Can a dream hold the answer to a violent crime … and bring two people together?
Since the deaths of her father and stepmother nine months before, Mia Petros has suffered a terrifying recurring dream which implies that their deaths were not a murder-suicide at the hands of her father–as the police decided–but a double murder.
In Taylor’s Bend to clear and sell her father’s house, Mia, driven to breaking point by the dream and unnerved by the simmering resentment her appearance has aroused, is determined not to leave the bleak midwinter town until she has answers.
Local newspaper editor Arlo McGuiness, an ex-investigative journalist avoiding his own troubled past, is intrigued by the mystery and by Mia, especially when she tells him about her dream. His old, familiar urge to find the truth is awakened. But his probing engenders trouble–nasty comments are followed by malicious acts, and before long Arlo and Mia face escalating violence, their lives in danger.
Every time it was the same.
Weary from the long drive, ready for a welcoming family, a meal and a glass of wine, she hurried through the drizzle, dragging her suitcase up the path to her father’s house. The porch light clicked on as she reached the steps and a familiar, lovely stained glass panel in the front door sent a jewel-like glow across the wooden verandah.
Mildly puzzled she raised her hand but before she could ring the bell, a scream followed by a loud, sharp, crack of sound froze her in place. Her heart beat a frenzied tattoo. A gunshot? Moments later another crack sounded then another and another, more and more in a deafening crescendo of noise. She turned and ran, breath sobbing in her throat, the hairs on her neck prickling, her mind a tornado of uncomprehending fear.
Crouched behind a car in the wet, dark street she fumbled for her phone with clammy fingers. Footsteps sounded, the rustle of bushes, movement caught her eye in the shadows next door. She tried to stand up and call out but her legs were weak, wobbly, and the operator answered, distracting her.
That’s when she woke. Every time. The dream wrenching her from sleep with a
pounding heart, tears wet on her cheeks and the sound of gunshots ringing in her ears.
On a Tuesday morning nine months after the funerals of Glenda and Tony Petros, Arlo McGuinness, owner and editor of the local paper, learned Tony’s daughter, Mia, had returned to Taylor’s Bend. Curious, sensing a story—human interest, sensitive and respectful of the two popular locals, but seeking more personal family secrets that could point to the so far elusive motive for the tragedy— he pulled on his old green anorak against the misty rain and sauntered the few blocks to the house she’d recently inherited, an unassuming white weatherboard cottage a block back from the main street in the centre of town.
Arlo paused before going in, to study the property. She was at home. A dark grey hatchback stood in the carport attached to the house. A straggly wisteria, always unattractive in winter with its dry, leafless branches, did a good job of smothering the poles and roof of said carport. The garden needed weeding, the roses pruning, and a couple of dripping, overgrown shrubs along the driveway would scrape the duco, but she’d only been there a few days and it wouldn’t have been an easy situation for anyone. Still, the woman had returned of her own free will. She didn’t have to do that and she must have sensed the ambivalence in the community.
His jaw tightened. He’d only set eyes on her twice, at the funerals. Separate ones. Glenda’s, standing room only in the old stone church of St Marks. Tony’s, small and low key, at the crematorium in Wagga. First impressions of the bereaved daughter—tall, dark-haired, unemotional and conservatively dressed in a straight, navy blue skirt and matching jacket. No tears for a murdered stepmother and a murdering father. Blank-faced and tight lipped in her acceptance of condolences from the shocked townspeople.
He strode up the path to the door, knocked twice, his knuckles striking the green painted wood in a peremptory demand for access. A small black symbol caught his eye on the frame. A pair of roughly painted crossed swords. What was that about?
The door opened abruptly, she must have been close, or even watching his approach from behind the white net curtains in the front room. Dark brown hair pulled away from her narrow, unsmiling face gave her a mediaeval look—a woman from an old painting. Not particularly pretty, enigmatic and withdrawn. Curiously attractive. Something about her father in the set of the mouth and nose. Greek heritage evident in the smooth, olive toned skin and brown eyes. Thirties? No rings on her fingers but small gold hoops in her ears. A cream sweater and charcoal slacks. Compact figure tending towards solid. Shorter than he remembered. Wearing flat shoes.
