1

 

She sat alone on the jetty seat in the dark. The breeze blew across the lapping waves, and rustled through the bushes behind her. She shivered, feeling cold in the night air with his warm arms no longer around her. Had she done the right thing telling him everything? He was the last person she wanted to put in danger. But she had no one else to turn to. No one else she could trust enough to confide in. Of course he’d asked for the diary, as she knew he would, insisting it would be safer with him. And he was probably right. So why had she left it hidden in her hotel room?

Before leaving her there on the jetty, he’d pressed his small voice-recorder into her hand. “You must get the conversation on the record. You’ve got the evidence in the diary. Now get the bastard on tape.”

That was easy for him to say. She was the one with her head in the noose.

“Trust me.” He’d squeezed her hand. “Everything will be fine.”

Trust him? That nagging worry started up again. It had been a relief to unburden herself; and he’d been so kind. But, thinking about it now, she realised he hadn’t seemed shocked, or even surprised.

Come on, be strong, she told herself as she held her watch up to the jetty light. Almost 8pm. She mustn’t be late for her appointment; she had to go through with it. She took a deep breath and tightened her grip around the voice-recorder. Calm and in control, that’s how she had to appear. She wouldn’t be intimidated any more. But, as she went to get up to go back to the hotel, the moon slid behind a cloud, darkening the night. A muffled sound, like a twig snapping underfoot, came from the bushes behind her. Startled, she twisted round. “Hello?”

The bushes rustled again in the breeze. “Who’s there?” Her voice caught in her throat.

Still no reply.

Suddenly, the jetty light flickered a couple of times, and went out, plunging her into darkness.

Heart thudding, she sprang up.

Too late.

A shadowy figure came rushing along the jetty in the darkness. A ferocious punch sent her sprawling. Crying out, she raised her hands in the air to fend off the blows. Pain seared through her, as her head was smashed against the ground again and again.

Who? She just couldn’t see in the dark.

Kicking and struggling, she broke free and staggered up, only to reel backwards off the jetty into the sea. The cold water shocked her into action. Scrambling to get back to the safety of the beach, she heard a loud splash behind her. An arm grabbed her around the throat. “Let me go,” she screamed.

Strong hands grabbed her hair and shoved her face down. Water rushed into her nose and ears.

Fight! Her arms flailed around in panic.

Fight! Her heart was hammering so hard, her chest hurt. She had to breathe, had to . . .

Water poured into her mouth and lungs.

The hands jerked her head out of the water, and twisted her neck round as the moon burst out of the cloud. “You?”she spluttered.

Treacherous bitch!

Her head was pushed back under the water. She couldn’t hold her breath; couldn’t struggle; couldn’t move; couldn’t think.

She tried to scream, but only a gurgling sound came out of her mouth as icy cold water rushed in.

Her arms and legs seemed to be floating away from her.

She could hear rushing water in her ears.

Trust me . . .

 

2

 

G’bye mummy!

Screeching tyres. A cracking sound like thunder.

Jess shuddered as if she could still feel the shock of the explosion blasting through her. She stood with her hands over her eyes, trying to blot out the haunting memory of flames spiralling into the sky. The scorching heat, the smell of acrid smoke, squealing . . .

Squealing?

She turned and lifted the whistling kettle off the gas. Her hand shook as she poured the boiling water into the mug and watched the fragrant tea leaves fizz and uncurl. She looked up. It was only 5.35am on the kitchen clock; too early even for the central heating. Should she go back to bed? What was the point, she’d been awake for hours. Better to get an early start in the office. Shivering, she walked into the hall, lifted her woollen coat off the rack and slipped it over her dressing-gown. Then she went back for her tea and climbed the stairs.

She averted her eyes as she passed the empty bedrooms. She liked the house. It had come with the job, but it was too big for her to rattle around in on her own. It was meant for a family. She ached for her bubbly three year old, with those big eyes and blonde curls tumbling around her little face.

A floorboard creaked.

Amy? Scarcely able to breathe, Jess stopped and listened. But there was only silence. She walked into her bedroom and closed the door behind her. Sometimes the shadows were too much to bear.

Throwing the curtains open wide to let in the day, she stepped out through the balcony door onto the deck. The first breath of freezing, August, winter air caught in her throat. She clasped the hot mug with both hands, took a sip of tea, and settled into a chair to watch the sun come up behind Canberra’s Federal Parliament.

