by Claire McNab
Two celebrated writers combine to offer the electrifying conclusion to a legendary mystery series…
Detective Inspector Carol Ashton’s promotion to Chief Inspector has immediately ensnared her in two assignments that hold no warning they will forever change her life.
She’s inherited the pressurized case of the high-profile death of media star and wealthy philanthropist Greta Denby, who had been undergoing a controversial experimental treatment for her cancer. Carol is now also taking on the case of the investigating officer Inspector Ian Rooke, who has himself just died under baffling circumstances—a demise made more mysterious by the inexplicable shoddiness of his investigation into Greta’s death.
In this final chapter, Carol must confront an increasingly dire future and the most formidable challenge of all—her fundamental belief in her career, and in herself.
Seventeenth in the Carol Ashton Series.
GCLS Goldie Awards
Lethal Care — Winner, Mystery / Thriller.
Read our Interview with Claire McNab on working with Katherine V. Forrest and the return of Carol Ashton
The Lesbian Review
I must applaud Claire McNab and Katherine V. Forrest for joining forces to create this fast paced and riveting literary masterpiece. The beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape made me yearn to see all of these places as soon as possible. I am also very pleased to say that I enjoyed reading about the complex and vibrant characters in this story because I was able to form a detailed picture of each character in my mind and that’s always a huge plus for me. There are so many things that I could say about this story but I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I will tell you this—there is absolutely no way you would be able to read this story without going through the gamut of emotions. Danger and suspicion surround Carol in all areas of her life and she still holds on to her sanity despite everything that threatens to break her. Once you begin to read this awesome story, you would not want to stop reading until you get to the last page because you’ll be taken on a very captivating and intriguing journey with Chief Inspector Carol Ashton.
Lambda Literary Review
The story is riveting throughout. The plot and subplots are filled with delightful misdirection. While those pesky red fish keep circling, we’re presented with a long list of suspects couched in multiple, overlapping concerns.
Although this is the final book in the series, the story stands alone, with just enough detail into the past to keep a new reader engaged. From beginning to end, the story moves rapidly, introducing us to a host of suspects and interesting characters, taking us on a bumpy ride and bringing this tale, and the series, to a satisfying conclusion.
Lesbian Reading Room
As usual the crime drama is excellent, well thought through and plotted, complex enough to keep the attention and like a good Agatha Christie, literally anyone could have done it, although we didn’t meet a butler.
As you would expect it is excellently written and edited, it is warm and fuzzy with the feeling of returning to old friends, resolving long held questions and tying up a myriad of loose ends. The Carol Ashton books, along with Forrest’s Delafied series, were the cornerstone of my lesbian reading in the late 80’s and 90’s. Between them they created the genre of the lesbian cop/procedural/crime series and I for one will always shower them with respect for being the ground breakers of lesbian fiction that they are.
You ask: why is the name Katherine V. Forrest on this book? When Claire McNab, all by herself, is the internationally published author of the Carol Ashton and Kylie Kendall mystery series, the Denise Cleever espionage series, numerous romantic novels, an assortment of plays and short stories—forty or so books all told. When, under the name Claire Carmichael, she has written even more books: she is one of Australia’s well known children’s writers. Many of you won’t know that in her spare time she taught an advanced fiction class for two decades at UCLA Extension, an instructor so celebrated that she was named Teacher of the Year and given the Distinguished Instructor Award by that huge institution.
So why am I a co-writer on this book?
That answer first took shape in 2008 when Claire received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. A diagnosis she dealt with in her usual fashion, continuing her writing and teaching careers undeterred. Until Parkinson’s began to increase its grip in 2012 as she began work on what would be the final book in her most celebrated series. Today Claire is no less brilliant, no less accomplished, funny, and determined than she ever was, but the cruelty of this disease no longer allows her physical body to obey the commands of her brain.
During my years at the legendary Naiad Press, I was Claire’s editor on Lessons in Murder, the first Carol Ashton mystery in a series that would go on to form part of the foundation of our lesbian genre literature. I’ve edited a number of Claire’s books in the years since, and saw about 35,000 words of Lethal Care shortly after she began work on it. But nothing had come in since, and I assumed she was too involved in her career at UCLA and other writing projects.
I didn’t catch up with Claire again until a rush visit to her in the intensive care unit at UCLA Medical Center in late July 2016. In critical condition, she required emergency surgery due to complications of Parkinson’s. She came through that surgery but still another surgical procedure followed, and after that, many months in a rehabilitation facility. It is a tribute to Claire’s heart and soul and will that she is even with us today. It was during this time that she agreed that I would work with her to complete the final book in the series most meaningful to her. I am happy to report that she is home today with her Sheila, and has continued daily involvement in the writing of this book.
The seventeen Carol Ashton books not only form the centerpiece of Claire’s writing career, they encompass three decades of Claire’s life as she gave us her highly entertaining and popular stories, her vivid images of the remarkable topography of Australia and life and death Down Under, all mixed into her ingenious plots.
It has been a privilege and an honor to work so closely with the remarkable woman who is Claire McNab on this final book in her equally remarkable and most beloved series.
