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.