by Claire McNab
Kylie Kendall thought Los Angeles was far enough away from the meddling affairs of her family Down Under. But then comes word that her cousin “Dingo” O’Rourke is not only in town, but in trouble. Word is that Dingo is working as a security guard on the hit new TV series, Darleen Come Home, a modern-day Lassie starring, what else—a dingo—and one that kidnappers would love to wrangle.
Add in a ruthless real estate developer, a pair of mysterious “feds,” and another relative showing up at her agency, and suddenly Kylie’s got her hands full. Oh, and Kylie has accidentally just been cast in a small role in Darleen.
You think being a private investigator is tough? Try acting!
Fourth in the Kylie Kendall Mystery Series.
Originally published by Alyson Books 2006.
“G’day,” I said through the window to the bloke I’d nearly run down as I’d whizzed through the gates and into Kendall & Creeling’s parking area. He moved out of the way, but didn’t reply. I parked my dad’s vintage red Mustang and hopped out. “Can I help you?”
Hands on hips, he was giving our building a concentrated look-see. He was a puny bloke, going bald fast, but his dark blue suit was expensive and he was wearing on his skinny wrist a Rolex watch, though it could have been a fake, for all I knew.
I joined him in his assessment of the pseudo-Spanish house that had been converted into offices. It wasn’t all that long ago I’d seen it for the first time myself, having lobbed in from Australia when I inherited a controlling interest in my father’s business.
The stucco walls were a bright, pinkish-ocher color, topped with a roof of fat, curved terracotta tiles. We were standing in what must have been the front garden—now a parking area. Still without saying a word, the bloke advanced to the small tiled courtyard that led to the entrance. In the center was a little fountain I’d recently had fixed, so it was cheerfully spurting a lacy column of recycled water. The black wooden front door had many brass studs and a heavy black metal lever instead of a door handle.
“You’re in need of a private eye, are you?”
That got his attention. “Private eye? Whatever gave you that idea?”
“Could be because you’re standing in front of Kendall & Creeling Investigative Services.”
He shook his head impatiently, then reached in his pocket, took out a silver case, opened it, and handed me a business card. “I’m a developer.”
I examined the card, then stuck out my hand. “G’day, Norris Blainey. I’m Kylie Kendall.”
He could hardly have been less interested. His dead-fish handshake went with his pale eyes, weak chin, and slack mouth. He dropped my fingers and went back to sizing up the property.
“It’s pretend Spanish,” I said.
“That doesn’t interest me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a tear-down.”
Norris Blainey sighed, mumbled something about foreigners, then said, “It’ll be torn down. Demolished.”
“Half a mo,” I said, “no one’s touching this building.”
He gave me a bit of a scornful smile. “And you’d have a say?”
“I reckon so. I own it.”
This was an exaggeration. Dad had left me exactly fifty-one percent of the business. His partner, Ariana Creeling, held the remaining forty-nine percent.
“You have a business card?”
“Too right I do.”
I’d just had them printed, so I whipped one out and handed it to him. The company name, KENDALL & CREELING INVESTIGATIVE SERVICES, was followed by some of the areas we covered—undercover investigations, skip tracing, surveillance, background clearances, security consulting, industrial espionage. KYLIE KENDALL appeared at the bottom right-hand corner. There was no mention, of course, that I was only a trainee PI.
Norris Blainey was looking at me with considerably more interest than before. “This section of Sunset Boulevard is ripe for development,” he declared. “We’ll be approaching your neighbors with offers they won’t be able to refuse.” With sudden enthusiasm, he flung his arms wide. “My company aims to level this entire block and build a complex of multi-level offices and condos.”
“Forget about leveling Kendall & Creeling. It’s not going to happen.”
Seeming surprised, he said, “You can’t stand in the way of progress.”
This bloke was well on the way to giving me the irrits. “Just watch me.”
He slapped on an ingratiating smile. “I know it feels more comfortable to resist change, but when I get back to you in writing with an offer—a very generous offer—I’m convinced you’ll realize selling is to your considerable advantage.”
