Heart Breaker by Shannon Curtis

Chapter One

How do you attract a guy without coming off slutty or desperate? Leona dangled two different earrings from her earlobes. Classy or sexy? The sterling silver, cubic zirconia and freshwater pearl drop ear­rings had just enough sparkle to catch the eye, and were timeless in style. But the gold-flame drop earrings did look kind of modern and sexy. She turned her head first one direction, then the other, then sighed. Well, the pearl earrings did match the heart-shaped pearl pendant Lex had sent her ...

She chewed her lip in a half-smile as she donned the earrings. She wanted to impress him, but not seem eager to please. She touched the pendant thoughtfully. She’d been so surprised to receive the gift, especially as they hadn’t officially met. Well, that was going to change tonight.

She was so excited she could pee. Or puke. A glance at her watch showed she still had nearly two hours before she was due to meet him at the Opera Bar. Okay, just breathe. The thought of finally meeting the man of her dreams was surprisingly unsettling. A smile teased her lips. Unsettling, but in a good way. He’d let her pick the venue. He wanted her to feel safe and comfortable. Her smile broadened. How sweet, and how considerate. Typical Lex. Well, it was an open bar in the middle of Circular Quay, she couldn’t feel any safer than being surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. She bit her lip. Oh, god—what if he was a bore? Or smelled? His emails and late-night phone calls suggested he was a good conversationalist, but this was different. This was in person.

No, everything would be fine. Better than fine. She smoothed a golden lock back behind her ear. She’d finally be able to see that gorgeous hunk in the flesh.

She surveyed the shoes she’d lined up in front of the mirror. The sexy stilettos, or the lower heels? What if they walked around the harbour? The lower heels would be far more practical.

But the stilettos looked so much sexier, and she did want to impress her man. He was so handsome—and they shared enough mutual friends online for her to know the photos were accurate. She shook her hands out in nervous excitement. After all these weeks of emails and texts, and then phone calls ... they’d finally be able to hold hands.

It wasn’t like she was meeting a total stranger. Maybe they’d do more than just hold hands ...

She reached for the more practical pair of shoes as the doorbell rang. She frowned.

‘Who on earth ...?’ She trotted along the carpeted hallway in her bare feet to the front door. It couldn’t be Harm. Her cousin had flown to Melbourne the night before for a weekend conference, and Leona had made sure to clear her schedule for tonight’s date. Her eyes widened. God, please don’t let it be Mum! That’s the last thing she needed, her mother on her doorstep without Harmony to run interference.

Leona peered through the stained glass panel in the door, then gasped. All she could see through the distorted, coloured glass was a pair of trouser-clad legs topped by a massive floral display. A white van was parked in the driveway bearing a subtle florist’s logo.

‘Oh, my god,’ she breathed as she opened the door, staring in amazement at the oversized bouquet. The scent of roses assailed her, the mountain of white blooms stunning against some dark green leaves.

‘Delivery for Leona Thomas,’ a man’s voice rasped from behind the blooms.

‘That’s me,’ she said, beaming, opening the door wider.

The man stepped closer to hand over the bouquet, and she gave a little laugh as she tried to take them off his hands.

‘Wow, they’re heavy,’ she said as the box dipped. Hands full, she turned to walk down the short hall into the kitchen. ‘Hang on and I’ll get my wallet.’ Her first ever job had been as a deliverer for a local pizzeria, and she always made sure to give a tip to any driver.

She placed the boxed bouquet gently onto the kitchen bench, shaking her head slightly in pleased surprise. Lilies peeked out between the roses, one of her favourite flowers. The bouquet was beautiful, and would have cost Lex a fortune.

She reached for the handbag she’d draped over the back of a kitchen chair, turned to walk back to the front of the house, and shrieked.

He’d followed her in.

‘Oh, I—’ She clasped a hand to her chest. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she gasped. ‘You startled me.’

His face was scarred. A large, jagged line slashed angrily across his forehead and his left temple, radiating down the side of his face and neck, and she averted her eyes quickly, not wanting him to think she was staring. God, he’d scared the crap out of her. ‘Uh ...’

She gestured back down the hall, holding her handbag up, indicat­ing she’d pay him his tip at the door—where he could then get the hell out of her house. She was teetering between scared spitless, anger at his presumption, and guilt because he probably got a lot of negative reaction when people saw his face.

He gave her a little smile, his stare a little too focused, forcing her to maintain eye contact.

‘You really are beautiful,’ he said to her.

She swallowed as she approached him, hoping her proximity would force him to step back—and closer towards the exit.

It didn’t.

‘Please, let me show you out,’ she said as politely as she could manage.

‘Oh, I’m not going anywhere, Leona,’ he said quietly, his lips curling with satisfaction as she frowned. The skin at his left temple pulled down, causing his eye to narrow. Goosebumps rose on her arms, and a growing sense of disquiet at his familiarity had her clutching her handbag. The door. The door was just down that short hall beyond him. Her neighbours were outside. Cars were in the street. She tried to step around him, but he dodged with her.

She swallowed, terror rising inside her now as she realised his bulk—big powerful shoulders, strong legs, and massive hands. She had been so distracted by his scars, she hadn’t focused on anything else. Now, though, she was noticing a lot more. Like the black gloves he wore.

