by Claire McNab
Detective Inspector Carol Ashton is back physically recovered from a gunshot wound, but emotionally shaken. She’s feeling the pressure of being out as a lesbian and constantly putting her life on the line. Can she do it again?
Sixth in the Carol Ashton Series.
Originally published by Naiad Press 1994.
|Publication Date||October 15, 1994|
|Editor||Katherine V. Forrest|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
The mail room was humming with conversation as letters were opened and consigned to baskets according to category: standard reply; non-standard reply; requiring Marla Strickland’s personal attention; requests for appearances; donations; financial records and accounts; hate mail.
“Hey, Esther, those are great stamps. Save them for my kid, will you?”
Esther Duncan sighed with irritation as she tried to open the heavily sealed padded envelope. Finally she grabbed a pair of scissors and cut across one end.
There was a flash of light and a flat clap of raw sound. Then the smell of smoke and burned flesh.
Marla Strickland came striding out of her office.
“What the hell…?” She stopped, appalled.
Somebody whimpered. The woman kneeling beside the sprawled body looked up, blanched with shock. “She’s dead. Esther’s dead.”
Marla had a confused thought that Esther Duncan was now better off dead than alive—the explosion had blown away most of her face.
Detective Inspector Carol Ashton slid carefully out of the chair and moved to look out of the window. How odd to be in the Commissioner’s office dressed informally in jeans and a shirt. She suppressed a wince as the now familiar pain flared deep in her right side.
The buildings of the city of Sydney glowed in the clear summer light and the water of the harbor behind them was so blue it looked painted. “I don’t want to do it,” she said. She changed focus, seeing her face reflected in the glass—hollow-cheeked, straight blonde hair much shorter than her customary style. As soon as she’d gotten out of the hospital she’d had it cut.
The Commissioner’s sleek leather chair creaked under his weight as he leaned back. “I know you’re not fully fit to return to active duty…”
“It’s not that.” She turned to face him. “I want to get back to work as soon as possible.”
“So what’s your problem? Marla Strickland or the role of bodyguard?”
Carol surveyed the hulking man who had been her mentor for much of her career. “Both.”
His expression remained implacable. “That’s too bad, Carol. You’re the one.”
She threw her hands up impatiently. “Why isn’t it ASIO’s baby? The letter bomb was posted from Australia, so it’s a matter of international terrorism, isn’t it? As far as I’m concerned, Australian security can have it.” She thought wryly that it was ironic to find herself assigning any job to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization—it was more usual that both state and federal police fought ASIO over areas of responsibility.
“ASIO is involved. And the FBI, not to mention the CIA. It’s a political decision to appoint you to protect the woman.” He sighed irritably. “Look, Carol, I’m not happy about it either. I pointed out that any bodyguard with a high media profile like yours is hamstrung from the word go, but that didn’t cut any ice.”
“Hasn’t Marla Strickland got her own security?”
He flicked open the embossed folder on his desk. “Her head office in Connecticut supplied more information than I ever intended to know. And because of the quantity of mail threats she gets, there’s plenty of background stuff from the FBI as well. Apparently when she tours in the States she hires armed guards at every venue. Her speech last March when she announced that God hated women stirred up so much controversy that she was forced to screen audiences with metal detectors. But as far as her organization’s concerned, she’s only got one security officer—who doubles as Strickland’s assistant—and no personal bodyguard.”
He watched as Carol left the window to return to her chair. “It may not be much consolation, but Marla Strickland is fighting your appointment as much as you are.” He smiled cynically. “However, we can’t afford to have America’s—if not the world’s—most famous feminist killed or injured while in Australia. Apart from anything else, it might put a dent in tourism.”
“There’s any number of perfectly adequate security officers—”
“This isn’t a matter for argument, Carol. I’m telling you, not asking you. Strickland flies in on Wednesday, and I expect you to meet her.” He raised a hand before Carol could respond. “I know the international airport is Federal Police jurisdiction. You’re there for PR, nothing else.”
