Would I lie to you?

Copyright Marilyn Chalkley

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Photo Will Turner Unsplash.

The diamond wasn’t as large as Carrie had expected. Phil had been a big man, hefty muscled legs from a lifetime of running, big biceps from doing weights at the gym, a reddish veined complexion from too much good wine, and a laugh that was more like a roar. Not that the laugh would end up in his ashes, the carbon that created the diamond.

It seemed like a neat idea – if Phil who had died so unexpectedly, could be transformed into a diamond, she could keep an eye on him. He was such a slippery character she couldn’t quite believe he was dead. The Internet company was true to its word – the diamond came back in a small box, some weeks after she had sent off the ashes. Carrie didn’t trust anyone these days, but the company had come highly recommended by the Funeral Director, and by Kylie who wore her husband on her wedding finger every day. ‘If I go broke, I can sell him,’ she said. ‘Do you think that’s ethical? I still haven’t decided.’

Carrie wasn’t sure she wanted Phil in a ring. It was too personal. He was a man to whom truth had no meaning – something she found out gradually, painfully. To wear him every day would have been a constant reminder of the humiliation of being the poor little wife. ‘He told her he worked in Defence. He would drive off every day, come back in the evening. He’d say his job was top secret, couldn’t tell her a thing.’ Carrie imagined her friends gasping in delighted horror, whispering behind their hands. But that was later.

When she first met him, Phil was such an engaging companion, and he believed most of what he was telling her. That was why he was convincing. He created dreams. ‘Just got back from India. Wonderful country! Stayed with a maharaja. I’ll take you there one day. What a place that would be for a honeymoon!  His palace has ceilings made of gold mosaic, marble floors, servants in white bringing you tea, punkah-wallers keeping you cool with fans. Got a bit tired of curry though – the chef used to put a few more chilies in every night and would peep through from the kitchen watching the tears roll down my cheeks. Little bastard.’

It was such details that made it convincing. But Carrie never did get to India. Soon after Phil proposed he said the Maharaja had died in an epidemic of cholera that had devastated Jaipur. They got married the next year but had a low budget honeymoon on the Gold Coast.

With his brilliant degree and sparkling references Phil quickly got a job in the public service. Phil was proud of his degrees. He had them framed on the wall. An Honours degree in English from La Trobe and a PhD from Cambridge. It never occurred to Carrie that they were forgeries.

He turned to her one day early in their marriage, tears rolling down his cheeks. “That was Mum on the phone. I have to go to Melbourne. Dad has just had a heart attack. Better if you stay here, I’ll see to it all.”

“But I could help, how is your Mum coping?”

“Devastated. Doesn’t want to see anyone. Better if I go alone, darl.”

He disappeared for two months. He took leave from work for a family crisis. He rang every now and again to assure her his Dad was improving but he just needed to stay a little longer. It was then, she realized later, that he had established his second family. A wife, and later, two children, a boy and a girl. She met them at the funeral, but by that time, nothing surprised her. For weeks afterwards, she mulled over the agony of finding another wife, brazenly sitting in the front row, as out of place in that setting as a tom-tit on a side of beef. She wore an armload of gold bangles and several chains round her neck, a tart thought Carrie angrily, glancing down at her own sober black suit.  Maybe it was the contrast that appealed to Phil? When the time came for the eulogy, Carrie thought the tart might run up to the lectern, to tell the world Phil had another wife, and held her breath. But wife number two just sat there sobbing, clutching onto the hands of her teenage children, (Phil’s son and daughter!) while Phil’s brother spoke.

Carrie had always hoped that sometime soon Phil would tell the truth. He had faked his work, and now it seemed he had faked his life. All those years she had thought he must be having an affair, but in fact he was commuting between his two families. Not that she and the cat Dante were much of a family. Her guilt at being barren, as they said in the bible, meant she had a sense of why he had gone elsewhere to find babies, toddlers, the joy and the despair of raising a family. But why didn’t he ask for a divorce? For that matter, why didn’t she? She had been betrayed, shouted at, abused for being a spoilsport. But he was fun, and at his best made her laugh. She found him slightly addictive, and slightly frightening. What would he do if she did leave?  It scared her to think. He was a possessive man. And constantly untruthful.

Carrie thought of truth as a slender white gumtree, reaching for the bluest of skies. It could be blown around but would always stand straight and tall. People believe everyone they know is like that gumtree, basically honest and truthful, but Carrie knew otherwise.  She had discovered that con-men and women, thieves and liars are always hiding behind a respectable front, ready to trip you up.

In spite of that, the whole economy is run on truth. After all when you buy something, she reflected, whether it’s a car or a loaf of bread, you trust that the exchange is a reasonably fair one, and that you will receive what you are paying for. When you buy a car you would be justifiably annoyed if you were given a bicycle instead. Or if instead of a loaf of bread you were given a bag of rusty nails. And when you get a husband you expect the same deal – an honest man and true.