‘Get out,’ she said, dismayed when her voice emerged as a whis­per. ‘Go, now,’ she said in a stronger, louder voice.

‘Tut, tut,’ he murmured, shaking his head as he stepped closer. She matched his step, retreating as he advanced. ‘Playing hard to get, huh? You know I love it when you do that.’

Her mouth opened to scream, but his fist flashed so fast, hit her so hard in the face, she cried brokenly as she whirled and slammed into the kitchen table. A chair rocked on its legs, then toppled over. Fire. Her cheek felt like it was on fire. She whimpered as she pressed her trembling hand to her heated, sore face. She could feel him right behind her, his body a threatening wall against her back. This can’t be happening.

‘You like it rough, huh?’ he murmured. ‘That’s okay, I can do rough.’

She faced him, her arm up to hold him off, but he hit her again, this time catching her in the temple. She sucked in a breath, trying to blink off the darkness as she stumbled back, and another chair fell. She had to get away, had to get help, She tried to dodge around him. The front door. Safety. She screamed, the sound cut short as he grabbed her hair and yanked her back against him. Her eyes widened and she cried out in fear, in pain. She reached behind her, tried to loosen his painful grip at the back of her head, wincing at the burn as some follicles pulled from her scalp.

She flinched when he held something in front of her face, and her stomach churned in panic. A syringe.

A drop of fluid swelled at the tip of the needle. ‘You and I are going to be perfect together,’ he whispered into her ear, and she shuddered at the hot gust of breath down her neck. She dragged in a breath to scream, to get someone’s attention outside, but the prick in her arm cut the sound short again as a warm trail of sensation coursed through her bloodstream.

She sagged against him, strength leaving her limbs, a euphoric lethargy stealing over her, robbing her of energy, of resistance.

‘That’s much better,’ he whispered, pressing his cold lips to her temple.

***

‘You’re back already?’

Harmony Talbot smiled at her colleague’s exclamation as she settled into the back seat of the taxi. ‘Yes, I am, Joe. I presented my workshop, made some new contacts, but I couldn’t stick around for the rest of the day.’

‘What is Smiley going to say when he hears you dodged nearly a full day of networking?’

Harmony rolled her eyes. ‘I’ve got some new leads, trust me. I just wasn’t going to sit through another full day of awkward smiling and nodding and introducing myself. If people want to use ISpy, they will. If they don’t, they won’t. I’m tech, not sales. Smiley can cough up and send one of his reps if he’s not happy with what I’m bringing home.’

Joe Bennett snorted. ‘Sales always rack up a massive expenses bill. All that schmoozing.’

‘Yeah, well, I don’t schmooze.’ Ugh, she’d rather kiss a snake. She glanced out the window. The taxi was driving around the bay towards Rodd Point. She’d be home, soon. ‘How did the test go with Abacus?’ Abacus was one of their newer clients, and they were still conducting initial testing before designing improvements to their network security.

‘There are some major weaknesses. I’m surprised they haven’t been attacked, but don’t worry about that until you come in tomorrow.’

‘I might log on and try some test runs tonight.’

‘Harm, it’s Sunday. Enjoy it. The rest of the team are exhausted trying to keep up with you—and that’s with you in a different city for the last three days.’

‘You just want to play games,’ she said dryly, a smile briefly touching her face before it disappeared. She didn’t need Joe to point out that her life seemed to revolve around work. It didn’t. Not quite, anyway.

‘I’m always playing games.’

‘Don’t think I don’t know that,’ she said. She was Joe’s supervisor—he had to realise she knew how he spent his time at ISpy. He was damn good at what he did though, so she wasn’t going to quibble. Hell, she supervised a team of techno geeks who hacked and cracked security. An enthusiastic gamers’ environment was par for the course. Truth to tell, occasionally she’d oppose them in a game online with­out them realising they were battling against their supervisor.

‘Yeah, but I still get my work done,’ he said in an automatic defence that had Harm’s smile returning to her face.

‘It’s not a problem.’ If it was, they’d be talking about it in her office, not joking about it over the phone. Her mobile phone beeped in her ear, and her heart sank. ‘I have to go, Joe. I’ve got another call coming through. See you tomorrow.’

‘Say hi to your mum for me.’

She grimaced as she interrupted the Jaws theme and took the call. ‘Hi, Mum.’

‘Oh, Harmony, thank goodness I caught you,’ her mother responded, her relief obvious in her tone. Harm idly wondered what emergency could possibly have befallen her mother since the night before.

‘What can I do for you, Mum?’ This time.

‘The light bulb blew in the spare bedroom. Are you back home yet?’

‘No, I’m still in Melbourne,’ Harm lied immediately. Just one day, she wanted just one day without having to drop everything and come to her mother’s rescue. She shot the taxi driver a dark look as he frowned at her in the rear-view mirror. ‘I’ll be home late tonight, so I’ll come by and change the light bulb tomorrow, okay?’ She made a gesture to the taxi driver to switch his attention back to the road.

‘Oh. All right.’

She could hear the disappointment in her mother’s voice, and mentally cringed, then tried to ignore it.

‘How is it going in Melbourne?’ Elizabeth Talbot asked.

