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‘I can’t help feeling,’ said Steve, ‘that this can’t go on.’
He and Annie were enjoying the fading winter sunshine as they strolled along the boardwalk beside the Brisbane River, heading for the Regatta Hotel. Their collars were turned up against the cold breeze blowing off the water. That Sunday afternoon the river was busy with blue and white City Cats trailing their bubbling white wakes, a club of little sailing boats wheeling to and fro, and a few teams of rowers pulling their skiffs rhythmically up river.
‘What?’ She looked up at him, puzzled. ‘What can’t go on?’
‘This … um … what’s the word? … peace? It must be a few months now since anyone tried to kill you. Or stalk you. Or terrorise you. Or con you. Or abduct you. It’s downright eerie.’
‘Serenity.’ Annie stopped. She smiled reflectively. ‘You’re right. It almost feels like a luxury, doesn’t it?’
‘It’s one luxury,’ he pointed out, ‘that money can’t buy.’
‘That makes it priceless,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘What’s more, it must be infectious.’
‘Well, think about it. Since we went and got married we can’t even find anything much to fight about. That’s a first. We seem to agree on everything – the house, a family, a career change for me. If we’re not careful we could start finding life a bit dull.’
Moving on, he put an arm around her shoulders. ‘That’s what you said when you proposed to me, remember? You promised us a dull life. I didn’t believe you, of course. Not for a second.’
‘Hey if this is dull, I’m getting a real taste for it.’ There was no doubting the sincerity of her tone.
‘Me too,’ he agreed. ‘Long may it last. But like I said, I’ve got this nasty feeling …’
Perhaps, he was to reflect later, it was his words that had tempted fate.
* * * * *
A wave of guilt washed over him. Then a wave of despair. Harold Mason leant his forehead against the cold glass of the window of his Brisbane hotel. He’d felt perpetually exhausted after the long flight from England. He supposed it must be all the unaccustomed travel on top of the inevitable stress of his mission. He lay down and closed his eyes for ten minutes, trying to fight the tiredness, trying to plan …
It was that golden afternoon, one of many that had gradually merged into a single radiant memory.
She was about eight, or ten, or twelve, a leggy girl who refused to wear a hat, her long dark hair blowing in the wind which whipped the shores of the English Channel in every season of the year. She never stopped, darting here and there, crying out in wonder when she picked up some fragment on the beach, dashing back to show it to him, to share her excitement with him. He was never far behind her. Together they bent over the tiny fossil imagining the creature it might have once been, guessing how many millions of years ago it might have lived in this sea, on this land. She solemnly recorded the find in her notebook. He carefully wrapped it in a tissue and placed it in their box.
His wife looked up from her book and waved, smiling indulgently. His son stared intently at his fishing line bobbing around in the swelling grey channel, fingers poised to feel the first tug on the line, the first nibble at his bait. That, his father knew, was when his composure would crack and he would yell for back-up.
Happiness had been so simple then, and so very easy to come by, when his family was young, when they were all together.
It seemed a very long time ago.
Rousing himself, he reviewed his plan. He felt uneasy about ringing Annie Bryce. She had nothing to thank him for. He’d wanted to do so much more to protect her, but legally his hands had been tied. He could only hope she’d understood that. He still had a couple of possible leads to follow up in the morning – perhaps he should wait. But Annie was smart, she was young, and she was local; and he needed all the help he could get. Anyway, he reminded himself sharply, this wasn’t about her finer feelings, or his.
This was about Caitlin.
He took out his mobile phone, scrolled down the names and selected hers. Then he pressed ‘call’.
It was the first chip in her serenity.
He didn’t need to announce himself. She knew who he was the second he spoke. The voice was unmistakable. The memories it evoked instantly turned her cold, triggering all-too-graphic images of the dread and terror which had engulfed her only months earlier. Annie’s knuckles whitened around the phone. It took her a few seconds to find her voice.
‘Detective Inspector Mason?’
D.I. Mason had been her long-standing contact in the West Sussex Police Force on the case of Martin Barclay. The invariably formal and precise English police officer for once sounded a bit at sea. He hesitated, then cleared his throat.
‘That’s correct, Ms Bryce. Harold Mason. I do hope you don’t mind my calling. I was pleased to find I still had your mobile number listed. How are you?’
She didn’t answer immediately. ‘Well enough,’ she said cautiously, ‘provided you’re not going to tell me that Martin Barclay has risen from the dead, or that some other member of his unspeakable family is about to slaughter me …’
‘No no, Ms Bryce,’ he said, his heart sinking, ‘it’s nothing like that, rest assured. I’ve taken the liberty of contacting you on a personal matter.’
Personal? The idea of D.I. Mason having a personal life – or indeed a Christian name – had never occurred to her. He seemed to have been born to his rank in the police force. Nevertheless, she forced herself to acknowledge, he had never been less than humane and sympathetic in his dealings with her both personally when she had testified for the prosecution at Martin Barclay’s murder trial in England, and more recently in their many fraught telephone exchanges. That was when Barclay had been pursuing her around Queensland to exact his revenge, threatening her with torture and murder – both of which he very nearly achieved. Suppressing a shudder, she pulled herself together.
