by Claire McNab
When a murderer tees off at the world’s most prestigious women’s golf tournament, Australian top cop Carol Ashton becomes an unwilling player in a much deadlier game.
Loaded with brains, style, and megabucks, Australian fashion magnate Gussie Whitlew is used to getting everything she wants. And what she wants is the finest food, the fastest cars, and the most fabulous women. This time her bait is Whitlew Challenge, an exclusive golf tournament carefully designed to lure the world’s top female athletes to her private clubhouse.
With a lot more at stake than the $1.5 million purse, tension soon flares among players, fans, and just about everyone else. American star Toni Karstares (an out lesbian) and her homophobic rival, Englishwoman Fiona Hawk, are the first to go at it. Then Fiona gets caught up in a very public altercation with her larcenous manager. Before long, so much is going on off the course that even abrasive sports reporter Mandi Fiedler has a hard time keeping her eye on the ball. Until the fairway becomes a killing field and someone sets out to even the score.
Thirteenth in the Carol Ashton Series.
Originally published by Naiad Press 2001.
|Publication Date||October 15, 2001|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
The rim of the sun broke the horizon, and instantly a dazzling yellow-gold stream ran across the ocean’s surface to the land.
“Pull up here.”
The golf cart slowed at the top of the cliff where the treacherous fourth hole of the Whitlew Country Club was situated. Countless balls had missed the green and plummeted down the sheer sandstone to splash into the heaving surf below.
Squinting, Joe Gallagher put up his hand to shade his eyes. “Ah, Jesus,” he said. “Some bastard’s put something in the sand trap.”
There was a note of possessive anger in his voice. He was responsible for every tee, every fairway, every green, and in preparation for the Whitlew Challenge he had groomed the course to perfection. It was the second day of the tournament, and, as was his custom, he was doing a dawn check of every hole before his crew of workers was out on the course.
His assistant stretched his neck to peer in the direction of the bunker. “How could anyone get in?” he asked. “There’s been tight security on the boundaries all night.”
Joe’s knees cracked as he got out of the golf cart. “Let’s take a look-see.”
They walked carefully, avoiding the pristine surface of the green. The trap, sheer sided and filled with raked white sand, was a dangerous snare for anyone unwise enough to hit to the left of the fourth hole.
“Is it a log?” said the assistant as they approached.
Joe stopped at the edge of the bunker, his hands on his hips. “Hell. It’s a body.”
She lay as though resting, but the blood that had soaked into the sand under her head destroyed the illusion. She wore casual cream slacks and a simple pale green top. A jacket, neatly folded, had been left beside the body. A golf club, seeming to have been casually flung down, rested near the curled fingers of her right hand.
Joe didn’t step onto the smooth sand, but crouched down where he was, eyes narrowed. After a close inspection he said, “She’s dead.” He sounded more disgusted than upset.
Straightening, he added, “God knows what this will do to the tournament schedule.”
A seagull, riding the wind from the sea, banked over the edge of the golf course in a graceful curve. Although still early in the day, the late summer sun had a bite, and the police officers fanning out in a search pattern from the fourth-hole green welcomed the cooler current of air.
“Who’s in charge here?”
Sergeant Mark Bourke blocked the sleekly groomed woman before she could break the cordon of fluttering police tape. With her high-beaked nose, artfully tousled streaked-blond hair, and autocratic manner, she rather reminded Bourke of a pedigreed Afghan hound.
His voice as pleasant as his blunt-featured face, he said, “This area of the course is closed.”
Considerably shorter than he, she glared at him, then took a step back, and looked him up and down. Even with a stiff breeze coming up off the ocean, not a strand of her hair moved. Her face was perfectly made up, and her champagne-colored suit was obviously expensive, as was the pale, ruffled silk blouse. Incongruously, she’d teamed her outfit with white-and-tan laced shoes.
Seeing Bourke glance in the direction of her feet, she said, “Preserving the integrity of a world-class golf course, particularly the surface of the greens, is of the highest priority. High heels would do irreparable damage.”