‘Oh, it’s fine.’ A conference full of relatively boring talks, hers included, with attendees who ranged from the socially-inadequate brainiacs to the arrogant hard-sell company reps. It had been tedious. ‘Yeah, I think I may have picked up some new clients.’ Smiley would be delirious. She half-hoped nothing would come of it, and then Smiley would send someone else on these torturous trips. But then, she wouldn’t escape her mother ...

‘That’s nice, dear. Did you meet any nice men?’

‘There were over three hundred people at the conference, Mum, and most of them were very nice.’ Most. Okay, maybe some.

‘I mean, did you meet any nice man in particular? You’re not getting any younger, you know. You need to find yourself a nice man and settle down.’

And there it was. At least her mother had waited three whole days before broaching the topic of her lack of a significant other.

‘I have settled down, Mum, and I’m quite happy, thank you.’ She loved her job, didn’t need anything else. Didn’t have time for anything else. Besides, she’d had a man once, and it hadn’t worked out—thanks to Mum, not that she realised.

Her mother sighed, but apparently chose not to pursue the sub­ject. ‘What time can you come around tomorrow? Would you like to come for dinner?’

‘Dinner?’ Harm shuddered at the thought of sitting for two hours with her mother and aunt as they complained about the weather, the current prime minister, what happened at the golf club, the short skirts of today, or Harmony’s unmarried state and lack of a social life. She almost wanted to hop on a plane back to Melbourne. Yet she hadn’t seen her mother since Thursday night. The sooner she got a face-to-face visit over and reassured her mother she was truly fine, the sooner she could return to her semi-normal life.

Besides, the taxi driver was shooting her a look that she assumed was meant to pile on the guilt.

‘Sure, I’d like that,’ she said.

‘I’m shopping at Aldi tomorrow, do you want me to get you anything?’

Harm frowned. ‘Uh, I haven’t seen our pantry or fridge in three days. I wouldn’t have a clue what we need. Have you tried calling Leona?’ She shared a rented Federation cottage with her cousin.

‘Jennifer has tried to call her all weekend, but keeps missing her.’

That didn’t surprise her. She and Leona often screened the mul­titude of calls from their mothers. Harm, on the other hand, had been in regular contact with her cousin over the weekend, if only by text.

‘Well, don’t worry about us. We’ll do whatever grocery shop­ping we need later.’

‘Are you sure? They’ve got underwear on special tomorrow.’

Harm closed her eyes. ‘It’s okay, Mum. I can get my own under­wear.’ This time she ignored the taxi driver’s stare.

‘I’m just asking, you seemed to really like the last lot I got you.’

And that was the problem with lying to save someone’s feelings. ‘Seriously, it’s fine, Mum. I’ll look after it.’

‘All right, but if you change your mind ...’ Elizabeth’s voice trailed off.

I won’t. ‘I’ll be sure to let you know.’ She glanced out the win­dow. She was about a block away from home. ‘Uh, I’ve got to go now, Mum. There’s another session starting.’

‘I’ll see you tomorrow, then.’

‘Yep. ’Bye.’

She disconnected the call and slipped the phone back into her handbag. A movement in the front seat caught her eye. The taxi driver was shaking his head.

‘Like you’ve never lied to your mother,’ she muttered. She dug around in her bag to retrieve her wallet as the taxi pulled up to the kerb. She gave him her credit card to charge, then took the receipt. She sure as hell wasn’t going to give him a tip, not when her mother doled out judgement for free. Which was probably why the driver took so long to pop the boot.

‘Don’t get out,’ she called, smiling through her sarcasm at the man who showed no sign of moving from the driver’s seat. She lifted her suitcase out of the boot and let it roll across the road to the kerb while she hefted her laptop bag and handbag to her shoulder and slammed the trunk of the car shut.

The taxi drove off before she’d stepped onto the footpath.

Damn taxis. She straightened her shoulders. No matter. She was home, with an afternoon of relaxing ahead of her. She might even go for a walk around the bay—or maybe a visit to Gemma’s gym, but that was hardly relaxing.

She hauled her bag up the front path to the tiled veranda and juggled with her shoulder bags to find her keys. Aha! She held up the Bugs Bunny printed key and slid it into the lock. It was still reasonably early in the afternoon. She hadn’t told Leona her change in travel plans—it had been uncertain whether she’d get on an ear­lier flight. Maybe her cousin would be interested in some pasta for dinner? They could head to their favourite Italian restaurant in Leichhardt. Or maybe some home-delivered Thai ...? Either way, she was going to indulge herself tonight as a reward for surviving the sales conference from hell. Screw the gym. She had a boxing class tomorrow night, anyway. She stepped inside the house, check­ing the keypad next to the door. She didn’t need to turn off the alarm, the light was already green.

‘Hey, Lee, I’m home!’ She set her suitcase against the wall of the hall­way and walked through to the darkened living room. She frowned into the gloom. The navy curtains were drawn, casting the room into deep shadow. Maybe Leona had indulged in a Sunday afternoon movie marathon from their DVD collection. Harmony brightened as she pulled on the cord to let a little more light inside. She’d be happy with a Marvel movie binge, if Leona was up to it. She turned back to the lounge. A large bouquet of flowers rested on the coffee table. Leona must have taken the flowers from her work’s reception again. She glanced around. The room was spotless, the carpet showing the tracks in its pile of a recent vacuuming. Harm’s eyebrows rose. She liked things neat and tidy, but even she was impressed. From the looks of things, Leona had been on a spring cleaning mission. She could smell the lemon scent of the carpet shampoo they occasionally used.