‘Hello,’ he said.
No sign of recognition in those dark eyes, but why would there be? She wouldn’t remember one reporter from the many clamouring for information like baby magpies squawking for worms.
‘I’m Arlo McGuinness,’ he continued. ‘From Round the Bend. It’s the local—’
‘I know who you are.’ A surprisingly low pitched and melodic voice. Sexy. In the circumstances, the spontaneous reaction shocked him. She waited for him to speak, her unwavering gaze and his inner turmoil making the words stumble and fall from his mouth in spite of his years of interview experience. He’d lost his edge.
‘I’ve come to see how you’re doing. If you need help.’
‘Have you?’ A cynical element to the tone.
‘Is that so unlikely?’
‘Okay.’ He tried a tiny smile which gained nothing in response. ‘I realise you might think that, but it’s true. I’m a neighbour. I also wanted to talk to you.’ He was back on track now, his well-honed professionalism kicking in. How many interviews had he done with people unwilling to talk? Hundreds. How many had discovered they really did want to tell what they knew, give their opinion? More than you’d think.
An eyebrow lofted sceptically. ‘How close a neighbour?’
‘A block or so. I have a flat behind the office just off the main street. Opposite the doctor. May I come in?’
‘What do you want to talk about?’ She must know the answer to that.
‘I’d like to hear about your father. Your impressions of him growing up. What you think about what he did.’
He thought she was going to close the door in his face but, surprisingly, she didn’t. She stepped aside, upright and reserved and he went in, careful not to brush against her as he passed, not to reignite that flare of attraction. The house was chilly with a closed up, slightly mouldy smell. He hoped she might have led him through to the kitchen where it happened, but she gestured to the left, a sitting room. Photos sat on a cabinet. The family in happy times.
‘Sit down.’ It sounded like an order, abrupt and coldly polite. ‘Would you like tea?’
‘No, thanks.’ He sat on the red couch. It was new when he visited last year to interview Glenda about a charity drive she was organising. Her favourite colour, she’d said, with that lovely warm smile. This woman wouldn’t choose red anything. Her colour was neutral.
‘What do you want to know?’
‘Firstly, why have you come back?’ He pulled out his notebook and pen. Old style notes. His preference. Georgia always laughed at him, the dinosaur.
‘I need to do something about the house. It’s been empty for nine months while the coronial inquiry was on. Probate only just came through.’
He nodded. ‘I understand. What about you? Are you planning to stay long?’
She hesitated and for the briefest of moments uncertainty tinged with unease flashed across her face.
‘I’m not sure. Not permanently.’
‘Depends on the welcome you get?’
‘No, not really. I know some people hate my father for what he did. I can’t help that. Others don’t.’ The last sentence sounded more hopeful than anything.
‘Glenda grew up here and was very popular. Have you spoken to her parents yet?’ ‘No. I’m not sure if I should.’
‘They’ll know you’re here.’
She nodded. ‘Everyone knows everything in this town, Dad said.’
Small towns could be like that. Or not. No-one knew Tony would shoot his wife then himself. The shockwaves went deep.
‘It must be difficult for you, coming to the house.’
‘I’m managing. I never lived here.’
‘It still must be hard doing this by yourself with no siblings to help.’
‘I’ve always been alone.’ She refocused and leaned forward slightly and her eyes bored into his. ‘If you’ve come here to find some reason Dad did what he did you won’t find it. I don’t know anything. I hadn’t seen them for just over a year and before that, once or twice before the wedding and once after, when they came to Sydney.’
‘I know. I’d like to balance the equation a bit. Everyone knows everything about Glenda and her family but Tony was a relative newcomer to town. Two years isn’t a long time to be married and they hadn’t known each other more than a year prior to the wedding. That alone is interesting.’