Katherine V. Forrest
Palm Springs, CA
“Madeline,” said Chief Inspector Carol Ashton, rising from her chair. “This is an unexpected pleasure.”
Madeline Shipley sank gracefully into a chair opposite Carol’s desk. “I took a chance you’d be available this early in the morning.”
Carol resumed her seat, nodding to the awestruck young officer who’d escorted her uninvited guest to her office. When he finally closed the door on his unblinking stare, she said, “What is it I can do for you?”
“You’re looking good, Carol.” She added with a silky smile, “Of course, I say that as one who has a weakness for cool and classy blondes.”
Carol looked at her with frank appreciation. The passing of the years had treated her well. “And you, Madeline, are your usual sensational self.”
Slim as always, with shiny copper hair and deep gray eyes, Madeline was well aware of the impact she made and skillfully deployed her magnetic charm. An aqua classic silk dress enhanced her figure with such effect that it seemed to gather all the light in the room. She smiled easily at Carol’s gentle mockery.
Carol looked down at her functional navy blue suit tailored to conceal the weapon she wore. She was amused to see Madeline giving the government-issue furnishings a critical once-over, her glance lingering on the photo on the credenza.
“David’s grown into quite the handsome young man,” she noted approvingly. “But then,” she said, surveying Carol, “why wouldn’t he…”
“He’s driving through Europe with his father at the moment,” Carol said, her gaze settling affectionately on the photo of her joyous son taken in his graduation gown.
Nodding, Madeline continued her survey of the office, and from her expression she was unimpressed. “Your promotion to Chief Inspector has brought about a slight improvement in the standard of décor,” she observed, “but the ambience is hardly welcoming.”
Carol grinned. “You’re expecting ambience at police headquarters? Good luck. There’s nothing anywhere here that even approaches the luxury of the waiting rooms in your offices.”
“I admit the network looks after me rather well.”
The television network had every reason to do so. Madeline was one of Australia’s most successful media personalities, the combination of her glossy beauty and formidable interviewing skills ensuring enviable ratings for her current affairs program, The Shipley Report. Even changes in format and time slots over the years had had minimal effect on its popularity, and she was now entrenched in prime time on Sunday evenings.
Carol checked her watch. She had a meeting in an hour. He was a stickler for punctuality. “Madeline, I don’t like to hurry you, but…”
Madeline leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs with casual grace, and Carol was taken aback to feel a feather touch of awakening desire. It seemed eons since they were lovers; their lives had diverged and they hadn’t spoken for some time.
“How’s Sybil?” Madeline asked.
She wasn’t surprised at the question, but even so, it irritated her. “You’ve dropped in expressly to inquire after Sybil’s health?”
“It was more a status report I was after. Are you back together again?”
Carol pushed back from her desk. “I’ve a meeting in a few minutes—”
Madeline put up her hands. “Peace, Carol. The subject’s closed. I’ll tell you why I’m here. Have you been watching Motives for Murder, the Report’s current in-depth series?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Madeline’s frown was a mild rebuke. “That’s a pity. We’ve scored excellent ratings with jealousy, personal gain, and revenge.”
“In my line of work I’m more than familiar with the reasons people murder each other.”
Madeline chuckled. “No doubt. But we’re about to cover a topic I’m sure will be of particular interest to you.”
On guard, Carol said neutrally, “And that would be…”
“Mercy killing. Did you know that euthanasia is Greek for ‘easy death’?”
“I did,” Carol said.
Madeline beamed at her. “Good-looking and smart. No wonder I adore you.” When Carol didn’t respond, she went on, “I’ve heard on the grapevine that you’re taking over the Greta Denby case. Because of Inspector Rooke’s sudden death.”
An echo of the shock she’d felt at hearing of Rooke’s death rolling through her, Carol was silent for a moment to gather herself. There was no point in asking where Madeline had obtained information about the Denby case reassignment ahead of the official announcement, so Carol conceded, “The grapevine is correct.”
“This one, Carol, is going to be quite a challenge, even for you.”
“I admit the media is no help.” She added with a dry smile, “With the exception of you, of course.”
The media frenzy over Greta Denby’s demise had been predictable. Greta, a gracious, beautiful woman with an effervescent personality, and her husband, finance magnate Harland Denby, had been luminaries for years in Sydney’s social and cultural circles as well as generous benefactors to select charities. The Denbys’ son and daughter were also tracked by the press, though for less admirable reasons—their escapades and brushes with the law. After Harland’s sudden and fatal heart attack, Greta had dropped out of sight for months. When she returned to the public eye, the celebrity media had seized on her once again and dubbed her The Merry Widow, noting that her escorts to the various events and fundraisers were unfailingly handsome and often appeared younger than Greta’s adult son.
Ovarian cancer struck; and the socialite’s considerable fortune funded expensive, experimental, and well-publicized treatments developed by the controversial Dr. Eduardo Valdez. After an extended stay at his Swiss clinic, Greta Denby, accompanied by the doctor, had returned to Sydney. With her cancer in remission, she had begun to attend social functions again, along with assisting Valdez in his accreditation process in Australia and introducing him to influential people who might be interested in supporting his proposal to open his first Australian clinic.