The smell of menthol wafted over from two majestic eucalyptus trees that stood side by side in the centre of the lawn. She was forever raking up long strips of their dry bark and spear-like leaves. The trees were a haven for the sulphur-crested cockatoos, which roosted in town during the winter months. Every morning they would fly low over the neighbourhood, screeching out their early alarm call. Then they would gang up on the parched front lawn to squabble over grubs with colourful galahs and rainbow lorikeets.

She liked to sit on her balcony in the silence of dawn, before the town came alive. It was the time of day she felt closest to Jack and Amy. She could picture little Amy running wild in the bush garden, with its tough native plants that could withstand the scorching summers and sub-zero winters.

If only . . .

The phone’s shrill ring pierced the silence. She put her mug down on the deck and hurried inside to answer. “Hello?”

“Morning, Jess. Sorry to wake you.”

“Oh hi, Simon. I was outside watching the dawn.”

Watching the dawn?” He laughed. “It’s brass monkey weather out there.” It didn’t matter to Simon how early it was, he was always cheerful. “Good evening at the Thai Embassy last night, wasn’t it?”

“Mm. Lovely food too.”

There was a pause.

“That new Chinese restaurant has finally opened in Manuka, Jess? Fancy trying it next weekend?”

“You haven’t rung me this early to ask that, have you?” Of course she knew he hadn’t. Simon was the Political and Press Officer in the British High Commission, a title given to embassies located in Commonwealth countries. This week he was also ‘out of hours’ duty officer; and this was definitely ‘out of hours’. “What’s up?” she asked.

“Another consular case, I’m afraid.”

Her heart sank; she’d been hoping for a clear week in the office to catch up on paperwork. “What’s happened now?”

“A British woman’s been found dead on the beach of a Queensland resort, called The Palms. It’s just north of Brisbane. The police say she’s been beaten so badly she’s scarcely recognisable.”

Murdered, you mean?”

“Looks like it.”

Jess reached for her notepad and pencil. “How do we know she’s British?”

“She’s a regular at the hotel, apparently. They have her passport details on computer.”

Jess paused. “Are they sure it’s her, Simon? I mean, if the body’s in a state?”

“Oh, they were still able to identify her.” He hesitated. “Hang on, I’ve got her passport details somewhere.”

Down the phone, Jess could hear him shuffling papers. At dinner last night, she’d noticed his blue eyes looked dull grey with fatigue. Simon worked too hard; and now he’d had another broken night. She should talk, she thought, catching sight of her own bleary eyes in the dressing-table mirror. She looked over at the framed photo of Jack and Amy on the bedside cabinet . . .

“You still there, Jess?” Simon came back on the phone.

“Yes.”

“Our dead woman’s called Ellen Chambers. Her passport says she was born on 9 February 1975, in Hull. I’ve got the number here for you to trace her.”

“Go on,” she said, trying to grasp the pen with cold fingers.

“It’s 70469898.” He read out, slowly. “Issued in London on 20 December 2009.”

Jess knew it was important to determine where the victim lived. “Was she a resident of Australia or the UK?”

“There’s a London home address on her hotel registration form. But the next of kin in her passport is a Susan Chambers. She has a Brisbane address. The police are on their way round to see her now. I’ve given them your mobile number and email address to pass on to her, Jess. Hope that’s okay?”

“That’s fine.” Jess checked her watch. “Leave it with me, Simon. It’s still Sunday evening in London, but I’ll ring the Foreign Office 24-hour response unit and put them in the picture, in case the media start ringing. I’ll ask them to pass the victim’s passport details to Consular Division when they open up. I doubt we’ll need to do a trace with the UK Passport Agency if the next of kin is here in Australia.”

“Whatever you say.”

Jess paused to think. Could she leave this consular case to the British Consul-General in Brisbane? It was his patch. Then she remembered he was in the UK on leave. “I’d better fly up to Brisbane this morning, Simon, and liaise with the police and the next of kin.” Her thoughts flashed to the Deputy High Commissioner. “Have you told Nigel?”

“I thought you should know first.”

“He’ll go ballistic if he hears about it through the media.”

I should go to Brisbane really,” Simon said. “I am the Press Officer. But I have to stay here for the Foreign Secretary’s visit. Don’t forget he’s arriving today.”

