Worse than Death (Anna Southwood Mysteries)

BOOK: Worse than Death (Anna Southwood Mysteries)
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Worse Than Death

 

Jean Bedford

 

Written in collaboration with Tom Kelly

 

© Jean Bedford 1991

 

Jean Bedford has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

 

First published in 1991 by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.

 

This edition published in 2015 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

Dedication

 

For Barbara Farrelly and Virginia Duigan.

 

Chapter 1

 

It was one of those perfect early spring days that Sydney turns on occasionally, just when you think you can’t stand the dirt and the gloom and the grey winter city a moment longer.

I sat on the balcony of my house in Balmain, finishing my breakfast coffee and gazing over the green frills of the jacarandas at the blue sparkling harbour. Late commuter ferries bustled importantly towards the bridge and the business district, fishing boats milled and thronged and even a few graceful yachts were heading out towards a day of pleasant sailing. The idle rich, I supposed, who needn’t attend their boardrooms on a fine sunny day in September.

I sighed — at least I made the effort of going down to the office every weekday morning, even if there wasn’t much to do. I went inside and put my cup on the sink. On the way out I gave my reflection a despairing look in the hall mirror. I tugged at my hair, trying to smooth it down, without much effect. My silk shirt was already struggling free of my tailored skirt, so I pulled it out all the way. No matter how hard I tried to dress for success and look business-like, I remained a small, pale, pointy-faced tomboy with untidy red curls. I even found it hard to take myself seriously. I called to the cat.

“Come on,” I said to Toby. “We’re going downstairs.”

He blinked at me from the sofa, yawned his delicate, comprehensive cat’s yawn, and closed his eyes again. I picked up my green manila folder and left the door open — I know when a cat’s kidding. I was half-way down when he bounded past me, tail in the air, as if we were strangers. He skidded to an inelegant halt outside the office door and waited, purring and licking his paw.

“Boof-head,” I said to him and let us both in. He went immediately to his morning sun-spot on the carpet and this time really did go to sleep. In this position he could be mistaken for a polar-bear rug, he’s so large and white and furry. He’s also the best thing my late, unlamented husband left me — except, perhaps, for this house, with its sweeping views of Balmain’s industrial waters and the Harbour Bridge arcing across the horizon. Knowing what I know now, I realise the house must have been a scam of some sort — Clyde never really intended for me to own the property. He probably never intended for me to keep the money in the several bank accounts, either, but then he probably never intended to die. Not like that, anyway.

I shrugged off my morning thoughts and sat at my desk. Graham wasn’t in yet, of course, it was barely 10 a.m. I opened the folder I’d brought down with me, and contemplated my list with some gloom. Business wasn’t exactly booming.

“Just as well your mistress is a rich woman,” I said to Toby, who couldn’t have cared less. “Well, fairly rich.”

In fact Clyde had left me astoundingly well off by my standards, even if he hadn’t meant to. We’d been separated for over a year when he died, but he’d still been salting money and property away in my name, or in our joint names, and he hadn’t altered his will. This two-storey sandstone house in Balmain was one of about five I nominally owned when the estate was settled, and I’d fallen in love with it immediately, with its gracious small garden of well-established trees and the magenta bougainvillea swarming all over the verandas. It was a far cry from the tiny old flat I’d been living in since I left him.

My list read:

1.Tennis/Rita

2.Spare key/Trent

3.Dry-cleaning!!! Today!!!

4.Check out computers

5.Lunch/Lorna?

It seemed to be a day for sighing. Only item four could remotely be considered job-related. Not that we had any real need for electronic cross-checked files. I doubted if we’d ever again have to refer to Mrs Layford’s lost blue heeler, or Colonel Jansen’s anonymous phone calls. Though we
had
solved both cases — the blue heeler located in the pound and a Telecom fault that sounded remarkably like heavy breathing. I didn’t think we could justify a computer at all, but I’d promised to look into it. Graham, I suspected, wanted to be able to play Space Ogres or something to while away his token hours in the office, between his fencing, yoga, TM and, lately, karate classes.

I looked at my watch. Graham’s arrivals were getting later and later; he was as bored and restless as I was. Lately he’d even been talking of going back to process serving, just to keep his hand in.