‘Oh. Well if I can help … what can I do for you?’
He paused again. ‘It’s complicated, Ms Bryce. It’s about my daughter Caitlin. I’m actually here in Brisbane at the moment, and I wondered if you would be good enough to spare the time to meet with me. You see, I need some advice from someone who knows a lot more about this country than I do.’ Another, longer, hesitation. ‘You struck me as being a very resourceful young woman, if I may say so, and I would very much like to discuss the matter with you.’
‘Your daughter? Is she in some sort of trouble?’
‘I hope not, but I fear she may be.’
Annie moved to the window and stared unseeingly at the empty street below. Her mind was in turmoil. The mere thought of meeting up with D.I. Mason brought the terrors of the past into focus all too clearly – but how could she just walk away from this man after he’d pushed the boundaries of his role to try to help her?
‘Okay,’ she said slowly, hoping she didn’t sound as reluctant as she felt. ‘If you feel it could be useful … when and where would you like to meet?’
‘Thank you, Ms Bryce.’ He relaxed with relief. ‘I have some appointments tomorrow morning … would you possibly be free for a late lunch? Or dinner, if that’s more convenient? I’m staying at a hotel in the city, in George Street, so perhaps you could suggest a restaurant nearby. Otherwise we could meet wherever suits you …’
They arranged to meet at The Lab at one.
His heart felt just a little lighter after that conversation. He couldn’t know that Annie’s was suddenly as heavy as lead.
She was glad to be distracted by another phone call, this one very welcome.
‘Just checking, dear. How’s married life?’
Her aunt and close friend Jo was entitled to ask. For years the idea of marriage had scared Annie stiff, but the recent traumas had drawn her inextricably together with Steve. So after a long and often rocky relationship they had tied the knot on Jo’s deck at Peregian Beach, with the ocean rumbling just across the dunes and the honeyeaters twittering in the overhanging banksias – and Annie’s disgruntled mother making no secret of her disgust that her elder daughter had denied her the extravaganza she’d been planning for years.
Annie laughed. ‘All good. Better than good, actually.’
‘And this in spite of those last minute nerves …?’
Annie didn’t want to remember that panic attack. Jo had banished Steve to the surf, calmed her down and talked her round and produced her composed and smiling for the informal ceremony. Irritatingly enough Steve had been quite unfazed and had just taken this drama in his stride. To her chagrin, the wedding shots had captured a pale bride with a tremulous smile standing beside a distinctly triumphant groom.
‘Absolutely. We’re right into making plans. Hey, we think we’ve found a house – we’re just waiting on a building report. We’ve spent every spare minute house-hunting since we got back to Brisbane.’
‘Wonderful! Where? What’s it like?’
‘It’s in Annerley – tin and timber, too expensive of course, but it’s just perfect – a gracious old lady with plenty of space for those kids and the dog that Steve wants so badly, and a lovely verandah, and even a huge mango tree. And before you ask I’m not pregnant yet, but that’s on the list too.’
‘That’s all very promising. But how can the house be too expensive?’ demanded Jo. ‘What about that inheritance of yours?’
‘Oh Jo, I still haven’t got my head around that – and anyway, I won’t get anything until next year.’ A few months earlier a wealthy client of Annie’s had died, and she had been stunned to learn that he had left her a million dollars in his will. ‘But Steve’s adamant that the money is mine, not ours, so spending it has to be my call. We’ll split all our joint expenses fifty-fifty, he says, house included.’
‘Is that so? I wonder how that’s going to work out,’ said Jo reflectively.
‘You and me both.’ Annie was all too aware that this could become a minefield in their relationship. ‘But right now I’m just taking one thing at a time. Maybe I’ll use some of it to do a higher degree and change tack for a while – we both think that could be a good fit with a family.’
‘That could be interesting.’ Jo paused. ‘I know he’s not always easy, but Steve is a good man,’ she said quietly. ‘You’ll need to remember that, Annie.’
‘I know he is, and I will.’
‘Well, all these exciting plans … and for once,’ said Jo, ‘there’s not a single cloud on the horizon. About time, too.’
Annie didn’t mention the call from D.I. Mason.
Maybe it was the solitude, the abrupt separation from his full-on working life, that brought these images flooding back.
Suddenly the eighteen-year-old Caitlin was banging on his door. It was one in the morning, cold, wet. She was sobbing. Her lip was bleeding and an angry bruise was welling on her cheek. Appalled, his heart pounding, he gathered her into his arms.
‘My God! He hit you. That bastard hit you.’
‘He’s been drinking, Daddy. He never meant …’ she choked on her words.
He sat her down and gently examined her injuries. She was so slight, so defenceless. ‘Nothing’s broken, as far as I can tell, thank God – should I take you to the hospital?’
She shook her head vehemently. ‘I just want to go to bed. I’m alright really.’
‘Well, if you’re sure … I could phone the station, have them pick him up and charge him with assault.’ He knew exactly what she’d say to that.
‘No! No, Daddy, you musn’t!’
‘Oh Caitlin … has this happened before?’
He knew from her silence, from her refusal to meet his eyes, that the answer was yes.
He passed a hand over his eyes. Guilt had become his constant companion.