Forget? Jess rolled her eyes. How could she forget? Nigel had been up to high dough about it for weeks, fretting over the programme and guest lists for meetings and dinners. “Don’t worry about the media, Simon, I’ll deal with them in Brisbane.”

“By yourself?”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m the Consul, for God’s sake. Look, you might be responsible for the media, but I’m responsible for the protection of British citizens.”

“I just thought you’d have your hands full, that’s all. But if you’re happy to take the media on too, they’re all yours.” And he hung up, before she could say anything else.

That was Simon, she thought, as she put the receiver back, a diplomat by profession and nature. Except lately, he seemed to have something to say about everything she did. Who did he think he was? He held no authority over her; they were the same grade. Then she cringed as her mind flashed back to Friday evening on the sofa at his place. Who was she trying to kid? She knew his interest in her was more than just work.

Sighing, she glanced out of the window. The huge sun had formed a yellow disc in the cloudless sky behind the Federal Parliament, sparking another day to life.

But not for Ellen Chambers.

Jess pictured a woman’s battered body lying lifeless on the beach, blood-red surf oozing around her. Who was Ellen Chambers, she wondered? And why was she at The Palms last night?

She went over to her briefcase on the chair and pulled out her diary to check her schedule. Flipping to the right page, she saw the date ringed. Of course she hadn’t forgotten that 12 years ago today she’d joined the Foreign Office as a young diplomat; it just wasn’t something she felt like celebrating. It had been both the best and the worst decision of her life. But she didn’t want to dwell on the past any more; she’d already been up half the night. She picked up her mobile and pressed the speed dial for the Vice-Consul, although she didn’t expect Sharon to be up so early. A social butterfly, Sharon rarely went to bed before midnight. But she’d always been a live wire, even in the British Embassy in Jakarta, where they’d first met and worked together. Again, Jess pushed all thoughts of Jakarta and the past firmly from her mind, and left details of the murder on Sharon’s voicemail.

Going over to the wardrobe, she dragged out her cabin bag to pack the essentials. Now she’d got used to the idea of the trip, Queensland’s sub-tropical winter weather had its appeal; and it would be good to get away from freezing Canberra for a few days.

Her mobile rang. She went over to the dressing-table to pick it up, but it went silent before she could answer. Sitting down on the stool, she dipped her make-up brush into a pot of bronzer and swept it over her eyelids and cheekbones. Her mobile rang again and, this time, she answered, quickly. “Hello?”

“Is th-that the British Consul?”

The shaky female voice on the line threw Jess until she realised who it must be. “Yes. Is that Susan Chambers?”

My s-sister’s been murdered in Brisbane.”

“I know, I’m so sorry,” Jess said, kindly, surprised the next of kin was in touch so soon.

Please!” Susan whispered. “You must help me.”

There was a crackle on the line; then it went dead.

Jess stared at her mobile, and waited for Susan to ring back. Nothing. When she tried to return the call, she saw Susan Chambers had withheld her number. Frowning, Jess put her mobile down again and picked up her comb. As she ran it through the wet, blonde hair tumbling on her shoulders, she pulled open the dressing-table drawer and fumbled inside. Her fingers tightened around her silver hair-clasp. Once again she saw Jack’s smiling face and soft brown eyes. A familiar sadness settled on her as she put his gift to her lips, and clipped her hair back to let it dry naturally.

Taking a deep breath, she went back over to the wardrobe and stepped into her black skirt and high heels. She looked at the assured woman staring back at her in the mirror. Jess is a real trooper, her previous line manager had written in her annual appraisal. Concise, hard-working and conscientious, she’s like a terrier when she gets her teeth into something, she never lets go. Jess sighed. That was the professional woman she wanted her colleagues to see, but she felt their penetrating stares, and heard their whispers murmured in her wake. How could she be so cool? How could she get on with her life so easily?

The bleep of a voicemail interrupted and she hurried back to her mobile to play the message.

It’s Susan again. I must talk to you . . . but don’t phone me back. It’s not safe . . . I’ll contact you.

Not safe? Jess frowned. What was the girl talking about? She replayed the message, listening carefully to every word. Susan Chambers’ voice sounded desperate with grief and shock; and Jess knew how that felt. But, however much she felt for Susan, she knew she couldn’t wait any longer for her to call again; she had to get to the office to clear emails and talk to staff before she left for Brisbane.