‘Leona? Are you home?’

She cocked her head at a quiet snick at the back of the house. Was that the back door? ‘Lee? Are you there?’ She wandered down the hall towards the kitchen.

She frowned when she reached the open-plan kitchen. Again, the room was spotless, the vertical blinds had been drawn across the windows over the sink, as well as the French doors leading to the back deck. She shook her head as she tweaked one of the slats of the blinds to peer into the backyard. Harm wrinkled her nose. Her cousin had gone overboard with the bleach. She’d have to light up one of those stinky candles Leona had placed throughout the house to try to mask the astringent smell.

Leona wasn’t in the backyard, either. Harm sighed. Her cousin had left the garage door open again, though. Damn it. First the house alarm, now the garage. She pursed her lips. Leona always rolled her eyes whenever she was lectured on personal security, but she was going to have to listen, tonight. Anybody could have broken in, anyone could have stolen their cars. She could see Leo­na’s silver Toyota Camry sedan sitting there, right next to her own slate-blue Ford Focus. So, it would be anyone who wasn’t looking for high-end luxury cars, of course.

Harmony opened the back door and strode across the yard to the garage, ignoring the little voice reminding her they lived in this suburb purely because of its low crime rate. How many times had she told Leona that state-of-the-art security didn’t work if you didn’t actually use it?

‘Leona?’ She peered into the dark interior of the double garage, but her cousin was nowhere to be seen. Harm reached over to press the button that controlled the roller door, then stood back as the door slid down in its tracks. Although their neighbourhood was relatively safe and quiet, and you couldn’t see the garage from the street, she still preferred to have things locked away. She liked everything to be secure, in all aspects of her life.

She trudged across the backyard and into the house. Maybe her cousin was walking around the bay? It was late August, but the last week had seen an increase in temperatures, and the weather today was quite warm. They both tried to do the bay walk several times a week, and at least once on weekends. Leona hadn’t expected her home at this time, so she wouldn’t have waited for her. Harm checked her cousin’s bedroom to be sure. Spotless.

But no Leona.

Harm retrieved her suitcase from the hallway and wheeled it to her bedroom. Over the next half hour she unpacked and had a load of washing ready. She grimaced when she opened the machine to find a load of sheets in the tub. She dragged them, surprised at the warmth of the wet load. Leona must have done a hot wash. She hung the sheets on the rotary clothesline outside and wondered what to do next. It was rare to have an afternoon of free time. Maybe go to Gemma’s gym, after all? Veg out on the lounge? Run the diagnostics for Abacus?

Screw it. If she was going to play hooky from work, she may as well make the most of it.

Moments later, Harm was sitting out on the back deck with her novel, a glass of chilled white wine by her side, along with a little plate bearing a half-wheel of Camembert cheese and some crack­ers. And grapes to avoid a guilty conscience. Dappled shade spread across the backyard, and birds chittered in the neighbour’s trees. The sounds of children playing in the local park nearby was relax­ing. She kept her mobile phone close, and ignored any calls from her mother as she settled down for a rare afternoon of reading.

***

He kept his head down as he strolled casually along the wide foot­path that curved around Rodd Point and beyond; the backpack slung over his shoulder bounced against his side. His heart was pounding, but he kept his expression calm as he walked to the clos­est bus stop. She’d nearly busted him. He’d heard the fumble with the keys and had played hide and seek with the woman in the house until he could get out the back door.

He took a deep breath, trying to unclench the muscles in his jaw. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end, damn it. He was supposed to drive the car to the yard and get rid of her. Then he was supposed to get back to his van and go home. Simple. Now it was going to take him half the evening to get there by public transport, damn it.

He hadn’t left anyone behind. Not since that waitress. The mus­cles in his shoulders tightened. They all got what they deserved. He thought Leona would be different, but she’d fallen for the same bull he’d fed the others. She’d been so lovey-dovey in their courting, but she’d been as stupid as the rest. This time, though, things had been different. He hadn’t been able to finish everything, not the way he liked, and that knowledge was like fire ants crawling under his skin.

Chapter Two

Harmony closed her eyes as the Jaws theme ringtone sounded. Again. It was the third time in fifteen minutes. She picked up the phone.

‘Hi, Mum,’ she said, trying to keep the frustration out of her tone. ‘What’s up?’

‘Jennifer’s car has a flat battery, and we wanted to go do that shopping tomorrow after a round of golf.’

Harm took a deep breath as she closed her book. ‘Have you tried calling for roadside assistance?’

‘Oh, that costs money. Would you be able to come out and fix it?’

‘Mum, that’s why you pay the membership fee, for exactly this sort of thing. You get free assistance up to a certain number of calls, don’t you?’

‘Yes, but we want to save those calls for a real emergency. Would you mind coming over tonight when you get back to Sydney?’