She frowned at his tone. “And if I refuse?”
He heaved his bulk out of the leather chair. “Are you considering promotion? Chief Inspector Carol Ashton sounds good to me.”
She gave an incredulous laugh. “If the stick doesn’t work on me, you’ll try the carrot?”
He looked at her gravely. “Carol, I have pressure too. I told you it’s a political decision to appoint you. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know the answer. I’ve suggested other people; I’ve said you’re not fully fit…” He shrugged his heavy shoulders. “It seems you’re the one.”
Her obvious disgust earned a slight smile. “There are plenty of people who’d do a great deal to even meet the famous Marla Strickland.”
“I’m not one of them,” said Carol.
* * *
Detective Sergeant Mark Bourke was delighted to see her. His homely, comfortable face split with a grin, he opened the door of her office and took from her arms the pile of files the Commissioner had given her. “Welcome back, Carol!”
“I’m not exactly back.”
He made a face. “So the rumor you’re to be bodyguard to a star is true?”
Bourke ran a hand over his short brown hair which had recently begun to recede at the temples. “I heard it was Marla Strickland, feminist extraordinaire.”
She felt tired and depressed. “Rumor, unfortunately, is right.”
He looked as disgusted as she felt. “And all because some loony in Australia airmailed her a letter bomb.”
“She certainly makes a lot of enemies, although what she’s done to annoy someone in Tasmania I don’t know.”
“Pat thinks Strickland’s okay because she’s presiding at an opening of an exhibition of Australian women artists at her Art Gallery.” Bourke hadn’t been married long, and his voice softened when he mentioned his wife’s name. “Maybe she’ll be a sweetheart in person.”
“From all accounts I doubt it.” She cleared a corner for him to put down the armful of dossiers concerning the feminist’s tour. “Look, Mark, the Commissioner told me it’s a political decision to appoint me official bodyguard, but it was obvious he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell me any more than that. Do me a favor—ask around. You’ve got contacts in the most amazing places. I’d like to know why I’ve been landed with this job, considering it needs a specialist in the area of martial arts and personal protection, and I’m not one.”
“Okay, but it’ll take a while…if I can get anything at all.”
She sighed at the sight of her desk covered with reports and memos. The in-tray was overflowing. Somehow she’d thought that Bourke would achieve the same neatness with her work as both his person and his own desk always showed. She looked at him accusingly. “I thought you were looking after the paperwork for me.”
“I have been. You should have seen it before I got to work. The only stuff left is for your personal attention.” He laughed at her expression. “Well, each memo says urgent at the top…”
As she slumped into her well-worn chair, his expression changed to one of concern. “Carol, are you all right?”
His jaw tightened. “If I’d been quicker—”
“It wouldn’t have made any difference.”
It had seemed a simple arrest of a nineteen-year-old boy who had lost his temper and fatally struck his father with a tire iron, then tried to set it up as a burglary gone wrong. Carol wouldn’t have been there, except that she’d felt sorry for the kid. She’d imagined her own son, now eleven, as a troubled teenager like the wide-eyed young man who’d cried during his interview, then reddened with embarrassment at the raw emotion he’d showed. With no eyewitnesses and awaiting confirmatory forensic evidence, they’d let him go back to his shattered mother, who had no idea her son might be a suspect in her husband’s death.
That warm spring day in early September, when Mark Bourke had put his head into her office to say the father’s blood splatters on the son’s clothes tied him to the murder, Carol, entirely on impulse, decided to go with Bourke for the arrest. There’d been no suggestion that the suspect would present any danger, no warning that he’d stolen a friend’s hunting rifle. Carol and Bourke had parked in front of the modest house, walked up the path, their weapons holstered, presenting no obvious threat—other than perhaps a revealing grimness of expression.
