by Maggie Brown
Mac Griffith is used to risk and digging up dirty secrets in dangerous places, and this time it’s her twin that’s gone missing. Rachel Anderson wants no help from a war-shocked journalist—what police detective ever needs an amateur tagging along, especially a damnably attractive one?
But Brisbane is under siege and a serial killer’s body count is rising. With the clock ticking, no lead is too slim. Rachel needs Mac’s help, and there’s no chance Mac won’t take. Neither of them means for it to go as far as it does…
From the author of the sizzling, breathless I Can’t Dance Alone.
GCLS Goldie Awards
Mackenzie's Beat — Finalist, Lesbian Mystery/Thriller.
A fast-paced, well-done detective story. It is exciting and interesting—a classic page-turner that could easily keep you up all night. The plot uses established crime-drama ploys to keep the story moving along, from the gradual piecing together of clues to the detective herself being threatened—and it accomplishes this very well. The main characters are well-drawn, powerful, independent women and they have a wide-ranging, and at times, amusing supporting cast...
As soon as Mackenzie Griffith stepped from the plane into the Brisbane airport terminal, she knew she was home.
The special, laid-back, “I don’t give a hoot” feeling oozing from the city felt safe and welcome. Overcome with nostalgia, she could nearly smell the meat pies, mangoes and salty tang of surf spray. The terminal was busy; she didn’t like bustling airports. Too many people congregated in one spot made easy targets. Mac quashed down the familiar wave of paranoia as she manoeuvred through the crowd to join the line through customs. She stretched her lean body to ease cramped muscles as she went. It had been a long flight from Afghanistan.
Excitement raced through her when her passport was finally cleared. Soon she’d see Dana. She passed through the top level of the terminal and found the escalator down to the baggage collection area; passengers from her flight clustered around the carousel. Out of habit, she hung back against the wall with her hands in the pockets of her cargo pants. Most of her fellow travellers looked like she felt, jet-lagged as hell. She ran her hand idly through her blond hair, distracted by the latest boarding announcement on the airport intercom. Off to her right, she noticed a woman, her hand curled into a fist at her side as her eyes wandered round the room. She was studying each face at length before moving on. Mac gazed at her in awe—she could have graced the cover of any fashion magazine, with her high cheekbones, full lips and black hair coiling in waves over her shoulders. Mac’s jaw clenched as a jolt of arousal ran down her body. The feeling was totally unexpected and something she hadn’t felt for a very long time. A bulky man stood next to the woman. She’d seen enough like him in the last ten years: his stance, his no-nonsense, rubber face, and his boxy jacket all screamed cop. From the way the woman nodded when he leaned over to whisper in the her ear, no doubt she was a cop, too. She had that air of authority.
Cops! Warning bells pealed in her ears, even as Mac tried to nonchalantly blend in with the paint. Don’t bring attention to yourself. But she couldn’t stop her eyes roving over the female cop’s curvaceous body. The policewoman was about five-ten, breasts subtly defined by the white shirt tucked into the form-fitting, dark slacks, long legs, great ass—a hell of a sexy package.
Mac tried to shake off her suddenly awakened libido. The last thing she needed was to be noticed. In the world of journalism, Mac had learned to keep a low profile. Not a good idea to commit the cardinal sin and make yourself the subject of your own story. She willed herself to look away, though it was already too late. She raised her eyes from the swell of the cop’s breasts to find the woman’s eyes boring into hers.
Crap! Mac’s pulse quickened as goose bumps flushed across her skin. She’d been caught ogling. The woman shook her head, and unsmilingly turned to her partner. Mac ducked her head and moved off the wall to tug her bag off the carousel. Then she pivoted to head for the exit door, thankful to be out of the limelight, yet left with an unexpected and empty feeling.
Even at eight in the morning it was tropical outside, the air heavy with moisture. A hot humid blast hit like a soft slap as Mac headed for the taxi rank. She’d get used to it soon enough—the initial change of climate always came as a shock. The last two wintery months in Afghanistan had averaged minus eleven, the bitter cold penetrating her bones until they ached. The flight home seemed to take forever and she didn’t sleep well in planes. Waiting at airports for connecting flights, though, was worse. Marathon lines through customs, as well as only catching snippets of sleep on hard airport seats never did much for her temper. This time, the hectic overnight stay in Bangkok hadn’t given her a chance to catch up and she was completely washed out. All she wanted was to get to bed, though there was little hope of that for a while. Dana’s lecture was at eleven, giving her only enough time to get to the hotel to freshen up with a cup of coffee.
“Where to, ma’am?” Though the cabbie had an Australian voice, he looked foreign. His parents had probably come from somewhere in Eastern Europe, maybe Slovakia, Mac thought. Being able to pigeonhole nationalities was her specialty.
