by Claire McNab
A family business turns deadly…
Bryce Darcy, partner is a highly successful family business, has been brutally murdered. Charlotte Darcy, sister to the victim, has confessed. Open and shut case, Detective Inspector Carol Ashton is informed. Not so, argues Carol’s aunt, friend to the Darcy family. She contends that Charlotte is mentally incompetent.
Carol reopens the investigation. Bus she is in personal crisis, close to burnout. Sick of the patriarchal framework of police work, sick of hiding her real lesbian self for the sake of her career.
Carol’s lover is not much help—Sybil has found her own direction in a dynamic women’s group. And the loyal Detective Sergeant Mark Bourke is distracted by his interest in the career of a promising female constable new to homicide.
Amid her own predicament, Carol finds herself embroiled in a family at war. She discovers that the dead man was a member of a support group for married gay men. And that the Darcy family, blessed with fame and fortune, seethes with secrets: ambiguous parentage, a disgraceful family swindle, fraud, infidelity, attempted drug poisoning. And among the warring Darcys is a pitiless murderer.
Fourth in the Carol Ashton Series.
The hammer was an elegant black and silver. Its chrome shaft flashed with the first quick blow. A pause, filled with the sound of hard breathing, and then, bending, one final assault.
Urgent fingers felt for a pulse that flickered, then failed.
The refrigerator in the corner of the studio cut in, its motor humming loudly. Someone was outside, voice raised in querulous questions.
The hammer lay discarded, its bloody head bright against the cork tiled floor.
* * *
Detective Inspector Carol Ashton closed the folder and leaned back in her chair to survey the uninspiring beige walls of her office. But the stark images of the children’s bodies stayed clearly in her mind. In this case, as in many others like it, the murder-suicide followed a chilling pattern. A battle for custody in the Family Court; the mother “winning”; the father, apparently rational, taking his children for his usual weekend visitation rights; the discovery of the small pathetic bodies and their dead father. And usually a note, intended to ensure the surviving parent would suffer maximum guilt and distress.
Carol tried, but failed, to imagine what it would be like to identify her own son’s body. And of course, since her ex-husband had custody of David, if the usual pattern were to be followed, she would have to be the one to murder him and then commit suicide. The enormity of such an act defeated her: to kill one’s own child.
A crime against nature—yet there was a familiarity about this extreme domestic violence that had blunted even the media’s enthusiasm, so that it took a case with a twist to make the front pages or a quiet day on the television newsfront to have the murder-suicide as a lead story. This small family tragedy, reduced to photographs, reports and statements in a folder on Carol’s desk, had had no special angle to make it particularly newsworthy, so, apart from a blustering attack on the Family Court by a television commentator who used identical hyperbole whether discussing the court system, political corruption or faulty labeling in supermarkets, this particular case had faded rapidly from public view.
Carol stared at the television set squatting blankly in the corner of her office, seeing her reflection distorted by the curvature of the screen. A woman in control, seated with authority behind a desk, blonde hair falling in disciplined lines, dark suit severe and businesslike, dealing with each case of violent death with calm efficiency. That was certainly the impression she had given earlier that morning on the seven o’clock news show.
Ongoing allegations of police inefficiency and the familiar calls from the State Opposition for a royal commission into possible corruption had forced the Commissioner into a public relations exercise. Carol usually found herself included in these efforts to create a positive public image because she had a high media profile and was skilled in handling the wiliest interviewer. Her appearance on the early morning television news program was ostensibly to discuss the use of new scientific techniques in crime detection, but was actually part of a well-organized effort to present the Force as efficient, reliable, and cleansed of all corrupt officers.
Although conscious of the importance of good public relations, Carol was impatient with the whole exercise. She felt stale, unmotivated. Even so, she had dealt efficiently with ill-informed questions from the smirking interviewer, who obviously saw himself as the match for any Detective Inspector, however media-wise she may be. They discussed the use of DNA profiling in a whole range of applications, from paternity suits to semen testing in sexual assault cases. As she knew he would, he then brought up the latest sensational crime, a gang-rape murder trial in which she had given evidence.
After delving into the brutal details, with a pause to emphasize some of the worst aspects of what had been a particularly hideous crime, he said challengingly, “So, Inspector, surely, as a woman, you must feel a need for revenge, a special reason to nail these men who savagely rape and murder?”
During the trial, when she had been giving evidence, her voice calm, dispassionate, she had looked over at the accused in the dock. There they sat, spruce in new suits, each with a studied look of clean innocence. Yet she knew what they had done and how they had done it. She remembered the rage that had put a momentary tremor into her voice. If it had been possible, at that moment she would have rid the world of their existence, exterminated them all.