‘Are you saying she married someone she didn’t know? He did too. He moved here, started a new life and was very happy.’
She relaxed back into her chair, studying him with the inscrutable expression of an assessor.
‘I haven’t come here to fight with you, or blame you,’ he said. ‘I’m interested.’
‘What did you do before you came here?’ she asked.
He took the abrupt change of subject as acceptance of his comment. He gave her the response he gave everyone. The one no-one questioned because the focus fell where he wanted it to.
‘I was a freelance investigative journalist. I was away a lot overseas and I picked up a horrible bug that knocked me out for nearly a year. I decided I’d had enough of travel for a while after that so I came to the Bend. I have friends here, Bill and Gina Locke and their son Barnaby, who said the town could do with a newspaper again. And you?’ He already knew what she did. She was an accountant.
‘I’m a senior policy manager for a large finance company.’
‘I thought you were an accountant,’ he said with a smile. A damn sight more than an accountant. Not that there was anything wrong with accountancy but her job would probably have her dealing with some high-powered people, making her a very experienced negotiator. No push over, in other words.
‘That was Dad’s little joke because I work in the finance industry.’ She didn’t smile. ‘He always introduced me as his daughter, the accountant.’
‘He must have been very proud of you.’ He paused a beat. ‘Why do you think he did it? The shooting.’
She looked away then at her hands resting on her lap. ‘The police put it down to depression.’
Something about the way she spoke made him say, ‘Don’t you think it was?’
She hesitated. ‘I don’t know. As I said I hadn’t seen him, either of them, for ages.’ ‘What about your job?’
‘I’m on leave.’
‘Were you executor for your father?’
‘And Glenda’s children for her?’ Son Frank, the younger of the two, was in the navy doing border patrols off the West Australian coast. Daughter Jenny had just graduated and was a primary school teacher in Braidwood. Neither came back to Taylor’s Bend often. Not since Glenda married Tony.
‘No, her brother Graham was. Glenda died first so technically Dad inherited.’
‘Surely that’s invalid if he murdered her.’
‘The coroner decides. In some domestic violence cases the perpetrator wouldn’t have been convicted of murder. It’s a very difficult area, legally. The coroner’s verdict was for reasons unknown.’
‘This isn’t a domestic violence situation. Not in the sense that your father was a victim. Of domestic violence, I mean,’ he added. How did she know so much about it?
‘How do you know he wasn’t?’ she asked.
‘I don’t and neither do you or anyone else but I doubt it very much. I knew them both.’ ‘No, and you’re right. The police ruled that out. He’d been preoccupied and moody in the preceding weeks but in the last week he’d hardly spoken to anyone. No-one knows why he did it. They said sometimes they never find out the motive in a case like this.’
‘You sound like a lawyer,’ he said.
‘I do have a law degree, Masters. But not criminal law. Tax and superannuation are my areas.’
He had nothing to say to that. This woman was highly educated, far more so than he was, but as far as life went? Quiet and conscientious summed her up. She’d always do the right thing and she’d take any job very seriously. Did she have fun and laughter in her life? Love?
She was nothing like the vivacious, caring, spontaneously joyful Glenda. He hadn’t known Tony well but he wasn’t as outgoing although he had a quiet, dry wit. So what had Glenda seen in her new husband? By all accounts husband number one had been a real live wire—until he walked out on her for a younger model six or seven years ago. He was at her funeral flanked by their children, pale and grief-stricken. No sign of the new wife. Barry Greenberg. How long since he’d seen Glenda? Where was he living?
‘Where did you grow up?’ he asked.
‘In Melbourne first, then, when I was four, we moved to Sydney.’
‘What about your mother? What was she like?’ He knew she’d died young in a car accident. The family history had been unearthed at the time of the tragedy but how much was fact and how much fiction he wasn’t sure. He hadn’t been interested in that aspect. He left that to the bigger papers.
‘When I started school Mum worked part time in a post office. I don’t remember much about her from that time. She was loving and fun. She sang a lot.’
‘What did you father do?’
