by Claire McNab
For most people, to know Milton Ryce is to loathe him. Now in his mid-forties, the practical joker has never outgrown the adolescent behavior that amused him so much as a teenager. Embarrassing others has been his favorite past time, and he delights in coming up with elaborate schemes for setting up his “friends” as fall guys.
Extremely generous with his money, Milton has bought influence in high places and a circle of well-connected friends and business acquaintances. When he plunges to his death while sky diving, no one seems particularly surprised to find that he was murdered.
Detective Inspector Carol Ashton finds a long list of possible murderers—a list that includes family members who are positively jostling for position to be at the top of the list.
Then an elaborate practical joke is played out at Milton’s funeral by his son, Ted, and more evidence begins piling up against him. Carol must act quickly to find out if Ted is indeed his father’s killer—or if he is simply being set up as yet another ‘fall guy’…
First Published by Bella Books 2004.
Sixteenth in the Carol Ashton Series.
Milton Ryce tumbled gracefully out into the void, rejoicing in the exhilaration of free-falling. Spreading his arms, he had the illusion of flying, the earth wheeling beneath him, the sky his home.
Above, he caught sight of Verity Stuart’s red suit as she exited the bright blue Leapers Anonymous plane. He laughed to himself. However many times Verity jumped, she would always be a conservative free-faller, pulling the ripcord far too soon. But this time he knew there’d be no reassuring tug of her parachute opening. Verity would panic, the stupid bitch. He wished there was some way a camera could catch her expression as she plummeted toward the unyielding ground.
She’d have wet herself by the time she activated her emergency chute. This time it’d work, of course. He hadn’t tampered with it. “The joke’s on you,” he’d say, when he arrived shortly after her.
Verity would be babbling, hysterical, then mortified as she realized her humiliation. And with a bit of luck, Ted would have got close enough as she landed to catch every bit of her performance with his video camera.
Milton Ryce checked the altimeter on his wrist. Above him, Verity would be checking her altimeter, then deploying her useless main canopy. He chuckled again, then pulled his own ripcord. With any luck she’d plummet past him, her shriek lost in the howling of the wind, before her second chute released.
Something was wrong. He twisted, trying to see. His chute streamed out flat, not inflated. He swore to himself, more in exasperation than alarm. The ground was screaming up to meet him as he pulled the second ripcord, secure in the knowledge that soon he’d be bobbing below the safety of a square-shaped parachute.
But there was no reassuring shock of his weight yanked by the braking of an air-filled canopy. “Jesus! No!”
Milton Ryce’s last conscious thought as he fell to earth, was red rage. This couldn’t be happening to him!
“Right here, Inspector Ashton,” said Sergeant Huffner. “He hit the ground somewhere between two hundred and three hundred kilometers an hour, they tell me.” His tone of lugubrious satisfaction suited his heavily jowled, rectangular face.
Carol and Bourke examined the appreciable impression in the surface of the lightly grassed paddock. It was a beautiful and still Sunday afternoon. The azure sky was embellished by banks of fat white clouds. Overhead a hawk soared.
“You were first on the scene and secured the area?” Carol asked.
Huffner frowned, apparently examining Carol’s question for hidden pitfalls. “I arrived at ten-forty yesterday morning, Inspector, about fifteen to twenty minutes after it happened. Got here as fast as I could, but we country cops have further to drive than you city types. Beat the ambulance by at least twenty-five minutes. They were rushing Mrs. Davy—six months pregnant with complications—to hospital when the call came in.” With a sour smile he added, “When they did get here, wasn’t much they could do, except scrape up what was left of him.”
“They did a good job,” Bourke remarked.
“You could say that, Sergeant,” said Huffner, “although his jump suit pretty well held him together. Otherwise he’d have been splattered all over the area.”
“I don’t see any sign of body fluids,” said Bourke.
“Well you wouldn’t, would you? Look at the ground. It rained last night. We need rain badly here, but it was useless. A hard downpour, running off before the ground could absorb it.”
“And there were no tarpaulins protecting the scene?”
Huffner’s stolid features flushed at Carol’s question. “No reason to suppose it was a suspicious death. I mean, this is a popular area for parachuting. I’ve seen enough of ’em hit the ground hard. There was some young woman a couple of months ago, flattened herself good and proper. They didn’t send you out for that, did they?”
Carol felt a touch of sympathy for the country cop. There had been no reason for him to suspect Milton Ryce’s death had been caused by anything other than a disastrous equipment malfunction.
A routine post-accident inspection by the Australian Parachute Federation had revealed that Ryce’s parachute pack had been deliberately tampered with. What seemed misfortune now appeared to be deliberate, though whether it was murder or suicide had yet to be determined.
