by Claire McNab
Kylie Kendall is hired for a routine security detail to prevent an academic rival from disrupting Dr. Oscar Braithwaite’s keynote address at UCLA’s Global Marsupial Symposium. Sounds easy enough to be downright dull, but then Dr. Braithwaite is murdered, and his sister, the sexually voracious and irresistibly attractive Dr. Penelope Braithwaite, hires Kylie to investigate his death. Can Kylie keep from mixing business with oh-so-much pleasure? Can she remain true to her barely requited love for her ice-queen business partner, Ariana Creeling? Oh yes, and can she figure out who killed Oscar? All of these questions and more are answered in this latest installment of Claire McNab’s Kylie Kendall mystery series.
Third in the Kylie Kendall Mystery Series.
Originally published by Alyson Publications 2005.
“G’day,” I said, holding out my hand. I felt a thrill of anticipation. I was about to take on my second real case at Kendall & Creeling Investigative Services. “I’m Kylie Kendall. And you must be Dr. Oscar Braithwaite?”
“Oscar will do.”
“Then you must call me Kylie.”
The bloke in the crumpled brown suit standing on the other side of my desk leaned over to shake my hand. I retrieved my crushed fingers and gestured for him to take a seat.
After carefully aligning a yellow writing pad on my desk, I picked up a pen and looked alert. “You mentioned on the phone, Oscar, that your problem was something to do with the quokka question. Just what is the question about quokkas?”
Oscar Braithwaite sat back in the chair as though I’d said something out of turn. Actually, I was making an educated guess at his reaction, because his expression was hard to discern. The lower half of his face was concealed by an untidy mustache and beard that seemed never to have been trimmed. His brown hair was similarly wild, and almost hid his eyes. The only feature I could see clearly was his bulbous nose, and it didn’t tell me much about his inner feelings.
“I don’t imagine you even know what a ‘quokka’ is,” he said, not unkindly. He had a raspy voice, sounding like it was rusty from lack of use, which was entirely possible, as I’d gathered he spent most of his time alone in the Aussie bush peering at the wildlife.
“I’ve never seen one,” I said, “but I know they’re some sort of a cousin to wallabies. They’re little hopping marsupials living on an island off the coast of Western Australia.”
Maybe he was surprised at my knowledge. I couldn’t tell. “Rottnest Island,” he said. “There are also some quokka colonies on the southwestern mainland, but not many.”
There was a knock at the door, and my partner in the business entered, her usual stunning self in tight black pants and black silk shirt. “Dr. Braithwaite? I’m Ariana Creeling.”
One look from Ariana’s laser-blue eyes, and this bloke was putty in her mitts. I had a fair idea how he felt. He shot to his feet and shook hands with her, showing far more enthusiasm than he’d had when greeting me. “Very pleased to meet you!” he exclaimed.
I admired the way Ariana didn’t wince when he squeezed her fingers but maintained her usual reserved expression. “Do you mind if I sit in?” she asked him.
“No, of course not.” Somewhere in all that hair I detected a grin. “I’ll get you a seat.”
While Oscar collected a chair from the other side of the room, Ariana said to me, “Bob’s been delayed.”
Although I’d inherited a controlling share of Kendall & Creeling from my dad, I was only an apprentice P.I., and Bob Verritt oversaw everything I did. When he wasn’t there, Ariana took his place. Since Oscar Braithwaite had specifically asked for me, it had become my case, but a licensed private investigator had to monitor me.
Oscar sat down next to Ariana. I had the sense he was beaming at her. To drag his attention back to business, I said, “I meant to ask, Oscar, how you came to hear of Kendall & Creeling.”
“You’ve made a bit of a splash, back home, Kylie. I saw you on the telly. Being pretty sure I was going to need a P.I. when I hit Los Angeles, I took a note of your name.”
“Dinkum? I’ve been on television?” I wondered why no one in my hometown of Wollegudgerie had told me about it. “What was the program?”
