by Claire McNab
Convinced that the recent death of young Australian opera star Collis Raeburn was not a suicide, as widely believed, Detective Inspector Carol Ashton opens up an investigation, an act that makes her unpopular with the victim’s next-of-kin.
Fifth in the Carol Ashton Series.
Originally published by Naiad Press 1992.
|Publication Date||October 1, 2003|
|Editor||Katherine V. Forrest|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
The young Duty Manager looked at the DO NOT DISTURB sign, cleared his throat, straightened his tie. He glanced at the substantial figure of the Housekeeping Supervisor, who stopped chewing her gum long enough to say, “Go for it.”
“I can hear something. Someone talking.”
“The television’s on.”
He paused a moment longer, then knocked resolutely. “Mr. Raeburn? This is the Duty Manager…”
The Housekeeping Supervisor sighed. “Hasn’t answered any of my room attendants. Not going to answer you.”
The television blared as he opened the door to a wall of cold air. He walked down the short entrance hall and stopped. “Jesus.”
Collis Raeburn lay sprawled on the bed, his head turned away as though hiding his face. One arm hung over the edge so that his hand touched the plush beige carpet near an overturned tumbler and a scatter of pills. There was a pungent stink of whiskey.
Reluctantly, the Duty Manager touched his shoulder, then his face. “Jesus,” he said again.
The Housekeeping Supervisor killed the television.
In the silence her matter-of-fact voice was too loud. “Offed himself.” When the young man beside her didn’t respond, she added, “Get the Manager and don’t touch anything.”
“Do you know who this is? Collis Raeburn, the opera singer.”
The Housekeeping Supervisor was already walking towards the door. “Yeah? Whoever he is, he’s still just as dead.”
Lounging in the doorway of the office kitchen, Detective Sergeant Mark Bourke ran a hand over his freshly close-cropped brown hair. “It’ll be quite a big wedding, actually. We both wanted something quiet, but Pat’s got all these relatives…”
“It’s not a good sign, lots of relatives,” said Constable Anne Newsome dolefully as she spooned instant coffee into a mug.
Detective Inspector Carol Ashton, amused at the young constable’s mockingly lugubrious tone, said, “Anne could be right, Mark. Think of all those relations you’re about to suddenly acquire, each asking for a traffic ticket to be fixed.”
Smiling affectionately at his familiar, blunt-featured face, she was sure that he would. Mark Bourke met life with an equanimity firmly based upon a dry sense of humor and an aptitude for the sheer grind that made up so much of police work. Carol had worked with him on many cases, and by now they shared a respect and affection for each other that was never verbalized, but comfortingly, was always there.
“The wedding will be outside,” he was saying. “Not a church. We’re having a marriage celebrant. Hope the weather’s okay—spring can be a bit dicey.”
“Making up your own vows?”
Mark looked astonished at the constable’s question. “Own vows? Pat never mentioned—”
“You can make up the whole thing. The only legal bit is when you sign your life away.”
Carol thought of her own large, ostentatious society wedding to barrister Justin Hart at the very exclusive St. Mark’s at Darling Point, and the civilized, quiet divorce some years later. “Thought you’d go for a formal wedding, Mark.”
“I would have, Carol, believe me. You know I like everything set out, so I know where I am. But Pat wanted it at Balmoral Beach.”
Anne chuckled. “On the sand, or ankle-deep in the water near the shark net?”
Carol looked at her reflectively as Mark described how the ceremony would be in the rotunda—a restored Victorian bandstand that sat fetchingly in a park near the creamy sand.
Top of her class at the Academy, ebullient, intelligent, Anne had been part of the team for over six months, and she had fitted in effortlessly. She volunteered her opinion, didn’t seem awed by the other detectives, yet never presumed a status she didn’t hold. Carol’s initial antagonism was based, she had finally realized, on her chagrin that the cozy professional relationship she had enjoyed with Mark Bourke now had to accommodate an ambitious female officer. Anne Newsome’s professionalism, however, had finally won Carol’s reluctant approval, and then her support.
Carol turned to the gray-suited, sleek man who had uttered her name with soft emphasis. “Yes?”
He extended a hand. “I’m Simon Sykes, from the Commissioner’s office. We haven’t met before, Inspector, but I’ve admired your work for some time.”
Public relations, thought Carol as they shook hands briefly.
“Is there somewhere we could talk?”
Carol indicated her office. She closed the door before he could suggest it, then gestured him to a chair. He was neat, alert and deferential. Instinctively, Carol disliked and mistrusted him, but she smiled and said, “Yes, Mr. Sykes?”