Then Greta Denby had been found dead. Eduardo Valdez had been vindicated in his adamant refusal to sign a death certificate and his insistence on an autopsy. When the cause of death had been revealed to be an excessive dose of Nembutal, the inquest had been adjourned pending further investigation. The nonstop gossip and innuendo that followed was fueled by speculation about inheritance-based conflict in the Denby family and rumors that despite Dr. Valdez’s claims of imminent recovery by his patient, Greta Denby’s cancer had returned to ravage her body. Although the media was careful to skirt Australia’s strict defamation laws, there seemed to be a general consensus of speculation that someone close to the suffering Greta Denby had helped her die. This was the morass Ian Rooke had been assigned to investigate.
“I must admit a few of my colleagues did rather embellish Inspector Rooke’s fatal accident,” Madeline said.
“Embellish?” Carol said scornfully. “Is that what you call the journalistic invention of an entirely fictitious ‘Denby Curse’?”
“What can I say?” Madeline lifted her shoulders in an elegant shrug. “Although I agree Wally Marston went too far when he claimed it was the Denby Curse that sent Inspector Rooke’s car over that cliff, he was only reacting to the public’s intense interest in anything to do with the Denby family.”
“Oh, please! He was a fine, decent family man who didn’t—”
“I’m sorry, Carol,” said Madeline, suddenly serious. “In my profession it’s all too easy to forget that what we cheerfully label an interesting story is to others a personal tragedy. Inspector Rooke’s death was surely a devastating blow to his wife and two young children, and a shock to everyone who worked with him.”
“It was a shock,” said Carol, mollified, thinking again of the stunned disbelief all around her that had greeted the news.
She felt a singular connection with Inspector Ian Rooke. His career had paralleled her own rise through the ranks and although they’d never been close, they’d had a friendly rivalry over who would be first to take the next step up the promotion ladder. A very private man, Rooke had had a low-key manner attractively combined with a sly wit.
She knew only the surface facts: Around nine at night, driving to his home in the northern outskirts of Sydney, he’d failed to negotiate a hairpin bend in a hazardous stretch of road running through the wilderness of Galston Gorge. His decade-old Land Rover had smashed through the guardrail and plunged over a sheer cliff into the depths of a bushland ravine.
The first responder to reach the vehicle found Rooke’s dead body penetrated by the shaft of the steering wheel. The mangled wreck had to be winched back up to the top before he could be extracted. No other vehicle appeared to be involved, nor were there any skid marks to indicate he’d braked suddenly to avoid hitting an obstacle on the road.
“Had Rooke been drinking?” Madeline inquired. “Or taking any medications?”
“I don’t believe the lab results are back yet.”
Madeline raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. “Really? I find that hard to believe. Here he is, the cop handling a sensational high society case that has rumors flying around town about how and why Greta Denby died. And suddenly he’s dead himself. Surely that alone would put the lab results at the top of the list. And now, I gather, there are unanswered questions not only about the manner of his death, but also about the way he was conducting the investigation.”
She chose to ignore the remark about Rooke’s investigation and did not bother to enlighten Madeline that lab results took a minimum of two weeks no matter who you were, even longer depending on the width of the fishing net. She smiled and borrowed the metaphor: “It seems to me you’re on a fishing expedition, Madeline.”
“Not at all. I’m simply asking you to confirm information I’ve received.”
“From your usual reliable sources?”
“As matter of fact, yes. For example, I’m reliably informed that Inspector Rooke had already decided that Greta’s death was a mercy killing.”
Carol flinched, and immediately wondered if Madeline had seen it. Years, she’d had years to get over her knee-jerk response to the stirring of memory the term evoked, but it still caused a visceral reaction. Aware that Madeline was studying her through narrowing eyes, Carol said dismissively, “Inspector Rooke had only been on the case for a few days. There was no way he would have gathered sufficient evidence to come to a definitive conclusion.”
Madeline’s expression, quizzical, skeptical, prompted her to add too forcefully, “The Denby death could be suicide. We’re still putting facts together.”
Carol was immediately sorry she’d made this comment. A large part of Madeline’s success as an interviewer was her ability to read the subtle changes in voice and body language that indicated her questions were getting too close to home. Although there was no indication that Madeline had sensed anything, Carol added lightly, “Of course, to have it be suicide could be wishful thinking on my part.”
“It has to be one of four possibilities—accident, murder, suicide, or mercy killing. Are there any others?”
“Apparently so,” said Carol, smiling at Madeline. “Concerned citizens are reporting any number of speculations about what really happened. One popular theory has the pharmaceutical companies hiring a hit man to protect their cancer drugs from competition. Several amateur sleuths are convinced she was murdered by an enraged husband and father who lost his wife and children to the The Greta Denby Safe Haven for those fleeing domestic violence. And then, there are the psychics—”
“Psychics!” Madeline threw her hands up. “Just the mention of the occult gives me a headache. You would not believe it, Carol. I’ve had a parade of clairvoyants, spiritualists, mystics, telepaths, mediums, you name it—every last one claiming to know the real truth about Greta’s death. They’re utterly unfazed by penalties for slander and defamation, they freely share their supernatural visions and name names. The most popular candidate for dispatching Greta to a better place? Thalia Denby.”