He shrugged. “Some sort of newsmagazine thing—‘Aussie Chicks Make Good,’ I think it was called?”
“Oh,” I said, thinking this wasn’t necessarily the national exposure one would hope for. I was all set to ask him for more details—after all, this was my first appearance on television—but Ariana gave me a get-on-with-it look. “Now, back to the quokka question,” I said.
“I’ve devoted my life to the study of quokkas,” Oscar declared. “It’s no exaggeration to say I’m the world authority on Setonix brachyurus. Indeed, I’m scheduled to deliver the keynote address titled ‘The Quokka Question’ at the Global Marsupial Symposium next week.”
“Global Marsupial Symposium?” said Ariana.
“You haven’t heard of the GMS?” He sounded astonished. “Largely because of my sister’s efforts, UCLA is hosting the symposium this year. It’s arguably the most prestigious meeting of marsupial experts in the entire scientific world.”
“Your sister?” said Ariana. “That wouldn’t be Dr. Penelope Braithwaite, would it?”
“That’s the one: Dr. Penny. She’s more famous than I’ll ever be.” Oscar sounded disgruntled.
Ariana grinned. “I guess she is, but that’s what you get when you’re an expert on sex.”
“Too true.” He sighed. “I’m staying with Penny in her West Hollywood apartment. She can hardly walk out the door without someone recognizing her and coming over to badger her. And the questions they ask…”
I was lost. “Sorry, but I don’t know who your sister is.”
Oscar grunted. “Sometimes I don’t either. On one hand she’s Dr. Penelope Braithwaite of UCLA, noted expert on animal sexuality. On the other, she’s Dr. Penny of talk radio—an odious program where people ring in with their grubby little sexual problems. I’ve told her a thousand times it’s a prostitution of her talents—not that she ever listens to me.”
He bent his shaggy head, apparently overcome in gloom.
“You said you thought you’d need a private investigator when you came to L.A. Why is that?” I asked.
“Professor Jack Yarrow,” he spat out. His loathing plain, he went on, “Yarrow claims that he is the world authority on quokkas. An American an authority on quokkas? Not bloody likely!”
“An academic rival?”
“A confidence trickster, who’d got to where he is by stealing other people’s work and passing it off as his own. The pity is that an institution of the caliber of UCLA would have a charlatan like Yarrow on staff.” He shook his head.
Using my advanced detecting skills, I said, “And I reckon this Professor Yarrow is appearing at the Global Marsupial Symposium too.”
“He is,” Oscar ground out. “But that’s not the worst of it. Just before I left Australia, Penny called me to say she’d heard on the academic grapevine that the bastard is going to get up at the symposium when I begin my keynote address and publicly accuse me of plagiarizing his work on quokkas.”
Oscar thumped himself hard on the chest. “Accuse me! When the truth is, Yarrow has plundered my research!”
“Have you any proof of this?” Ariana asked.
“I have my suspicions,” he said darkly. “I believe one of my graduate assistants, Erin Fogarty, copied essential areas of my life’s work and sold it to Yarrow.” Oscar shook his head again. “Academic betrayal is the greatest betrayal of all. Frankly, I’m heartbroken.”
“Why do you think Erin Fogarty’s involved?” I asked.
His shoulders slumped. I wondered if he’d had a personal interest in this sheila. “Suddenly, last month,” he said, “Erin left the quokka project. She said she’d unexpectedly inherited money and was continuing her studies in America.”
I jumped as Oscar whacked my desk with his fist. “And what do you think I find when I get to Los Angeles, eh?” He turned his head to Ariana, then to me, and back again.
I was happy to take a stab at an answer. “Erin’s working for Professor Jack Yarrow?”
“Yes!” My desk vibrated to another hearty whack. “Professor-bloody-Jack-bloody-Yarrow!”
“What do you want Kendall & Creeling to do for you?” asked Ariana.
Her cool tone seemed to calm him. “Discredit Yarrow,” he said. “Show him up for the fraud he is.” He swung his attention to me. “I’ve set it up for you, Kylie. My sister can get you into UCLA as a visiting graduate student. You can take it from there, but be very careful. Jack Yarrow is a dangerous man.”