But he wasn’t.  As Carrie sat in the paneled courtroom, cringing and embarrassed the first time Phil was charged with forging a job reference from the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, she almost snorted aloud when Phil put his hand on the bible and swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Instead of taking the reference on face value, like most people, it turned out that a diligent “People and Culture” worker had rung to check. ‘He never gives references,’ the EA to the Secretary of PM&C, told the P&C worker, who, a small squat woman in a polyester suit, reported the exchange in the witness box. Carrie let the acronyms wash over her, her face scarlet with shame. A first offence, Phil got community service and a dressing down from the magistrate.

As far as Phil was concerned, the discovery of his forged reference was just a slip up. Carrie was constantly surprised how little people checked references and credentials, or even court records. Phil soon got a job managing contracts at a university in Melbourne, built on his wonderful experience in the US, and they put a deposit down on a dear little two-bedroom weatherboard with a white picket fence in Clifton Hill, conveniently near the station and close to Merri Creek, where Carrie liked to walk. It helped her to stop thinking about why she had ended up with a conman as a husband. And how he had never been to the US.  But maybe now he was in a good job he would stop forging things? She hoped, deceiving herself, unable to leave the warmth of his arm curled round her in the evenings, his big laugh, his stare with narrowed eyes as he told her another incredible story. And unable to face his anger: sudden, explosive, with a hard hand that slapped her face, a foot prone to kicking her. But nothing too painful, she lied to herself.

Phil begged her to stay. ‘I need you darl. We have fun together don’t we? And think what we can do with the money from this job, and yours.’  Carrie was working as a chef in a popular organic café in Brunswick St, daytimes only, which was civilized in the hospitality business. Her beetroot and walnut salad with plum vinegar dressing was especially popular. She reflected that even in the food industry things are not what they seem. They would make ‘our own blueberry and oat muffins’  every day, baked in the oven from an inexpensive pre-prepared mix that was delivered in huge plastic bags once a fortnight. At least the eggs are free range, she thought. Or are they? Once you realized that society was built on half-truths you have a lot to worry about.

Phil never worried. He always did like money, and luxury, which is why he soon found the money in contracts wasn’t enough. Carrie knew he had invested in some real estate up in Queensland. ‘By the water, they’re going to build on it, we just need a few more investors.’

Carrie had never heard of a Ponzi scheme, and with her slight grasp on maths she wanted to believe Phil when he said it was the opportunity of a lifetime and they couldn’t lose. She hosted a dinner party for close acquaintances, and when they got to dessert, a luscious chestnut chocolate cake, Phil did the hard sell. (‘We’ll soften them up with that cake of yours, they will be swooning over the dinner and good wine, so hopefully they will swoon over the investment opportunity, Phil told her.)

She felt it was OK because they had invested in the scheme too, not realizing that their return was to be funded out of the next lot of investors in a dream house by the water. ‘It’s such a good opportunity with a high-yield investment, you can’t lose on this one. We’ve already bought two blocks,’  Phil told the dinner guests.

The scheme ran successfully for almost a year until an investigative reporter found out the land was too swampy ever to be built on. Raiding wallets, breaking hearts was the headline. Carrie rushed home the day the story broke, having been unable to get onto Phil all day, unlocked the front door, and almost fell over a large suitcase in the hall.

Phil was red-faced and blustering. She could tell he had been drinking. “How was I to know that fucking land was a swamp? We’re in the shit darl, I’m off for a while. Better you don’t know where I am. There’s the cab.’ He grabbed the case, slamming the door as he left. He didn’t even kiss her goodbye.

Carrie sat down heavily on the sofa, her head in her hands as she sobbed, the tears oozing through her fingers, her heart beating loud in her chest. The phone was ringing in the hall. It stopped then started again. Soon there were twenty messages, angry messages on the phone from all the friends who had bought shares. There was no way she could face anyone after this. She went to pour herself a whisky and found the bottle gone. With Phil. What a shit he was, she thought angrily. There was a half-drunk bottle of red wine in the pantry. She threw her head back to drain it.

She marched down the hall into the bedroom – there were drawers pulled out, piles of clothes on the floor, a chair turned over. The phone was still ringing. She lay on the bed, pulling a blanket over her head, then threw it back, walked into the hall, and yanked the phone out of its socket, mid ring. She returned to the bed and pulled the slightly scratchy blanket over her head again, stifled and comforted by the warm wool smell. The prickly fabric felt like a penance. She lay there, curled up, cocooned, her arms wrapped round her knees, for hours, eyes tight shut, wondering what to do next.

She woke up angry. It was just before sunrise, she could tell from the lightening sky, and her throat was dry. She got up and pulled on an outsize cardigan of Phil’s and wrapped it round her. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror, her blonde hair spiky, her blue eyes red rimmed, her skin blotchy. How dare he abandon her? Words came to her, scoundrel, rascal, blackguard, rapscallion, old-fashioned words that didn’t adequately describe how she felt betrayed. She went to the kitchen and filled the kettle and waited while it started to boil, her fingers drumming on the cheap Formica bench top. She looked out of the kitchen window at the little paved backyard, an uncared-for parsley plant drooping in a black plastic pot. Her instinct was to run. Her upbringing told her to ring all the people, the investors, but what would she tell them? There is no money? Phil’s bolted?

She ran.