Madeline shrugged. “You’re looking for logic here?”
Greta’s daughter, whose wild teenage years had filled countless gossip columns, was now in her late twenties. It was Carol’s impression that recently she had settled down and was involved in running her mother’s charitable foundation. Perhaps at her mother’s insistence, Carol thought. The newspaper coverage showed her always in the company of her mother. Shortly before Greta Denby’s death, Carol had admired a TV ad featuring her efforts to establish satellite Safe Haven shelters in communities where domestic violence was widespread. Throughout her career Carol had seen the brutalized bodies of women and children, victims of a ferocious male anger—an anger that seemed ever present in so many women’s lives—and she felt a personal regret over Greta Denby’s death whatever its cause.
Madeline said, “You haven’t met Thalia Denby yet, have you? Photos don’t do her justice. In person, she’s a knockout.”
“I’ve barely had time to read the case notes. Now, Madeline, if you don’t mind…”
“We’re expanding our segment, ‘Murder or Mercy,’ to cover the Denby mystery in depth. I’ll be doing daily bulletins reporting on the progress of the investigation.”
Carol could feel her shoulders tensing. She picked up her gold pen and rolled it between her palms. “There’s a real chance you’ll be making much ado about nothing.”
Madeline shook her head. “I’m putting my money on what I would call compassionate murder.”
“Gut feeling.” She leaned forward to say persuasively, “Carol, I need your help. I’m looking for a fresh slant. I’ll attribute anything you give me to the usual reliable police sources so you’ll be fully protected.”
She had to laugh at Madeline’s audacity. “A fresh slant? So that’s why you’re here? You can’t be serious.”
“I’m very serious.”
Emphasizing each word with a sharp tap of her pen on the desk, Carol said, “No. No. And no.”
“For old times’ sake?”
“Give it up, Madeline!”
“How about substantial donations to your favorite charity?” She added with a sly smile, “Of course, the charity could be you.”
“Are you aware I could arrest you for attempting to bribe a police officer?”
Madeline’s laugh was her trademark, low and husky. “I was joking. Surely you realize that.”
A knock on the door cut off what would have been an acid response. Carol was relieved to see Mark Bourke’s pleasant, blunt-featured face. “Come in, Mark. Madeline’s just leaving. Madeline, I’m sure you remember Inspector Mark Bourke?”
The pinstriped suit on his tall, well-built body matched in elegance Madeline’s dress. He loomed over her slender figure and offered, “Nice to see you again, Ms. Shipley. It’s been awhile.”
“Madeline, please!” She bestowed on Bourke a thousand-watt smile. “Just the man I wanted to see. I believe your wife knows the Denby family well, and had been advising Greta on what to do with the Denby art collection.”
It was not news to Carol that Pat James, Bourke’s artist wife, had a link to the Denbys. As required, Bourke had reported a possible conflict of interest when he’d been assigned to the case. She remarked wryly, “I’ll say this for you, Madeline, you never miss an angle.”
“I try not to.” Madeline returned her attention to Bourke. “I’m rather hoping your wife will be willing to talk to me about the Denbys. I’m simply after the human interest perspective.”
He showed his discomfort by shifting his feet and running a hand over his stubble-cut hair. “Sorry, but under the circumstances, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Unfazed, Madeline went on, “I know you’re involved in the case, but I promise you I’m only looking for general background material. Certainly nothing that would impinge on the investigation.”
When he shook his head, Madeline said, “Let’s leave it for Pat to decide, shall we?” With one lithe movement, she was on her feet. She barely came to Bourke’s shoulder.
“I wouldn’t get my hopes up, if I were you,” he told her pleasantly.
She flashed Bourke her charming smile. “I’m always hopeful, but I’m a realist too.”
To Carol she said, “Since I’m here, I wonder if I might see Anne Newsome just for a few moments.”
Anne Newsome, newly promoted to Sergeant Newsome, had been assisting Ian Rooke, so it was very clear to Carol why Madeline was keen to speak with her. “Not available, I’m afraid.”
“Another time, perhaps.”
“I’ll see you out,” Bourke said firmly.
Madeline looked up at him, her lips curled in a half smile. “You don’t trust me to find my own way?”
As Bourke held the door open for her, Madeline turned back to say, “Carol, we must have dinner sometime. Yes? We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
Carol sighed as the door closed behind Madeline Shipley. Just one more complication to add to an ever growing list.
She rarely felt overwhelmed, but sensed it building now. Her entire life seemed to be a pyramid of concerns, professional and personal. The Denby case, along with awakening long-repressed memories, was already proving to be a challenge at many levels, not least of which was Commissioner Hindley’s close interest in the investigation. There was Sybil—her feelings for Sybil, Sybil’s feelings for her. The growing regret over the impulsive promise to sell her beautiful cliff-top home and buy a house jointly with Sybil somewhere else on the northern beaches peninsula. And there was Aunt Sarah. The woman whose support and advice and honesty she most valued, the one person she fully trusted to explore with her a multitude of conflicts and confusions, was haring off to South America just when Carol needed her most. She owed it to Aunt Sarah to remain silent, to see her onto her aircraft with a mind clear of Carol’s anxieties and eager for her own adventures.