“Simon—please. I’m with the Commissioner’s press unit.”
Carol nodded. And you can call me Inspector Ashton. She said, “You’ve just joined the unit?”
“Yes. My background’s in public relations…” A carefully self-deprecatory smile, then he went on smoothly, “The Commissioner’s asked me to brief you before he sees you himself. There’s a slight problem.”
Police public relations had always presented challenges, especially in the past, when the Service had been the subject of several judicial inquiries into links between crime figures and senior police officers. A new Commissioner, a stringent cleansing of the ranks and a deliberate campaign to improve the Force’s image had largely restored public confidence. The recent advent of a particularly ambitious and abrasive minister to the Police portfolio had resulted in a new drive for favorable publicity and further expansion in the PR area. The word had come down to maintain a high, positive profile for the Service, ostensibly to enhance the standing of police officers in general. The more cynical regarded the new emphasis as an effort to reinforce the new Police Minister’s credentials as a future State Premier. Carol felt the choice of Senator Marjory Quince was a sound one, but she was also aware that, as a woman in what had previously been regarded as a man’s job, it was likely the Senator felt constrained to appear more hard line than any previous incumbent.
“Just what is this slight problem?” Carol said briskly.
“It’s the Raeburn death. The Commissioner wants you to take over the investigation.”
There was no need for him to explain Collis Raeburn’s identity. Since the discovery of his body in a five-star hotel two days before, the media had thrashed around trying to create much out of the little that they could glean. Headlines such as AUSTRALIA’S PAVAROTTI DEAD vied with GOLDEN THROAT FOREVER HUSHED, and AUSTRALIA’S SONG IS ENDED. Television stations changed schedules to replay some of Collis Raeburn’s greatest singing triumphs, particularly scenes from Great South Land, in which Raeburn had been depicted singing a variety of songs and arias at various landmarks—“Nessun Dorma” at night on a floodlit Ayers Rock, “The Flower Song” from Carmen at the tip of Cape York, and as a spectacular finale, “Advance Australia Fair” from the top of the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Carol said, “Why am I to take over the case? I understand it looks like a straightforward suicide. Nothing suspicious.”
Sykes checked the door was shut, then said in a low confidential tone, “Collis Raeburn was HIV-positive, and it wasn’t from a blood transfusion.”
HIV-positive. The phrase evoked a kaleidoscope of images and feelings: the fine-drawn features of a dying friend; bravery and grief; the pity and love on some faces, the hatred and fear on others…
“The family want it hushed up,” said Sykes.
“You don’t need me for that.”
“There’s more. The Raeburn family are insisting it’s an accident. Not suicide.”
Carol remained silent. She was used to being wheeled in when something requiring delicate handling of the media was required. Cynically, she ticked off her advantages: she was telegenic, she’d cultivated a network of useful media contacts, and she’d learned the hard way to develop a cool, authoritative persona to deal with the most difficult of interviewers and the thorniest of questions.
“Insurance is involved,” said Sykes. “If it’s an accident, the company pays. If it’s suicide…”
Carol’s tone was tart. “This seems outside the scope of any police inquiry. We’re required to compile a report for the coroner, that’s all.”
Sykes spread his hands. “The Raeburns are personal friends of the Police Minister.” He waited for a response. Carol looked at him, feeling a shaft of disappointment that one of the few women to gain ministerial rank was demanding special favors like any other venal politician.
Sykes cleared his throat, leaned forward conspiratorially. “You know how it is. Just between us, the Commissioner’s been asked to expedite the inquiry, keep any embarrassing details quiet, and get the case in front of the coroner as quickly as possible.”
Sykes smiled warmly. “Because you’re the best, Inspector. That’s why.”
* * *
The Commissioner’s palatial office seemed too glossy and slick for his hulking body and forthright personality. He frowned heavily at Sykes, who stood obsequiously to one side, then he looked back at Carol. “I don’t like this any more than you do, Carol, but the Minister’s insisting on special treatment.”
Before she had left her office, Carol had spoken briefly to the officer in charge of the initial investigation of Collis Raeburn’s death. She said now, “There don’t appear to be any suspicious circumstances. Although there’s no note, everything points to suicide. In fact, he seems to have followed instructions from The Euthanasia Handbook. You’re aware a copy was on the bedside table. And if Raeburn was HIV-positive, perhaps that, plus other pressures, led him to take his own life.”
“His father and sister are adamant that there’s no way he’d do that.”