She packed up the house with haste while the phone lay unplugged on the floor and her mobile was switched off. She put their clothes and possessions in boxes and big green garbo bags and locked them in the corrugated iron shed out the back, hoping it would be weatherproof enough to protect everything from the temperamental Melbourne storms. Twice the front door bell rang, and she froze, pretending to be out. Eventually whoever it was went away. She spoke to no-one; that way she could pretend nothing much had happened. Any moment she expected the police to arrive, so she rushed. Her shared account with Phil was empty, large amounts transferred into an unknown account just yesterday. ‘Bastard,’ she muttered. He didn’t know she had always kept a running away fund. Just in case.

She put the house in the care of a real estate agent to rent out furnished and ran to the other side of the world. Sometimes dual citizenship was a bonus. She told the café she had to go, a family crisis, lying glibly, she apologized profusely for leaving them without a chef at such short notice, but her father was dying in a remote Welsh village and there was no-one else to care for him. That way she got a reference for when she landed in London. She reflected wryly that she had learned a few things from Phil.

The light was pearly when she arrived at Heathrow after a seemingly endless flight, exhausted from being cramped in a grey airline seat next to a large man who had popped some sleeping pills and snored the whole way.

The slight haze that started so many days in the Northern Hemisphere had not yet lifted. Bright yellow daffodils lined up behind the black iron railings of the parks, the grass an impossible green after the toasted version in Australia. She could almost forget why she was in London.

Carrie didn’t hear from Phil for two years. They were two years when she constantly lived in fear of a call from the police, when her normally voluptuous figure became thin, almost scraggy. She rented a tiny basement flat and worked in a South Ken café which specialized in organic food, and her beetroot and walnut salad with plum vinegar was popular with the Brits as well. She diversified into desserts, reflecting that she had to get some sweetness into her life somehow. Her hazelnut meringue with apricot filling was a hit, especially when it was served with clotted cream from contented cows in Devon.

She regularly visited her father Bill, who contrary to what she had told her former employers, was fit and well and living just outside Guildford in an Edwardian cottage with a steep roof and mullioned windows.

“You know sweetheart,” he said, giving her a hug, “I reckon you’re better off without that fellow of yours. I never really felt he was of good character. Just a gut feeling, and he had a damp handshake.” Bill, a tall angular ex-army man, set a lot of store in handshakes. “And it’s lovely to have you back in Britain. Australia is such a long way away. Coffee and cake in the garden?”

He was a self-reliant man who had learned to cook after Carrie’s Mum had died too early of cancer. He survived on tough microwaved chicken and TV dinners until his daughter stepped in with a few simple lessons. Bill was proud of his food processor chocolate cake, which in his daughter’s professional judgment wasn’t bad at all, especially served with clotted cream from contented cows in Devon which she had introduced him to.

Carrie hadn’t told her dad the whole truth. It would have made him too angry, and anyway she was ashamed of her part in the whole scheme. But the stress of bottling it all up was beginning to tell. He glanced at her “You’re getting thin, and you look very pale. You mustn’t let him get to you, he’s not worth it. I’ll take you to the pub tonight, they have a good deal on Monday nights. Cheer you up.” Bill spent several nights a week in the pub, sharing a pint of bitter with other widowers and men whose wives preferred them out of the house.

“I’m not sleeping much,” she muttered.

She slept even less when Phil contacted her on her thirtieth birthday, sending a card with a Brazilian postmark care of her father, which he dutifully forwarded.

It was typical Phil, breezy as if nothing had happened, and they had just been speaking the other day. The card was a rather tacky sketch of a South American woman dancing the tango.

Hi Darl, Happy Birthday! Am thinking of going back to Oz, face the music. I’m sick of life on the run. Would love to have your support. Ring me. He gave her the number.

Carrie sat on the bed in her damp basement flat with the card in her hand, turning it round and round. It occurred to her that conmen never face the music. What was he up to? She glanced up through the basement window at the street railings, and the briskly walking feet of passers-by, oblivious to the turmoil in the little room below the street.

‘He’s a rapscallion, but he’s my rapscallion,’ she whispered.

‘You have no obligation to go back to a man who is a conman, a criminal and sometimes violent,’ Kylie said firmly on their way to tap-dancing on the bus.

She had met Kylie, a barista, at the café.  Kylie, who hailed from Brisbane, was a straight-talking Queenslander who had also escaped from Australia when her husband had been killed in a nasty pileup on his way back from the Gold Coast, after a buck’s night for his closest friend.

She still wore her wedding ring, and the diamond ring made from her husband’s ashes. ‘That way he is always with me,’ she told Carrie, tears in her eyes even after five years of being a widow. Most of the time she hid her grief, but it was always there, just below the surface.

‘I may be a Kylie but I’ll never be a Minogue’ she joked to Carrie when they took up tap-dancing as a way of cheering themselves up.  As they tapped their toes and heels, their tap shoes making satisfying clicks on the wooden floor boards, their Polish teacher called out – “back straight girlss, look ahead, face forward, imagine you have headlights on your hip-bones that mustn’t be turned.”

