by Claire McNab
While tracking down a ruthless hired killer, Australian top cop Carol Ashton is tempted by the seductive charms of a mysterious stranger…a woman whose shadowy secrets could be leading Carol to the dark side of desire.
Eleventh in the Carol Ashton Series.
Originally published by Naiad Press 1999.
|Publication Date||January 1, 1999|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
“There they are! Get the light on them!”
The glaring spotlight veered wildly as the four-wheel drive lurched over the rough ground. Roaring and bucking, the vehicle shuddered to a stop. In blind panic the mob of gray kangaroos began to bound in all directions, little joeys not in the pouch struggling to keep up.
Leaning on the shooting bar welded as an arch over the driver and passenger seats, the man swore as he tried to sight his heavy gun. The crack of the rifle splintered the cool night air. One huge male kangaroo stumbled, then fell in a heap of askew hind legs and sinuous tail, blood spurting deep red in the beam of the spotlight.
“Got him!” the shooter exulted, raising one arm high.
Concealed by the night and the straining engine of the four-wheel drive, the motorcycle had been able to approach closely. The rider straddled the machine, carefully sighting through a nightscope.
It was a lighter, sharper sound, but the result was the same. Blood burst from the man’s throat. He seemed to hang, astonished, for a moment, then he fell with a flaccid thud into the back of the vehicle.
“Got him,” said the rider, the words a whisper in the darkness.
Over his steepled fingers, the headmaster’s expression was a nice mixture of gravity and implacability. “Your son is one of five boys suspended whilst we investigate fully. I’m afraid if our initial findings are upheld, David will be expelled.”
Carol looked over at her ex-husband. In the years since they had divorced, Justin had become one of the top echelon of Sydney barristers, and with his success his once lean frame had become sleek from good living. His disarming manner had also changed with his fortunes. These days he had the manner of one accustomed to being treated as a VIP someone whose words were listened to and given close consideration. The setting—dark paneled walls and shelves full of leather-bound books—would be familiar to him, but not the situation, where for once he was so clearly at a disadvantage.
“But, surely,” Justin said in the deep, resonant voice that mesmerized witnesses and juries alike, “the school’s actions are rather precipitate.”
The slick leather of his chair creaked as he leaned forward to add persuasively, “I see no pressing reason for my son to be suspended at this point. His studies will be adversely affected. I understand rules, of course, but perhaps some latitude…”
The headmaster’s severe expression didn’t alter. “Mr. Hart, be assured we would not be taking these steps if there was not the strongest evidence that David has not only brought marijuana into the school for personal use, but has also, I’m very much afraid, provided the drug to other students.”
He glanced at Carol. “Inspector Ashton, I’m sure you’re aware that I’ve put the whole matter into the hands of the authorities.”
Late yesterday afternoon Carol had received an embarrassed call from the officer in charge of the police station closest to the school. “Of course,” she said. “I quite understand that was a step you felt you had to take.”
Justin frowned. “I do think, if you’ll allow me to dissent, that this has been blown completely out of proportion.” He spread his hands. “I mean—marijuana? It’s not heroin, for God’s sake!”
“Our school has a no-tolerance-to-drugs policy. I cannot make exceptions.” The headmaster put his hands palms down on his desk, obviously about to rise and signal the end of the interview.
Carol stood first. “Thank you for seeing us at such short notice. You understand, of course, that we are both very disturbed at the accusation.”
The headmaster permitted himself a faint smile. “Indeed. And I suspect that David is, at this moment, feeling even worse than his parents.”
Outside the sumptuous office, Justin paused to check his appearance in a mirror. Positioning the knot of his silk tie, he said over his shoulder, “You’re looking good, Carol.”
He half smiled at her dry tone. “I mean it. You’ve got style. No one would take you for a cop.”
“I presume you mean that as a compliment?”
“I do.” Justin nodded to the middle-aged woman sitting primly behind a mahogany desk, and strode for the door. Outside in the carpeted hall he said, “Carol, I expect you to handle the police side.”