Leaning back in her chair, Carol absently twisted the black opal ring she always wore. She glanced around at the utilitarian furnishings Madeline had disparaged. They were simply window dressing—nothing more. And as for her exalted career, how was this promotion anything to be all that proud of? Success had bred success, as it had for officials around her, many of whom displayed a level of competence below any standard of hers.
If the concerns in her pyramid were amorphous, the one forming the base was distinct: bedeviling doubts about her career. It was her career that had created the minefield that lay between her and Sybil. Her career that had led her to this new position where she reported directly to the Commissioner. And the plague of weariness at the mere prospect of performing the delicate political dance necessary to protect subordinates from the judgments of a man she neither trusted nor respected, much less implement procedures in keeping with policing a diverse city. She felt a melancholy yearning for the familiarity of the job that was moving beyond her fingertips; she already sensed a new formality, a developing distance from colleagues with whom she’d worked in easy comradeship. Yes, she would have more control over their activities and the pleasure of being able to open to them wider opportunities. But in some ways she would have less control, and she wondered how she could manage to prevent her itching hands from landing on her squad’s murder cases.
Except for this last one, which lay fully in her hands. The Denby case with its collateral tragedy of Detective Inspector Ian Rooke being inexplicably, troublingly dead. It was her brief to step with caution in finding out what Ian Rooke had done or not done and why. Inextricably woven into it was the death of Greta Denby, the case that may have taken some mysterious toll on Rooke.
No one in her life—not Aunt Sarah, not Sybil, certainly not her son—had any inkling of the deeply personal toll the Denby case might wreak on her as well.
Bourke came back into Carol’s office shaking his head in reluctant admiration. “Madeline Shipley’s a piece of work.”
Carol nodded. “Compared to the media in general, Madeline’s methods are positively refined.”
“Too true,” he said, grimacing. “At this moment I wouldn’t want to be anyone associated with the Denbys. Right now, they’re fair game.”
“And so are we. All the time,” said Carol, thinking how radically the content and presentation of news had changed over the years, the explosive growth of the Internet creating voracious demand for sensational stories and lurid details whether true or not. Now that anyone could find out almost anything about anybody and spread distortion and disinformation, it was increasingly difficult to distinguish between truth and fiction.
Folding his long body into the chair Madeline Shipley had recently vacated, Bourke said, “Ready for Clive?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Although they had ample time, she didn’t want to run any risk of being late for their appointment with the new Commissioner of Police.
“What did you make of Ian’s notes on the case?” Bourke asked. “I’ve only had time to skim through them, but anyone would gain the impression he was a bit out of his depth. And that’s nothing like the Ian Rooke I knew.”
“Pressure can get to anyone,” Carol said in a neutral tone, “and in a high-profile case like this and early days, Ian was getting it from all sides.”
Bourke put his hands behind his head and stretched out his legs. “Particularly from our newly minted head of police. Greta Denby’s death is the first big case on Hindley’s watch. He’ll be expecting us to tie it up in a neat parcel he can tuck under his arm as he steps into the media limelight.”
“Poetic,” said Carol in mock admiration.
“My intention exactly,” Bourke replied with a grin.
She began to double-check the papers in her briefcase. The Commissioner had already established a reputation for abruptly demanding to see any documentation associated with the case at hand. She glanced over at Bourke, envying the way he seemed able to relax at will.
Bourke yawned. “Didn’t get to bed until late because Pat and I had quite an argument about this case. She’s all for assisted suicide and I’m not. Pat expects someone will be there to help when she needs that final exit. ‘Don’t look at me,’ I told her. ‘You’re on your own.’ She didn’t take it well.”
“Knowing her, I imagine Pat didn’t,” Carol said, hoping that Bourke wouldn’t ask her own opinion.
“It’s the thin edge of the wedge,” Bourke went on. “One day it’s assisted suicide, next it’s mercy killing without the consent of the victim. It’s a fine line. What do you think, Carol?”
Wanting to close the door on the topic, she stated definitively, “The law’s clear. It’s our job to arrest any person who assists another to die, or who decides to kill out of misplaced compassion.”
“Yes, but what’s your personal opinion?”
“I don’t have one. Can we drop the subject?”
Bourke immediately got to his feet. “Subject dropped.”
“Sorry, Mark,” she told him. “It’s just that Madeline’s got to me. She’s convinced Greta Denby’s death was a mercy killing and she’s planning to use her program to hammer the idea.”
Bourke accepted her lie with a wry grin, offering in return: “You could say she’s going to beat mercy killing to death.”
* * *
As they approached Commissioner Hindley’s office suite, Bourke pointed out that because of Carol’s concern about being late, they were now fully ten minutes early. “Makes us look like eager beavers,” he said. “Not an impression it’s strategic to make.”