“The Chifley Lennons, thanks.”
“A couple of months.”
The driver eyed her in the mirror. “The government’s spent a fortune on all these new roads and overpasses.”
Mac grunted. “Yeah.”
“Lived in Brisbane, did you?”
“When I was younger.” She didn’t elaborate. Necessity and fear had taught her to keep her business to herself. A few queries later, the taxi driver, catching her mood, lapsed into silence.
They sped along the broad avenue from the airport before wading into the sea of traffic. For some distance the street followed the Brisbane River, where boats floated on water dulled solemn by the rain and a ferry churned across to the suburbs beyond. Further along, it twisted to face the inner-city skyline, a cluster of skyscrapers in the distance. Nearer in to the city centre, the taxi hit the congested morning traffic and slowed to a crawl.
Fifteen minutes later, the cab pulled under the hotel portico and the driver popped the boot at the entrance. Mac walked to the reception desk, thankful she’d had the foresight to arrange an early check-in. Her room was on the fifth floor—the usual up-market hotel accommodation, with a queen-sized bed, neat furnishings and a large colourful painting on the wall. The room smelt of scented soap and was clean as a whistle, and somewhere down the passageway she could hear the rattle of crockery. For all its trappings, she knew how lonely a hotel room could be. She’d spent most of her life in them, though few had been quite this elegant.
Dana would be surprised to see her. Mac couldn’t wait to see her twin’s face. She pulled on black slacks and a green top and touched up her makeup in the bathroom mirror. Her face looked gaunt, eyes streaked like a road map and the scar down her cheek appeared angry. Damn it, she looked forty-five, not thirty-five. She plugged the in-room jug into the wall and found the coffee. She heaped in two teaspoons, needing the extra boost of caffeine before the walk to the auditorium.
Mac thought about her sister and the last time they’d spent any real time together. In Sydney, they’d shared a flat in an old terraced house with French windows, a Victorian fireplace and a front yard enclosed by a cast-iron lace fence. In their neighbourhood, the city’s wine bars, coffee shops, dance clubs and galleries sizzled and hummed with energy and there was plenty to do without much money. Most weekends they would go to the beach or take a ferry across the harbour. Mac’s work and craving for adventure eventually sent her to London; she left Dana behind with her more sober professional preoccupations.
A maid’s trolley rumbled in the corridor. Mac looked at her watch. Ten thirty, it’s nearly time—I’d better hurry. She hurried down the street and joined the line of pedestrians crossing the Victoria Bridge to Southbank. The sun broke through and shot shafts of light over the brown water as ragged clouds streamed away in the wind. Little bursts of peppering drops persisted, and forced her to pull her coat collar up around her ears and tuck her hands in her pockets. Across the bridge, the library, art galleries and museum towered along the street like a conglomeration of concrete building blocks.
At the Convention Centre of the same blunt architectural design, Mac climbed the stairs to the lobby, weaving through clusters of people to the reception desk. The pharmaceutical conference was on the Mezzanine Level in the speaker’s presentation centre, and it was just eleven when she entered. After the usher handed her a program, she took a seat at the end of the third back row.
The room was three-quarters full. A dumpy man, all hair and glasses, stood at the podium, and an overhead projector crowded the shining white space behind him with chemical symbols. Dana was nowhere in sight. Mac listened for a while, but it was all foreign language to her, so at the first lull in the proceedings she went outside to speak to one of the conference organizers.
“Wasn’t Dr. Dana Griffith supposed to be giving the talk at eleven?”
The man answered, polite but neutral. “For some reason she didn’t turn up. Better contact the company about it yourself.”
Mac swallowed, pinching her lips in disappointment. Missing Dana was anticlimactic to her trip, though there was nothing to be done now. Better get back to the hotel and get some sleep before she fell down. She’d give her sister a ring after some much needed shuteye.
* * *
Detective Rachel Anderson gave her head an irritable toss. Looking for some damn drug mule at the airport wasn’t how she wanted to spend the day. The police had plenty on their plates with a killer roaming the streets. Having to nab some stupid kid who hadn’t the brains to know that trafficking drugs in Asian countries carried the death penalty was a waste of their precious time, but the station was short-staffed. She studied the trafficker’s photo in her hand and then swept her eyes round the terminal. He shouldn’t be hard to find.
Her partner, Martin Platt, leaned over and whispered, “See him yet?”
She shook her head and continued to scan. Her eyes suddenly fixed on a woman leaning against the wall, staring at her. Rachel stiffened. The damn woman was blatantly appraising her body in a sexual way. She was a nearly as tall as Rachel, slim, tanned and fit-looking, with shortish, wheat-coloured curls. When their eyes met, the woman flushed, though didn’t look away. She would have been pretty, except her face was marred by a scar that ran down her left cheek. Rachel glared her disapproval. The woman abruptly darted forward to retrieve her bag and hurried out the door.