She shot a cold look in the direction of the group clustered around the bunker, then made a sweep of her arm to include the officers searching the surrounding areas. “It’s a great pity that you cops don’t take such things into account. I was just in time to stop one of your people actually attempting to drive a car onto the course. I told him, carry up anything you need. I’m willing to arrange for you to have an electric cart if necessary. Whatever, just make sure you stick to the marked paths.”
The woman put a hand on the tape, clearly intending to enter the delineated site.
“I’m sorry,” Bourke said. “You can’t come in.”
“You can’t close this area to me. I own the whole bloody country club. Got that straight? Now, unless you’re the boss cocky, get out of my way.”
Bourke’s agreeable expression didn’t change. “This is a crime scene, Ms. Whitlew.”
She didn’t acknowledge that he knew her name—with her level of public recognition it would have been a surprise if he didn’t. Her militant expression dissolved into a smile so charming that he blinked. She asked, thin eyebrows arched, “And you are?”
“Detective Sergeant Mark Bourke.”
“Please call me Gussie, Mark. If you know anything about me, you must realize that I don’t believe in formality where names are concerned.”
Gesturing at the activity inside the taped area, she went on. “No doubt you know I have a very important golf tournament to run, and the longer your people are here, the more damage they do to this green, let alone the rest of the course.”
“I’m afraid it’s necessary. There’s been a death.”
She seemed amused at Bourke’s delicacy. “A death? How polite. I was told it was some woman with her skull split open.” She consulted her diamond-and-gold watch. “The first player in the Whitlew Challenge tees off at ten o’clock, but my greenskeepers need to check this hole out before then, in order to repair the damage you’ve done.”
Unperturbed, Bourke said, “I know it’s inconvenient, Ms. Whitlew, but this area will be off-limits for some considerable time.”
“That’s not acceptable,” she snapped. “The tournament is being televised both here and overseas. The Whitlew Challenge is a premier golf tournament for the best women players in the world, and these broadcast commitments must be honored.”
“Then the tournament will have to be played without this hole.”
Gussie Whitlew shook herself, as though physically repelling Bourke’s words. “I need to speak to someone with authority.”
“That would be me.”
A sudden smile tugged at the corner of Gussie Whitlew’s scarlet mouth. “Well, well, well,” she said, “if it isn’t Detective Inspector Carol Ashton, in the flesh. I’ve followed your career with interest, Inspector. Great interest.”
“Ms. Whitlew. How may I help you?”
Head on one side, Gussie Whitlew was inspecting Carol Ashton’s outfit—slacks and a camel blazer. Gussie clicked her tongue. “Not my line of casual wear,” she said. “Whose? Peter Bund’s, or little Pattie Hart’s?”
“I’ve no idea.”
Bourke smiled at Gussie’s scandalized reaction to Carol’s offhand statement. “No idea? You don’t know which label you’re wearing?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Then I’ll have to take you in hand, my dear. For one thing, those colors you’re wearing are not the best choice to enhance your skin tones and blond hair. And your eyes—green are they?”
“This is a crime scene,” said Carol with a wry smile, “so, not surprisingly, I didn’t dress for a social occasion.”
Ignoring this comment, Gussie Whitlew went on. “My makeovers are justly famous. And you may have my services for no charge. What do you say?”
“It’s an offer most might find hard to refuse,” said Carol, “but I’m afraid I must. Now, Ms. Whitlew, is there a problem?”
“I’ve just been explaining to your sergeant here that the Whitlew Challenge Tournament is scheduled to begin shortly, and I need this hole cleared and repaired. I’m sure you have the authority to hurry things along, don’t you?”
“It’s a case of apparent murder. Our investigations can’t be hurried along.”
Seeming startled, Gussie said, “Murder? I took it to be some accident, or natural causes—if excessive drinking and drugs can be categorized as natural. There are down-and-outers living in the adjoining wildlife reserve in squalid little tents or whatever. God knows I’ve called the authorities often enough to get them moved on. I presumed it was one of those people.”