To the interviewer she said, “As a police officer it’s my job to gather evidence. The judge and jury decide each case. I make professional decisions on the likelihood of guilt, but I make no judgments. That’s not my role, nor that of any police officer.”
He had then veered off onto an unrelated issue about the small number of women in the upper echelons of the police hierarchy. Carol knew all the right things to say about equal opportunity and affirmative action and she heard her clear, confident voice repeating them with sincerity.
Afterwards the middle-aged woman removing Carol’s television make-up had asked her about openings for young women in the Force. “My Debbie’s that keen,” she had said, her hands deftly applying face cream, “but her Dad and I told her it’s still a man’s world, ’specially in the police.” She had looked thoughtfully over Carol’s shoulder into the mirror where they both were reflected in the harsh light of the make-up room. “Debbie’s seen you a lot on the telly,” she said as Carol’s green eyes met hers, “and she says you’ve done it, so why shouldn’t she —but I said you were very good looking, beautiful, even, and that must have been a help. Was it, then?”
Carol had laughed off the question with a self-deprecating remark. Now she frowned. She had worked hard to get to be a Detective Inspector, but could she deny that her good looks at times had smoothed the way? And would she have had the media attention if she had been unremarkable, or even ugly?
And what was the point of considering how and why she had attained the rank of Detective Inspector? Or why the pleasure she took in her work had evaporated? She had seen colleagues experience burnout, the pressures of the job destroying peace of mind and health. She thought, I’d leave before I’d let that happen to me.
“Carol? See you a minute?”
She looked up to Mark Bourke’s pleasantly homely face. He hadn’t needed outstandingly handsome features to help his career—his success had been due to hard work and a low-key interviewing technique that could lull even the most suspicious into a dangerous complacency.
“The Darcy case,” said Bourke as he handed her one of his carefully lettered folders. “And you don’t need to get involved.”
“No?” Unwillingly, she felt a glimmer of interest.
“As far as I can see it’s open and shut. A nice neat case of fratricide.”
He sat, self-consciously running his hand over his hair, which he had recently had cut so short it resembled a brown stubble.
Carol said, “How neat?”
Bourke’s tone was appreciative. “Neatly executed and, I hope, about to be neatly solved. One or two nicely judged hammer blows to the head in order to dispatch her brother, then Charlotte Darcy waits in her studio, rolling her eyes and frothing at the mouth, to be found with body.”
“I suppose you don’t mean that literally. It’s your usual colorful approach?”
Grinning, Bourke nodded. “So no froth.” His tone became matter-of-fact as he continued, “The officers who answered the call from her husband yesterday afternoon said she was confused and incoherent. She was sitting on a tall work stool near the body with blood on her clothes and the hammer that is almost certainly the murder weapon on the bench beside her. One of the patrol officers asked her, ‘Did you do this?’ and he says she replied, ‘I must have…I don’t remember.’”
Carol played with her gold pen, pensively turning its smooth yellow cap with her fingertips. “Is she in custody?”
“Not yet. Her parents arrived with a tame psychiatrist—Dr. Naomi Reed, no less—shortly after I arrived.”
“It’s Nora and Keith Darcy, isn’t it?”
Bourke looked surprised. “You know them?”
“They’re friends of my Aunt Sarah, so I’ve met them a few times. Keith Darcy’s very influential in the Blue Mountains area, especially since Darcy Designs provides employment there and he’s been the mayor of the local council for a couple of terms.”
Bourke grunted. “He’s a hard man—looks the type who usually gets what he wants. Charlotte Darcy’s husband—Eric Higgins—faded into the background when his father-in-law arrived. Darcy tried leaning on me at first, insisting on seeing his son’s body. That took the wind out of his sails and we had to help him out of the studio and into the house. Thought he’d collapse, but his wife sat him down and got him a brandy, all in the calmest way possible. It was funny, Carol, she didn’t say a word the whole time and even when she looked at her dead son it seemed almost without interest.”
“Shock takes different people different ways.”
“How true,” said Bourke flippantly. “It apparently drove Charlotte right around the bend. Dr. Reed, who had been examining her while I was dealing with her parents, stalked in to announce Charlotte was too ill to be interviewed and was being immediately admitted to her private clinic.”
Carol leaned back to consider the situation. “So her parents brought a doctor, but no lawyer.”
Bourke grinned. “The way their daughter was behaving, that seemed a wise choice.”
