travelled some distance before I heard Dusty cough. She grinned when I turned toward her.
“Do you know how long I’ve been trying to get your attention?”
“What do you mean?”
My innocent tone caused her to raise her eyebrows.
I attempted to justify my distracted state. “Right. Well, the view…I mean, you’re correct. It would have been a shame to miss this iconic experience.”
Dusty chuckled. “It’s not the only reason I summoned you to Broome.”
I didn’t know anything about the murder we were to be working on. In her email, Dusty had simply described it as ‘an extraordinary case’ promising to ‘reveal all’ when I arrived.
Without waiting for an answer, Dusty continued. “We’re here to nail a mongrel who murdered his wife.”
Her sharp tone surprised me. Was there something personal about this case? Her profile gave nothing away. The setting sun added a warm glow to her features and deepened the auburn of her frizzy hair which today she wore loose.
“Right. So we know who the murderer is already?”
“Yes, we do.” Dusty’s lips set in a firm line. “None other than Blake Montgomery.”
“Blake Montgomery? The Hollywood actor?”
Sindbad discharged a loud warning snort. My surprise must have caused me to move inappropriately in the saddle. Iris soothed the camel with soft words of reassurance.
“The very one,” said Dusty. “The famous Hollywood actor.”
The death of Blake Montgomery’s wife Tirion Welsh, affectionately known as Tiri, had been big news when it happened. She was the toast of Hollywood and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. In fact, Blake and Tiri were Hollywood’s golden couple, both of them big stars in their own right. Whenever possible, they escaped from the media and the fans on their private yacht. Once a year they sailed to the west coast of Australia to visit Tiri’s sister in Broome. On one such visit seventeen years ago Tiri Welsh drowned at sea when she fell overboard. Her death was ruled an accident but Tiri’s adoring fans hadn’t accepted Montgomery’s story that his wife had fallen overboard.
As the camels continued their slow meander along the beach, we admired the spectacular colours created by the warm orange sun lowering itself toward the horizon. Silhouettes of several people standing at the water’s edge, fishing rods extended over the water, foreshadowed the advent of nightfall. They all appeared to be wearing at least one piece of clothing. However, the occasional naked body could still be spied on the beach.
We arrived at the finish of the sunset tour without any further shenanigans from Sindbad. He appeared to have accepted me now I had learned how to behave in the saddle.
When the camels came to a halt, Dusty was the first to dismount. Aladdin lowered himself to his front knees, folded his back legs under his body and settled onto his stomach on the sand in what seemed like one smooth movement. Dusty got off his back just as effortlessly, giving the camel a caress before stepping away and looking up at me.
“Finding out what really happened the night Tiri Welsh died could turn out to be a tough case to crack,” I said, looking down at her from Sindbad’s back.
I knew Dusty’s absolute confidence in her ability to solve the cold cases she accepted was legitimised by her one hundred percent success rate. However, the death of Tiri Welsh was pretty much an open and shut case of accidental drowning with no way of proving otherwise.
Instead of replying, Dusty took out her phone and held it up ready to take a photo of me as I alighted from Sindbad. This might not be a picture I would be proud of. When the camel lowered himself to the ground without mishap, I breathed a sigh of relief and dismounted.
Sindbad got up almost immediately, perhaps keen to go home. Grateful to the animal for carrying me safely, I reached out to stroke his neck. Sindbad turned his head toward me and brought his face close to mine. I jumped back. This beast and I might have established friendly relations but I drew the line at kissing! To my surprise, those flappy camel lips bypassed my mouth and went straight to my hat. Before I knew what was happening, Sindbad had gripped the brim of my Akubra in his cenotaphic teeth, whipped it off my head and galloped away.
Iris yelled after him. “Sindbad! Come back!”
The camel paid no heed. Iris gave chase.
“Don’t worry. We’ll get your hat back.” Hugh’s apologetic expression was not as solemn as it could have been.
Dusty held her phone up. “I’ve got it all on film.”
“Right. Useful evidence for when I take the camel to court.”
As we watched Iris pursuing Sindbad along the beach, Dusty responded to my earlier remark about the cold case.
“It’s not Tiri Welsh’s death we’re here to investigate. Blake Montgomery’s second wife was murdered six months ago.”