“You’re early,” echoed the commissioner’s personal assistant, a young man with a pinched, angular face and a peremptory manner. “He’s got someone with him. You’ll have to wait.” He indicated an arrangement of plump black lounge chairs around a white marble coffee table. “Take a seat. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
Critically examining one of the chairs, then surrendering to its leather embrace, Bourke remarked, “Not bad. Did I tell you Pat has her heart set on a beige leather couch and chairs? I’m not keen, but Pat’s mother is, and I’ve learned to never contradict my mother-in-law.”
“Wise,” said Carol absently; she was organizing her thoughts for the meeting.
“She can’t make it tonight.”
Now she paid attention. Pat was hosting a small, celebratory dinner to mark Carol’s elevation to Chief Inspector and Mark Bourke’s pending promotion to Inspector. “Sorry to hear it.”
“Speaking of relatives, I saw Aunt Sarah and her Eco-Crones on the early news this morning.”
“As you know, she’s heading for the wilds of the Amazon Basin,” Carol said glumly. “The delegation leaves next week. Aunt Sarah’s confident she can bring home even more ecological onsite evidence to conclusively prove the link between rainforest destruction and global warming.”
“Good luck with that in this political climate,” Bourke commented.
Carol groaned. “I have a vision of myself trying to spring her from some fetid South American jail.”
“I noticed she was introduced as Sarah, president of the Eco-Crones. She’s now a one-name celebrity, like Beyoncé or Oprah.”
Carol’s response was a rueful, admiring headshake. The Eco-Crones, an activist environmental group of older women, had become internationally known for fearlessly challenging the environmental policies and actions of powerful individuals, huge corporations, and governments of countries large and small. Under Aunt Sarah’s enthusiastic leadership, and employing her previous experience in the theatrical world, the Eco-Crones had expanded their use of flamboyant street theater. Featuring elaborate costumes and dramatic dialogue, the extraordinary tableaus and mini-plays they staged at demonstrations never failed to generate wide publicity, particularly on the Internet where videos of their colorful exploits tended to go viral.
“The news had clips of Aunt Sarah’s street theater performances,” Bourke said. “They showed my favorite, the golf course demo. Remember?”
“My aunt wearing huge yellow wings and performing a butterfly poisoned by toxic run-off from the fairways? Hard to forget,” Carol said, smiling as she visualized her aunt’s long-time-dying routine. “Just when everyone thought Aunt Sarah had fluttered her last flutter, she’d start up her dying routine all over again.”
“Nice to see my officers can find something to laugh about,” said the commissioner, ushering an impeccably groomed man in a pearl-gray suit out of his office. Carol recognized him: Simon Sykes.
With a practiced smile, Sykes murmured, “Chief Inspector Ashton, my warm congratulations on your promotion.”
“Let’s dispense with the pleasantries, I’ve got a full schedule,” ordered the commissioner, cutting them off mid-greeting and impatiently beckoning Carol and Bourke into his office. His harsh, disagreeable voice delivered words in a strangled tone as if they were being squeezed through his larynx.
As he slid into his desk chair, Carol looked at him in distaste. Clive Hindley was a humorless, intolerant, tenaciously single-minded individual, with a pugnacious bulldog face and a square, heavy body. His graying hair was clipped short, not in an attempt to disguise approaching baldness but to enhance his spare, no-nonsense demeanor. She disliked him comprehensively. He served to reinforce her continuing misgivings about accepting her new rank as Chief Inspector. She grudgingly had to admit that for good or ill he was effective, a consummate political animal in the use of power, keenly aware of favors owed and reprisals to be meted out. He had proved to be a formidable enemy and, to those who had ceased to be of use, an unreliable friend.
Once they were seated, he said, “Hot potato, the Denby case. Got your work cut out for you. That’s why I’m bringing in Sykes to coordinate PR.”
Carol managed not to show her instant dismay. She’d worked with Simon Sykes before, when he’d headed the media unit of the then commissioner. His deferential manner was a false front over his arrogance, intrusiveness, and tin ear for the nuances of police work. When Sykes left to form his own public relations company, she had been pleased to see him go.
Bourke, who shared her opinion of the man, said, “Is it really necessary to bring in someone from outside?”
The commissioner’s expression darkened. “You should know that the Premier is taking a personal interest in this case. Greta Denby was a close friend.” If Commissioner Hindley was new to the top job, he was far from unfamiliar with his obligations to those who had put him there. He had established a network of influential backers, and the support of the state’s premier had been a key element in his success. Strings were obviously being pulled in the Denby case. Carol resigned herself to this new reality.
“So that’s settled. Sykes handles PR. Newsome can join Upton and Oatland on your team, since she’s already familiar with the case. Not that she’ll have much to contribute—Rooke had hardly got started.”
At these staff assignments, Carol’s mood elevated slightly. “I have copies of Inspector Rooke’s preliminary interviews, as well as his notes,” she said, indicating her briefcase.
“No time. Unless he’s got anything on Eduardo Valdez?” He added with a sneer, “Calls himself Dr. Ed, did you know? Jesus Christ!”