Carrie tried hard to imagine the headlights on her hipbones. “’I usen’t to have any hipbones,’ she said, ‘but now they’ve appeared and won’t go away.’

‘It’s amazing how slender you are when you make all those cakes,’ said Kylie, looking ruefully at her own wide hips. They tapped backwards across the room, shrugging their shoulders up and down in a counter rhythm.

On the way home, sitting upstairs in red double decker bus, Kylie repeated what she had said. ‘Carrie, you can’t go back. He’s an absolute scoundrel.’

‘But he’s my scoundrel,” said Carrie. ‘He’s still my husband. For richer, for poorer.’

‘Bullshit,’ said Kylie. They were both silent.

Carrie rang the number the next day. The musical tone that indicated it was an international call, then a few clicks. Then a long ring. Then Phil’s voice. ‘Hello?’

‘It’s me,’ said Carrie.

‘Hello darl,’ Phil boomed.

‘Where are you?’ said Carrie

‘Sao Paulo. It’s hot. I don’t like the heat. And I miss you darl.’

Carrie wasn’t sure she missed Phil, so she stayed silent. The she burst out

‘Phil, you just pissed off without a word. Then silence. You bastard. Two whole years!’

‘Darl, it was better for you. Have the police chased you?’

‘No. But I’m here, in the UK’

‘And still no police? Well there you are. QED.’

Carrie sighed. She could never win against Phil.

Phil moved back to the little house in Clifton Hill, kicking out the tenants, and was arrested. He got five years for fraud. Carrie supposed he must have a conscience after all. Phil said he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in South America.

Her Dad and Kylie warned her about going back. ‘He’s in prison now, he doesn’t need you,’ Bill said. ‘He needs me more than ever,’ said Carrie. ‘Who’s going to visit him except me? He’s got no real friends, only drinking buddies.’

‘Don’t knock drinking buddies,’ said Bill, thinking of his mates in the pub. ’Your marriage vows don’t include supporting a husband who’s basically a crook.’

Carrie thought otherwise. She returned to the little house in Clifton Hill and visited Phil faithfully every week until he said to her – “Darl, it’s too painful. Can you just come once a fortnight?”  Later Carrie realized that he must have taken up with his second wife again, in the alternate weeks. Nevertheless, she and Phil occasionally had conjugal visits but nothing came of that. That was when Carrie bought Dante for company, a stroppy Burmese who would follow her down the street miaowing, and climb the curtains in complaint, digging his claws into the velvet, when she returned from visiting Phil. Sometimes Carrie didn’t know who was more demanding, the cat or the husband.

The trouble was when Phil came out of prison, grey and toughened from the experience, it was hard for him to get a job. They moved to Ashfield in Sydney on a whim of Phil’s, ‘no-one knows us there, so we might be able to get ahead.’

Carrie could work anywhere, especially now her expertise in dramatic organic cakes, made out of unusual ingredients such as red kidney beans and beetroot was well known. She soon got a job in one of Balmain’s trendier organic cafes.

Phil was triumphant. Waving a letter in the air he said ‘I have a job in Defence! Special Operations.’

‘Why would they employ an ex-crim?’ said Carrie.

‘Because they want my knowledge of scams,” he said.

Carrie was a little dubious, but Phil went off to work each day, dressed in a suit (one of the few civilians he claimed) and occasionally she would pick him up at the Victoria Barracks if they were going out for a meal in Paddington.

The truth was tacky, and it took a while to discover it. There he was working out of a converted shed he rented in the backyard of an old lady. On arrival he would change into shorts and a T-shirt. ‘I’m a writer – I need my privacy,’ he told poor Norah as he paid the tiny rent in cash. Always cash. In the peace of her back garden he would scam other old ladies, sell them tickets to cruises that didn’t exist, create websites that sold tickets to the opera, except the tickets weren’t real.  He would go online and court lonely men, pretending to be a beautiful babe with glossy black hair and a desperate need for money for an airfare, or cash to visit her old mum in Europe. He had a range of photos of attractive but realistic women he used. With names like CherryBlossom, DaisyBell, Lilibet. He would promise to love the lonely man forever, and then disappear.

He got more ambitious. He had a range of pre-paid phones, and a list of phone numbers. He would say he was from the tax office, threaten them with a court case if they didn’t pay their tax bills straight away, now. Tens of thousands of dollars sometimes. People were so terrified of the tax office going public on their bills they would pay, dumbly, miserably, without asking the right questions. When she found out Carrie was reminded that when the average IQ is 100 there are a lot of people who are pretty dim. It was what Phil traded on. That, and the fact that society runs on an assumption of truth.

Phil refused to have a joint bank account, saying Defence needed to pay his salary into an account that just had his name on. But Carrie thought it odd that sometimes he seemed to have enough money to pay the bills and other times he would say ‘Darl, you’ll have to pick up the mortgage this month. I’m broke.’ And even though she encouraged him to invite some of his colleagues around for dinner he never did. ‘Darl it’s all top secret.’ And he got red and enraged if she persisted, shouting at her and occasionally hitting her, so she learnt not to ask. But then he would dance her round the room in a whirlwind of love and affection and she would give up her ideas of leaving.