A tendril of guilt swirled in her gut, and Harm hung her head. Her original itinerary had her returning at eight o’clock. That was in another two hours. She and Leona would be able to head out for dinner. If she stuck to the story, though, Harmony would have to leave in the middle of the meal to sort this latest issue out. Damn it, this is what you got for lying to your mother. Once she got the engine started, she would need to drive the vehicle for a while in order for the battery to retain some charge.

‘Look, I’ve managed to catch an earlier flight. I’ll drop by as soon as I can.’

‘Oh, thank you, dear. Jennifer and I appreciate that.’

Harmony winced. Now she felt like a heel. ‘It’s no trouble, Mum,’ she murmured. ‘See you in a little while.’ She disconnected the call and closed her book. The historical thriller would have to wait. She took the empty wine glass and the plate with the remains of the cheese, crackers and untouched fruit back into the kitchen. She quickly wrapped the plate in clingwrap and put it into the fridge, staring at it ruefully. She might still be able to have a light supper with Leona instead of dinner.

Mobile phone and keys in her hand, she grabbed her handbag from her bedroom. She exited the house via the French doors, stop­ping briefly to key in the security code on the keypad, then turn the key in the lock, before striding across the backyard to the garage. She flicked her keys over and pressed the roller door button, at the same time typing in the passcode to unlock her phone. Quickly, she pulled up her contact list and activated Leona’s number. Maybe they could meet up somewhere. She ducked under the door before it was fully raised, pressing the button on her key remote to unlock her car. She’d opened the door when she heard the faint music.

Harmony halted, frowning. She glanced around the garage, tak­ing a step further into the gloom to see if she could trace the source.

It was a standard ringtone, soft and muted. She peered through the front passenger window of Leona’s car. Had she left the phone in her car by accident?

She craned her neck, peering beyond the seats. She could hear it, she just couldn’t see it. The sound ended, and Leona’s voice­mail message echoed in Harmony’s ear. Harmony frowned. Funny, she was sure Leona had programmed a Muppets ringtone for Har­mony’s number. Her cousin had thought it hilarious, at the time. Fumbling for her keys, Harmony hit redial as she used the spare key Leona had given her to unlock Leona’s car.

She opened the passenger door and stuck her head in, listening. There it was again, but the sound was too fuzzy, too low for the phone to be inside the car. Harmony stood up and slowly walked around the car until she faced the boot. The music sounded louder here. Using the button on the key, she pressed it to unlock the boot, then leaned forward to lift it open.

She recoiled, her phone sliding from her fingers as she stumbled back against the wall of the garage, horror rising in a sickening wave that erupted from her throat in a heart-wrenching scream of denial.

***

‘When does your flight leave?’ Bern Knight asked as he reached for his jacket.

The naked woman in the bed stretched. ‘Not until eight tomor­row morning. Why don’t you stay the night?’ She flashed him a grin and waggled her eyebrows suggestively, her prim British accent so at odds with the seductive picture she presented.

He grinned back. ‘I can’t. I’m on call tonight,’ he said as he shrugged into the jacket. He never stayed the night, and Corinne knew it. It never stopped her from asking, though.

Corinne pouted. ‘What am I supposed to do, then? I’m only in Sydney for one night.’

Bern picked up his wallet, ID badge, gun and phone, and arched an eyebrow. ‘I’m pretty sure you’ll be fine.’ He didn’t delude him­self. Corinne usually called when she had a layover in Sydney, but he knew the flight attendant had a few other numbers in her little black book. If he wasn’t available, she didn’t lack for company. He slipped his weapon into his hip holster.

That was exactly the way he liked it. No strings, all fun, and nobody got hurt. His phone rang as he was slipping it into his pocket. He shrugged apologetically. ‘Duty calls,’ he said, giving her a casual wave as he left the hotel room.

‘Next time,’ she called after him.

He didn’t respond, closing the door behind him as he answered the call. ‘What’s up?’

‘We have a case.’ Detective Josh Hamilton’s voice already sounded tired.

‘Where?’

‘Rodd Point. Where are you?’

‘On my way.’ Bern pressed the button for the elevator, eyeing the display on the wall. ‘Text me the address,’ he said, and disconnected the call. He stepped into the lift, listening to the muzak system as he descended to the lobby. He checked his appearance briefly in the mirror and adjusted his collar, then tugged at his vest. He’d forgotten his tie. Again. Not with Corinne, though. He’d just left it hanging on his bedroom doorknob at home. He hated ties.

He kept his eye on the screen of his mobile phone as he passed reception and stepped out of the doors leading to the street, only looking up when he heard the horn of a car.

Josh waved at him from across the street, and Bern concentrated as he jogged between cars to get to him.

‘How did you know where I was?’ he asked his colleague as he climbed into the passenger seat. Josh rolled his eyes.

‘You have a desk calendar with “Corinne” marked on today’s date. You’ve told me she prefers to stay at this hotel when she’s in town. It was pretty obvious, Bern.’ Josh checked over his shoulder before pulling into the busy city traffic.

‘Anyone would think you were a detective,’ Bern muttered, set­tling into his seat. ‘By the way, I looked up that real estate agent.’ Josh was in the just-divorced category, with only the sale of the home to be completed before final settlement. Josh was also reticent in negotiations with his soon-to-be ex-wife and Bern thought his friend needed someone to look out for him, because Josh sure as hell had lost the energy to care.