Slipping her mobile into her jacket pocket, she looked around the room to check she had everything. Her eyes softened as they came to rest on the photo of Jack and Amy on the bedside cabinet. Picking it up, she brushed her fingertips across the glass and tucked it into her cabin bag.


3

 

His face hardened as he touched the knife in its sheath. His heart was pumping so hard he could hear the sound of his own blood coursing around his body. Fear was primeval, it took total control of the whole body and mind; whereas panic was just a nervous collapse and a waste of energy. But it wasn’t fear or panic driving him that morning; he was incapable of feeling either emotion. It was pure exhilaration. The day he’d waited so long for had finally arrived.

He stopped to look up at the sky. Light was beginning to streak in from the west, breaking up the purple blackness of night. He listened. The crickets had ended their night chorus. There were no bats flapping around the trees either, which meant they were back at their daytime roosts at the creek.

Satisfied the hotel forecourt was empty of cars and buses, he slipped up to the front entrance and looked through the window into the lobby. Except for a lone receptionist, it was deserted. He took a step back and scanned the building’s white-washed façade and four floors of guestrooms. Was anyone watching? But the rooms were still in darkness, their doors and windows shut tight. All he could hear was the hum of air conditioners vibrating in window frames.

He took another look over his shoulder and hurried on. For a tall man, he was light on his feet, a way of walking that came naturally. He’d been born robust; it was in his genes. And of course he kept himself supremely fit.

As he skirted around the side of the hotel, his eyes darted everywhere. The fresh morning air cooled his cheeks after the night rain. He sniffed the air, like an animal in its territory, and breathed in the scent of damp earth mingling with fallen eucalyptus leaves from the gum trees. The heady aroma energised him, making him feel alive. This was his time of day. Both the early morning and night were perfect for hunting. That was in his genes too.

He was just so ready.

From his vantage point, he studied the hotel grounds. Not a soul about except for one rookie cop posted down at the crime scene. He shook his head in disbelief. Where were forensics and the top guys? The swirling sound of the sea and the strong smell of brine told him the tide was coming in. He looked up at the sky again. There was still no crescent sun on the horizon, which meant he had a few minutes to take a closer look. Just to make sure.

Sidling into the bushes, he tracked his way under cover down to the jetty. Now, he was real close to the young cop, but the idiot was too busy having a quiet smoke to notice him.

He trained his night vision monocular on the corpse, running the scope over her whole body.

Look at the state of you. Well, you’ve only got yourself to blame, you know. You shouldn’t have told anyone. That was your mistake. And now you know why . . . the devil was by your side!

His fingers tightened around the knife as he drew it from the sheath. He took a few silent paces forward into the shadows of a palm tree, eyes burning as he watched the young cop throw his cigarette butt on the ground and stamp on it, completely unaware of the threat. The anticipation of the kill washed over him like a wave of excitement, the desire strong in the pit of his stomach. He so wanted to draw blood; to feel that joy again, that release. But he knew he wouldn’t do it, even though he could. He shrank back into the bushes. It wasn’t empathy or guilt that stopped him killing the cop; those emotions were beyond him too. It just wasn’t in the plan.

Making his way back up to the hotel, he slipped through the staff entrance at the rear of the building. No one about. He ran up the stairs to the next floor and paused outside the stairwell door to peer through the small window. No one in the corridor. He slipped on his gloves. Knowing he didn’t have to worry about CCTV in this hotel, or the police, yet, he pushed through the door and walked along the corridor to the room he wanted. Quickly, he inserted a key card into the lock. It clicked open and he stepped inside. The door swished closed softly behind him.

He looked around. Now, where is it?

He headed straight for the open suitcase on the luggage stand and carefully searched inside, confident no one would ever know he’d been there. While he worked, he was aware of every sound outside in the corridor, every creak of a door, every voice, every footfall.

Look at these soft, silk panties and stockings. Nice! You always thought you were somethin’ special, didn’t you? The truth is you were nothin’ but a slut.

He frowned and straightened up as he looked around the room.Walking over to the dressing-table, he pulled open the top drawer and looked inside.

You might as well give it up. You know I’m goin’ to find it, there’s no one round here capable of stoppin’ me. I’m so good, I’m invisible. Well I walked straight in here, didn’t I?

Didn’t I?

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