Byron Bay is one of Australia’s pretty bits, and I was taking a well-earned holiday at home to sample the delights on offer. It was also winter, which is my favourite time of year, and the warm sunny days and cooler nights were a welcome tonic after our long hot summer.
The last couple of months had been busy. I’d had a steady stream of journalism commissions, and a recent story I’d written about my investigations into the activities of a dangerous cult had been syndicated here and in the US. This had translated into a healthy bank account, so I no longer had to threaten old Mogg the bankster that if he continued to send me rude letters I’d be forced to take my overdraft elsewhere.
Another plus was that my ribs, which had been rearranged during an altercation with the leader of the aforementioned cult, were fully recovered. In fact, apart from a major hitch in the romance department, everything was hunky-dory.
At least, it was until Tuesday when I went to buy groceries.
I was in aisle five at the supermarket when I first sensed that I was being watched. The feeling’s impossible to describe, but if you’ve had it you’ll know it. According to the neuro-boffins it’s a primeval survival instinct, an evolutionary hangover from prehistoric times when we needed extra radar to protect ourselves when we were eyes-down at the waterhole. That sort of thing.
I shuddered and looked around.
Nothing. Then again, Woolies isn’t a known Neanderthal hangout.
Blaming my paranoia on the store security system, I flashed my death stare at the overhead camera and steered my trolley into the next aisle.
Relocation didn’t help. The feeling was stronger. Frowning, I looked up and down the aisle.
I crouched down to select leaf tea from the bottom shelf and was standing up when a hand landed firmly on my back. I jumped with fright, dropped the tea and grabbed the shelf to steady myself.
‘Are you the journalist, Scout Davis?’ asked an accusing voice behind me.
I turned to face a tall, bone-thin, ascetic-looking woman with a pointy nose and a chin that could open a can. She was dressed in a long black skirt, a loose black smock and a floppy black felt hat. Wisps of iron-grey hair peeked out from under the brim. At first glance she looked like an elderly greyhound dressed in a Quaker’s outfit.
With some alarm I registered who she was and took a step backwards. Most Byron locals have heard of the Anemone Sisters, three ageing spinsters who live in the hills, wear black clothes and drink chickens’ blood. The usual small-town suspicions.
There had also been talk of nasty spells and divine retribution for minor wrongdoings, so I erred on the side of caution, nodded and said, ‘How do you do.’ Then I picked up the tea, replaced it on the shelf and selected a fresh packet, as you do.
‘I am Miss Hermione Longfellow,’ she announced with exaggerated self-importance, ‘and I will have a few minutes of your time!’ She plonked her shopping basket at her feet, placed her hands forcefully on her hips and huffed loudly.
Mildly amused by her theatrics, I wondered if she expected me to gasp and prostrate myself on the floor. Playing for time while I garnered a suitable response, I examined her shopping basket: three bags of plain flour and a packet of safety matches. No eye of newt.
‘I’m on holiday,’ I explained eventually.
Undaunted, she waved her hand dismissively. ‘Yes, yes, Daisy Fanshaw told me. That doesn’t matter.’
I raised my eyebrows. What a cheek! Besides, Daisy is a friend of mine and I couldn’t imagine any reason for her to be chatting to one of the Anemone Sisters about my holiday.
Mindful that it would be childish to enter into verbal fisticuffs with this incredibly rude woman, I decided it was best to move away. I pushed my trolley forward and hoped she wouldn’t bother me again. No such luck. In an instant she stepped in front of the trolley and blocked my passage. Furious, I had a sudden urge to cry ‘Aaaaaarrrrgh!’ and run her over.
My imagination quickly constructed the courtroom scene. I was sitting in the dock wearing a white voile blouse and a red pillbox hat with netting . . . maybe white gloves . . .
‘You will listen to me now,’ Miss Longfellow was insisting. ‘This is most important!’ She stamped her foot, which beamed me back to planet Woolworths.
‘So is my holiday!’ I snapped.
Suddenly she smiled, and it was so alarming that I took another step back. Her teeth were long and randomly spaced like a churchyard of old tombstones. Truly, if I were a horse, I’d have been a teensy bit scared. Then again, if I were a horse I would have galloped away and saved myself a lot of grief.
‘Please,’ she pressed, and I sensed that she was no newcomer to the benefits of a change of tactics.
However, I wasn’t into point scoring and curiosity got the better of me. ‘How do you know Daisy?’ I asked.
Miss Longfellow folded her arms and looked pleased with herself.
‘We trade commodities,’ she said piously. ‘It is a business relationship. We are not friends.’
Well, no surprises there.
‘Look,’ I said firmly, ‘I can’t help you now as my holiday time is precious. I’ll be returning to work next week and you can contact me then.’