Skyes intervened. “The sleeping pills were prescribed. The family insist it’s a tragic accident.”
Carol felt a thread of impatience, but she was careful not to let it show. “My suggestion is that we expedite the report to the coroner, and let him rule on the matter.”
Sykes stated authoritatively, “The media’s a problem—”
The Commissioner interrupted. “The Minister’s concerned about adverse publicity.”
Sykes said smoothly, “Absolute discretion is required, of course.”
The Commissioner flashed him a look of active dislike. “That was an unnecessary comment, Sykes. Inspector Ashton is quite aware that any mention of Raeburn’s HIV status will be on a strict need-to-know basis.”
Sykes, unabashed, straightened his tie. “I meant lower-ranked officers. Not Inspector Ashton. I’m sure you’ll agree anyone working on the case must be specifically instructed.”
“Yes. Yes,” said the Commissioner impatiently. He leaned his bulk back in his chair. “Carol, you’re to head the investigation and take whatever damage control measures are necessary. You’ve got good relations with the media and I expect you to use them. Don’t need to tell you what will happen if Raeburn’s HIV status gets out. We want to spare the family that.”
Carol wanted to say with bitter sarcasm, Why not advise the family to pretend the virus was medically acquired? That’ll gain shocked sympathy, not loathing and disgust…
Sykes was saying smoothly, “It would be better for everyone if it’s kept quiet. And the general public don’t want to know about his private life, do they? Destroy an image. I mean, Collis Raeburn was practically an icon. Yes?”
Carol’s opinion of the public was less charitable. People had a voracious appetite for any titillating scandal, and if Australia’s golden-voiced tenor had secrets to hide, his public would consider it only fair that these should be revealed for everyone’s shocked appreciation.
The Commissioner smoothed his trademark bushy eyebrows with a forefinger. “Carol, what’s your caseload at the moment?”
“It’s okay. I’ll get onto Raeburn straight away.”
“I want this quick, neat and tidy. And I’ll have a word with your Chief Inspector…I want you reporting direct to me on this. Any problems, I want to hear about them. Right?” As she nodded, he added curtly, “Need Sykes?”
Carol was just as straightforward. “I don’t think so.”
“If you do, there’s no problem. The Minister’s pushing for this to be tied up as soon as possible. You’ll need to talk to Raeburn’s family, but leave it until you’ve had time to get on top of everything before you contact his father or sister.”
Sykes insisted on shaking hands with her again at the office door, holding the clasp just a little too long. “If I can be of assistance in some way, then you must call on me, Inspector, at any time.”
She gave him a cool, level glance. “Thank you, Mr. Sykes.”
“At any time…”
* * *
Mark Bourke was amused when she came into his spartan office to tell him about the meeting. “Don’t want to hurt your feelings, Carol, but bringing you in to handle a probable suicide will almost certainly make the media wonder why. And that’s what they’re trying to avoid, isn’t it—an investigative journalist or two sniffing around?”
“The Commissioner commands, I follow.”
“Wise career move.”
“Mark, does Pat move in opera circles?”
He couldn’t prevent an indulgent smile. “My Patricia? Her position at the Art Gallery certainly puts her in with the in-crowd. Part of her job, if nothing else. You looking for some background?”
“Background, gossip—anything. And I’m interested in the Raeburn family, the father and daughter. Tell Pat it’s quite unofficial. I just want her general impressions.”
He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. “Plus who’s doing what to whom?”
She matched his grin. “That too, of course.” Her smile faded as she thought, Unknowingly infecting each other? She said, “Until he had a blood test it seems clear Raeburn wasn’t aware he could be passing the HIV virus to sexual partners.”
Bourke rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “If he was having unprotected sex…” He grimaced. “Unless he told them after he got the results, there’s some very bad news waiting for a few people, and if we follow orders, we can’t even drop a broad hint.”
“But, Mark,” she protested, “if he has infected someone, then that person can be passing it on to someone else. This isn’t herpes we’re talking about, it’s the very real chance of getting AIDS.” When he didn’t look impressed, she went on, “You know it’s not an exclusively homosexual disease. Anyone can be at risk.”
“I don’t need a lecture,” he said, half-smiling to ease the impact of his words.
But Carol, with a jolt, realized he had, in effect, chastised her. Normally she would have attempted a witty but sharp rejoinder. The sudden tension between them puzzled her. She chatted for a few moments to reestablish their usual relationship, then went back to her office.
Anne Newsome was waiting for her. “Here’s the result of the post mortem and the preliminary report.”
“Have you read it?”
“Yes. I glanced through it.”