He swung around to face her. “I’m not going to have my son charged over this petty issue.”
“He’s our son, Justin. And no, I’m not going to pull strings. If David’s been stupid enough to do this, he should face up to the consequences.”
Color rose in her ex-husband’s face. “You’re a police inspector, for Christ’s sake! It’d just take a phone call or two. You want the media to get hold of this? They’ll have a field day.”
Carol gave a small grunt of amusement. “Only if there’s nothing better to run with. We can just hope there’s some breaking scandal that’ll deflect attention.”
“Carol, it’s for your good as well as David’s to hush things up.”
“And the Justin Hart name? That wouldn’t be an issue?”
He glared at her, then, as his expression altered to a reluctant grin, she saw a flash of the charm that had once captivated her.
“You’re probably right,” he said. “There’re any number of people in the legal fraternity who’d be delighted to take me down a peg or two. Now, what are we going to do about David? I tried to talk with him last night but got nowhere. Eleanor says that I’m too hard on him.”
Eleanor was Justin’s second wife, a delightful woman whom Carol held in high regard. Carol had often felt a pang of envy at the bond between Eleanor and David, but she was always thankful that Justin had chosen such a fine person to be David’s stepmother.
Carol said, “I’d like David to spend the weekend with me.”
“The mother’s touch?” There was a suggestion of a sneer in Justin’s voice. Then he looked contrite. “I’m sorry. This has really got to me. David’s been no trouble before this. A dream to bring up.” He grimaced. “And now, on top of everything else, we have to find another suitable school for him. That may be difficult, under the circumstances.”
Carol knew that by suitable school Justin meant an exclusive, expensive, private boys’ school that had the right cachet in the circles of power. “We could enroll him in a public school,” she said, aware that this would be anathema to her ex-husband.
“Of course you’re joking.” He slid back the sleeve of his elegant suit to consult his gold watch. “I’m due in court in half an hour. Make the arrangements with Eleanor about seeing David, will you? She’s coming your way tomorrow morning, so she can drop him off at your place.”
In the parking lot, Carol looked at his retreating back with wry irritation. She was sure Justin was just as shaken as she was with David’s transgressions. She was also convinced that David wouldn’t realize the deep concern his father was feeling, but would only see the surface anger.
Justin waved to her as he pulled out in his maroon Jag. Carol paused to enjoy a moment of peaceful silence. Sheltered from the wind, the winter sunshine had such warmth that the tailored blue woolen suit she was wearing was almost too heavy for the day. She looked around, enjoying the beautifully landscaped grounds. The area where she stood was reserved for the principal and visiting guests, and Carol’s plain sedan looked out of place next to the expensive vehicles. Driving in she’d noticed that the teachers and general staff were banished to a lot far from the ivy-covered main building and that their transportation was mostly as utilitarian as hers.
Before getting into the car, she flicked open her mobile phone. “I’m on the way in. Anything?”
“I’m just back from the Banning postmortem,” said Mark Bourke. “Looks like it could have been a hit. Two shots from a twenty-two to the base of the skull. Hollow-point rounds that turned his brain to porridge.”
“Oh great. I was hoping it’d be an easy one.”
Laughing at her disgust, Bourke added, “And that isn’t the worst of it. The super’s been looking for you to do your bit for public relations. Seems there’s some journalist who’s keen to interview you for an article.”
“Why me? How about you, Mark? You can take my place. I know you’ll say all the right things.”
“Sorry,” he said, “but it’s female cops this one wants. Women in the service, and all that.”
Carol made a face. She had three unsolved murders on her slate and didn’t have time to worry about PR for the NSW Police Service, however much it was needed since the last adverse findings by the Police Integrity Commission. “How about Anne? She’d be perfect.”
Detective Constable Anne Newsome would be an ideal subject for a positive interview. She was young, keen, and showed great promise. She also had cool good sense and could be relied on not to say anything that would embarrass the police commissioner.