The scene was still vivid in Carol’s imagination: the bedraggled hydrangea bushes lining the path, the tired plants in plastic pots on the veranda, the front door that needed a coat of paint. The sound of the door chime—an incongruous deep-toned carillon. The mother opening the door, the son behind in the hallway screaming for her to get out of the way, the gleam of light on metal…
Mark Bourke lunging forward, the flash from the barrel seeming to be simultaneous with the jolt of the bullet as it struck. And the disbelief flooding Carol as she fell, all her mobility and strength blown away in a splinter of time.
The physical pain of being shot had been wrenching, but the ache over Sybil had been worse. At least, Carol thought caustically, Sybil had waited until she had nearly recovered from her injury before announcing that she was taking a course in women’s studies in London that would mean she would be away from Australia for a year.
Carol could recall the smell of breakfast toast in the kitchen, the raucous cry of a cockatoo in a eucalyptus gum tree overhanging the deck outside, the sunlight slanting through the glass doors to turn Sybil’s red hair to flame. “I know this will sound trite,” Sybil had said, “but I’m not willing to put everything into our relationship when you just coast along ignoring any problems. We never talk, you won’t give anything of yourself, concede any need. We aren’t going anywhere, Carol—or anywhere I want to go.”
Furious, Carol had snapped, “I love you. Isn’t that enough?”
Sybil shook her head slowly. “No. It isn’t. It was once. Not anymore.”
“I won’t beg.”
Sybil had smiled, even though her hazel eyes were brimming. “I never thought you would.”
Resentful anger had thickened Carol’s voice. “Your timing is wonderful, darling. I imagine I should be grateful you waited until I was out of the hospital.”
“Carol, even when you were wounded you didn’t need me. You closed yourself off and pretended you hadn’t nearly died. You’re the dearest person on earth to me, but I just can’t live with you. Not the way it is now.” She paused. “Maybe things will change when we’re apart and have a different perspective.”
Carol’s bitterness was acid on her tongue. “Leaving your options open, are you? Don’t count on me to still be here if you change your mind.”
Sybil’s expression had been unreadable. “I won’t.”
Bourke’s voice broke into her thoughts. “Carol?” She looked up to meet his concerned gaze. “You shouldn’t be here. You’re not well enough yet.”
Her flat tone didn’t dissuade him. “You can’t be on call twenty-four hours a day, especially when you’re touring with Strickland. You’re not up to it.”
She took a deep breath. There was no reason to be angry with Mark. Besides being a valuable colleague with whom she’d worked for years, he was a personal friend who’d totally supported her when she’d come out of the closet, her reluctant admission that she was a lesbian having been forced on her by a blackmail attempt during a high-profile case. “Don’t worry, Mark, I’m not a masochist. The Commissioner’s agreed to let me take Anne Newsome with me as back-up.”
He frowned. “Anne’s working with me at the moment and we’ve got quite a caseload.”
Carol felt both irritated and guilty. She knew the extra load Mark had carried during her absence, and now she was taking someone from him. None of this showed in her cool voice. “I’m sorry, Mark, but that’s the way it is.”
His frown vanished as he touched her lightly on the shoulder. “Great to have you back, even if you are just passing through.”
She stretched her arms above her head, ignoring for a moment the pain that stabbed her side. “You won’t be so cheerful when I tell you that anything on my desk I can’t deal with today goes right back to you.”
His smile disappeared. “Bloody hell!”
“Heavens,” said Detective Anne Newsome, her voice almost drowned by the sustained rumble of excited conversations.
Surveying the crush of mainly female supporters of Marla Strickland, Carol smiled at her companion’s mild exclamation. On this, a weekday mid-afternoon, the arrival area of Sydney International Airport was crammed with a crowd that overflowed into the roadway, swamping the usual people who had come to meet friends and relatives. Though most of the crowd seemed to be Marla Strickland enthusiasts, through the cacophony the thin voices of a small group of Family First followers could be faintly heard chanting anti-feminist slogans. Both the media and Federal police moved forward when MARLA STRICKLAND KILLS BABIES was torn from Family First hands and trampled by a couple of furious Strickland supporters.