Josh’s lips firmed as he shook his head. ‘I told you to leave it alone. It’s practically a done deal. I just want it over.’

Bern nodded. ‘I get that.’ He did. He’d been there when Josh had discovered his wife’s infidelity, and had seen the hell that had since unfolded. Getting divorced seemed more of an emotionally drain­ing marathon than a sprint. God. No wonder he preferred to stay single. ‘So, do you want to know what I found out?’

Josh kept his gaze on the road, but finally nodded. ‘Fine. What?’

‘He’s legit, has worked in real estate since he left school, and has had his own agency for nearly eight years.’

‘Great. So he’s a real estate agent, fully accredited, and he seems good enough to sell my house. All things I could have told you—no, wait, I believe I did tell you, when the house first listed,’ Josh stated dryly.

Bern winced. There was no good way of delivering what he had to say next, and he hoped his friend wouldn’t blame the messenger. His mother always said, though, that it was better to get the pain over and done with so you could get busy healing. Of course, she’d been talking about ripping off bandaids, but then had adapted it for more situations later in life. Just rip off that bandaid. Sometimes it was easier said than done.

‘He’s sleeping with Cherie.’

Josh’s knuckles whitened as he gripped the steering wheel, then he exhaled slowly. ‘We’re not together any more, Bern. She can sleep with whoever she wants. Actually, in that regard, nothing’s changed. Before and after the split, she slept with whoever she wanted.’ Josh’s tone wasn’t bitter, more resigned.

Bern dipped his head to the side. He’d always vowed he would never totally commit to one woman—the long hours, emotional demands and gruelling stress of his job killed the chances of any long-term rela­tionship. He’d come close, once ... but it hadn’t worked out. His eyes narrowed as he gazed out the window. He refused to dwell on that.

He’d also seen enough cases where husbands and boyfriends had killed their cheating spouses. He couldn’t understand why they just hadn’t walked away instead. Now, though, his friend’s tepid reac­tion stumped him, and frustrated him just a little—the guy didn’t seem to care if he lost everything. ‘Sure, and there’s nothing wrong with a realtor sleeping with his vendor ... but if that property is part of a divorce settlement for that vendor, there might be a conflict of interest, there. For you, anyway.’

Josh took the ramp for the City West Link, and for a moment, Bern saw the bleak look in his eye. ‘Right now, I just want to be done with it. What can I say? I loved the woman, at some point, otherwise I wouldn’t have married her, but now—I’m done. I’d walk away with nothing, if need be.’

‘Whoa,’ Bern protested, surprised to hear the defeat in his friend’s tone. ‘You’re sleeping in my spare bedroom, remember? This is only a temporary arrangement. After you and Cherie sell the house and settle, you’ll need those funds to set up your new digs.’

Josh glanced at him. ‘Am I cramping your style, Knight?’

Bern inclined his head. ‘Nice of you to finally agree I have some.’ He shot his friend a grin. ‘Don’t worry, you’re welcome to stay as long as you need to. I just think that you’re a little disengaged at the moment. I wouldn’t want you to give away everything now, only to regret it later.’

Josh took the turn-off to drive around the bay towards Rodd Point. ‘Aw, you care.’

Bern rolled his eyes. ‘No, I just want my spare bedroom back.’ He eyed the mansions they were passing. Most showed that no mat­ter how much money you had, it didn’t buy taste.

‘What do we know?’ he asked.

‘One victim, white female. Found in the trunk of her car.’

‘Married?’ He’d arrested enough husbands and partners to know those closest to the victim were more than capable of carrying out the murder.

‘No. She was found by a family member.’ Josh turned down a quiet, tree-lined street.

Bern eyed the wide footpaths, the manicured front gardens and well-maintained period homes. ‘Nice neighbourhood. Quiet.’

Just one block back from the bay, and the change in both look and tone of the neighbourhood was significant. He sighed. Over the years he’d learned homicide was an indiscriminate bitch, one that could strike anywhere, any time. Even in quiet, family-friendly suburbs. Within metres they encountered a police car and uniforms. Josh pulled over and parked the car. They showed their badges as they walked up to the officers.

‘Who’s in charge of the scene?’ Bern asked one of them, a young male constable who immediately straightened from his leaning position on the hood of the squad car.

‘Uh, Detective Matthews. He’s inside,’ the constable said.

Bern nodded, and he and Josh approached the house. He knew Matthews from the Crime Scene Services Branch; they’d worked quite a few homicides. The detective was nearing retirement age, but didn’t show any signs of slowing down. Bern and Josh stopped to pull plastic booties over their shoes, then stepped inside the front door, nodding to the constable there.

‘Where’s the body?’ Josh asked.

‘Out back, in the garage. Down the hall, second door on your left is the kitchen, then out through the patio.’

Bern looked around, eyeing the security console just inside the front door, and then the interior as he and Josh strode through the house. ‘Can you smell that?’

Josh nodded. ‘Bleach.’

‘And lemon. Lots of it.’