“Write away. You’ll have Buckley’s.”
I was about to clarify that this meant he had no chance at all, but Norris Blainey was already heading for the street. “I’ll get back to you,” he called over his narrow shoulder.
I shoved open the front door in a dark mood. What if all the other places along our section of Sunset Boulevard gave in and sold out to this developer bloke? What if our offices were surrounded by looming buildings, cutting out the sunshine? What if—
I focused on Melodie, seated behind the new desk Fran had ordered—a Spanish-themed black wooden number which had been artificially aged to look like something out of Don Quixote. Melodie was Kendall & Creeling’s receptionist, at least until her career in acting took off in a big way. “What’s up?” I asked.
“Like, it’s real serious.” She put her hand to her throat. “Real serious.”
I wasn’t alarmed. Melodie never missed an op to hone her dramatic skills. “Don’t tell me Julia Roberts is upsetting Lonnie again. He’ll have to learn to deal with it.”
Melodie shook her head, swirling her long blonde hair in her shampoo-ad manner. Big green eyes wide, she said, “It’s your mom. You just missed her call.”
It was my turn to clutch my throat. Back in Australia, my mum ran The Wombat’s Retreat hotel in Wollegudgerie, my hometown. Ever since I’d arrived in LA, Mum had been working hard to get me to return to the Outback and help her run the pub, since Jack, her fiance, had turned out to be pretty much a no-hoper in this area.
“What’s happened?” I asked with foreboding. “Is she okay?”
“I guess it’s real complicated. Your mom said to call her back the moment you came in.”
“Give me a clue,” I said. “The pub hasn’t burnt down, has it?”
“Your mom said something about a tractor and a dingo.”
“A tractor and a dingo?”
Melodie clasped her hands. “A dingo’s got my baby!” she announced in deeply tragic tones.
I’d heard this line a thousand times while Melodie’d been practicing what she fondly believed was an authentic Aussie accent, though she wasn’t within a bull’s roar of one. Trying not to sound impatient, I said, “Meryl Streep in A Cry in the Dark. Yes?”
“Malcolm, my voice coach, says Meryl’s got the accent,” Melodie declared, “but not the Aussie cadence, like I have.”
In my opinion, Malcolm wouldn’t recognize an Australian accent if it leapt up and smacked him in the kisser, but I kept this to myself. “Any other messages?”
“Fran says to tell you the shed for the backyard’s arriving tomorrow and the guys will have it up by lunchtime. She’s expecting you to help shift the office supplies so she can put her disaster stuff in the storeroom.”
Fran had bestowed upon herself the title of Office Manager, and since she was Ariana Creeling’s niece, she was hard to challenge when she got a bee in her bonnet about something. Being of a naturally pessimistic nature, Homeland Security’s dire warnings about disaster preparedness had fallen on fertile ground. Fran was accumulating a range of disaster supplies faster than we could find places to store them.
“That’s bonzer,” I said, not meaning it. I had plans for that storeroom, but until I could come up with somewhere else to store Fran’s disaster stuff I was stymied.
Before returning Mum’s call, I soothed myself with the routine of making myself tea. I heated the teapot with half a cup of hot water, emptied that out and added loose tea leaves and boiling water, waited four minutes, then poured myself a cuppa. Thus fortified, I went to my office, shut the door, picked up the phone, and punched in the number before I was tempted to find some delaying tactic to put off the moment when Mum would beg me to come home, and I’d say no.
It was very early morning in Wollegudgerie, but Mum always got up with the birds. She was more than fifteen thousand kilometers away, but she came down the line as clearly as if she were in the room with me. “Kylie, you’re okay?”
“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You’re living in LA, aren’t you?”
“It’s on the telly every blessed night. Freeway shootings, carjackings, serial killers—”
“Melodie said something about a dingo,” I interposed, before she could whip herself into a lather.
“Not a dingo, dear. Dingo O’Rourke. You know, Harry and Gert’s boy. Your cousin, a few times removed.”