Carol was congratulating herself on the suitability of her suggestion when Mark said, “Good try, Carol, but it has to be you. It’s for some international piece on top women cops.”
Driving through thick Friday morning traffic, Carol dismissed the minor inconvenience of some lightweight journalist to concentrate on the day ahead. Yesterday morning the wife of a high-powered businessman, Walter Banning, had found her husband slumped in the front seat of his silver Rolls-Royce. He’d been shot in the head and died instantly. The car keys were in the ignition, the engine was purring, the garage door was open. Nothing had been taken from the Rolls or the body, not even the wad of money that stuffed Banning’s wallet. The Rolex had remained on his wrist and the diamond pinkie ring on his left hand. Apparently no one had heard or seen anything, and Carol had a premonition that this was going to a long, difficult case.
Generally one looked to the deceased’s nearest and dearest, as there was nothing quite like close personal relationships to generate hatred and resentment. This cool murder had apparently been carefully planned, and would therefore be for a specific advantage or gain. It was too early to have firm information, but Carol was expecting that the gossip that Banning had been unfaithful in his marriage had some truth to it. If so, Banning’s wife automatically would become a suspect in his death.
Perhaps Felicity Banning had a lover who’d been persuaded to remove the troublesome husband. Perhaps she’d hired a professional to do the deed. Carol shrugged to herself. Whatever she uncovered, this was a messy case with a high-profile victim who’d been the head of a multinational company, Banning & Cardover. Quite apart from the wife, there would be any number of associates to interview, and no doubt many of them would be likely to have reasons to remove him.
Banning, even in the world of ruthless business practices, had been notable for his ferocity in deal making. His partner, Cardover, a much older man, had recently been incapacitated by a stroke, but he’d played a nonactive role in the company for some years and there was no suggestion that his illness had precipitated a power struggle of any kind.
Carol swore to herself. The way things were shaping up, there was no way she could devote the whole weekend to her son. And David would resent the fact that she had to work at least part of the time. She sighed. If only Sybil were there to pick up the slack. If only.
Superintendent Edgar waylaid Carol before she could get to her desk. “Carol! Step into my office for a moment, will you?”
He settled his bulk into his chair, waving her to another. “The Banning case coming along, is it?”
Keeping to herself the pulse of irritation his breezy question caused, she said, “It’s very early. The postmortem was only done this morning.”
“Quite. I don’t need to remind you that this one’s a hot potato.” He tapped a tattoo with his thick fingers. “And the Fader murder?”
His query concerned the death of an automobile mechanic, found fatally beaten in his workshop after a struggle with an assailant. Carol said, “We’re waiting for DNA evidence, but I’m confident we’ll be arresting the brother.”
“And that homeless woman?”
“Nicola Bratt.” Carol pronounced the victim’s name with emphasis. She’d been a nobody alive, a wraith who wandered the edges of society, but Carol was determined that her death would be treated with as much respect and attention as anyone else’s would be.
Edgar nodded dismissively. “Yes, her. Nothing there, I suppose. Probably knifed by some other street person, eh?”
Carol agreed with his offhand comment, aware that the likelihood of solving this particular murder was slight. There was no weapon, Nicola Bratt had been lying for days in bushes on an abandoned lot and no relatives or friends had come forward to claim the body or to give information of her movements in the days before she was stabbed. She had been identified by an old driver’s license and other papers she’d kept neatly folded and tucked into a stained money belt she’d worn under layers of mismatched clothing.
Carol said, “We’re still making inquiries.”
He grunted with tart amusement. “Good luck!”
The superintendent had a head of thick white hair, of which he was inordinately proud, and a handsome, fleshy face that usually held, at least to Carol, an infuriating expression of self-satisfaction. Carol knew her own face showed polite attention, not revealing the growing contempt she felt. She’d worked with the superintendent for years and was quite accustomed to his attention to self-interest. When there was trouble, he adroitly sidestepped. When accolades were to be given out, suddenly he was front and center.
