The electric wok did not want to fit into the corner cupboard next to the kitchen sink. Duscha turned the cumbersome appliance every which way until it finally slid onto a shelf, at the selfsame moment as someone hammered on the front door of her newly rented two-bedroom unit.
Distracted, she straightened up, only to smack the crown of her head hard into the bottom edge of an overhead cupboard door she’d left ajar. Excruciating pain swept through her skull, buckling her knees with nausea.
“Ow! Blyat! Ow, ow, ow…”
Eyes squeezed shut, she continued to swear in Russian and rued her height for a change. The front door rattled again. Gingerly rubbing her noggin through its thick wavy dark-blond mop, she made her way past the packing boxes scattered down the hall.
On the doorstep, a hesitant man in a business shirt and tie said, “Duscha Penhaligon?”
In suburban Wagga Wagga on a peaceful Saturday afternoon, ties were an unusually officious sight. Was he doing a survey or collecting for charity? Perhaps peddling solar panels? But he already knew her name. Not a cold-caller, then. Even so, she held the door handle firmly. “Who’s asking?”
He swapped a manila envelope from his right underarm to his left and held out an apologetic hand. “I’m a private investigator. Name’s Aaron Fischer. May I come in?”
With a noncommittal shrug, she closed the door behind him. He followed her into the dining-cum-lounge room. “I’m afraid I’m in the middle of moving in. Find a seat where you can.” She straddled a rotating PVC-covered stool that last looked appealing in the 1970s. “What can I do you for, Mr. Fischer?”
He pulled up a pine kitchen chair that creaked in protest as he sat. Deep-set brown eyes blinked and crinkled with dawning amusement. “I appreciate your time, Ms. Penhaligon. This won’t take long.” Smile tightening, he slid out a single page from the manila envelope. “I’m here at the behest of Fielding and Atkinson, your father’s solicitors in Canberra.”
Fine hair rose at the nape of Duscha’s neck, and she inhaled sharply. Her pale blue eyes narrowed when he looked away, pursed and licked his lips, and then spoke deliberately. “Your father died twelve days ago. It’s taken an inordinate amount of time for me to find you, I’m sorry. You’ve moved around a bit. It’s been a while since you’ve seen him?”
Duscha’s heart thudded uncomfortably. She reached for the letter, lifting her chin as she scanned its contents. “Last time was when I was eighteen. Saw him once and never again. How did you find me? I’ve only just leased this place.”
“Police. Death opens doors while privacy goes out the window.”
She raised a fair eyebrow. “According to this, they want to see me in Canberra.”
“Just so they can talk to you in person. I was told you are mentioned in his will, written long ago, regularly updated and still valid. If you don’t mind, Jim Fielding requests your presence.” As a foil to Duscha’s prolonged silence, he added, “I believe it will be worth your while.”
“But you can’t tell me why.”
“I regret to say I’m not privy to the details. I’m just the messenger.”
Two hours later, and with most of the unpacking completed, she relaxed on the unit’s back steps in the welcome afternoon sun. The steps led into a meagre concrete courtyard bordered by a stark metal fence less than two metres away. The unit was one of a block of four on Langdon Avenue in central Wagga. It was a brisk five-minute walk to the Murrumbidgee River that snaked its way through the inland New South Wales city. She’d chosen the beige brick building for its proximity to her new workplace, rather than its street appeal or architectural merit, both notable by their absence.
She cradled a mug of freshly brewed latte between her palms. At least the coffee machine was unpacked and working perfectly. Large gulps sent welcome caffeine into her bloodstream, and she brightened enough to muster a sardonic smile.
After all this time, what could her biological father possibly have in store for her?
Last she’d heard, he was bankrupt, yet again. A builder and self-titled architect, he’d risked millions on redevelopments in Canberra’s older, more rundown suburbs, and not always profitably. Not that the occasional bankruptcy ever stopped him. Cliff Coxall was a big man with sky-high dreams: charming, persuasive, and a convincing purveyor of his unique brand of morality. One moment he was cheating on his oblivious wife, the next he was conscientiously paying child support to Duscha’s mother, her Mamochka, who had naïvely thought him single, barely long enough to conceive.