“All I could find was a notation that Dr. Valdez had expressed concern about the confiscation of his cancer medications.”
The Commissioner gave a derisive snort. “Valdez has been doing a song and dance about safeguarding his precious secret formula. Rooke told me the responding officers found him removing items from the bathroom. He put on a real show when he was forced to put them back exactly as he found them. Threat of arrest for compromising the scene of a police investigation was the only thing that shut him up.”
Carol said, “I have details of the prescription drugs Greta Denby was taking, but I don’t yet have an analysis of Dr. Valdez’s specific medications.”
“That’s because Valdez was threatening legal action about proprietary rights. An injunction, no less. His lawyer talked some sense into him, and he dropped the whole idea but there was a delay. I’ll see you get a copy, but it’s no surprise. The doctor’s precious, life-saving formula contains vitamins, minerals, herbs, and some concoction he orders from New Zealand.”
“Not a miracle cure, then?” said Bourke, raising his hands in mock despair.
Hindley gave Bourke a sour smile. “Con artist, like the rest of them with these too-good-to-be-true cures. Handsome, foreign accent, white coat, swears he has the magic formula—he makes millions from deluded, desperate people, no sweat.”
“But he is certified to legally practice in Australia,” Carol pointed out.
“Damn shame,” Hindley rumbled. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk, his suit jacket straining across his meaty shoulders. “Well, Chief Inspector, you’re taking over someone else’s very high profile case. That’s no picnic. What’s your schedule?”
“To begin with, I’ve arranged to see Thalia and Kenneth Denby at their home this afternoon.”
The commissioner gave an exasperated grunt. “It’s a bloody nuisance, Rooke getting himself killed and muddying up a major investigation.”
Resenting this callous remark, Carol observed, “I don’t imagine he did it deliberately to irritate you.”
Bourke looked over at her, obviously startled by Carol’s tone. The commissioner, however, seemed amused by her comment. “Don’t imagine the poor bastard did.”
His chair creaked as he shifted his weight to reach for a folder. “The media can’t get enough of the Denby case. Last thing I want is to give those baying hounds anything to run with.” Shoving the folder across the desk to Carol, he said, “That’s why we’re releasing only selected details of Rooke’s p.m.”
As Carol glanced at the contents of the post mortem, he went on, “Preliminary. But you’ll see there’s nothing out of the ordinary in the blood work so far. Rooke hadn’t been drinking and no drugs, legal or otherwise. One odd thing—the report shows a recent needle puncture in his right thigh even though he was in excellent health. The wife wasn’t much help. Vague about whether he’d seen a doctor recently and couldn’t think of any reason why he’d have an injection.”
“I can’t imagine Ian Rooke using anything illegal,” Bourke stated. “Maybe a painkiller? I know Ian lifted weights.”
“I’m expecting answers from you, not questions,” the commissioner snapped. “It’ll take another goddamn bloody week before we get the detailed analysis of Rooke’s body fluids.”
He jabbed a forefinger repeatedly at them both. “In the interim, I expect you to personally make sure this particular loose end is well and truly tied. Interview his wife again—maybe her memory’s improved—and anyone else close to Rooke. We’ve gone over what’s left of Rooke’s vehicle—nothing wrong with the brakes or steering but it’s worth a second look. You check through everything in that car. A wad of chewing gum, a used Kleenex—every bloody thing. If you uncover even a hint that something’s not kosher, get back to me immediately.”
Carol said mischievously, “Madeline Shipley was in my office this morning with queries about Inspector Rooke’s death.”
As she anticipated, the commissioner’s face reddened with anger. “That bloody woman! Nothing but trouble. You don’t need the distraction. Leave her to Sykes.”
Carol could scarcely blame him for his animosity. When the Premier had released the short list of candidates for Police Commissioner, Madeline had been scathing about Clive Hindley’s inclusion. In the Report she had questioned his qualifications and his suitability to be the state’s top cop. Since his appointment, Madeline had continued to snipe at his performance, and had made clear that she would second guess every step and detail any missteps he made.
“Until we know definitively, Sykes will be feeding the media the official line,” said the commissioner. “Inspector Rooke was a dedicated cop working long hours who simply fell asleep at the wheel.” With a grim smile, he added, “And that’s probably the truth of it.”
Carol couldn’t help taking a smidgen of pleasure in being the bearer of more bad news for Sykes to handle. “There’s more. The Shipley Report will be doing an in-depth feature over several days portraying Greta Denby’s death as a mercy killing.”
“Jesus!” The commissioner slapped his thick hand on the desk. “And if we don’t come up with the same conclusion, Shipley will blame it on police incompetence or a cover-up. That’s all we need—one of the bloody woman’s hatchet jobs.”
He glared at Carol and Bourke. “This case needs to be wrapped up and out of the headlines as quickly as possible. I’ve given you the resources, authorized weekends, overtime. Now I want results and I want them fast. Got it?”
“Got it,” Carol said, reaching for her briefcase.
Outside the commissioner’s office, Simon Sykes was waiting for them. “A quick word with you?” he said smoothly. “It’ll only take a moment.”