“What about him?” Doug O’Rourke had always been called Dingo, maybe because he was a bit like a wild dog himself.
“Harry’s beside himself with worry.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Mum, but I can’t see—”
“His only son, living in that hellhole called LA.”
“Really, Kylie, I wish you’d listen. I’ve just told you that. He’s landed himself a job as a dingo wrangler on some TV show.”
“You don’t mean Darleen Come Home, do you?”
When I’d heard that they were making a family show modeled on the old Lassie series, but starring a dingo instead of a collie, I’d had a bit of a giggle to myself. Fair dinkum, a dingo would be more likely to take a bite out of someone, rather than carry out a rescue.
“That’s the show—Darleen Come Home. I don’t mind telling you, Dingo’s making a pretty penny working on it, but something’s gone wrong.”
“A problem with Darleen the dingo? She won’t come home?” I said with a grin.
I’d tried to sound serious, but sharp as a tack, Mum picked up that I was amused. “This is no laughing matter, Kylie,” she said severely. “Harry says Dingo’s acting like he’s in big trouble, but when Harry asks him what’s up, he says everything’s OK. I said to Harry—Harry I said, I know only too well what it’s like to have one’s child run off to a foreign country without a thought of the deep worry it causes a parent.”
“And when it’s Los Angeles…well! Murder capital of the world, isn’t it?”
“Nowhere close. In fact, the murder rate’s falling.”
Mum always ignored contrary facts. “So I said to Harry, Kylie will look into it and get back to you. No charge, of course. I mean, this is family.”
I repressed a sigh. “Harry hasn’t thought of coming over here himself, to see what’s going on?”
“Can’t. He’s got to stick by Gert, seeing as she fell off the tractor and did herself a fair bit of damage. Of course it was her own fault. She was doing wheelies in wet grass, the silly chook.”
“She’s badly hurt?”
“A few broken bones,” said Mum airily. “Nothing major, but you know how Gert loves to hold center stage. She’s got Harry at her beck and call. Suits her down to the ground.”
“I’m awfully busy, Mum.”
“This is family, Kylie.”
My mother had me there. There was no argument I could marshal against the family card. “OK, what do you want me to do?”
“Just find out what’s wrong with Dingo. He’ll talk to you. Harry and Gert will feel so much better knowing you’re on the case.”
I got details from her of where Dingo O’Rourke was working, the address of his apartment, and the number of his mobile phone—I reminded myself it was cell phone in the States.
“I’m not promising anything, Mum.”
“No probs for you, darl, you being almost a private eye.”
I started to say goodbye, but my mum said, “Oh, there is one more thing.”
An ominous premonition swept over me. “What?”
“It’s Nephew Brucie.” Mum always called her sister’s son “Nephew Brucie” because she knew it annoyed him mightily.
“What about him?”
“He’s talked Harry into paying his airfare. He’s intending to join you in LA to help with Dingo.”
An involuntary cry of horror broke from my lips. “Not my cousin Brucie!”
“Millie and I tried to stop him, but it was no use.”
I said goodbye, put down the receiver, then slumped in my chair. Norris Blainey was aiming to tear down the building. I had a non-paying job to find out what was ailing Dingo O’Rourke. And my noxious cousin Brucie was about to lob into LA.
Wouldn’t it rot your socks?
I put my head around Ariana’s door, hoping to find her in her office, but saw with a stab of disappointment that she wasn’t there. Then I remembered she’d mentioned going to the dentist this morning, so I left a note on her desk: Not to be a total panic merchant, Ariana, but some developer is after our building. His name’s Norris Blainey and he looks to me like he’s the type to pull a swifty.
Deciding a fresh cup of tea would raise my flagging spirits, I headed for the kitchen, arriving just as Kendall & Creeling’s technical wizard, Lonnie Moore, appeared.
“Doughnuts,” he said. “I heard there were doughnuts.” He patted his plump stomach. “Hunger,” he said. “Gnawing hunger. I haven’t eaten since last night.”
This was hard to believe, as Lonnie was a devotee of fast food, and usually picked up breakfast from a McDonald’s drive-through on his way to work.