“It’s not likely. The victim’s a young woman, and the jacket we found lying beside her has the Whitlew label in it.”
“My label? Are you sure?”
“Yes. The jacket’s pale green with a faint dark blue stripe.”
Her face suddenly blank, Gussie said, “I’d like to see the body.”
“I must ask you to keep confidential any details at all about this death.”
Gussie flicked her fingers in an impatient gesture. “Of course—that goes without saying.”
Carol nodded to Bourke, who raised the tape so Gussie could pass through. “It’s not a pleasant sight,” Carol warned.
“I’ve lived an interesting life,” said Gussie, “and not always a pleasant one. I think I can take it.”
She marched toward the bunker, shoulders back, but Carol observed that she paled noticeably when they approached the edge.
Gesturing for the scene-of-crime technicians to move away from the corpse, Carol said, “Do you recognize her?”
The body lay in the middle of the oval bunker, arms by its sides, palms up in a bizarrely welcoming gesture. The head was tilted to the right, as though the half-open eyes were examining the dark blood staining the white sand.
Bourke put out an arm to steady Gussie Whitlew when she seemed to wilt. “It’s Fiona Hawk,” she gasped.
Rallying, she added, “A nasty woman, but a wonderful golfer. She’s leading the tournament at the moment.”
The weight of what she’d said struck her. “Bloody hell. Fiona’s leading the tournament—and she’s dead.”
“Quite a drop,” said Bourke, joining Carol at the waist-high fence that protected spectators from plummeting down the crumbling sandstone cliff to the wet rocks below. The sea was quiet, breaking politely on the tumbled boulders that littered the rock shelf.
“Presuming it’s murder,” said Carol, “why not throw her over, and hope it looked like an accident?”
“Panic?” said Bourke. “The perp whacks her one, then runs?” He looked back over his shoulder to where the body was being zipped into a bag. “Or maybe the scene was set up as a deliberate tableau, with the arrangement of the golf club and the folded jacket.”
“I’d venture it was probably someone who plays golf,” said Carol. “The person had the appropriate club for the situation—a sand wedge.”
Bourke and Carol followed the stretcher down the final, steep path as the body was carried to the waiting ambulance. From the elevation Carol could see that anxious spectators, looking for the perfect place to view the golfing action, were already streaming onto the course.
It was a beautiful summer morning, singing with golden warmth, and the sweep of the rolling green expanse—embellished by the careful placement of trees, several small lakes, and a meandering stream—was a balm to the eyes. When she looked to the right, the cliffs dropped away to an expanse of dark blue ocean, stretching to meet pale blue sky at the far horizon.
Carol took a deep breath. It was wonderful to be alive, to feel the breeze against her face, to have her muscles move smoothly at her command. To truly appreciate how fortunate she was. She looked at the body bag containing the mortal remains of a young woman who would never again sweat in the sun, stretch her muscles, feel joy or despair.
Someone had attacked with vicious force, and had left her lying inert under the cold light of the stars and moon, oblivious forever to the pounding of the ocean at the foot of the cliff, the night noises of small insects, the sigh of the wind.
Who was there with you? Who struck you with such force that your skull was shattered?
The police doctor’s educated guess was that the body had been there for at least eight hours, perhaps more. The cause of death appeared to be a severe head injury, but this would be confirmed by the postmortem.
Carol looked back toward the bunker, where, guarded by two uniformed officers, a small team of scene-of-crime technicians was left to sift the sand and examine the surrounding areas with minute attention. The golf club found with the body and two sand-trap rakes, one of which had almost certainly been used to smooth the sand in the bunker and remove any trace of anyone else’s presence, were, with the striped jacket, already on their way to the lab for analysis. The general search of the course had found nothing more, and Carol doubted that even the skills of the SOC people still working at the scene would turn up anything else.
A web of pathways connected the different holes of the course. The one they were on led directly to a far corner of the clubhouse parking area. Local police had been instructed to cordon off that section so that the body could be removed without the interference of sensation-seeking onlookers or the close attention of reporters and TV crews.