Every line of Huffner’s stocky body showed truculent resentment. “I followed procedures. How was I supposed to know it was anything but an accident? Mr. Ryce did his skydiving all the time. Just by the law of averages, eventually something would go wrong.”
Consternation suddenly filled his face as he looked past Carol and Bourke. “Oh, shit,” he said, half under his breath.
They turned to see the source of his dismay. A bright red convertible was pulling up beside the gate. As they watched, a young woman leapt out of the car, flung open the gate and strode toward them.
“Who is it?” Carol asked.
“Rae Ryce. The daughter.”
The young woman halted in front of them. She was dressed in black jeans and a scarlet, scoop-necked top. Her dark hair was slicked back. She had a diamond stud in one nostril, a row of gold rings in each ear. Carol thought she’d be attractive, if her face hadn’t been clenched in a scowl.
“Where did he hit?”
Huffner made an awkward gesture, perhaps meaning to comfort her, but he withdrew his hand when she sent him a flat stare. He cleared his throat. “Rae, you shouldn’t be here.”
“I want to see where he died.” She added mockingly, “It’ll bring me closure.”
Hands on hips, she surveyed the ground. Her gaze stopped at the depression. “Is that the place?” Her voice was as taut as her body.
Carol said, “It is, Ms. Ryce.”
Rae Ryce glanced at Carol and Bourke. “And who are you?” she demanded.
“Police officers from Sydney,” said Huffner. “There’s nothing for you to see here, Rae. You should leave.”
Rae’s lip curled. “You think I should leave, do you, Sergeant Huffner?” Switching her attention to Carol and Bourke, she said, “Who’s in charge?”
“I am, Ms. Ryce. Detective Inspector Carol Ashton. And this is Detective Sergeant Mark Bourke. I will have some questions for you. I’m sorry to have to ask them at this sad time.”
“Sad time?” Rae Ryce threw her head back with a harsh laugh. “I’m pleased the bastard’s dead!”
Huffner, scandalized, exclaimed, “You don’t mean that! You’re upset. ”
She cast him such a look of malevolence that he blinked. “I know exactly what I mean. I don’t need you to tell me.”
Carol was intrigued at palpable tension between the two. “I gather you know each other well.”
Rae showed her teeth in an acid smile “Huffner here is Dad’s right-hand man. Ask him. He’ll tell you what great mates they are.”
“Ms. Ryce,” said Carol firmly, “I think you should be aware there’s a possibility your father’s death was not an accident. We are here to investigate the circumstances. I would appreciate your cooperation.”
She seemed stunned. “Not an accident? You think someone killed him?”
Bourke said, “It’s a possibility. So is suicide.”
“Jesus.” She put a hand to her mouth. “Are you sure it wasn’t an accident?”
The young woman’s shock appeared genuine, but Carol reserved judgment, having seen many guilty individuals put on Academy Award performances before. She said briskly, “We’re not sure of anything yet. That’s why we need to conduct interviews.”
Rae Ryce shook her head violently. “No way. I can’t answer any questions now. Later, maybe…”
“We must speak with you, Ms. Ryce. When will be convenient? Are you returning to Sydney today?”
Rae cupped her face in her hands for a moment, then looked up. She seemed to be fighting for control. “I’ll be at the Hall,” she said. “You can see me there, later this afternoon.”
Carol watched her hurry toward her car, her previous confident stride now a rush to get away.
“How do you know Rae Ryce?” Bourke asked Huffner.
The sergeant raised his heavy shoulders. “You know how it is,” he said. “Kids drive too fast, or make a bit of a commotion—just high spirits…” He paused, apparently for them to nod understandingly. When neither did, he went on, “Fact of the matter is, Rae’s father had a private word to me. Asked if I’d keep an eye out. Make sure she didn’t get into trouble.” He shifted his feet uneasily. “Nothing I wouldn’t do for any parent, you understand.”
Carol caught Bourke’s speculative look. They were both thinking the same thing: Sergeant Huffner had something to hide. It might be nothing more than ignoring some minor infraction by Rae Ryce or some other member of the family, but it could be worth checking out.
Obviously very keen to get on to a safer topic, Huffner said, “Inspector? You’ve got my detailed report—I sat up half the night writing it—but I suppose you’d like me to go through what I found when I arrived here yesterday.”
“That would be helpful.”
“Okay then.” He swung around to point to the gate. “I get the call, and come straight here. Stop outside, where we’re parked now. Here in the paddock, just inside the fence, are two four-wheel drives, both Land Rovers, latest models. There’s a woman sobbing her heart out in the front seat of one. I find out later her name’s Kymberly Watson. I never get anything out of her. She’s too upset, and a bit later this doctor arrives and takes her away.”