For a long time she’d ignored the super’s foibles, but now it was more personal, as word had got back to her that he would actively oppose her promotion to chief inspector, should she decide to apply for consideration. She was aware that he had never particularly liked her, but the real reason for his disfavor was probably rooted in her high profile in the media and her overall success rate. And it didn’t help that she was a woman: Superintendent Edgar definitely belonged to the men-make-the-best-cops school of thought.
“Now, Carol,” he said, fingering a business card on his desk, “there is one other thing. It seems the premier had a word with the commissioner…” He handed her the card. “This journalist—she’s a Yank, by the way—is some big deal, apparently. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of her myself.”
Carol looked at the name on the business card. “Loren Reece? I don’t know the name.”
Edgar waved a hand. “Freelance, I think. Writes for Newsweek, Time, that sort of thing.” His tone made it clear these were not magazines that engaged his interest. “Whatever, she’s impressed the premier for some reason, so you’re to give her full cooperation. She’s doing research for a series of articles on female cops in different countries, and it’s an excellent opportunity for the force to make a good impression. That comes straight from the commissioner. Okay?”
“I’ll try to fit her in.”
Edgar sat forward. “You will fit her in, Carol. Good PR never hurts, and, God knows, we need it at the moment.” His expression darkened. “The bloody PIC.” He was referring to the latest hearings held by the Police Integrity Commission. The details of corrupt cops had garnered the usual enthusiastic media attention. “Bunch of wankers,” he said, sending Carol a challenging look. “Don’t you agree?”
Carol didn’t. She considered the PlC a necessary evil, although recently she’d winced at the grubby revelations in the paper each morning. “Yes, we do need good PR,” she said. “Is this journalist going to contact me?”
“She’s going to ring for an appointment. See her as soon as you can.”
Edgar brushed his palms together. It was a gesture she’d learned to read early in their professional relationship. It indicated that their conversation was over. Carol stood and, with hidden amusement, beat him to the sentence he invariably used at the close of every encounter. “I’ll keep you informed,” she said.
He grunted. “The Banning case is top priority,” he reminded her as she reached the door.
Mark Bourke met Carol outside her office, a grin on his blunt-featured face. “Bad news,” he said.
“Banning’s wife seems to be close to Mother Teresa in virtue. No hint of any lover keen to eliminate an awkward husband. In fact, Felicity Banning appears not only to have been devoted to her husband, but more than willing to turn a blind eye to his shenanigans.”
Carol led the way into her office, its neutral walls and standard-issue furniture soothing in its bland familiarity. “How are you doing with Banning’s business associates?”
“Plenty of animosity, but no motives strong enough to off the guy. I’ve got Maureen going through the financial records, but his company isn’t involved in any contentious merger or takeover. Banning wasn’t liked, but on the whole he was respected. There’s the pending uranium mine development in Papua New Guinea that’s been getting a lot of flack in the media, but that’s fading now that concessions have been made to the environmentalists.”
He folded his long body onto an uncomfortable wooden chair. “This really could be a pro working here, Carol. Amateurs make mistakes, but this is a very clean killing. Banning kisses his wife good-bye, goes down to the garage and hops into his Rolls, punches a button to open the door, someone comes in, leans though the car window and shoots him twice in the head.” He tilted his head. “Efficient, wouldn’t you say? No witnesses, and scene-of-crime have come up with absolutely nothing.”
He shook his head. “Don’t think there’ll be much joy there. When Jeff George fished the slugs out of Banning’s head this morning, the slugs were deformed from bouncing around inside the skull.”
Having witnessed many of the pathologist’s postmortems, Carol had a clear picture of Jeff George at work. She could imagine his cheerful patter as raised his booming voice above the whine of the bone saw. She could see him lifting off the top of Banning’s skull to peer inside with all the enthusiasm of someone opening a gift. Carol had often wondered what it was in the pathologist that inured him to the work that he did. Only with children’s corpses had she ever seen his vitality dampened. Usually he greeted each body with the eagerness of a puzzle-solver faced with a series of challenges.