“Detective Inspector Ashton?” Tall, fair-haired, a smile crinkling his vivid blue eyes, the man reached inside his rather crumpled gray suit to flash his identification as a Federal Police officer. When Carol moved to return the gesture he grinned. “No need. Since you’re on television every second day I know what you look like.” He looked at Anne. “Detective Newsome? I’m Sid Safer—and don’t bother to make any cracks about my name.”
Anne Newsome smiled up at him. “Want to see my identification?”
“Nah. Her say-so’s as good as gold.” His nod indicated Carol. “Come on, you two. You’re late. Plane’s been down for half an hour and Marla Strickland’s putting on a performance.”
He led them through a series of security doors, each guarded by an officer. “If it was up to me, I’d be inclined to let them do her in,” he said good-humoredly as he ushered them through a final door.
Carol could hear an American voice raised in ire. “I don’t give a goddamn shit about security! Those women out there have waited for hours to see me!”
Sid Safer nodded to a fellow officer on the door and neatly inserted Carol, Ann and himself into the celebrity lounge. A slight young man with a wispy mustache who’d been leaning in the doorway, arms folded, moved out of the way. From briefing papers Carol recognized him as the feminist’s stepson, Gary Hawkins. Apart from him, Marla Strickland was traveling with only two other staff, Pam Boyle, a PR liaison, and Strickland’s principal assistant, Beverly Diaz.
“Ms. Strickland, you’ll be pleased to meet your own personal bodyguard.” Safer’s voice resonated with hearty irony. “This is Detective Inspector Carol Ashton.”
The woman who swung around was familiar from her photographs—shoulder-length dark hair, a thin, intelligent face with patrician bone structure, finely arched eyebrows, a wide mouth—but there was a vitality that no flat picture could catch. Dressed in a beautifully cut navy blue suit with a frothy white blouse, she looked very feminine, and very tough. When she spoke, her voice had a taut certainty. “I’ve been told all about you, Inspector, but I don’t want, or need, a bodyguard.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
Marla Strickland’s grin was ferocious. “Then why are you here?”
“I had an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Carol’s eyes narrowed at the woman’s imperious tone. “Detective Anne Newsome. She’s back-up as I can’t be awake twenty-four hours a day.”
“No? They tell me you’re superhuman, Inspector.”
“They may. I won’t.”
Marla looked at the young detective critically. “She’s very young.”
Anne Newsome amused Carol by saying calmly, “I’ve been fully trained in anti-terrorism and I’m an excellent shot. I hope that reassures you, Ms. Strickland.”
“I’ve been told Australia’s very safe—no handguns, right? So I don’t need any reassurance. I’m not in any danger.”
An Airport Security officer with a sharp Dick Tracy profile interposed, “I was just explaining to Ms. Strickland that for safety reasons she couldn’t leave the airport by way of the front entrance…” He looked hopefully at Carol, obviously banking on her support. “We have a car waiting on the tarmac to take her to another exit.”
“And I, Inspector, was explaining how I can’t ignore anyone who’s come to meet me, whether they’re for or against me.”
Carol was conscious that Sid Safer was grinning in the background. She wiped the smile off his face by saying, “Then we’ll move your transport to the front of the terminal. It’ll take a short time to get everyone into position—say twenty minutes—and then we’ll leave.”
Her announcement seemed to upset the young man who’d been holding up the wall smoothing his embryonic mustache. He straightened with a grunt, and left the room.
The American didn’t seem pleased either. “Just like that? Aren’t you worried about my safety?”
“Of course, but I presume you won’t change your mind—”
“You’ve got that right!” Marla Strickland appraised the understated elegance of Carol’s gray suit. “You don’t look like a dyke.”
Carol smiled briefly. “Neither do you.”
That brought the woman’s chin up. “I’m married, Inspector.”
“So was I.”