Carol was used to Mark Bourke’s irreverent attitude, but even so she felt nettled by his light-hearted comments about a mentally ill woman who apparently had murdered her brother. She said curtly, “How did Charlotte Darcy seem to you?”
Bourke considered. “When I first saw her she seemed detached, not with it, as though she wasn’t sure what had happened. Had a good look at her eyes and the pupils were dilated, but that, of course, could be aforementioned shock…or drugs. I had trouble getting her attention when I tried to get her to repeat her confession.”
His cheerful tone provoked Carol. “You hadn’t cautioned her.”
Looking surprised at Carol’s vehemence, Bourke said, “This was just the preliminaries, Carol. I’d just walked in the door. Anyway, she ignored me. I finally got some sort of response when I asked her how long she had been with her brother’s body before her husband came in. Said she didn’t know. Fingerprinted her and the husband and she watched the whole procedure with a sort of distant interest. Frankly, the woman was so far off the planet I don’t think she really understood what she’d done.”
Carol couldn’t prevent a sharp note in her voice as she said, “So you’ve quite made up your mind Charlotte Darcy killed her brother?”
“I told you, it’s open and shut. She’s been going off the rails for the past few months, I gather, and she had a series of arguments, some very heated, with her brother Bryce over the last couple of weeks. As I see it, yesterday she snaps completely and beats his head in with the nearest adequate weapon. Look how it adds up, Carol.” Enthusiastically, he counted off the points on his fingers. “First, I’ll bet it’s her fingerprints on the hammer. Second, it’s almost certainly her brother’s blood on her clothes. Third, they’ve been in violent conflict over the business. Fourth, Charlotte Darcy’s acting like she’s several sandwiches short of a picnic.”
Leaning forward, he said persuasively, “And when you put it all together you’ve got a murder at best, manslaughter at the least. And wheeling in a high society psychiatrist like Naomi Reed probably means the family will go for everything-went-to-black as a defense, and they’ll probably get away with it too.”
He frowned at her doubting expression. “Carol, you’re trying to make this more complicated than it is. Maybe she’s on drugs, maybe she’s just crazy—either way, it’s pretty clear what happened. I’m going to the Reed Clinic tomorrow to ask a few pointed questions. With a bit of luck I’ll wrap it up in the next few days.”
Carol felt a flicker of irritation at Bourke’s cheerful appropriation of the case, a feeling that flared when he said, “I’ve brought Anne Newsome in on this one.”
“Isn’t she working with Ferguson on the Veringsky killing?”
Although her tone was neutral, Bourke looked at her closely. He said mildly, “That’s pretty well completed, and Anne needs more experience in the field.”
Carol wondered if his interest in the young Constable was more personal than professional. She was surprised at the jolt of resentment the idea gave her.
Leaning back, deliberately casual, she said, “Have you any time free this afternoon? I’d like to see the studio where Darcy was killed.”
Bourke’s face immediately became blank. But his voice was light as he shook his head. “Sorry, Carol, I’m tied up. Constable Newsome was with me yesterday, so she might be of help.”
Carol noticed the transition from the informal use of Anne to Constable Newsome. “Would you check with her, Mark, and also see if Charlotte Darcy’s husband is available?”
After he had gone, Carol put the file to one side and dialed her home number, frowning as the answering machine clinked on, her own voice exhorting the caller to leave a message after the tone. She had expected Sybil to answer as she had Tuesdays off now that she was working as a part-time teacher.
Carol smiled at her own chagrin. Why should she expect everything and everybody to accommodate her wishes? She returned to the neatly labeled DARCY folder, skimming the contents. The victim, Bryce Darcy, had been married with two young sons. His wife had been eighty kilometers away in Katoomba at the time of the murder. She had been too distraught to be interviewed immediately.
Carol put the few preliminary statements to one side and studied the photographs closely. They were, as always, grimly distinct. Bryce Darcy lay face down, arms under his body. Close-ups from several angles showed the wounds that had flawed the symmetry of his smooth fair hair. Carol could see what Mark Bourke had meant when he had said it was a neat murder. There was no sign of a struggle, the victim apparently having fallen immediately, without time for any defensive action. It didn’t look like a frenzied attack, just a few quick, forceful blows to accomplish an efficient killing.
“Open and shut,” Bourke had said, and Carol thought how easy it would be to shrug and let him handle the case himself. But then, she had a niggling feeling that it was all too neat, too predictable. She thought with distaste of the killings she had recently investigated—most of them grim, depressing examples of humanity at its most basic—crimes where motivations were obvious. But this murder seemed different in some way. Perhaps it would end up being just another addition to the sordid list, yet in her mind a welcome curiosity began to uncurl.