Crikey, he had more confidence in me than was justified. “I’ve never been to university,” I pointed out.
“Kylie can carry it off,” said Ariana with assurance.
I shot her a look. Did she mean it? Apparently, she did, as she gave me a small, warming smile.
For the next few minutes we discussed the logistics of inserting me into UCLA as a student, Kendall & Creeling fees, and our reporting protocol for clients.
When our meeting concluded, Oscar Braithwaite got to his feet. I asked if I could get him a taxi, but he said that he was looking forward to getting out in the fresh air and would enjoy the long walk back to West Hollywood. I reckoned he’d be pushing it to find much fresh air on Sunset Boulevard, but he’d soon find that out for himself.
After we’d all ceremonially shaken hands again, Oscar retrieved a rather crumpled white envelope from the inside pocket of his suit coat. “Don’t open this unless something happens to me. My sister has a copy too.”
“You fear for your safety?” Ariana asked as he handed the envelope to me.
“I don’t want to sound melodramatic,” Oscar said in a serious low-key manner, “but Jack Yarrow is in my estimation a sociopath. He’s capable of anything.”
Ariana was leaving for an appointment in the Valley, so she saw Oscar Braithwaite out. I got busy at my computer, tapping in all the details of the meeting while they were fresh in my mind. It occurred to me that I hadn’t found out what the question about quokkas was. I made a mental note to ask Oscar next time I saw him.
I’d just got to the pleasing point where I’d labeled a folder Braithwaite, Oscar when I heard the sharp dot! dot! dot! of someone running down the tiled hallway in high heels. It had to be Melodie, Kendall & Creeling’s receptionist and aspiring actress.
She burst through the door, blond hair flying, green eyes wide. “Kylie! Come quick! That guy who was just here—he’s been run down by a car on Sunset Boulevard!”
I flew out the front door and galloped down the street to the scene of the accident. An ambulance had already arrived, and a police car, lights flashing, was parked half on the footpath. The traffic was treading by, as motorists slowed down to get a look. Even though it was still pretty early in the morning, a large mob had formed, mostly made up of tourists—I knew this from the cameras slung around their necks. Everyone was pressing forward to enjoy the show, not at all discouraged by a young cop in uniform, whose perspiring face was flushed as he tried in vain to keep order.
Pushing my way through the throng was hard work. Good thing I’m tough; otherwise, I’d have had a cracked rib from the elbows that jabbed me on the way. I made it to the front to find two blokes in white trying to get their very uncooperative patient—Oscar Braithwaite throwing a wobbly—onto a gurney. Many cameras—digital and video—were trained on the action.
“What happened?” I said to the person next to me, an ancient woman wearing a dusty cloche hat pulled down over her eyebrows. No camera, so she was not a tourist.
“Hit-and-run,” she said, not taking her avid stare from the altercation in front of her. “SUV. Big’un. SOB didn’t stop. They never do.”
“They’re shooting a movie,” someone said behind me. “That’s Robin Williams under all that hair.”
“No! Robin Williams?” The name ran through the rapidly expanding audience like wildfire. People passing stopped until the crowd got big enough to spill onto the roadway. Indignant horns added to the clatter of a helicopter overhead.
I did my best to get to Oscar, but the young cop got in the way. “I know him,” I said. “He’s my client.” But the cop was occupied with crowd control and didn’t listen.
Struggling mightily, Oscar Braithwaite shouted, “You’re not taking me to bloody hospital! It’s too bloody expensive!”
Many in the crowd murmured in agreement. “Health care in this country is capitalism gone mad, raping the working man,” declared one scruffy bloke.
“And woman,” snapped an angular sheila in bright pink pants. “You men always forget the women.”
Someone clapped. That got a laugh.
“Let me go!” Oscar managed to free himself from his would-be rescuers. “I’m not bloody hurt. Just a few bumps and scratches.” He spread his arms and wiggled his fingers. “Look. Nothing’s broken.”