Duscha had met him just the once. Come her eighteenth birthday, his financial obligations had ceased, and he had insisted he meet her. Against her mother’s better judgment, he visited their home in Queanbeyan, just outside Canberra. Duscha remembered the meeting as awkward and confusing.
Although Duscha was already considerably taller than her diminutive Russian-Chinese mother, Cliff had still towered over her, grinning maniacally while patting her on the arm too often. Eagerly he had shown her a photo of her blond half-sister Roxanne who, being three years older, seemed thankfully remote. Yet Duscha had been freaked out by the fact that they could have been twins, were it not for her own flatter cheeks and distinctly almond-shaped eyes. Handing back the photo and unusually tongue-tied, she had plastered on a smile, and hoped he would go away. This much older man to whom she bore an unnerving resemblance seemed more like a circus ringmaster than anyone’s dad. Why couldn’t he just be normal? Why couldn’t her family be just like everyone else’s?
In the fading afternoon light, Duscha downed the last of her coffee, acknowledging at least one truth about that day twenty years ago. At eighteen, fitting in with her peers was mega-important, and he had disappointed her. With hindsight, he was obviously delighted to meet the forbidden fruit of his loins and simply proud of a fine young woman who happened to be his illegitimate daughter.
Revived sufficiently, she stepped back inside, unpacked the television and arranged furniture so as to make the lounge vaguely liveable. The bed needed making, but she was fading fast. If necessary she could sleep on the sofa.
Flopping into an easy chair, she rubbed her face vigorously with wide warm hands. There was still so much to do before starting her new job on Monday with the Wagga Wagga City Planning Directorate. Although she’d once studied architecture, she’d ended up with a degree in town planning. She had last worked in Griffith, a distant New South Wales city where she and Noelle had lived for six years. That was until Noelle complained of back pain. The cancer had metastasised into her spine. She was gone in a handful of weeks.
Noelle, born Christmas Eve two years before Duscha, was too young for breast cancer. Or so the statistics said. Duscha thought about her every day, too much every night, and lived with an assortment of keepsakes in plain sight that made her smile, made her weep: a plush toy rabbit, an antique sewing kit and numerous kitchen gadgets. There were no photos of her on display. Duscha couldn’t bear to see them. Images of Noelle made her disappear for days at a time down a black hole jammed with anguished memories.
After the funeral, she had immersed herself in work, hating to go home to an empty house. The end of the working week had loomed oppressively. She would lose whole weekends bringing Noelle to life again, talking and weeping with a ghost who was keenly remembered and still deeply loved. Not going out and forgetting to eat real food, drew carefully worded comments from colleagues who pointed out that she was becoming alarmingly gaunt.
When she didn’t feel too awful, she phoned Michele, a friend from Karabar High School who still lived in Canberra to whom she said the bare minimum, not wanting to burden another with her abject misery. Michele had a husband, kids, and her own life hours away from Griffith. Troubled by Duscha’s censored version of her mental and emotional state, Michele had nagged her to come back and stay with her mother. But Duscha’s mother had recently married. It wouldn’t be fair to her, Duscha had explained. Then Michele pointed out that Duscha sounded like she had post-traumatic stress. That observation helped her better understand intellectually what was going on, yet did nothing to ease the bone-sapping grief. On Michele’s urging, she went to a general practitioner who listened briefly, and reached for his prescription pad. He sent her off with five repeats of the antidepressant Paroxetine. After a fortnight, the medication began to make a positive difference.
It had taken Duscha ten long months to wean herself off the drug and gather the wherewithal to find another job in another town—any other town. The move to Wagga was a godsend—a new start. Although she had a sound professional reputation, she didn’t want to blow it by immediately asking for time off. Come Monday morning, how was she going to walk through the Planning Directorate’s door and wrangle leave to go to Canberra? Fortunately, it was only a three-hour drive, and she could overnight with her Mamochka. Plus she had a compelling reason. One’s father died only once. They didn’t need to know he was a virtual stranger.
To the walls, she said too brightly, “Well, Cliffie…Dad. This had better be worth it.”
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