The walls were an off-white colour, and the carpet was a neutral beige that should have looked drab, but didn’t. He eyed a black and white photo print on the wall as he passed. Tasteful.

He walked into the kitchen. It was an open-plan area, spotless and gleaming with the kitchen and dining flowing into an informal lounge that opened onto a back deck. He could see forensic guys going over the backyard, with others milling around the garage towards the rear. Matthews would be out there.

He and Josh wandered out, careful of where they walked, fol­lowing the gestures of the forensic crew until they reached the open doorway of the garage.

‘Matthews,’ Bern said, nodding to the man bent over the boot of the car. The older gentleman looked up, the weary lines on his face looking like a road map to disappointment as the detective met Bern’s gaze with his usual beleaguered expression.

‘Knight.’ The forensic detective waved him over. ‘You’re not going to like this one.’

Bern looked at him grimly. ‘I don’t like any of them.’ He and Josh walked around the car, and Bern halted when he saw the body. Josh swore under his breath.

The woman lay in the trunk of the car, her body folded neatly on top of plastic sheeting, her brown eyes staring sightlessly up at them. She might have been a pretty woman, once, but her face had been cut. Her hair looked blonde beneath the blood. Bern sighed as he stepped closer. She looked too young for death, too healthy, her eyes now empty of promise, of fire, and he pushed aside the regret of a life half-lived. He didn’t know her. She was a stranger, a victim, and she needed his help. He eyed the body impassively, noting the bruising around her face and neck, and faint marks on her arms and thighs, but it was the bloody gashes in her chest that told the rest of the story. That, and a single white rose that lay across her chest.

‘How romantic,’ he muttered. ‘Raped?’

‘Looks like, but the medical examiner will confirm.’

‘Who is she?’

‘Leona Thomas, aged thirty. Single, no kids.’

‘What happened?’ Josh asked, frowning.

Matthews snorted. ‘She died.’

Bern rolled his eyes. ‘Cause of death?’

‘Well, I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing the hole in her heart might have something to do with it.’

‘My, aren’t we grumpy,’ Josh commented.

Matthews rubbed his nose with his wrist, avoiding touching his skin with his gloved hands. ‘Sorry, it’s been a long day. Come here and take a look at this.’ He gestured to the plastic sheet that rose up above the rim of the trunk. ‘It’s been folded to cover the entire base of the compartment, with enough extra to cover the body. We’ve already retrieved the mobile phone that was tucked into the corner.’ Matthews shook his head at the plastic sheet. ‘Even my mother can’t fold this neatly. Oh, and she wasn’t killed here. Lividity suggests she was killed lying on her back, arms above her head.’

Bern frowned at the bloodstained plastic sheeting. There wasn’t a lot of blood, considering the woman’s wounds. He’d have to agree with the forensic detective’s summation. Matthews smiled grimly as he gestured to the other members of his team staking out a track from the back door to the garage. ‘We’ve found a blood trail in the grass. My guess is she was killed in the house and carried out.’

‘Damn. The killer planned this.’ Bern spread his jacket and placed his hands on his hips. ‘This is too organised for an impulsive kill.’

‘How can you tell?’ Josh looked around the dark space. ‘Maybe it’s a crime of opportunity, and the killer used whatever was at his convenience. Lots of people have drop sheets in their garage.’

Matthews shook his head. ‘Not these people. Spoke with the cousin, she says it’s not theirs. Nor does it belong to the house owner.’

‘They’re tenants?’ When Matthews nodded, Bern glanced over to Josh. ‘We’ll need to track down the owners, see if they can give us any information—or if they were potentially the targets and Ms Thomas was just a wrong place, wrong time situation.’

Josh made a note on his notepad. ‘So he—or she—brought their own gear,’ Josh said, sighing roughly.

Bern looked back towards the house. ‘It’s got to be what, ten, twelve metres from here to the back door?’

‘Eleven point six,’ Matthews said absently, then met Bern’s inquiring gaze and shrugged. ‘I was curious.’

‘So, eleven point six metres from the house.’ He looked around. There wasn’t anything else he could see that could be used to trans­port the body, not even a wheelbarrow. ‘The fences are six feet high, and those bushes provide an effective screen.’

‘Lilli-pillies,’ Josh supplied.

Bern arched an eyebrow.

‘They’re called lilli-pillies. Cherie and I have them in our front yard.’ His friend grimaced. ‘Had.’

Bern shook his head. ‘If I’d known you had such a green thumb, I would have put you to work on my yard.’

‘Nothing can save your yard.’

Bern shrugged. He was more than happy with his barbecue grill and basketball hoop. He looked around him. It was quiet and pri­vate. Unless someone was peering directly through a gap in the paling fence, or had a stepladder to peer over the top, it was unlikely they would see anything. Still, they’d get uniforms to do a door­knock, just in case they got lucky.

‘It’s a long way to carry a body,’ he murmured, gazing across the yard to the house.

Josh nodded. ‘If she was raped then we’re more than likely looking for a man.’ Bern noticed he wasn’t ready to rule out a woman—not just yet. They’d both seen some weird crap over the years.

‘That’s not the only interesting thing, though,’ Matthews said, and beckoned them back into the yard. All of them gave the forensic team a wide berth. Matthews pointed to the laundry line. ‘Sheets have been washed.’