Delving into my shoulder bag I extracted a dog-eared business card that had been lurking in the bottom for some time. It looked brilliantly unprofessional and, with luck, would dissuade Miss Longfellow from further communication.
In case you think me churlish, I should explain that I’m often approached by members of the public who believe their personal story requires national exposure. People who have been wronged see journalists as a sort of de facto complaints bureau, and the media as a final chance at retribution. The scenario is usually packaged in the guise of wishing to save others, but the real motive is nearly always revenge.
She held my card between her fingertips as if I’d infused it with anthrax. Disapproval was written all over her face. ‘It says here that you are a freelance investigative journalist.’
‘That’s right,’ I said firmly. ‘The freelance part indicates that I only work on issues of interest to me. Right now, as I told you, I’m on holiday and I’m not interested.’
Ha! Chew on that, bossy boots.
She frowned. ‘Daisy assured me you would be interested.’
I stopped in my tracks. Maybe I was being churlish. If Daisy thought there was a story, then I should listen. Hey, this might be a Walkley Award. I’d allow her five minutes and then I could truthfully tell Daisy I had given the matter appropriate consideration.
‘Okay,’ I capitulated. ‘I’m listening.’ I pulled the trolley to one side, folded my arms and indicated with a nod for her to go ahead.
‘I have two younger sisters, Amelia and Nemony,’ she began. ‘I, as I have already told you, am Hermione Longfellow.’
The names Hermione, Amelia and Nemony explained the sobriquet ‘Anemone Sisters’. It seemed a good fit.
‘Thirty years ago,’ she said, ‘when my youngest sister Nemony was thirty, she married an Irishman called Mick O’Leary. He was a penniless drifter who called in to our property seeking employment. People do, you know, when you grow produce. We were harvesting lavender at the time. Amelia had broken her arm and we needed an extra pair of hands, so we took O’Leary on.’
Feigning interest, I stared at the space between her eyes and hoped she’d get to the point before my frozen yoghurt melted.
‘He was handsome in a rough and ready way,’ she went on, ‘although he was uncouth and ill mannered . . . common, our dear parents would have said.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Unbeknownst to Amelia and me, O’Leary was . . . seducing . . . Nemony.’
A female customer indicated that she required access to the tea shelves, so I shifted my trolley.
Miss Longfellow ignored the woman and blithely carried on. ‘Nemony was . . . er . . . unskilled in the ways of men. One night, O’Leary had his dirty way with her in the lavender shed.’ She pursed her lips in what I took to signify total disgust.
The customer glanced at me and I swallowed a laugh. So help me, I couldn’t wait to tell my sister Harper this one.
‘I dismissed him the following day,’ she thundered on, her voice loaded with revulsion, ‘but Nemony ran after him. The silly girl was besotted. Three months later Amelia and I received a postcard from Sydney informing us they had married. Nemony had signed the postcard Mrs Mick O’Leary!’
It seemed to me that sacking someone for having sex with your adult sister was extreme, and it probably wasn’t worth pointing out that, at thirty, Nemony was hardly a silly girl, so I didn’t.
There was more. ‘Soon after the marriage,’ she continued, ‘O’Leary purchased a yacht with the money Nemony had inherited from the estate of our uncle Willard Longfellow. Each of us, Amelia, Nemony and myself, had received $100,000 the previous year. It was a lot of money in those days, and would have bought an apartment in Sydney.’ She shook her head at the wastefulness of it all and, trying not to yawn, I shook my head too.
So far I’d heard nothing to trigger my sleuth synapses. My interest lay in issues involving the abuse of power and injustices against the weak. Speaking up, if you like, for those who couldn’t be heard. Having said that, I’m not averse to a mystery with strong commercial value and low risk of litigation. However, I didn’t think two unmarried people having it off in a north-coast lavender shed fitted the bill, or held any shock-horror appeal for modern readers.
‘Is there more?’ I asked, trying not to sound sarcastic, and failing.
She glowered at me, like a schoolmistress staring down an impudent pupil.
‘One evening,’ she went on, ‘O’Leary was sailing alone outside Sydney Heads. There was a storm off the New South Wales coast and he radioed a mayday. Neither he nor the yacht was ever seen again. His body was never found. A few days later a sail bag, life vest and parts of the yacht washed ashore at Watsons Bay in Sydney Harbour. According to Nemony, neither O’Leary nor the yacht was insured. There was an inquest and he was declared lost at sea. Dead.’ Miss Longfellow took a deep breath and then said despondently, ‘Nemony returned to us a broken woman and she has never recovered.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, hoping my comment sounded like a belated condolence, but knowing my regret stemmed solely from the fact that there was nothing of interest in her tale of woe. For the life of me I couldn’t imagine why Daisy had thought I should hear it. Had I missed something?
‘I’m only interested in current newsworthy issues,’ I explained.