*

When we’d started the agency, six months before, we’d been full of enthusiasm and high hopes. My accountant had been pleased, too. He’d been trying to explain negative gearing to me for weeks, getting impatient when I worked out that letting all my other property to deserving cases at lower than market rental was more or less what he meant. He’d tried carefully to point out that this wouldn’t be enough to counter my likely huge tax bills. But when I went to register the company he was delighted.

“A detective agency!” he said. “Anna, that’s brilliant. Or are you really going to look for people’s lost poodles? Not that that’ll put you in the black,” he went on cheerfully.

Then he had a thought that worried him. “You’re not going to do industrial espionage, are you? Or workers’ compensation? There’s real money in that…”

He’d been relieved when I said no. I had more high-flown plans. Something exciting, but not too sordid, I thought, visions of country houses and Lord Peter Wimsey-type jewel thefts flitting across my mind. But in the time we’d been operating, we’d several times almost resorted to Graham serving writs again. I’d even thought of doing it myself. Operating at a healthy tax-loss is one thing, but the boredom of having absolutely nothing to do is another.

The mail thudded through the slot onto the polished hall floor and I got up with relief. I’d forgotten the paper, and I went outside to get it. The cryptic crossword could usually be relied on to fill in most of the morning. On Wednesdays it could take all day, even making up most of the answers.

“Bills,” I told Toby, coming in again, and dropped them in the in-tray. I flicked the paper over for the crossword and a headline on the news pages caught my eye. It was the name — Channing — that I’d recognised. Paul Whitehouse had mentioned the case at Lorna’s on Saturday night; it was one he’d picked up in the cells on Saturday, as public solicitors sometimes do. I tried to remember what he’d said — it had been a large and noisy dinner party, but I thought I’d heard him say that he was baffled by this case.

‘LEONIE CHANNING SILENT ON CHARGES,’ the headline said. Good on her, I thought. I was frequently surprised at how much people seemed to talk about what they had done. It’s always seemed to me that if you never said a word it would be really hard to convict you of anything. I read on:

‘Mrs Channing is charged with the alleged kidnap and murder of her fourteen-year-old daughter, Beth, missing now for over four weeks. Her estranged husband, well-known Sydney identity Rex Channing, said today outside the Magistrates’ Court that he was ‘distraught’, and added that he had given police a full statement. Mrs Channing has pleaded Not Guilty and the case is adjourned until next month. She has been released on $20,000 bail.’

I turned to the crossword, thinking that my mother would probably have liked to murder me, too, if she’d thought she could get away with it. Especially when I was between the ages of twelve and sixteen. But the case seemed to be niggling Paul, and although I didn’t know him very well, I thought he wasn’t the type to be fazed by much. The mystery appealed to me — after all, I didn’t have much else to think about — and I thought I’d ask Lorna if she knew any more about it.

I was happily engaged on an anagram of ‘All good men come to the aid of the party’, which would have filled several sets of spaces, when Graham came in, energetically singing ‘The Executioner’s Song’ from
The
Mikado
. Before we had time to say hello the phone started ringing and so did the doorbell. We mimed amazement and each answered the thing nearest us.

“Southwood and Connelly,” I said, in my secretary’s voice. “Anna Southwood speaking. Please hold the line…” Then I stared at Colonel Jansen, as he came red-faced and blustering through the door. A voice went on crackling in my ear.

“What?” I said into the phone, but it had gone dead.

I shook my head at Graham’s concerned look. “We’ll talk about it later. Now, sit down, Colonel. I’ll make us all a coffee.”

*

I stood at the window waiting for the coffee to perk, slightly shaken by the phone call. I could hear the Colonel uttering social pleasantries to Graham while he waited for me to come back with the drinks and my shorthand notebook. He always took that part of it very seriously, speaking slowly and carefully while I tried to look as if my scribbles meant something.