“You missed out on McDonald’s this morning?”
Lonnie gave me his charming, little-boy smile. “Well, no, but I ate practically nothing—just a couple of Egg McMuffins.” He scanned the kitchen and homed in on a box labeled Delicioso Doughnuts that in my angst I hadn’t even noticed. “Ah-hah!” he said triumphantly. “I thought I heard Fran telling Melodie last night she’d pick these up on the way to work this morning.”
“Lonnie, have you heard of a bloke called Norris Blainey? He says he’s a developer.”
Lonnie was already chomping on a chocolate doughnut, so his reply was indistinct. He swallowed, sighed with pleasure, then said, “Bad news.”
“Norris Blainey’s bad news?”
“Ruthless. A big real estate shark. Destroys neighborhoods. Throws widows and orphans out on the street.”
“Stone the crows! That bad?”
Having demolished one doughnut, Lonnie was busy selecting another. “Where did you run across Blainey?”
“Outside in the car park. He was giving our building the once-over.”
“He was here?” For a moment Lonnie lost interest in food, which immediately indicated I had a lot to worry about. “Jesus, there goes the neighborhood.”
“Norris Blainey told me he aims to buy out everyone on the block, demolish the whole shebang, and put up a complex of offices and condos.”
“Bummer. We’ll have to relocate.”
“Kendall & Creeling’s not going anywhere, Lonnie. No one’s buying us out.”
Lonnie looked at me gloomily. “Good luck. Blainey’s a lot tougher than anyone you’ve met in the Outback. This guy’s an operator.”
“I’ve handled yobbos in the bar of Mum’s pub who’d eat Norris Blainey for breakfast,” I declared.
He shook his head so violently a lock of straight brown hair fell over one eye, giving him a rakish, devil-may-care appearance. “No way. You’re totally out of your depth here, Kylie. Blainey’s the developer from hell.” Lonnie sighed heavily. “I don’t know how I’ll face relocating all my stuff. I mean, I know where everything is in my room, right now. But if I have to pack it up and move it…”
A vision of Lonnie’s room swam before my eyes. It was always an indescribable mess, packed with electronic gear of every type, along with folders, papers, books, abandoned coffee mugs, and various odd items, like the knee-high gnome that had suddenly appeared one day recently. I’d asked Lonnie about it, and he’d become evasive.
I was about to bring up the gnome again—it was good practice for my interviewing skills—when I heard the unmistakable sound of Melodie tapping down the tiled hallway in her super-high heels. Crikey, I reckon I’d be tottering, not walking, but Melodie had the balance of a gymnast and titanium ankles.
“I thought so,” she snapped, striding across the kitchen and snatching the box of Delicioso Doughnuts from Lonnie. “They’re not all for you. If you’ve taken the last chocolate one, you’re history, Lonnie.”
“There’s plenty for everyone,” he said with dignity. He opened the refrigerator door and peered inside. “Who’s taken my passion fruit tea?” He glared at us accusingly. “I see peach and apricot, but no passion fruit.”
“Don’t look at me,” I said. Blimey, it was bad enough that the stuff was weak, iced tea, but to put artificial flavors in it as well? Yerks! I didn’t show my disgust, as Lonnie loved to tease me about what he called my flavored-tea phobia.
“It just so happens I noticed Harriet drinking passion fruit tea,” Melodie said. “She’s minding the front desk for me. I bribed her with a doughnut.”
Lonnie’s chubby face darkened. “Pregnancy won’t protect her,” he said. “Harriet knows perfectly well that passion fruit’s my favorite.” He paused at the door to say with a helpful smile, “If you like, I’ll take the doughnuts up to her so she can choose the one she likes.”
“Dream on, Lonnie. You’d eat half of them on the way.”
He seemed wounded at Melodie’s charge, well founded though it was. “Trust is a precious thing,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s in short supply around here.”
“Rather like doughnuts,” Melodie said pointedly to his departing back. She turned her attention to me. “Did you find out what the story was with the tractor and the dingo?”