Carol, who’d scanned Huffner’s report, said, “That would be Dr. Edmundson?”
“Yeah, Gilbert Edmundson. He gives me his card. Not a local. Never seen him before.”
Carol was familiar with the name. Dr. Gilbert Edmundson ran a substance abuse clinic in Sydney called Inner Grace, the clientele of which was largely drawn from the famous and the seriously rich.
“And Dr. Edmundson also spoke with Milton Ryce’s son?”
“Since you already know all this, why am I telling you again?” asked Huffner, obviously annoyed.
“I know it’s tiresome,” said Carol with a sympathetic smile, “but please walk us through it from the beginning.”
He sighed heavily, but softened to say, “Okay, let’s go to the gate and we’ll take it from there.”
As they followed the sergeant’s hefty figure, Bourke said in an aside to Carol, “You’re all blond charm today. Poor guy’s putty in your hands.”
Carol grinned. “I’m aging fast, Mark. Have to wring every little advantage out of my blond charm while I’ve still got it.”
Ahead of them, Huffner had halted by the gate. “When I arrive, the Watson woman’s here, sitting in a Land Rover. Ted Ryce, the son, comes up to me, says, ‘There’s been a dreadful accident.’”
“Did Kymberly Watson seem genuinely upset?” asked Bourke.
“She was a mess, weeping and wailing. Could have been an act, I suppose.”
“And Ted Ryce?”
“He wasn’t crying, if that’s what you mean, but he looked pretty sick. Right about then, Dr. Edmundson turns up, takes a quick look at the Watson woman, then comes up to me and gives me his card. Says the woman’s too upset to be interviewed, and that he’s taking her with him for treatment.”
“You didn’t object?”
“Why would I, Inspector? There was no way I was going to get a statement out of her, the way she was.”
“What then?” said Bourke.
Huffner swung around and began to retrace his steps toward the site of Ryce’s violent death. “So I say to Ted to show me, and he starts walking this way. He’s got a camera slung over his shoulder—the latest video camcorder—and I ask if he got a shot of the fall, and he looks even sicker, and says yes.”
“You took possession of the camera?”
Huffner’s face darkened. “Why would I do that?”
“For the coroner,” said Carol mildly. “You knew there’d have to be an inquest into Ryce’s death, accident or not.”
“I told Ted to make sure he kept everything that was on it.” Apparently feeling the need to justify himself further, Huffner went on, “What was there to see? Someone falling out of the sky? I don’t know why you’re concentrating on what happened down here.” He pointed heavenward. “It’s what happened up there that killed him.”
“Someone observing the jump could be responsible,” said Bourke.
Huffner mused on this. “Christ, that’d be cold,” he said. “Bloody cold. Watching someone step out of a plane, knowing a few moments later they’re going to smash into the ground.”
“In your report you mention there were two other witnesses, Verity Stuart and Ian McNamara.”
“Yeah, they were the other two skydivers.” He sent Carol an unexpected smile. “Landed rather more successfully than Ryce, I’d reckon.”
Indicating a spot a short way from the depression the falling body had created, he went on, “Verity Stuart was crouched down a few meters away. She had on a red-and-blue jump suit, and her orange parachute was bundled up beside her. She was in a state, had thrown up all over the place. Couldn’t get a word of sense out of her, except something about how her main parachute had malfunctioned, so I went to speak with McNamara. He was sort of standing sentry duty by the body. He had his head bent and could have been praying, for all I know.”
It was news to Carol that there’d been another equipment malfunction. “Verity Stuart had a problem with her parachute? You didn’t mention this before.”
Huffner jutted his jaw. “I didn’t think of it. Had my hands full with the fatality, didn’t I? Kept me busy collecting everything to do with Ryce’s parachute pack. Had my digital camera with me, so took a few shots first.” He gave Carol a criticize-me-if-you-dare look. “I knew it’d be evidence for the inquest, and the APF would want to have a look, too.”
“What happened to Verity Stuart’s parachute?” Bourke wanted to know.
Huffner grimaced. “No idea.”
Carol felt a pulse of irritation. “Locate it, Sergeant, as a matter of urgency.”
He seemed about to demur, then said, “Come to think of it, Inspector, I believe the other guy, McNamara, bundled hers up and took it with his own parachute. I seem to remember seeing him dumping both into one of the Land Rovers. Then she got in, and they drove away.”