At that stage I was still trying to take a low profile in the agency, at least until I learned the ropes, but Graham had become increasingly less interested in it, as he toyed with the idea of going back to acting, and I was having to rapidly make up my mind about how serious I really was, and how dangerous it might really be. After Clyde’s mysterious ‘suicide’, in a locked car, with the exhaust pipe still fuming through a hose when they found him on a remote track in the Blue Mountains, I’d had a few anxiety attacks. We had been separated a while, but I wondered if he had associates who didn’t know that, who’d thought that I might know something about whatever he was doing. Nearly a year had gone by since his death, and I had been starting to relax a bit, but I still felt that I wanted Graham to be the front man. And now there was this phone call. I couldn’t help wondering if it was something to do with Clyde.

*

Until he died I hadn’t known what my ex-husband had been into. It was Lorna who’d filled me in. She’d rung a couple of days after his death, when I was still reeling — quite unable to believe that Clyde could have contemplated a world going on without him. The police had been around, several times, asking about unusual depression, money worries, emotional crises, but I hadn’t seen him for months so I wasn’t able to help. I suppose, looking back, that I must have been under some sort of suspicion, too, but I didn’t realise it at the time. All I was sure of was that he would never have committed suicide, although that was the eventual verdict at the inquest.

“Lorna here,” she’d said on the phone, in her usual brusque way, and I’d thought it was unlike her to be joining the commonplace condolence callers.

“I need to see you,” she went on. “About Clyde. I’ll be bringing Paul Whitehouse — remember him?”

“Of course,” I said. Paul had been one of my father’s protégés in the law faculty, approved of enough to be invited home occasionally — even, I thought for a while, being groomed as a possible son-in-law. But that was before Clyde had charmed the pants off us all, and well before Paul had given up private practice for what my father considered the low-rent, seamy side of law — public defence.

“Why?” I asked. “I didn’t know you were still seeing him.” Lorna had had a desultory sort of affair with Paul for a year or so when she first came back to Sydney.

“I’m not,” she said. “Not fucking him, anyway. Explain when we get there. See you.” And she’d rung off, leaving me smiling for the first time in days. I was very fond of Lorna. We had gone to the same girls’ school — she was on a scholarship, and me because I was an indulged only child. We’d both felt slightly out of place among the daughters of the really rich and we’d both appalled the nuns at various times with our behaviour. We became friends out of necessity, and stayed friends out of genuine affection, until we went to university. She’d got into the London School of Economics on one of their rare grants, and I’d done my own peculiar version of an Arts degree at Sydney, disappointing my father, who’d hoped to teach me in law.

We’d met again on the
Sunday
National
, where I’d drifted into feature writing in the disillusioned last years of my marriage. Those were the years when I’d realised that Clyde’s charm wasn’t, as I’d thought, that he was a man among boys, but that he was more a wolf among men.

I’d met him when I was still at university, being somewhat of a dilettante while making my way through a bit of Literature, a bit of Botany, a bit of Music, a bit of History, interspersed with Social Work, writing for the student paper and acting with the drama society. My friends then were people like Graham — charming and insubstantial. Clyde, whom I’d interviewed when he came out to give a talk to the Business Studies club, seemed like the hero from a Gothic romance — older, saturnine, wealthy and with a dangerous hard edge.

We’d been married within the year, to my parents delighted approval. They hadn’t much liked my group of slightly radical, irreligious friends. Clyde was Catholic, successful and presentable. And I couldn’t believe my own luck.

For the first couple of years I was entirely happily married. I went on picking and choosing odd subjects part-time, and I liked being called for after class in his sleek car; I liked the envy of my friends in their dingy communal houses with their dingy communal boyfriends; I liked the romantic candlelit dinners in expensive restaurants, the hand-delivered bunches of long-stemmed red roses, the charge accounts at the best shops. I still liked Clyde. In fact I was very much in love with him, languishing in his frequent absences, running breathless to the phone for his nightly call. It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t know him very well — it added to his allure. I was very young.

But when I finally graduated, with credits in Botany, Ancient History, Literature and Social Work, and started looking around for something to do, it was made very clear to me that my job was to be Clyde’s wife. Buggering around, as he put it, at university, had been all very well. In fact he didn’t mind if I went on doing that — but he didn’t want any wife of his in the work force. My role was to be his hostess, his consort, to enhance his public reputation — join a few charities, entertain a bit, etcetera. He even paid for me to do a
Cordon
Bleu
course, which I enjoyed, to my surprise.

BOOK: Worse than Death (Anna Southwood Mysteries)
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