After a couple of years, she became increasingly suspicious. She took the day off work, and got into her car quietly and discretely, and followed him through Sydney’s nightmarish traffic. Instead of heading into the city on Parramatta Rd he turned off in Annandale, a suburb of stone Victorian houses and renovated worker’s cottages. He pulled up outside a small house with garden full of roses, and walked up the front path, then veered off round the back. Carrie couldn’t see what he was doing from her position further down the road, but after fifteen minutes or so she knocked on the front door, heart beating fast, thinking she might confront a girlfriend.

A tiny woman with wispy white hair answered the door, leaving the chain on and peering through the gap. “Can I help you?” she said in a cracked voice.

‘Hello’ said Carrie with a cheerfulness she didn’t feel. ‘I just wanted to talk to Phil.’

‘Phil? Oh you mean Bill? He’s around the back in the shed.’ The old woman lowered her voice. ‘He doesn’t like being disturbed. I’m not sure he would want to see you.’

‘I’m his wife,’ said Carrie.

‘Oh no, he hasn’t got a wife, poor man. He’s a widower. Says he gets very lonely, out there writing his novel. I’m not allowed to go in, says if he gets interrupted he loses the flow. So, I’m not sure who you are. You don’t look like a ghost.’ She cackled and shut the door.

Phil was no writer. Carrie was furious. ‘How dare he take Dad’s name?’ she muttered as she unlocked the car. ‘How dare he lie to me about his job? What a mug I am.’ She realized that he hadn’t changed a bit. The fact he had come back to face the police and the charges had fooled her. Her never-ending hopefulness was naivety.

Idiot, idiot she told herself. She still found it hard to believe that anyone would treat the truth so casually. Lying was a way of life, a way to feel better and more important. He refused to let her meet his parents, but she knew his upbringing had been tough, with lots of beatings. Maybe he learnt to lie then, to save himself from harm.

She got out of the car and quietly opened the gate again, hoping the old lady was a bit deaf. She trod softly round the side of the house and found the shed. She could hear talking, Phil’s voice on the phone. Threatening, saying “The Tax Office will subpoena you unless you pay up, NOW.” She felt nauseous.  She turned and left.

Once home, she packed up hastily, grabbed Dante and put him in his cat cage, put him on the back seat of the car and drove off. She sent a text to Kylie saying–last straw moment. I’ve left him.

You go girl!  xxx , came whistling back from the UK.

Two months later, when she heard Phil had died, his body found at the bottom of a cliff, the face unrecognizable, some weeks after he disappeared, she cracked open some champagne. Then she had the body cremated and turned into a diamond.

Some months after the funeral, she realized she would never be rid of him while she owned the diamond ring. She drove down to Melbourne, having tracked down his other wife who was making a fuss about an inheritance for her children. They met in a café. “I have something for you,” she said. ‘Phil wanted you to have this ring, as a memento. It cost a motza. But he died broke.’

The tart smiled, then grimaced as the words sank in, the big golden hoops in her ears swinging. She grabbed the ring. ‘Oh well it’s something – I will keep it always.’ She didn’t thank Carrie. And Carrie didn’t tell her it was Phil. The push and the ring. That was her revenge.

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The Coffee Cup Crime – read the story

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Scarlet Stiletto Awards: Highly Commended 2015

The Coffee Cup Crime, copyright Marilyn Chalkley 

There was just a head sticking out of the water, bobbing slightly, dead eyes staring, black hair tangled. It turned out the woman had heavy concrete blocks tied to her feet, but the murderer hadn’t managed to make her disappear altogether, in the shallows on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin.

The news of the body in the lake was still screaming out over Canberra, from every radio and TV station, every Twitter feed and Facebook post when I heard about it going home. There were even a few Snapchatters who had managed to get themselves in a selfie with the row of police cars and boats as a backdrop.

It wasn’t until the next day I found out it was Giovanna. She had a few days off so we weren’t expecting her back in the café until the following week. I was making coffee as usual, with Carlo, his man bun tied back to keep the black hair out of his eyes. Our well-practiced rhythm produced the creamy full flavoured brew so beloved by our queue of customers. Our shiny red La Marzocco coffee machine and the grinds, bangs, twists and tamping required for a perfect golden crema added to the drama in each cup, the steam for the cappuccinos hissing from the wand.

Janny, one of my favourite customers, leaned over the counter and said quietly, ‘Tam, isn’t that Giovanna?’ She pointed to a photo of a sad pale face coming up on her iPhone. ‘She’s the body in the lake.’

Oh my God. I stopped, appalled. ‘Don’t show Carlo yet,’ I whispered. I continued making coffee on automatic pilot, my heart beating fast. It wasn’t possible. Giovanna was a lively strong vibrant woman. How could that be her? We got through the line of customers, then I took Carlo aside, while Aduk shut up shop, putting a sign on the door saying Closed for Urgent Family Business. Carlo sat at one of the tables, weeping.

Soon the police arrived, two burly men embarrassed the picture had got out before they had had time to tell the family. I waved them over to Carlo.