“My kids love Robin Williams,” someone said. “He’s so funny. They’ve nearly worn out the DVD of Mrs. Doubtfire.”
“His last picture bombed. Box office poison.”
“That’s not Robin Williams,” declared someone else. “It’s Jim Carrey.”
That got a reaction. Cameras clicked anew; people surged forward; the cop, overwhelmed, headed for his patrol car, no doubt to call for backup.
“Jim! Jim! Look this way!” shouted a fan.
“I love Jim Carrey,” remarked someone else. “He’s so funny!”
“Can’t do serious, though. His last serious picture bombed.”
A spherical woman in a purple-and-orange muumuu hustled her equally globular kid to the front of the crowd. “Go on, Donnie. Ask Mr. Carrey for his autograph.”
“Yes, you do, you little creep,” she hissed.
Oscar snatched the book and pen from the scowling kid and scribbled something down. Triumphant, the woman peered at the page. She frowned. “Oscar who?” She glared accusingly at him. “Why are you pretending to be Jim Carrey?”
The crowd murmured, not pleased. I raised my voice to say, “He’s not pretending to be anybody. He’s a dinky-di Aussie just visiting Los Angeles.”
“It’s identity theft,” someone called out. The crowd growled.
“Oscar,” I said, indicating the ambulance blokes, who were standing with arms folded and looking browned off, “you’d best go with them. The crowd’s turning ugly. I’ll get my car and follow along and meet you at the hospital.”
“Bugger that,” said Oscar, truculent.
“Arrest him,” demanded the muumuu mother to the cop who’d returned to the scene. “He’s impersonating a film star.”
“Stuff it!” Oscar clambered onto the gurney. “OK, mates, you win. Bloody take me to the bloody hospital.”
There was a dangerous rumble from the crowd as the gurney bearing Oscar was shoved into the back of the ambulance. “Don’t let him get away!” someone yelled.
Yerks! Time for diversionary tactics. “That’s not a cop,” I shouted. “It’s Brad Pitt!”
Oscar Braithwaite had put on a real performance in the hospital emergency. I hadn’t liked hanging around there for hours any more than he did, but there was no need for him to yell at the nurses that way. By the time he was released—he had a few scrapes and bruises, but I reckoned all that hair had acted like a buffer—I was having second thoughts about my client. He was showing all the signs of being a yobbo of the first order.
I told myself maybe I was being a bit hard on the bloke, as he’d had a pretty harrowing experience. The way Oscar told it, he’d been standing on the curb with a bunch of other people waiting for the lights to change so he could cross Sunset Boulevard, when someone had given him a tremendous shove, right between the shoulder blades. He’d been rocketed out into the traffic, bounced off a humongous SUV, narrowly missed going under the wheels of a bus, and ended up in the gutter, knocked half silly.
“Bloody-Jack-bloody-Yarrow,” he snarled. “He’s behind it. If he didn’t try to murder me himself, he got someone to do it for him.”
Attempted murder? I suggested Oscar take his suspicions to the cops quick smart. That got him shaking his shaggy head violently. No way was he getting the law involved, he said, as that would just play into Jack Yarrow’s hands. Yarrow would brand him as a total ratbag, a weirdo making wild accusations.
The doctor who examined Oscar wanted to admit him to the hospital for observation overnight, but Oscar started bellowing about how he’d spoken to his sister and how she’d dipped out of a faculty meeting at UCLA just so she’d be home to look after him. “Kylie here can drive me to Pen’s place as soon as you bloody let me go.”
By the time I got Oscar into my new car—I’d collected it just two days earlier—he’d worn himself out with all that yelling. He settled into the front seat, a bad-tempered hairy bundle.
