“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.”