An extremely tall woman with an undisciplined mane of frizzy brown hair slipped through the door, trying, Carol thought, to look as unobtrusive as possible but only making herself stand out all the more. “Marla? There are protesters waiting. You shouldn’t insist—”
“Pam, this is Detective Inspector Ashton. She doesn’t mind if I go out the front way. Inspector, this is Pam Boyle.”
Pam Boyle’s height seemed to embarrass her. She ducked her head and averted her gaze. This stiff, awkward woman, Carol knew, was a direct marketing expert who’d been poached from a multi-national company to work at promoting Marla Strickland. Carol shook hands, although Pam Boyle snatched hers back as quickly as possible. “Ms. Boyle? May I introduce my colleague, Detective Anne Newsome.”
The tall woman darted a glance at Anne. “But there’s only supposed to be one bodyguard…”
“Inspector Ashton needs her rest, Pam. She’s just recovered from a gunshot wound.” Marla smiled triumphantly at Carol. “I researched everyone in detail.”
“Then perhaps you have some idea who wants to kill you.”
A snort of derision. “Plenty of people think about killing me—but as for doing it…” She shrugged elaborately. “That letter bomb wasn’t meant for me personally. It was sent by some inadequate Australian male who couldn’t get it up and wanted to make an explosive statement instead.”
“A member of your staff died,” said Carol coldly, “and the device could have taken out others if they’d been closer, including you.”
Marla Strickland stared soberly at Carol, then gestured irritably at herself. “I’m putting up with the discomfort of a bullet-proof vest now, if that’s any consolation.”
“It isn’t if they go for a head shot,” said Carol. She eyed the woman’s trim figure. “And judging from the lack of bulk it must be a lightweight vest, so you won’t have full protection from a high-velocity bullet.”
“Then as my bodyguard I presume you’ll be prepared to throw yourself in front of me,” Marla Strickland said tartly.
“Your best bet is to drop to the floor. If I tell you to, do it. Don’t stop to ask questions.”
In the arrival hall the numbers of spectators had been swelled by yet another television crew, which was trolling the crowd for useful sound bites. Sid Safer nodded to Carol. “Everyone’s in position, but you know in a situation like this we haven’t got much control.”
Carol checked out the setup. Federal officers stood with their backs to the door through which Marla Strickland would enter the hall, ready to form a wedge to force a way through the crowd. Others were stationed throughout the hall, alert for any hostile act. “Maybe someone will put us out of a job,” said Carol with a slight smile.
Safer’s amused reply was drowned by a roar from the crowd as Marla Strickland appeared. She raised her arms in her characteristic clenched-hands gesture. Her abrasive voice rose above the hubbub: “A great hello to a great country!” Another roar of approval.
“Oh, please!” said Anne close to Carol’s ear. “I’ve seen her on television often enough…She says that everywhere she goes.” She added, “It works every time.”
Surrounded by security, with Carol close behind her, Marla Strickland was hustled through the press to the first of two stretch limousines—the second was for her staff. Protected from eager eyes by the heavily tinted glass, she sank back into the black leather seats with a sigh, her face flushed. She turned to Carol beside her in the back seat. “This is going to be a wonderful tour—I feel it already! Tell me about Family First. I liked the way they were screaming at me. It’s the contrast…it makes everything better.”
Sid Safer and Anne Newsome, seated across from them in the backward-facing limousine seats, exchanged glances. Safer stretched out his long legs. “Your staff was given briefing papers on any group or organization that might oppose your tour. Haven’t you read them?”
Marla Strickland’s displeasure was clear. “I don’t have time to read every bureaucratic memo.” Frowning, she glanced at the back of the driver’s head. “And I particularly asked that women be assigned to my entourage.”
“Come on,” said Safer, “you’ve got a male on your staff.”
“Gary is my stepson,” Marla snapped. “He handles the transport logistics.”
Safer spread his hands. “Well, that’s all right, then.”
Frowning at his mocking tone, she said, “Isn’t there a woman at your rank available?”