Carol was well aware that when the name of the victim was released, a media storm would occur, with overseas outlets carrying the story and quite possibly flying in personnel to cover it. This would not be solely because Fiona Hawk was an international sports star—although Carol had noticed that it was common for sporting personalities to garner particularly intense coverage—but also because Gussie Whitlew was involved.
Immensely rich, and internationally known for her Whitlew line of clothing, Gussie Whitlew had the time and money to indulge her passions, and one of them was golf. The other, as gossip had it, was women. The Whitlew Challenge Golf Tournament brought these two interests together. Some of the best female golfers in the world had been induced to sign on for the invitation-only tournament. Gussie Whitlew was paying generous appearance money, supplying rental cars or, if preferred, limousines with drivers, and picking up hotel bills for luxury accommodation. On top of that was the lure of the first prize, a purse of $1.5 million in U.S. currency.
As Carol and Bourke followed the sweating stretcher-bearers off the course, she saw that some persistent onlookers, though kept at a distance by strategically parked police vehicles and the admonitions of a couple of junior constables, had collected to view whatever it was that had occasioned so considerable a police presence. A photographer Carol recognized with a frown was taking shots. Someone who looked like a cadet reporter was scribbling notes, but most of the others seemed to be trading misinformation or gawking at the stretcher with its ominously covered load.
There was a knot of police officers near the ambulance, and as Carol and Bourke approached someone broke away to stride over to block Carol’s way. He was a short, dapper, tweed-jacketed man who demanded in a loud, braying voice, “They say you’re in charge. Is that so? Answer me, please.”
His accent was upper-class English, and his manner just short of rude. He had thinning white hair, a white mustache, and the rough, ruddy skin of someone who had spent a great deal of time outdoors in harsh weather.
Bourke, immediately alert, had moved to Carol’s side. “Sir? Who are you?”
The man, eyes fixed on Carol, paid no attention to Bourke’s question. “I’m being obstructed,” he declared. “My questions left unanswered.” He turned and gestured at the ambulance, where the stretcher was being maneuvered into the back of the vehicle. “Is that my daughter? Gussie Whitlew wouldn’t say one way or the other, but I could tell from her manner something was dreadfully wrong.”
A stocky, sullen man with a square head, a local detective, named Vernon Coop, whom Carol vaguely knew, strolled over to them. “Inspector Ashton, this is Major Willoughby Hawk. His daughter didn’t return to their hotel last night…” He let his voice trail off, his expression clearly indicating that he wasn’t anxious to be the source of the coming bad news.
“When did you last see your daughter, Major Hawk?”
This time the major responded to Bourke’s question with a dismissive grunt. His attention exclusively to Carol, he barked, “Ashton, is it? If it’s a woman’s body you’ve got there, I want to see for myself. I can’t believe it’s Fiona, but—”
His voice broke. He cleared his throat, and went on. “Didn’t realize she hadn’t come back to the hotel until I went to her room this morning. Persuaded myself she’d left early for the course, but I knew something was amiss. Bed hadn’t been slept in, you see.”
Knowing from experience how the bereaved could react to a viewing of a relative’s body, Carol said quietly, “Major Hawk, perhaps it would be better if you waited until—”
“I have no intention of waiting. And don’t worry about me fainting or anything like that. I’m a military man. Seen my share of death.”
“Very well.” Carol nodded to Bourke, who went to instruct the two men waiting by the open doors of the ambulance to slide the stretcher out of the vehicle so the body’s face could be viewed. A murmur broke from the avid crowd.
The major strutted after Bourke, his head back. He should have looked ridiculous, Carol thought, but instead he gave the impression of stoic bravery. Aware of the onlookers’ eager eyes, Carol made sure the major’s back was to the crowd and that the body was at least partially shielded by the open rear door of the ambulance.
She was on one side of Major Hawk, with Bourke on the other. Both were ready, if necessary, to physically support the man if his legs gave out. Presuming that Gussie Whitlew’s identification had been correct, he was about to receive the shock no parent should ever have to suffer—the confirmed death of a child.