“Good. Since I won’t have Mark exclusively on this—he’ll be tying up the odds and ends of a few outstanding items in my caseload—I’ll need you to assist me, especially with the interviews.”
Carol couldn’t miss Anne’s faint flush of pleasure, but the young constable maintained an appropriately professional air. “I took this message for you.”
Carol frowned at Anne’s neat, rounded writing. “Graeme Welton?”
“He called a few minutes ago. Said it was urgent.”
“I’ll call him.” As Anne turned to go, she added, “I want you to check out Collis Raeburn’s finances—any debts he had, what he did with his money. If you need any help, ask Mark.”
Alone, Carol leaned back in her chair to consider the message from Graeme Welton. An avant-garde composer, he basked in publicity and had a talent for self-promotion. His most recent work, The Sardonic Song of the Computer, a full-length oratorio with God played by a super-computer, had not only jangled critics’ musical sensibilities and outraged organized religion in general, but had also upset computer aficionados.
She punched numbers into the phone. “Mr. Welton? This is Carol Ashton. I’m returning your call.”
“Inspector. Good. Need to see you immediately.” He had a high, nasal voice and a snappy, irritated tone. “It’s about Collis’s suicide. Have information you might find interesting.” Without waiting for a reply, he went on, “Be at the Con this afternoon, lecturing on composition. Could see you there about three. Suit you?”
Carol sat frowning after he had terminated their call. She remembered some story about an opera Welton was supposed to be working on—something to do with the infamous trial and conviction of Lindy Chamberlain, who claimed that her missing baby had been carried off by a dingo. Welton certainly had written music specifically for Collis Raeburn, including a surprisingly melodic Republic’s Dawning commissioned by a rich anti-monarchist and sung by Raeburn to a huge television audience tuned to watch the spectacular fireworks over Sydney on Australia Day last January.
How did Welton know so quickly that she had been put in charge of the case?
Shrugging, she turned to the post mortem report. Collis Raeburn, who had been rapidly attaining international superstardom, had been reduced by the State Morgue to a case number and a concise recital of facts. Everything about him seemed relentlessly average: height, weight, physical condition. His extraordinary talent, the glorious voice that had captivated so many people, had been diminished by the pathologist’s scalpel to healthy vocal cords and a superior lung capacity. He had ingested, the report stated succinctly, amylobarbitone, pethidine and alcohol in sufficient quantities to cause his death, although what had actually killed him was suffocation, as, after he had slid into unconsciousness, he had choked on his own vomit. His stomach contained the partly digested remnants of a light meal. Time of death was difficult to establish, first, because it wasn’t possible to determine exactly when he ate the meal, and second, because the air-conditioning in the room had been set on full, which affected rigor mortis. All things taken into consideration, the forensic pathologist was willing to set the parameters at somewhere between nine on Saturday night and one o’clock on Sunday morning.
She shuffled through the photographs taken at the scene, pausing over a close-up of Raeburn’s long, sensitive fingers slightly curled as they brushed the thick carpet. The overturned tumbler glinted in the flash, the stain of spilled whiskey was faintly visible, scattered tablets fanned near his relaxed hand.
Mark Bourke put his head around the door. “Carol? Got something for you.”
“Look at this photo, Mark. It looks staged to me.”
“Raeburn was the theatrical type.”
“You think he arranged the glass and the pills like this, then managed to fall unconscious with one hand draped artistically as part of the scene?”
Bourke sat down and stretched his long legs. “Just the way it happened. Takes your aesthetic eye, Carol, to see the artistry.”
“And I don’t like the fact there’s no suicide note.”
“Carol, there often isn’t.”
“It doesn’t feel right. As you say, he was theatrical. It seems to me he’d have wanted the last word.”
Bourke’s smile was cynical. “Sure there wasn’t a note, and it was embarrassing, so it’s disappeared? Wouldn’t be the first time a little judicious tampering occurs at the scene of a suicide.”
“The two who discovered him didn’t mention seeing a note.” She handed him the preliminary report. “Have you read this?”
“Yes. To me it’s classic suicide, and efficient, except he forgot to take the precaution of adding a nausea tablet to stop himself from vomiting. The nicely lethal combination of sleeping tablets, a narcotic and alcohol means he wasn’t making a staged cry for help. He was deadly serious.”
“There was a copy of The Euthanasia Handbook in the room.”
He spread his hands. “Well, there you are, then. He has a textbook to check he’s doing it right.” He grinned wickedly. “Maybe the publishers can use it in their advertising—a famous satisfied customer’s always good for business.”