Stan came out of the kitchen, his chef’s uniform looking crumpled and grubby. He was a small stubby man with a quiff of blond hair kept upright with the help of an excessive amount of hair product. ‘Aduk just told me the news. Wonder what’s going to happen now,’ he said. ‘Stupid woman. Why did she have to go and get killed? Who’s going to roast the coffee? Do you think we’ll have jobs? I can’t afford this.’ He was anxious and as usual more concerned about himself than his boss who, only yesterday, was floating in the lake. ‘You could be a bit more sympathetic,’ I sighed. I was used to Stan.

Giovanna wasn’t a bad boss, but she wasn’t the loveliest person in the universe. She was a ruthless businesswoman and a control freak, and a really tough mum to Carlo. I wasn’t at all sure he was up to running the café, and the coffee roasting business that was the basis of Giovanna’s success. And as for Luigi he was Giovanna’s other son who had a good line in threats. One of his talents was debt collection. He was the last person you’d want running a café, although his flash cars made one think he had a side line in illicit substances.

Luigi knocked at the door and I let him in. I looked at his red puffy face, he had obviously been weeping too. ‘So sorry mate,’ I muttered.

He nodded, his round belly stretched over his white T-shirt under a black leather jacket and went over to Carlo. I got a whiff of cloying aftershave as he brushed past me. The policemen stood up and shook hands, Luigi gripped Carlo’s shoulder, Carlo covered his hand and squeezed it in in reply and then they all sat down at the table, talking in low voices.

‘This is a terrible thing that has happened,’ exclaimed Aduk our tall willowy waitperson from South Sudan ‘I will make us tea.’ Her appearance added an exoticism to the café that Giovanna had liked. Her lilting voice was soothing, and I suddenly realized how tense I was. Giovanna had been murdered, killed by whom? I was sure she had many enemies, but what sort of person would tie concrete blocks to her feet and throw her in the water? Someone strong, that’s for sure. Someone angry, someone with real hatred in their heart.

I smelt a whiff of coffee – burning coffee. Shit, the roaster! We had all ignored the alarm that had been sounding in the background for the last 15 minutes in the room out the back, I rushed through the café to sort it out.

I pulled a sample of the beans out of the side of the roaster. Damn! They were very dark. We might be able to sell it as a very dark Italian roast, or heaven forbid an almost black Spanish roast, otherwise that was 15kilos down the drain. Giovanna would have been furious. And only she knew the recipes for the coffee blends – one of the things that made Carlo angry was that she wouldn’t tell him the secret. In time Carlo, in time, she would say. ‘I will leave the recipes in my will, then you will have control.’ My stomach clenched. Surely not? Carlo was too much of a wimp to do anything so evil to his Mum. But it made me wonder. He was strong enough. He worked on his abs and biceps, so his muscles rippled in his tight white T shirts, with the Lady G logo in espresso brown on the front.

The blends were the key to the business. Although single origin coffee was the trend of the moment, there was always a queue of people for Lady G, Giovanna’s special blend, only available from the café, its rich full flavor with a hint of sweetness and apricots. We sourced coffee from a number of places, Mexico, Tanzania, Panama but only Giovanna knew how to balance and blend the flavours. People liked to buy the bags of beans and we did a busy line in wholesale.

Keeping ahead in the coffee wars was tough. Some companies did it with free umbrellas and café screens for all their wholesale customers, their logos large and bright, others with events and special occasions but Giovanna, she did nothing except roast very special coffee. Every year she won prizes, the best coffee, the best coffee in a café, and got heaps of attention. ‘Mama, please let us do some marketing,’ Carlo would beg. ‘It’s madness. We are being overtaken, especially by that bloody Kaffee Bitte crowd.’

A couple of months ago she relented. She was a small plump woman with fierce blackcurrant eyes, so she had to look up at Carlo. ‘What I am going to do Carlo, is bid for some rare Hacienda Yesenia coffee beans in an auction, costs about $200 a kilo, then we can create a lot of excitement about it. The espresso of a lifetime!’ She smiled at him, her red lipstick gleaming.

Carlo could hardly believe what he was hearing ‘I can’t wait to try coffee that costs 5cents a bean. I will tweet the hell out of it! The punters will love an early morning tasting.’ On the morning of the event customers started queuing up at 5 am. ‘See what marketing can do, Mama’, said Carlo.

It was the Kaffee Bitte crowd who were grumpy. Willem, Giovanna’s former husband, powered down to the café that afternoon just as we were closing. He and Giovanna shut themselves in the coffee roasting room, but we could hear him shouting in his heavily accented English through the glass. ‘You fucking bitch I taught you everything you know about coffee. I have been selling Hacienda Yesenia each year, its bullshit to talk about it as an exclusive. And where are you getting this rubbish from?’ he ran his hand through an open hessian bag of green beans, lifting them up and dropping them. ‘Don’t you know anything? How dare you set yourself up as an expert? I grew up on a coffee plantation, I know more than anyone else in this town. And all those bullshit posh cafes you are selling to – you stole my customers with all your sweet-talking.’