Safer grinned. “Probably, but I don’t imagine anyone in the Feds took your suggestion seriously.” He glanced at Carol. “The State cops seem to have taken you more to heart, or you wouldn’t have Inspector Ashton.”
“Ms. Strickland’s objecting to me, too,” said Carol mildly.
Safer’s smile widened. “There’s no pleasing some people.”
The American’s mouth gave an irritated twitch, but otherwise she chose to ignore his comment. Turning to Carol she said, “I suppose Family First is a right-wing fundamentalist group? I noticed anti-abortion placards.”
“I’m sure they’d prefer the term pro-life.” Carol added, “Family First is heavily into traditional values.”
“Traditional values?” Marla sneered. “You mean patriarchy gone mad, where women are where men want them—the bedroom or the kitchen—silenced and isolated. And the mere wave of the Bible to justify it.”
“Lunatic fringe,” said Safer. It wasn’t clear whether he was referring to Family First or Marla Strickland. “But it’s a free country.”
His comment was not well received. “Free? Australia’s defamation laws are off the wall! I’m told I can’t directly name the men and organizations who keep women down, because if I do I’ll be slapped with a libel suit!”
“You sure can’t carry on the way you usually do.” When she glared at Safer, he put up his hands. “I always read my briefing papers and watch my briefing videotapes. I’m very familiar with your modus operandi.”
His sardonic tone didn’t have the effect Carol expected. Marla Strickland’s face relaxed into a smile that was unexpectedly charming. Carol couldn’t remember a photograph where she’d looked so pleasant. Marla said, “You remind me a little of my husband.”
Safer looked astonished. “I do?”
“He’s not as attractive as you are—but he can be just as opinionated.”
While Safer digested this, Anne Newsome said, “Does your husband ever come on tours with you?”
“Roy can’t spare the time. He’s a pediatrician with an extremely busy practice.”
The glass window separating the driver from the passengers slid down. “We’re at the back entrance of the hotel. Cleever’s here.”
Safer stretched forward to open the door. “I can hardly wait…”
Before he could touch the handle the door was opened by a woman with severely cut honey-blonde hair. Wearing jeans, a loose pink top and sneakers, she bent down to look into the limo. “Ms. Strickland, Inspector Ashton, Detective Newsome…” Her long mouth curled in a slight smile. “And Safer.”
As Safer clambered out of the car, Marla Strickland said to Carol, “Who’s she?”
Carol had spent several hours of briefing sessions with the agent. “Denise Cleever. She’s with ASIO.”
“That’s the same as our CIA, isn’t it?”
“Yes. ASIO looks after Australia’s internal security. They’re involved because the letter bomb sent to your office originated in Australia.”
Marla stepped out of the vehicle. Above her towered the angled glass walls of the hotel. Hands on hips, she planted herself in front of Denise Cleever. “Haven’t you been told? My company, Strickland Enterprises, has a contract with a private security firm. You won’t be needed.”
“We’ve checked out your security company, Ms. Strickland—”
“That’s already been done from the States! The firm’s entirely reputable. I’ve spoken to its principal, Cynthia Huntling, myself.”
“I agree. Huntling Security itself checks out. We were interested in individual employees.”
“Waste of time. I presume you found nothing.”
Denise Cleever nodded agreeably. “Nothing.”
“And they’re in place?”
“Two Huntling Security guards are waiting for you in the penthouse suite.”
“Then I see no reason for you to be here.” Marla gestured towards Carol. “As you see, I have Inspector Ashton with me as a personal bodyguard.”
The agent’s expression was impassive. “My orders are to stay with you until further notice.”
Safer put out his hand. “But for the meantime, I can say goodbye, Ms. Strickland.”
She ignored his hand, gestured peremptorily at the small gaggle of her staff that had emerged from the second limo and then strode off towards the back entrance of the luxury hotel.
“Well, Carol,” said Denise Cleever with a grin, “that sure is one charming lady.”
* * *