“It’s too neat. I don’t like it.”
He shook his head. “If you’re suggesting murder, you’ll open an awfully restless can of worms. He was HIV-positive. That alone will galvanize the media if they get wind of it—and the longer his death’s a news item, the more likely it is that someone will dig it up. Isn’t your job to get this off the front pages as quickly as possible?”
“I’m not altogether sure what my job’s supposed to be, Mark. What I do know is that there’s some hidden agenda, and I’m going to find out what it is.”
“You’ve got another complication. The word’s around that Bannister, the guy you replaced on the case, isn’t happy. Says it’s political influence.”
“Yes, we all know that. But he’s still bitching. Actually, I think he’s put in an official complaint.”
Impatient, Carol threw the photograph down. “The Commissioner appointed me because the Minister for Police told him to, so where’s a complaint going to get Bannister?”
Bourke was smiling at her vehemence. “Calm down, Carol. Don’t take it personally. I’d take it through channels too, if I were him. Just thought you should know that Bannister would be delighted to find something to hang a real complaint on, so watch your back.”
“You’re kidding me.”
His smile faded. “No, I’m not. Bannister’s new to the South Region, but I’ve had a bit to do with him over the years. He causes trouble, and none of the dirt clings to him. Efficient, ambitious and resentful. Probably the worst he could do is cause some aggravation, but it might be worth keeping an eye on him.”
She began to twist her black opal ring. “I don’t need this.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “So, Carol, forgetting Bannister who’s just an irritation, what’s your professional opinion as opposed to your instinct? Is it suicide, murder or an unfortunate accident?”
“Probably suicide—but I was brought in for a purpose, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m supposed to be good at PR.”
“Wanted someone with a higher profile than Bannister?”
“Could be. Which means the aim might be more publicity, not less. Why would that be, do you think?”
“Want me to do some digging?”
“Please. But be subtle, Mark.”
His grin had returned. “Subtle,” he said, “is my middle name.”
After he had gone she read through the statements of the hotel staff and closely studied the photographs of the room. Collis Raeburn had checked into his usual luxury hotel near Circular Quay and had gone up to his room at 5:30 P.M. He’d unpacked his clothes and put them away, called room service and ordered an early meal and a bottle of wine. About nine he arranged for a large pot of coffee to be left outside the door and had instructed the desk to not put through any calls to his room. The person who’d delivered the coffee to his floor remembered seeing the DO NOT DISTURB sign. He didn’t knock, but left the coffee by the door. Several of the room photos showed the silver coffee pot and a cup and saucer sitting on a low table near easy chairs arranged at the window to take advantage of the beautiful view of Sydney Harbour.
Carol fanned out the photographs and considered them again. Too neat. Too theatrical. And there should be a note.
She frowned over a series of shots of the room, bed and body taken from different angles. Collis Raeburn was casually dressed: jeans, a loose cotton sweater and sports shoes. The investigating officer on the scene had noted that Raeburn had unpacked his suitcase and put his clothes away neatly, yet two of the photographs showed a necktie on the carpet near the foot of the bed, crumpled as though it had been carelessly tossed there.
In one extreme close-up of Collis Raeburn’s face, his cheek was nestled deep into the comfort of a pillow, eyes closed, mouth slightly open. She remembered vividly the last time she had seen this dead face full of life: a television special hosted by the diminutive but formidable Madeline Shipley. The program traced his life and career, starting with his first singing experiences as a boy soprano in a church choir and interviewing important people in his life. Raeburn had sung some of his most famous arias, his mouth curved in a half-smile that his singing teacher, a pragmatic middle-aged woman, described clinically to the camera as, “Essential to the production of a clear, forward tone.” Popular far beyond opera circles, his voice caressed, warmed, captivated. And the joy with which he sang vitalized the most hackneyed song, the most familiar aria. Only in his early thirties, he was approaching his prime as a singer, his best years still ahead of him when his voice would mature and darken to suit the most demanding roles of grand opera.
Still staring at his face, she absently picked up the phone on its second ring. “Carol Ashton.” She leaned back, smiling. “Darling, I’ll be late too. I’ve been landed with the Collis Raeburn case. Let’s get a pizza delivered when we both make it home.”
As she replaced the receiver her imagination vividly held Sybil’s red hair, the line of her jaw, the way her eyes crinkled when she laughed. But there were darker things—the note of impatience so often in Sybil’s voice, the tension that had grown between them lately, the resentments that Carol tried to ignore.
She shrugged. She didn’t want to think about that now.