Carol and Bourke followed him down a corridor to an empty conference room. Carol smiled to herself when she saw Bourke checking out the high quality furniture, expensive light fittings and plush carpet. Having recently bought an old Federation house, he and Pat had become refurbishing junkies, redoing the place room by room.
“Do sit down,” said Sykes, pulling two chairs from the long, highly polished jarrah table. “What can I get you? Coffee? A cool drink?”
“You can get to the point,” Bourke said, sliding into a chair.
“Of course.” He strode around the table to sit across from them.
Although his well-cut suit was designed to disguise the fact, Sykes had put on weight since Carol had last seen him. His jawline had softened and his dark hair was lightly streaked with gray. The obsequious manner that had so aggravated her in the past seemed to have been replaced with something almost as annoying, a supremely self-satisfied air.
Sykes gave a small cough. “No doubt Commissioner Hindley has explained how I may help your investigation. I’m hoping to liaise with you both on a regular basis.”
Carol had forgotten his maddening habit of giving a preparatory cough before speaking. But his voice, soft and insinuating, was exactly as she remembered. “How regular?” she asked, placing her hands flat on the table, feeling resistance building fast. She hadn’t liked or trusted Simon Sykes all those years ago, and saw no reason to change her mind now.
“It would be preferable if we could touch base daily.”
“I don’t believe that will be necessary.”
Sykes spread his own hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Chief Inspector, I’m here to assist you. I’m not talking about media conferences and the like, although I will be available to deal with any problems in that area. My concern is that the ramifications of this tragedy may be more serious than you imagine. Greta Denby has become the focal point of potential societal conflict.”
Bourke chuckled. “Societal conflict? Now that is serious.”
A shadow of irritation flickered across Sykes’s face but he chose to ignore Bourke’s jibe, continuing in an even tone, “Already activists who support the so-called ‘death with dignity’ viewpoint are squaring off against various right-to-life and anti-euthanasia groups, most notably Canon Roger Armitage’s organization, Cherished Life.”
“Cherished Life?” Bourke’s face hardened. “That name’s a laugh. Armitage should have been locked up years ago and the key thrown away.”
Sykes nodded gravely. “I couldn’t agree more. As it is, he continues to infect his followers with his extremist doctrine, which in my opinion incites violence. Although naturally Armitage denies this.”
“They’re entitled to their opinions,” Carol observed, fully aware that she was saying this simply to needle Sykes. She concurred with Bourke’s view that Armitage belonged behind bars. The Canon’s activities had been a severe embarrassment to the Anglican Church for some years, but never more so than recently when six of his followers initiated a terror campaign against Cherished Life opponents. They had bashed a young man in a family planning clinic so severely that he was now confined to a wheelchair. Security cameras had identified them, and when arrested, they claimed to be carrying out God’s will as relayed to them by Canon Armitage. In court and under oath, Armitage, while attacking the deeds he claimed were perpetrated in the clinic, vehemently denied inciting members of his flock to attack anyone physically. The six acolytes, unrepentant, received lengthy jail sentences, while the Canon remained free of any charge of accessory, piously announcing he was praying for their immortal souls.
His expression grim, Sykes said to Carol, “It would be a serious mistake to take this too lightly. Having handled public relations for controversial clients, I’m very familiar with this type of volatile situation. My advice is that at the very least, you should prepare to face street demonstrations. At worst, you might consider your personal safety. I presume you will be armed at all times.”
“We’re accustomed to volatile situations,” said Bourke, “but thank you for your advice anyway.”
“I can’t point out too strongly that everyone has an agenda,” said Sykes, obviously put out by Bourke’s attitude. “In Armitage’s case it’s to get as much publicity as he can. To be on the front page at any cost. And if that means inciting a riot, that’s exactly what he’ll do.”
Carol got to her feet, indicating the discussion was over. Knowing that Sykes would be reporting back to the commissioner, she said, “About liaising—I’ll call you on Monday.”
Sykes remained seated to address her. “Inspector Rooke was hounded by certain members of the media, Madeline Shipley being one. As I recall, Chief Inspector, you know her as a friend. My advice in the circumstances is that you should put that friendship aside and avoid any form of contact with her.”
“Too late!” Bourke said cheerfully, before Carol could slap Sykes down with a caustic comment. “Carol and I have both enjoyed long conversations with Madeline this morning. I know I resisted the temptation to tell all, but I’m not sure Carol did the same.”
Sykes didn’t respond to this baiting. His face expressionless, he rose to his feet and handed Carol and Bourke embossed business cards. “I’m available twenty-four/seven. Do not hesitate to get in touch with me. For my part, I will pass on to you any fresh information about Canon Armitage and his organization.”
A few minutes later, as Carol and Bourke were returning to her office, Carol said, “Ironic, isn’t it, Mark? People like Armitage beat the drum for the sanctity of human life while encouraging their followers to attack anyone who dares to oppose them.”
Bourke nodded soberly. “I hate to admit it, but I think Sykes is right. He might dress it up with a term like societal conflict, but it all comes down to the same thing. Violence breeds violence. You said it earlier, Carol—we’re in for a rough time.”
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