Her partner pulled at her arm. “There he is,” Martin growled.
As they strode forward to snap on the cuffs, the youth gave a half-hearted attempt to run, only to be blocked by Martin’s huge body. Rachel sighed with relief. It was time to get back to more pressing matters. As they drove past the taxi rank, their captive sullen and silent in the backseat, she noted the woman from the baggage area, waiting. Her face was lined with fatigue; the scar on her cheek gave her an interestingly rakish air. Rachel was intrigued. Something about her stirred something that she hadn’t felt for a very long time.
Mac woke at seven thirty, disoriented, her body clock objecting to the darkness outside. It should be morning. Through the glass doors to the balcony, the lights of the Mall twinkled; now that the rain was finished, the night air was pleasant. She put on the jug, resorting, as usual, to coffee to keep her awake. She dialled Dana’s number and the answering machine came on. Even though her sister’s voice was clearly a recording, Mac still received a buzz to hear it. When there was no luck from her iPhone, she left a message telling Dana she was in town and would ring again soon.
Dana still didn’t answer her phone the following morning. Mac cursed—her surprise visit was falling flat. The only option left was to contact Dana’s workplace. The receptionist at the Wurtzinger Laboratories put her through to their PR officer, Aaron Crichton.
“Yes,” said Crichton. “Dana was booked as a speaker at the conference yesterday, however she was called away.”
“Could you tell me when she’ll be back?”
There was a slight hesitation at the end of the line. When the reply came the tone was more reserved. “It’s not our policy to give out personal details of our employees.”
“But I’m her sister, Mac, and I’ve come a long way to see her.”
“I’m sorry, Mac, she didn’t turn up for work on Monday. We’re waiting for her to contact us. Give us a call in a few days. We should have heard from her by then.”
Crap! It was no use hanging around Brisbane if Dana wasn’t at home. But as she thought more about it, worry began to nag at the back of her mind. Dana had been so excited about her lecture. Why didn’t she turn up to give it? Something really important must have come up for her to have missed it. It couldn’t hurt to drive by Dana’s house and have a look, thought Mac.
Mac wriggled her frame to get more room in the rented Mazda as she drove out of the city to the freeway. When she nudged the accelerator, the small engine complained as the car gathered speed. The congested traffic slackened off as she entered the suburbs, and the landscape became more open and the streets tree-lined. At the Sandgate exit, she turned off and drove until she reached the street circled on her map. Dana’s brick house sat behind a wrought-iron fence in a side street with a cul-de-sac at the end.
Mac parked the car and exited her vehicle. In front of Dana’s house she pushed open the front gate. A tiled patio spread along the front of the house, and two earthenware pots filled with flowering petunias sat on either side of the front door. When there was no answer to her knock, Mac circled round the back to find the barred windows closed tight as a drum and the door locked. She looked in the garage. Cardboard boxes were stacked across the back wall, along with a hockey stick, an old jack and a worn-out tyre. A stain of grease spread like a dirty inkblot at the entrance of the cement floor. Dana’s Subaru was sitting inside.
What to do next? It was senseless to come all the way out without investigating; a look inside the house wouldn’t do any harm. Mac found Dana’s spare key hidden under the potted plant, turned the lock and pushed open the front door.
The living room had the stamp of a woman: matching curtains and cushions set the décor, family photos hung on walls and the scent of perfume lingered in the air. Mac searched from room to room. A laptop sat on the desk, and Mac hesitated in front of it. Dana’s emails might show when she was last at home. She chewed her lip—should she or shouldn’t she? Was the situation desperate enough to invade Dana’s privacy? Hell, if she didn’t, she’d be kicking herself if something were really wrong. At least it was a positive step.
Taking the plunge, Mac settled down in front of the laptop and powered it up. At the password prompt, she flexed her fingers, and hoped her sister still kept the same password they’d shared. They’d worked one out together to forge a tangible link with each other, a reminder of their bond from birth. When she typed in “twins” the desktop blinked on. She guided the cursor arrow to the Windows Live Mail site, and felt relieved when emails flashed onto the screen. The last message in the outbox was work-related. It had been sent at nine o’clock Sunday night. Mac drummed her fingers on the top of the desk. So Dana had been home the previous night. That was odd. The car was still in the garage, so where the hell was she? Of course, Mac knew Dana sometimes took the train to work, but the lab hadn’t seen her.
Mac went back to the living room and took a photo from the top of the cabinet. It looked a recent shot, taken on a beach somewhere. In it, Dana smiled, eyes squinting in the sunlight, her blond hair blowing in the wind. Mac pocketed the snapshot, locked the house, replaced the key and went back to the car. She’d ask the woman at the hotel to print out a few copies of the photograph. They might be handy to have.