“If it is a professional hit,” said Bourke, “I’d say we look for the money. See who in Banning’s circle gains a lot from his death. That’d be our best bet, I reckon.”
Carol’s phone rang. She gestured for him to stay as she picked up the receiver. “Carol Ashton.”
“Inspector, my name’s Loren Reece. You may have been told I’d call.” The voice was pleasantly American, with a light accent that Carol couldn’t categorize as coming from any particular part of the States.
“It was mentioned to me.”
A soft chuckle came down the line. “And I’m sure, Inspector, that you’re very busy, and not altogether thrilled with the idea of an interview.”
“Please call me Loren. I was wondering if next Tuesday would fit in with your schedule?”
Carol made a face at Bourke, who was grinning at her exasperated expression. “Next Tuesday?” she said, hunting around on her desk for her appointment diary. “Please hold for a moment.”
Putting her hand over the receiver, she said to Bourke, “I really don’t need this.”
He fished her diary out from under a pile of papers and handed it to her. “Although you hide it well,” he said, “I can tell you bask in all this media attention.”
Carol flipped over to Tuesday and stared glumly at the page. Removing her hand from the mouthpiece, she said, “Ms. Reece?”
“I can see you Tuesday morning at ten. You know the address here?”
“I have your location, thanks. I was rather hoping I could take you to lunch.”
Carol glared at the phone. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’m afraid that’s impossible.”
Apparently not at all put out by Carol’s cool tone, the American said cheerfully, “Ten it is, on Tuesday. I look forward to it, Inspector.”
As Carol put down the phone, Constable Goolwa put his head through the door. “Inspector? I’m sorry to interrupt, but there’s something on the Nicola Bratt case.”
She waved the young constable in, a little amused at his diffidence. Sam Goolwa had only been on her team for a few weeks, and was still feeling his way. His Aboriginal heritage had given him a lean, resilient frame, crinkled dark hair and eyes of such a deep brown that they were almost black. European blood had lightened the rich color of his skin to a satiny tan.
“We’ve got a suspect,” he said. “Matthew Bott’s his name. Got drunk and smashed up a Salvation Army homeless shelter last night. When he was arrested, he started raving about this woman he said he’d stabbed. Had a knife on him that fits the murder weapon. He’s up for drunk and disorderly, but he could be our man.”
“Bott’s still in custody?”
When Goolwa nodded, she said, “Okay, I’ll leave it to you and Anne to handle it.” She didn’t miss the look of pleasure that flashed across his face. “Keep me informed,” she said, inwardly smiling that she was parroting Superintendent Edgar’s customary admonition.
After Goolwa had gone, Bourke said, “He’ll do okay. Have to toughen up a bit, develop a thicker skin, but he’s got what it takes.”
There were comparatively few Aborigines in the Police Service, and Carol was aware that prejudices still lingered from the bad old days. “Is he having trouble with anyone in particular?”
“Nothing he can’t handle.” Bourke’s tone made it clear he didn’t think Carol should interfere. He leaned forward to fish his wallet out of his hip pocket. “Want to see another couple of pictures of Carli?”
Pat, Bourke’s wife, had recently had their first child, a little girl, and Bourke had become as besotted a father as Carol had ever seen.
Carol put out her hand. “Do I have a choice?” she asked, laughing.
“Well, you are Carli’s godmother.”
Carol had been surprised and, astonishing herself, ridiculously pleased when she’d been asked to be the baby’s godmother. And Carli had been an exemplary infant, gurgling happily through her baptism and bestowing a toothless smile on anyone who came close to her.
Carol’s phone shrilled. “This better not be another journalist.”
After a short conversation, she replaced the receiver and gave Bourke an interrogative look. “What do you think of this? Banning’s partner, Cardover, died this morning.”
“Natural causes? He’d had a stroke.”
“Seems to be.”
“Interesting timing,” said Bourke.