Bourke zipped open the body bag, and the sun shone for the last time on the woman’s face. Her short auburn hair was a flare of life next to the pallor of her skin and her slack jaw. Because of the position of the body overnight, postmortem lividity, caused by blood settling to the lowest points of the corpse, had not stained her face.
Major Hawk said nothing at all, but a sigh escaped his lips. He extended trembling fingers, but Bourke took his arm before he could touch the pallid cheek. He turned away, put a hand to his eyes for a moment, then said in an unsteady voice, “It’s Fiona. My daughter. What happened to her? Why is she dead?”
“Yesterday—when did you last see her?”
“See her?” he repeated to Carol, his manner distracted. “See Fiona?”
“I know it’s been a terrible shock, Major Hawk, but we have to ask questions. You understand that.”
He licked his lips, then, clearly making an effort, he said to Carol, “After the day’s play was over, Gussie threw a reception in the clubhouse. Fiona—all the golfing ladies were there. Caddies, agents, hangers-on, too. Everyone to do with the tournament.”
He seemed stalled at that point, so Carol said, “This must be hard for you.”
The major nodded slowly. “I still can’t believe it.” He straightened his shoulders. “I talked to Fiona for a while, but some photographer wanted some pictures and I had some friends to meet, so I left.”
“About what time?”
“Six, or maybe a bit later.” His face creased with pain, he choked out, “It was the last time I saw Fiona alive.”
Carol and Bourke looked at each other over the little man’s bowed head. Carol said, “Major Hawk, Detective Sergeant Bourke will drive you back to your hotel. He’ll fill you in with all we know at the present time.”
She gestured for a local officer to accompany Hawk to the car, then took Bourke aside. “Treat him gently, of course, Mark, but find out everything you can. Then go back to headquarters and start a full background check on Fiona Hawk, Gussie Whitlew, and anyone else with a high profile who’s involved in the tournament. I’ll start in the clubhouse with Gussie Whitlew and take it from there.”
Bourke gave her a sly grin. “Rather you than me. And watch out, she has promised you one of her famous makeovers.” He cocked his head. “I can just see you in one of those colorful, flappy things she designs.”
“Your imagination’s better than mine.”
Bourke looked over her shoulder. “And here the lady comes, herself. I’ll leave her to you.”
Gussie Whitlew was approaching with a daunting expression of fixed determination. Even before she reached Carol she was saying, “Is the fourth hole clear for use? I have my head greenskeeper standing by.”
Carol said mildly, “I’m sorry, Ms. Whitlew, but the area where the body was found must remain closed, and later today divers will search the water hazards on the course.”
“Divers? During tournament play!”
Repressing a smile at the tone of astonished outrage, Carol said, “I assure you we’ll avoid interfering with the tournament play.”
“This is all terribly inconvenient, Inspector! I’ve had my staff working frantically to find some way of making up for the loss of the fourth hole, but the logistics are nearly impossible. We simply must have the full eighteen holes for today’s play.” She stared at Carol with an expression that nicely mingled entreaty and demand.
Unmoved, Carol said, “As you know, this appears to be a case of murder. It’s vital that all evidence be collected from the site.”
Her subtle emphasis of the word murder didn’t have the desired effect. Hands on hips, Gussie Whitlew gave an irritated click of her tongue. “I’m very aware that you have a job to do, but as I explained to your sergeant in some detail, the Whitlew Challenge is an international tournament with top women golfers from around the world. Do you realize the predicament you place me in?” Her tone made it clear she considered the blame for this rested entirely with the police, and, most particularly, Carol’s intransigence.
“It may be possible to release the area in time for play tomorrow.”
Not at all mollified, Gussie said, “That will be some help, I suppose—if it occurs. As for today, you’re forcing me to have the first hole played twice, at the beginning of the day and then again at the end. It’s the only solution I can find, and it’s a nightmare as far as television coverage and crowd control are concerned.”