“All the skydiving equipment used that day needs to be examined. The moment we finish here, Sergeant, I expect you to find out exactly where Ms. Stuart and Mr. McNamara’s parachutes are.”
Clearly taken aback at Carol’s whiplash tone, Huffner gave a reluctant nod. “Right away.”
“What was your impression of McNamara?” asked Bourke, his voice a good-cop contrast to Carol’s brusque manner.
Clearly relieved to be off the subject of missing parachutes, Huffner said confidingly, “McNamara struck me as one of those no-panic, icy-control guys, know what I mean? He was the one who phoned the accident in. Just gave the location and what had happened. No ‘Oh, my God’ stuff or anything like it. It was the same when I spoke to him in person—cool as a cucumber.”
“And he told you…?”
“Not much. He’d been out of the plane first, did a free fall for half a minute or so, pulled his ripcord, and floated down, right on schedule. Then he looked up and saw someone’s chute hadn’t opened. A few moments later, Ryce hit. Instant death, of course. Then the other jumper, the woman, made it to the ground.”
“He didn’t mention any mid-air collision between the skydivers, or anything unusual?” Carol asked.
“He didn’t mention anything, not that I had much time to question him,” said Huffner. “About then the ambulance arrived, followed by the local APF guy. I left them to it. Got the witnesses out of the way and wrote down their particulars.”
Since late yesterday afternoon, Carol had been on a crash course as far as the ins and out of skydiving were concerned, and had already found that the Australian Parachute Federation was the governing body of the sport. She’d spoken on the phone to Randall Schumacher of the APF, and been informed that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority set regulations for parachute jumping. He’d advised her to go online to the official APF site to get some overview of skydiving in Australia.
The regulations covered criteria for the type and standard of equipment. This included a requirement that all reserve parachutes must be inspected and repacked every six months by an APF licensed packer or rigger.
“I’d like to speak with the APF person who examined Ryce’s gear,” she said.
“If you like. He won’t have anything to add.”
“And we will need to interview any of the witnesses who have stayed in the area.”
“Yeah, okay.” Huffner was restive, glancing at his watch and then looking longingly in the direction of his vehicle.
“We’re keeping you from something, Sergeant?” asked Carol.
“Look, Inspector, I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment. We’re not overstaffed here in Hash’s Creek, you know. Have to make do with what we’ve got. And we’re not accustomed to outside help.”
Which meant, Carol thought, Huffner considered the city cops to have an easier time of it, and he resented Carol and Bourke walking in and taking over.
“You didn’t take written statements from any of the witnesses?” asked Bourke.
“I reckon that’s where you come in.” His expression was full of injured defiance. “I made notes. Extensive notes. It was obvious to me most of them were too thrown by what had happened to be in any state to give a formal statement. Besides, the bloody media had got wind of the accident. While I was getting everyone’s contact particulars, Constable Whistler, my second in command, called to say the station phone was ringing off the hook and reporters had started turning up asking questions.”
Carol was accustomed to the sharks of the media scenting blood and precipitating a news frenzy. “Who alerted them?”
“Not me.” Huffier gave a disgusted grunt. “They were here fast as flies to rotting meat. Whistler had hardly got off the phone when a couple of helicopters appeared heading this way. Knowing it was only a matter of time until bloody reporters arrived at the scene, I told everyone to get the hell out of it. I’d contact them later.”
“Have you made any statement to the media?”
“Me? I’m just a country cop. I know when to keep my mouth shut.” His expression of umbrage deepened. “We’re not stupid here in the country, you know. It was obvious strings were going to be pulled and the head office would take over.”
“And you got us,” Bourke observed cheerfully.
“Yeah,” said Huffner without enthusiasm. “I got you two.”
Hash’s Creek was a three-hour drive from Sydney, but to Carol it seemed to be far more remote. On the map, the town’s location had been indicated by an insignificant black dot in the wilderness, entirely bypassed by the red ribbons of major roads.
Late that morning, when she and Bourke had driven into Hash’s Creek, the dot had turned out to be a small, undistinguished town with two pubs and three churches. The wide main street had angle parking on both sides, providing many more available spaces than seemed necessary for the sparse Sunday traffic. There was a rundown general store, a sad little restaurant obviously in desperate need of renovation, a rainbow-painted fish-and-chips shop, and a tiny garage with three petrol pumps seemingly ancient enough to be antiques.
Although the two Hash’s Creek pubs looked very much alike, being two-storied wooden buildings with wide verandas on both floors, edged by carved wooden balustrades, the one in which Carol and Bourke were staying—imaginatively called the Hash’s Creek Hotel—sported a plaque claiming the building was subject to a preservation order because of its historic worth.