My new vehicle was a dark-gray Toyota Camry. It was nice enough but rather boring. It wasn’t half the fun to drive as my dad’s restored red Mustang but much more suitable for surveillance operations, where I was supposed to blend in with the traffic. Not that I’d done any proper surveillance yet, but I’d practiced a few times. I had to admit I needed to polish my skills a bit in that area. One bloke I’d picked out to follow had pointed me out to a motorcycle cop, and I’d had to talk fast to get out of hot water.
Oscar gave me his sister’s address, and I checked the location in The Thomas Guide. This took a bit of time, as the directory seemed to have a zillion streets, many with the same name. Los Angeles was just too big for any one person to know all of it well. My hometown, Wollegudgerie, would have fitted into one of L.A.’s suburbs a couple of times, with plenty of space left over.
“There’s a fair chance I’ll get lost,” I said.
Oscar grunted and closed his eyes.
We set off into the heavy afternoon traffic, and I quite pleased myself by finding Dr. Penelope Braithwaite’s street with only one little detour in the wrong direction. Oscar didn’t even notice this small blip, as he was slumped in his seat, now and then mumbling “Bloody Yarrow” to himself.
When I drew up in front of his sister’s apartment block, by extraordinary good fortune snaffling a vacant parking spot, Oscar roused himself to say, “Come on up and meet Pen. You need to discuss how she’s getting you into the biology department at UCLA.”
Dr. Penelope Braithwaite snatched open the door of her apartment before Oscar could turn his key in the lock. “Oscar, you silly bastard, what have you been doing to yourself?”
This sheila certainly made an instant impression. She was oversize in every way, being both taller and wider than me, and possessing a loud, confident voice whose ringing tone I reckoned could be heard out in the street. Her hair sprang from her scalp in tawny waves, cascading down to her broad shoulders. Her face had definite features—huge, lustrous gray eyes; an emphatic nose; a wide, full-lipped red mouth. I caught a glimpse of large, square teeth, which were very white.
“It was Yarrow,” Oscar ground out.
“Oh, Yarrow,” she said dismissively, waving us both in. She shook my hand with a grip just short of painful. “You must be Kylie Kendall, my brother’s private eye.”
“G’day, Dr. Braithwaite,” I said, wondering if I should set her straight about my trainee status.
“Shove the doctor bit,” she said, flashing her teeth in a big smile. “Call me Pen.”
“I suppose you’ve already discovered that my brother’s a bit of a whinger.”
’Strewth, this was a trifle heartless. The bloke had nearly been killed. “Your brother did say he was deliberately shoved into the traffic.”
She raised her eyebrows. They were significant, like the rest of her. “Yeah?” Turning to him, she said, “You really think Jack Yarrow tried to kill you? If so, he’s obviously managed to clone himself, since from early this morning he’s been in the same long, boring meeting I’ve had to endure.”
“Then he paid someone to do it.”
Penelope put her hands on her hips. “Listen up, bro. You spend your life tramping around the bush, taking your own sweet time about things. People in this town are notoriously impatient. Someone at the back of the pack pushes the guy in front of him, who pushes whoever’s in front of him, and voila!—you end up on the roadway.”
Oscar jutted out his lower lip. “It was deliberate. If it wasn’t bloody Jack Yarrow, it was someone working for him.” He shook his head emphatically. “Attempted murder, that’s what it was.”
She gusted a large sigh. “And what do you propose to do about it? Call the cops?”
Oscar jerked his head in my direction. “No need. Kylie here’s already on the case.”
Crikey, I had a suspicion I’d have my hands full trying to impersonate a graduate student and getting the goods on Professor Yarrow about the plagiarism. Adding attempted murder to the mix was a bit much.
“There’s a problem?” Penelope Braithwaite said, towering over me. She’d have been a ripper basketball player.
“I have to consult with my partner.”
“Fair enough,” she conceded. “We’ll have to negotiate a larger fee to cover extra services.”
“But you don’t think your brother was deliberately pushed,” I pointed out.
She gave him an indulgent look. “He’s a boothead, of course, but if it’ll set his mind at rest, it’s worth the money.”
Hell’s bells! This case was getting complicated. “I’ll get back to you,” I said.