By this time we were all cowering round the coffee machine, only Aduk was slowly pushing the broom across the floor, listening intently. ‘You just watch yourself Madam’ he said as he stormed out. ‘I am not happy, not happy at all. There is nothing more dangerous than an enraged Kaffee Meister.’

Aduk, Stan and I glanced at each other. None of us knew Willem well, but we suspected Giovanna had left him because he was violent. Carlo and Luigi hated him with the fierce hatred that you can only have for a family member.

One of the large cops came up to me and I lurched back into the present. ‘We’d like to interview you now, Ms Gooch,’ he said.

We sat at the table.

‘Where were you, on Saturday night? ‘

I blushed and was annoyed with myself. ‘With my friend Ned Hughes. I can give you his number.’

It had been a typical Canberra party – everyone crowded into the small galley kitchen, lots of exuberant exchanges about the latest political bastardry of the government and its Ministers, and the departmental heads.

I felt a touch on my elbow and turned to see my mate Ned smiling down at me. ‘How are you going Tam?’ he asked in his deep voice.  Ned had a great voice and real presence, tall with a shaved head, and scary sunglasses.

We moved together to the end of the garden. ‘It’s really good to see you, Tam,’ said Ned giving me a big hug. I leaned against him, and it went downhill from there. Before long we were in his airy apartment in a passionate embrace, and more. Which I didn’t want to share, especially with the police.

After they left Carlo asked. ‘Can you hold the fort for the next few days, Tam?’ he asked. ‘This is bloody hard.’

‘Sure, Carlo.’

‘I can’t even organise her funeral, they won’t release the body,’ he said, his voice flat and weary. ‘And I think the cops believe I did it, I was just home on my own on Saturday cos me and Jenna had a big row and she went to stay with a girlfriend.’

I looked at him sympathetically.

‘I loved my Mum even though we didn’t agree on many things. I would never have hurt her, you know I’m not that sort of guy.’ His eyes pleaded with me.

But the next day he was arrested and charged with murder.

When the morning rush was over I rang Ned. ‘The police have arrested the least scary of the three men in Giovanna’s family. The trouble is he’s got no alibi, so I’m assuming the other two have. What the hell can we do? I have been working with this guy for a year now, in hot steamy conditions, under heaps of pressure. He’s always calm, he’s always kind, he’s not your average grumpy barista at all. And he’s a coward. That time we got robbed by that insane druggy who tried to hold us up with a pair of scissors, he just hid behind the coffee machine! I ask you, is that a murderer?’

Ned grunted. ‘Maybe he got ridiculously angry and the blood rushed to his head?’

‘You don’t tie concrete blocks to your mum’s feet if you have a rush of blood to the head. That’s cool and calm,’ I said.

Ned grunted again

‘Got to go. Minister on the rampage. See you honeybun.’ He hung up. Honeybun. That was new. Ned was getting soft.

Suddenly a crowd walked in for coffee. We had gained a reputation

overnight, and suddenly we were the go to place for the ghoulish and the thrill seekers.

And so it went on for the next few days while Carlo was locked up waiting for his hearing. We were getting through the coffee and no-one had roasted any, so we were days behind schedule. The trouble is we didn’t have the coffee blend recipes. I didn’t know what to do, and then on the afternoon of the court hearing Carlo walked in. ‘I thought you were in the slammer,’ I exclaimed. ‘I was, but my dad, Willem, got me a good lawyer, and I’m on bail. They’ve only got the word of one witness who said he saw me putting my mum in the lake on Saturday night, saw my car down at Yarralumla bay near the jetty. But it’s rubbish.’

‘Carlo, I hate to raise this now – but we have to roast some coffee, our wholesale customers are all ringing asking what’s going to happen – we’ll lose them if we’re not careful.’

He looked down at his feet. ‘Would you mind coming to my Mum’s house? I’ve got to rescue her cat. And we can look for the coffee blend recipes, so we know what to roast and mix. She used to say she would give them to me in her will. Maybe they are filed somewhere in her house.’

‘Carlo, we have to find the killer, or you’ll go down.’ He looked bleak.

It only took us ten minutes to get to the white weatherboard cottage, which was cute, with climbing roses and jasmine around the windows. As Carlo unlocked the front door a furry yowling streak brushed past our legs and disappeared.

‘Shit,’ said Carlo. ‘He’s gone ballistic. Romulus,’ he called, disappearing behind the house. I followed him. ‘Let me look for the cat while you look for the recipes’ I suggested. ‘Ok, thanks’ he said and went inside. I saw the whisk of a grey tail disappear under the house.  ‘Oh no you stupid animal’ I groaned. ‘Don’t you know what’s good for you?’ I got down on my knees and found that the house, like many old places, was on stumps, and there was a person sized gap between the ground and the floor of the house. I knelt down and put my head under the building and sneezed. It was dry and dusty. ‘Romulus, puss, puss,’ I called. The grey cat was sitting in the middle of the grey dust, almost invisible in the gloom, staring at me with round green eyes.  How strange I thought. Someone’s insulated the house by taping white padded bags underneath the floor. It stretched right under the entire house just above our heads. There was a piece of dirty gaffer tape hanging down near the cat, and more relaxed now he batted it with his paw. He did it again, finding enjoyment in the tape swinging. The next time his outstretched claw slashed the bag. White powder poured out. Jesus, I breathed, this is not insulation. I looked again. This is drugs. Cocaine? I taste-tested a few grains and my tongue went numb. Yes. But surely Giovanna wasn’t a drug dealer? No way. She didn’t fit the profile.