She paused, apparently waiting for Carol to either apologize or to commiserate with these difficulties.
When no response was forthcoming, she frowned darkly, and went on. “There is one other matter of great importance. I really must insist that the players not be interviewed before the round today. Your detectives have been asking my staff questions, and there’s tension enough in the locker room, what with the rumors flying around. On top of that, we’re already running late teeing off with the early players. This is being televised, I’ll remind you, and I’ll have a disaster on my hands if everything doesn’t run to schedule. As it is, even though it’s a small, select group of sportswomen, I’m still going to be forced to put the early players in groups of four, just to move them fast around the course and make up the time we’ve lost.”
She tilted her chin, glowering at Carol with the air of one who did not expect opposition to her request.
“It’s vital, Ms. Whitlew, that everybody who may have helpful information is interviewed immediately, before any contamination of their recollections can take place.”
Gussie threw up her hands in a gesture of disgust. “Very well. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll try and salvage something from this debacle.”
As she hurried off, Vernon Coop came over. “So the victim’s Fiona Hawk, is it?” he said. “I don’t follow golf much, but I know her. Shame. She was a looker, all right.”
Carol surveyed Coop, remembering how they’d once met at a conference on community policing. He was the kind of cop that put her teeth on edge. He had a swagger to his bulky body, a superior twist to his thick lips. He was the sort to put the boot into a suspect, then righteously claim that the person had been resisting arrest. And he’d barely escaped with his job over charges of demanding protection money from prostitutes—charges that were dropped when prospective witnesses developed collective amnesia.
“Any sign of rape?” he asked, hands in pockets, feet spread wide. “Up there, alone on the headland, she wouldn’t have had a chance.”
Carol narrowed her eyes, thinking that Vernon Coop was enjoying the scenario he was painting. “It doesn’t look like a sexual attack,” she said briskly. “Now, you’ve got a door-knock going?”
“Too right—going door-to-door in all the streets around here. I reckon nothing will turn up, though. Better chance with the bunch of homeless characters squatting in the reserve next to the golf course.” He put up a hand to rub the back of his neck. “You know the routine—we get complaints, we move the bastards, and a few days later, they’re bloody well back.”
“Ms. Whitlew did mention them.”
Coop gave an unamused laugh. “I bet she did! She’s the one that does most of the complaining. Anyway, I’ve got some of my people rounding them up and asking a lot of hard questions. If any of that lot have anything to do with this, I’d say we’ll know for sure by the end of the day.”
It was difficult for Carol to share this optimism. “I suppose it isn’t impossible, but I find it hard to imagine circumstances where Fiona Hawk could meet up with one of these homeless people. There’s tight security on the entrance road to the course, and I gather there are patrols on the boundaries from the early evening throughout the night.”
“Patrols? Yeah, sure,” said Coop, contemptuous. “Amateurs. Drive around a bit, stop for coffee, maybe have a snooze for a while. Cushy is the word for it.”
“Any of your cops doing it as a second job?”
Carol’s question obviously took him back. After a thoughtful pause he said, “Maybe. I’ll get back to you on that.”
As Carol turned to go, he said, “Don’t suppose you read the sports pages much, eh?”
“If you’re asking if I follow golf closely, the answer’s no. Why are you asking?”
“You won’t get me paying much attention to women’s sport, but I certainly noticed Fiona Hawk. A real looker, and sexy as hell.”
Not bothering to hide her impatience, Carol said, “So?”
“She might have looked great, but Fiona could be a bit of a bitch.” When Carol raised her eyebrows, he went on. “Like, she was suing her agent for God knows how much money. She claims he’s been screwing her for years.” His suggestive smile widened. “Not that Fiona minded a bit of screwing herself, if you can believe what you hear. And by the look of her, I’d say it’s true. Story goes, she had the hots for just about anything in pants.”
He waited to see if Carol had any response, then said, “So you’d better wish on your lucky stars that some squatter from the camp did do her in.” A meaningful look was followed by, “Otherwise, I’d say you’re in for a load of trouble. A shitload.”