Bern eyed the line. He was getting a bad feeling about this.

‘The cousin hung them up,’ Matthews added. ‘And we’ve checked. The bleach and the hot wash have destroyed any chance of getting DNA off them.’ He turned to them. ‘There was semen, too, but again, bleach, temperature, etc. We’ll get nothing there. I’ve got someone looking at the washing machine, just in case we can retrieve hairs or some other trace evidence.’

‘I don’t like this,’ Bern muttered, and Josh nodded as they fol­lowed Matthews back into the house.

Matthews halted in the middle of the open-plan living area, lift­ing his arms. ‘And here we have the heart of the home.’ He walked over to the stainless steel fridge. ‘Notice anything missing?’

Josh frowned as he looked at it. ‘Shopping list? Calendar? Pho­tos?’ Matthews shook his head, even though those items were not present, and it took Bern a moment before it clicked.

‘Fingerprints.’

Matthews winked. ‘Exactly. My wife wanted one of these fridges—paid a damn fortune for it, and we’re forever wiping off the grandkids’ prints. They leave little smudges everywhere on the door. Drives my wife nuts. There are only a couple here.’

Bern turned around to face the counter tops. The fingerprint crew had been through. A fine black dust coated nearly every sur­face, but only a very small number of smudges indicated a print, mostly around the sink. The smell of bleach was stronger right here in the kitchen, despite the valiant efforts of the vanilla-scented can­dle on the windowsill. He pointed to it. ‘Who lit that?’

‘The cousin.’

Bern’s frown deepened. First washing sheets, now lighting candles to mask the scent of a cleaning agent. He was going to have a word with that cousin. Soon. He still wanted to find out more about the scene. ‘Were all the surfaces wiped clean?’ He eyed the lone empty wineglass on the draining board of the sink. There were prints on that.

‘Pretty much. We’ve found some prints, and we’ve taken the cousin’s prints for comparison, but someone did a very good job of cleaning up.’

‘What about the rest of the house?’ Josh inquired.

‘Same thing. All surfaces have been wiped down with a bleach solution. Hard floor surfaces have been mopped, and mop and bucket rinsed out with bleach. The carpet has been vacuumed, and the dust bag has been removed. Even the bag cavity has been wiped down. We’ll take apart the vacuum cleaner, but this person looks like they knew what they were doing.’

‘We’ve got nothing,’ Bern said, his tone sombre. ‘What about drains?’ Maybe, hopefully, there was still some chance of recovering something ... anything. At the moment, his skin was crawling with the ramifications of the evidence at this scene—or rather, the lack of it.

Matthews grimaced. ‘We’ll check, but we found a bottle of drain fluid in the bathroom.’

Bern swore. ‘This guy’s thorough, I’ll give him that.’ He shook his head. Nuh, this was not good.

‘We don’t have anything to go on,’ muttered Josh.

‘Wait, there’s more,’ Matthews said, and started to walk down the hall.

‘There always is,’ Bern sighed, and followed the forensic detective.

They passed the lounge room, and Bern glanced inside. Four uniforms stood just inside the door, and a blonde woman sat on the lounge, her face buried in her hands.

Must be the cousin. He wondered briefly at the number of con­stables there with her, but shoved the thought aside as Matthews opened a door, and Bern followed him into the bedroom. It was darker in here with a roll of black plastic sheeting covering the win­dow. The astringent smell of bleach battled with the citrus scent of lemon. Bleach won. A woman in plastic coveralls looked up from her torchlit inspection of the bed frame, then nodded, her lips lift­ing ever so slightly at the corners.

‘Bern.’

‘Tracey,’ he said in greeting.

Josh glanced between them, before sighing. ‘Hi, Tracey,’ he said.

‘Hamilton.’ Tracey went back to scrutinising the bed frame, using the torch to scan up and down the woodwork.

‘This is the victim’s room,’ Matthews informed them. Bern glanced around. Cream-coloured walls, natural shade for the carpet, more black and white photo prints on the wall depicting various landmarks of Paris. Quite the classy romantic.

‘What can you tell us, Tracey?’ Matthews asked, folding his arms.

The officer grimaced. ‘It’s not pretty.’ She held up a paper bag. ‘I’ve found some fibres, not quite sure what they are yet. Not cotton—maybe nylon.’ She placed the bag on the floor next to her, then rose to her feet. ‘There are some marks in the wood of the bedhead, looks like fingernail imprints. I’ve collected as many samples as possible from the bedding and walls, but bleach has been used in here, and I think whatever samples we get will be too degraded.’

She indicated the door as she stepped behind a camera set up on a tripod by the bed. ‘Can someone turn off the light?’

She pointed and activated a spray bottle at the bedhead and then up the wall as Matthews crossed to the switch and flicked it off.

Bern sucked in his breath as the luminol did its trick, and Tracey’s camera started clicking in the darkness: a luminescent glow covered the wood and the wall behind and above. He could see smudges and trails, and large swathes of the eerie glow. Bleach also reacted to luminol, clearly showing the clean-up efforts of the killer. A chill crept over his shoulders as he realised the extent of the trail.

This is your murder scene,’ Matthews said quietly.


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