They had registered, dumped the sparse luggage each had brought in their rooms, then gone in search of the local police station, where they were to meet the officer in charge, Sergeant Huffner. The station was situated at the rear of Hash’s Creek’s rather grandiose red-brick town hall, which had an elaborate facade and an ornate clock tower. The time indicated was frozen at twelve sharp, which made it accurate twice a day, at midnight and midday.
The New South Wales Police Service divided the country areas of the state into districts. Although Sergeant Huffner and his subordinate, Constable Whistler, answered to the district authorities, in practice they were relatively autonomous, and would be expected to handle most crime problems without outside assistance.
Milton Ryce’s death had been a very definite exception to the rule. Even though it was the weekend, in Sydney the news on Saturday that the businessman’s demise might not have come about by sheer bad luck had caused an immediate flurry of activity in political and social circles. Carol had been called in to the Commissioner’s office from a cricket match where she’d been watching her son play for his school team. She found herself dispatched to Hash’s Creek with instructions from the Commissioner to “get to the bottom of it, as quickly and neatly as you can.”
It seemed obvious to her that some individuals in high places had skeletons they’d rather not have see the light of day. Carol had asked the obvious questions, hoping to gain insights that might help her inquiries, but had harvested a crop of generalizations and assurances she had been chosen to lead the investigation because of her skills in handling the media and her record of bringing high-profile cases to satisfactory conclusions.
Starting their Sunday morning drive to Hash’s Creek, she and Mark Bourke had laughed over this last laudatory comment. “A satisfactory conclusion,” said Bourke, “means any political damage is contained and the ravenous media hordes are deflected onto something else.”
“You’re becoming deeply cynical,” said Carol with mock disapproval. “Where’s the sunny, clear-eyed cop I used to know?”
“Thinking of going for promotion. You’ve inspired me.”
Delighted, she said, “Mark, that’s wonderful. You know I’ll do anything I can to help.”
“By the way, Anne’s working hard on making sergeant.”
In her mind’s eye, Carol could see Anne Newsome’s animated, intelligent face. Somewhat of a protégé of Carol’s, the young constable was one of the most promising young officers Carol had encountered during her career. “That’s good news. Anne’s got the potential to go a long way.”
“Did you know she belongs to a skydiving club?”
“Anne does? She’s never mentioned it.”
“She was telling me about it last week. You know how sporty she is? This is one of her new enthusiasms.” Bourke grinned over at Carol. “May have something to do with her latest boyfriend. He’s into skydiving in a big way.”
They had chatted on about the office politics for a while, then fallen silent. With Bourke driving, Carol could sit back and enjoy the scenery. Years of drought had parched the land, but it still had a stubborn, tenacious beauty. Brown grass filled the paddocks. The gray-green of eucalyptus gums crowded the hills. Occasional slashes of green indicated the paths of streams. The blue arch of sky went on and on into infinity.
Carol was flooded with an unaccustomed serenity, a mood that was abruptly broken by Bourke saying, “Leota’s left, hasn’t she?”
“Yes. Last week.”
He glanced over at her. “Regrets?”
She kept her eyes on the road unwinding before them. “Not a topic for discussion.”
When she looked across at him, his blunt-featured face was closed, blank. She felt a stab of contrition. He was more to her than just a colleague. And he’d asked as a friend, not out of idle curiosity. He and Pat, his wife, had met Leota several times. Bourke had got on well with the FBI agent, trading stories about life in their respective law enforcement trenches.
Although never discussed between them, Carol knew he’d realized the depth of her feelings for Leota Woolfe. When Leota, on assignment to Australia as an expert on counter-terrorism, had told Carol she was to be recalled to the States, she’d asked Carol to go with her.
Carol had felt agonizingly pulled two ways: on one side her country and her career, on the other Leota and all the warmth and love she brought to their growing relationship. It was a struggle to make a decision. Carol wasn’t altogether sure her choice not to go was irrevocable. Leota’s last words to her still rang in Carol’s ears: “Honey, it isn’t over. Don’t ever think it is.”
For the rest of the trip, the easeful atmosphere had evaporated. She and Bourke spoke little, and finally, as they reached the signpost indicating Hash’s Creek was only a kilometer away, she’d said, “Mark, I’m sorry. It’s too soon for me to talk about it. I hope you understand.”
“I shouldn’t have intruded.”
“It’s not that. I haven’t really discussed Leota with Aunt Sarah, and she’s a lot more persistent than you will ever be.”
Bourke had grinned. “Too true. You’d be the only one I can think of who could resist your aunt. She’d put the KGB to shame.”
* * *