“Nothing to do with a native dog. It’s a bloke called Dingo O’Rourke. He’s a distant cousin of mine and is working as a dingo wrangler on Darleen Come Home.”
Melodie’s eyes lit up. “No! On Darleen Come Home? Larry-my-agent says with my mastery of an Aussie accent, I’m practically a sure thing for a part. He’s lining up an audition for me as we speak.”
Melodie referred to her agent so often that he’d become a hyphenated phrase in my mind. “Larry-my-agent’s a bit off the mark, isn’t he? The show’s set in Texas.”
“Sure, but there’s an Australian in the cast—Dustin Jaeger. He plays Timmy, the adopted son of the Hardestie family. Aussies turn up all the time in the stories. Don’t you watch it?”
I confessed I didn’t. Melodie showed amazement. “But it’s a hit, Kylie. Like everyone wants a dingo for a pet, now they’ve seen Darleen in action.”
Whether it was fair or not, where I came from wild dingoes were regarded as sly and treacherous. “I wouldn’t leave a kid alone with a dingo,” I said. “You’d come back and the kid’d be gone, and the dingo’d be smacking his lips. Look what happened to the baby in A Cry in the Dark.”
“That was a rogue dingo,” Melodie declared. “Darleen’s quite different.”
Lonnie came sauntering into the kitchen, attracted by the magnetic qualities of the remaining doughnuts. “Harriet says to hurry up, Melodie. She’s got an appointment with her doctor. The baby’s due any day now.” Anxiety creased his brow. “I do hope Harriet doesn’t go into labor while she’s here. I’m not good with anything medical.”
“No worries,” I said. “You can keep yourself busy boiling lots of water while Melodie and I deliver the baby.”
“I know you’re supposed to have boiling water for babies being born, but what’s it for?” he asked.
“It’s just to keep people like you occupied, so you don’t have hysterics.”
Indignant, Lonnie said, “I do not have hysterics. The sight of blood makes me faint, that’s all.”
From Melodie’s expression it was clear that for her, childbirth was not a gripping subject. She broke in with, “Lonnie, have you heard? Kylie’s cousin is the dingo wrangler on Darleen Come Home. Isn’t that great? It’s like, a personal link to the show to know the dingo wrangler.”
“Oh, yeah?” said Lonnie, not impressed. “I know a star wrangler.”
“Oh, Lonnie, you do not”
Clearly miffed, he snapped, “Why’s that so hard to accept?”
“What’s a star wrangler?” I asked.
“They guarantee to deliver the right celebrity guests to events and parties,” said Melodie. “Let’s say you have this big function, and you want Hilary or Paris or Scarlett or Lindsay, or a power couple like Tom and Katie, then a star wrangler corrals them for you. Of course, you need celebrity bait, too.”
“Appearance money,” said Lonnie, in the manner of one in the know. “Gifts, publicity, donations to the star’s favorite charity. All that sort of stuff.”
“What’s the name of this star wrangler you say you know?” asked Melodie, deeply suspicious. “You’ve made it all up, haven’t you?”
“I’ve made nothing up. Pauline works for Glowing Bodies, the event coordinators.”
“Glowing Bodies is the company name?” I said.
“Celebrities sort of glow, more than ordinary people,” Lonnie pointed out. “So, Glowing Bodies.”
“I’ve been told I have a radiance, a sort of glow about me,” Melodie declared.
Lonnie unsuccessfully repressed a chortle. She glared at him. “Something’s funny?”
“Not more than usual,” he smirked.
“This Pauline,” said Melodie, looking narrowly at him, “what’s her last name?”
“Feeney. Pauline Feeney.”
“She’s your girlfriend?”
A blush spread over Lonnie’s chubby face. “You could say that.”
“I don’t believe it!” She turned to me. “Do you believe it, Kylie?”