Romulus moved towards me and rubbed against my face. I was still on all fours. I leaned back on my haunches and stroked him thoughtfully, my head almost touching the white plastic bags. I stifled a sneeze. There must be millions of dollars’ worth of drugs stuck unobtrusively under this house. I wondered if Giovanna had found out? Then I heard a souped-up car roar into the drive, a door slam and quick footsteps up to the house. Then a second car, more footsteps, heavier this time.

I quietly got my phone out and put it on silent, my heart beating fast. I sent a text to Ned not sure if he’d get it. HELP! stuck under Giovanna’s house with millions of dollars of coke and a cat, drug dealers in house. Come with cops. I gave the address. I had no doubt now that Luigi was the dealer, possibly the murderer, but I wasn’t at all sure about the other footsteps. Now there was shouting, the acoustics were good, I must be just underneath them.

Carlo shouted – ‘what are you doing here? You know Mum didn’t like you near her place. Well that hasn’t changed. ‘

Luigi’s voice said – ‘well you killed her, so you could have the house and the coffee recipes, that’s pretty obvious.’

‘You effing c’ – then there was a lot of swearing by Carlo – ‘how dare you, was it you that set up that witness? What have you got to gain by her death? ‘

‘Nothing. Why would I set up my own brother?’ That was Luigi.

‘Carlo, what’s in that envelope?’ That was Willem

‘None of your business.’

‘Give it her.,’

‘No way.’ There was a scuffle, a shout and the sound of crashing furniture.

I let go of the cat, extracted myself from under the house and ran quietly to the front door, and into the hall. I couldn’t let Carlo battle those thugs on his own. I peeped round the door and then pulled back. Carlo was sitting astride Willem who was lying on his face on the floral carpet yelling out in a muffled voice. ‘So this is the gratitude I get for finding you a lawyer?’ Carlo had tucked the envelope in his belt and was holding both of Willem’s hands by the wrists in a firm grip. The gym hadn’t gone to waste then. Luigi was standing there with crossed arms, smiling unpleasantly.

Suddenly Romulus stalked past me, his tail vertical. I could see now that he had come out of the gloom that he was covered in white powder. He went into the living room miaowing. Luigi looked at him. ‘Where the hell has that cat been?’ he exclaimed. ‘Under the house,’ said Carlo.

‘Jesus,’ said Luigi and ran out, past me, came back, grabbed me by the neck and pushed me up against the wall in the hall. ‘Where have you been missy?’ he said, his face a few centimetres from mine. I could see the enlarged pores round his nose and the sweat on his forehead. ‘Just in the garden’ I said as casually as I could. He pulled a gun out from a holster under his arm and the cold metal cut into my throat. It was all clear now. It wasn’t the coffee blend recipes that were the reason Giovanna was murdered. It was the millions of dollars of cocaine under the house.

‘So it was you ‘I said in a loud voice so Carlo would hear. Might as well go out with a bang I thought idiotically. ‘Giovanna found out about the cocaine you hid, and threatened to dob you in. She never did approve of drugs.’

‘How did you find out bitch?’ sneered Luigi, pushing the gun hard against my throat. ‘So you killed her,’ I went on, ‘and took a couple of those concrete bricks I saw in the back garden and tied them to her feet. But you didn’t do the physics and the blocks weren’t heavy enough to keep her totally submerged. You killed your own MOTHER.’ I stared hard at him, my heart beating fast. Luigi looked down for a second in shame and Carlo and Willem, released from the carpet, quietly appeared behind him.  Carlo grabbed his arms, Willem wrenched the gun from his hand, and a shot fired into the gyprock ceiling.

‘You bastard’ yelled Carlo, slamming him against the wall. At that moment Ned and the police arrived. ‘Boy am I pleased to see you’ I said as Ned rushed in and grabbed me in a protective sort of a way. ‘Are you OK? I heard a shot.’ He was white.

‘I’m fine’ I said pulling away, ‘it’s all under control.’ I felt slightly weak- kneed, but I wasn’t going to reveal that.

Carlo refused to give the coffee blend recipes to Willem, who was pretty angry about it but could do little to persuade him, short of violence, because Giovanna had indeed left them to Carlo in her will.  They continued in fierce competition. Luigi went down for a long time which made life much more pleasant for everyone, the witness who said he saw Carlo at the lake that Saturday night went to jail too – he was one of Luigi’s dealers. The coffee shop thrived – a little notoriety is good for business. And Carlo became a blender of very fine coffees, there must be a gene for it. The winner from the whole event was Romulus who became a famous Internet cat, his glistening green eyes glowing from his own Facebook page, curated by Carlo, the million-dollar cat who found the biggest haul of cocaine Canberra had ever seen. And me? I got a taste for solving crimes.