‘This would be current and newsworthy.’
‘I don’t do love stories,’ I said.
‘Oh, I think you’ll do this one.’
Shaking my head again, I mimicked her earlier theatrics and placed my hands on my hips. The woman’s arrogance was astonishing.
‘And that would be why?’ I demanded crossly. ‘I saw him yesterday,’ she said. Zap. My head snapped up and my nose pointed high in the air. Finally, the bloodhound had picked up the scent.
Excited that I’d finally met one of the Anemone Sisters, and only partially annoyed that it may have put the kibosh on my holiday, I struggled with my shopping back to my apartment above Fandango’s restaurant in Jonson Street. I definitely didn’t need the two bottles of pink grapefruit juice that had been two for the price of one.
As always, Byron Bay was a carnival of high spirits. Music and laughter drifted from bars and cafés, and the footpaths were packed with tourists who’d come to see humpback whales cruising past the headland on their northern migration. Few were aware—and I’m talking tourists here, not whales—of the town’s murderous whaling history, and it’s an unwritten rule that locals don’t mention it unless asked. These days, of course, we proudly take shots with cameras instead of harpoons.
‘Honestly, I held her off for as long as I could,’ I told Chairman Meow as I unpacked groceries onto the kitchen table.
He rubbed his neck against my leg and meowed loudly. ‘On the bright side,’ I said cheerfully, ‘we might have a new case.’
Chairman Meow was as pleased as I was and he turned lively circles at my feet like a whirling dervish. I smiled down at him. He’s velvety grey and handsome like the cat in the Dine commercials, and when I’d first brought him home from the pound I’d thought he was a Chinese model, hence the name. Since then I’d discovered he was a Russian Blue, and no, I wouldn’t have called him Rasputin had I known. Maybe Gorbachops.
‘Now pay attention,’ I said, lifting him into my arms. ‘Tomorrow morning, a scary stick insect called Hermione Longfellow will be coming for a meeting. I want you to think up probing questions. Real corkers.’ I put him back down on the floor and he bounded off to his wicker chair on the back verandah. On the case.
I finished unpacking the groceries and switched my thoughts back to Miss Longfellow. Much to my annoyance, and after I’d finally expressed interest, she’d informed me that she hadn’t seen Mick O’Leary in the flesh, but in a newspaper photograph while she was wrapping custard apples at Daisy’s farm—last Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald, to be precise.
This wasn’t the eyewitness testimony I would have preferred, but Miss Longfellow had been certain it was O’Leary in the photograph as, apparently, he possessed an unusual physical anomaly. Intrigued, I had asked what that was, but she had dismissed my question, telling me she would show me on the photograph. Naturally I was hoping it was a man with three arms.
The photograph, she’d explained, showed sailors who had rescued people from two boats that had collided on the Great Barrier Reef. The accident had occurred last Thursday and Mick O’Leary, according to Miss Longfellow, was one of the sailors. She would, she’d assured me, bring the article and photograph to our meeting tomorrow.
I didn’t think I could wait that long to see it, but I’d try. If I checked the Herald website I knew I would peek at work emails and start responding. And it wasn’t worth searching for information on the storm that had supposedly taken O’Leary’s life without an approximate date. It was a long time ago and there would be thousands of Mick O’Learys out there.
In the meantime the smart money was on quizzing Daisy on Miss Longfellow’s bona fides. I didn’t want to waste time investigating a story if Hermione was simply a bitter old woman seeking to embroil me in her own obsessive revenge. Daisy would know and I trusted her judgement.
The light on my message machine was flashing. It was my sister, Harper, informing me that she would pop in around 7 pm. She’s Head of Sport at Tattings, a posh coeducational private school in Queensland, and often drops in if her students have after-school basketball matches down here in northern New South Wales.
Pleased at the chance to see how she was, I sent her a text advising that I would organise dinner. Over the past year Harper had become disillusioned with teaching, which she complained had become more about student management than education. Her level of job satisfaction had been deteriorating at the same rate as her anxiety levels had been escalating, and I was worried about her.
On a whim I decided to drop in on Daisy rather than call her. I changed into my farm-girl garb—black Levis, grey T-shirt, RM Williams boots and a battered old Akubra—grabbed my sunglasses, car keys and a bottle of pink grapefruit juice and headed out the door.
With a lively sense of purpose I strode through town towards the railway station car park where I’ve been parking my old Toyota Avalon ever since the trains stopped running. So far the car’s only been pinched once and I was lucky as it was found in one piece.
I breathed the usual sigh of relief when my green jalopy came into view, pulled the flyers out from under the wipers, climbed in and pointed her towards Daisy’s farm.
Excerpted from Good News, Bad News by Maggie Groff. Copyright © 2013 by Maggie Groff.
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