“Well, if Lonnie says so…”
Fran chose this moment to appear at the kitchen door. Obviously she was in a dark mood, which was par for the course. Fran wasn’t tall but she made quite an impression, combining a spectacular bust line, porcelain skin, and dark auburn hair with the bleakest of expressions. She rather reminded me of an exquisite but malevolent doll.
“Harriet’s bladder won’t take any more,” she announced. “She says you asked her to mind the telephone for five minutes. That was at least twenty minutes ago, Melodie. And Harriet wants to know where her doughnut is.”
“Fran, what do you think of this? Lonnie says he’s got a girlfriend. She star wrangles for Glowing Bodies.”
Fran shot a look at Lonnie, who was still faintly pink. “A girlfriend? I don’t believe it.”
Seriously displeased, Lonnie snapped, “Why not?”
“Lonnie, face it, you’ve never mentioned a girlfriend before,” Fran pointed out.
“Just because I don’t parade my personal life—”
“How did you meet Pauline?” Melodie demanded. “Spell it out. At some celebrity do? I don’t think so!”
Lonnie had gone quite red again. “If you must know, through a dating service. A very reputable company, Soulmate Discovery.”
“A dating service? A star wrangler working for an outfit like Glowing Bodies would need a dating service?”
Stung by Melodie’s incredulity, Lonnie said furiously, “Pauline says once you’ve got past the fame, celebrities are totally shallow and self-centered. You can’t have a meaningful relationship with them, because they’re all in love with themselves.”
“That’s true,” said Fran. “Quip says the same thing.”
Quip was Fran’s husband, and wrote screenplays that so far had never been produced. He was a gorgeous bloke, and struck me as gay as billy-oh, but he and Fran seemed to have a happy marriage—or as happy as you could have with Fran’s outlook on life.
Encouraged by Fran’s support, Lonnie said with a superior smile, “Pauline says if I want to meet celebrities, she can get me an invitation to any event I like. Just name it, and I’m in.”
A calculating expression flashed across Melodie’s face. “Now I think about it, Lonnie, I can see why Pauline would be drawn to you when all she does is handle high-maintenance celebrities. I mean, you’re just an ordinary person.”
Looking quite chuffed, Lonnie said, “She does say it’s great to be with someone normal.”
“Or what laughingly passes for normal,” Fran observed.
The phone on the kitchen wall rang. As I was nearest, I answered it. Harriet, who normally was the most even-tempered person on earth, snarled, “Put Melodie on.”
“It’s Harriet for you,” I said, holding out the receiver.
Melodie grabbed the Delicioso box and shot out the door. “Tell her I’m on my way with doughnuts,” she called back over her shoulder.
I passed on the message. “About time!” Harriet snapped.
“Lonnie,” said Fran in a surprisingly sweet tone, “about tomorrow…”
He was immediately wary. “What about tomorrow?”
“We need to move the office stuff out of the storage room to make room for the disaster supplies.”
“You need to move the stuff, not me. I’m way too busy.”
Fran’s near-pleasant expression vanished. “Is that so?” she said icily. “Then I’ll be way too busy to provide you with essential supplies when the terrorists strike with a dirty bomb or germ warfare. Homeland Security says it’s only a matter of time.”
Lonnie looked stubborn.
“Or when the Big One hits, which could be any day now.”
I shivered. I’d only been in LA a few months, but had already experienced a minor earthquake and lots of aftershocks. The thought of the Big One was just too horrible to contemplate.
“Countless frantic survivors,” said Fran, warming to the theme, “crying out desperately for water, food, and medical equipment.” She paused meaningfully. “The very supplies which I just happen to have stockpiled.”
“It’ll never happen,” said Lonnie, without much confidence.
“Moaning in pain…”
Lonnie threw up his hands. “Oh, all right. I’ll help.”
Fran turned to me. “Kylie?”
“Right-oh. I’ll be there.”
The phone rang. It was Melodie. “Your Aunt Millie’s calling. Sounds real upset. I thought you might like to take it in your office.”
Hell’s bells! First Mum, now Aunt Millie. A dark pessimism, worthy of Fran, swept through me. Could the day possibly get worse? I had the awful conviction that it could.