‘Different things. He managed a shoe store in Melbourne and when we went to Sydney he sold real estate. He did well at that. After my mother died—I was six—we moved to a terrace house in Balmain. He never sold it and I live there now.’
‘What sort of father was he?’
‘Loving, generous. He liked to have people around him, especially women. I had a few ‘aunties’ over the years but they were nice women and kind to me. Most of them stayed friends with him.’
‘Do you have any real aunts and uncles? Grandparents?’
As Mia spoke she came alive. Memories of those happier times lit a spark inside her which animated her body and her face. Why did he think she wasn’t pretty?
‘My grandmother died five years ago. She was in a nursing home. My grandfather died earlier, of a stroke. Dad was an only child and so am I. We were never close to Mum’s family.’
‘But you and your father weren’t close.’
A slight crease appeared in the smooth brow then melted away. ‘When I was a child we were. We lived our own lives after I grew up but we understood each other and we had a good relationship. I knew if I needed him he’d come.’
‘Did he say there were problems in the marriage?’
‘Never. He’d never been happier.’
‘But he didn’t ever call on you for help.’
She shook her head. ‘I wish he had.’
Arlo opened his mouth to ask more but she stood up suddenly, her eyes luminous with unshed tears. ‘I’m sorry but I can’t answer any more questions right now.’
He rose as well, shaken by how fragile she looked in that instant, wanting to comfort her. Hug her. ‘Thank you for being so open. I appreciate it. May I call again so we can talk some more?’
She nodded once and headed for the front door. He cast a last look around the small room, taking note of the cream carpet, the couch, the polished wood book cabinet with the photos on top, TV, two easy chairs and a coffee table. Comfortable and unassuming.
What had gone so wrong?
Mia closed the door on Arlo with a sigh of relief and realised her hands were shaking. The whole time he’d been in the house she’d felt as though she were under a microscope. Not even the interview for her first job had made her feel so unsettled. Something to do with his eyes, the penetrating way he looked at her or the way he listened intently to what she said. She wasn’t used to that from anyone. From a man. But he was a highly seasoned and experienced journalist. He could fake interest and empathy with the best of them.
Should she have let him in? Yes. It hadn’t occurred to her before, but her father deserved to have his story told and she was the only person able to do it. No-one in Taylor’s Bend had known him for very long. From her research and a vague recognition of his name, Arlo was one of the best and it was a stroke of luck he’d chosen to settle here.
He’d been at the funerals, both of them, and because he’d known her father he was allowed into the chapel rather than kept outside with the visiting press. Arlo had offered his condolences and she’d listened to his words but been struck by the wide set grey eyes and unruly, thick brown hair, greying at the temples and sideburns. His skin was tanned, with lines around his eyes and mouth. A gauntness to his face and body explained by the long illness. Mid-forties. In other circumstances she’d be attracted but she’d pushed any such thoughts away that day as totally inappropriate.
But that was then and this was now and the same stir of interest was lurking. Single.
He said ‘I’ not ‘we’ when talking about his flat. Her grandmother always said if a man wasn’t married by thirty there was something wrong with him. He’d either be a mama’s boy or he had odd personal habits. Which was Arlo? And what did that make her, a single, never married woman in her late thirties?
Few locals had made the journey to Wagga for her father’s funeral and at least half of the sixty in attendance were old friends from Sydney. Even Linda, one of the aunties, came, sniffing into tissues and hugging Mia fiercely.
‘I don’t believe he did it,’ she’d said darkly. ‘He wouldn’t harm anyone. He didn’t have a vicious bone in his body. You know that and so do I, Mia.’
Mia had nodded and thanked her but the words had stuck and it was shortly after that the dream started.
Glenda’s family, the locals, the police and now Arlo thought the matter was clear cut. A murder suicide. She had too, through the haze of grief. A domestic violence crime of the worst kind. An outwardly well-liked, loving man suddenly kills the person closest to him and then himself. What else could she think?
Since the dream began she wasn’t so sure.
Had Linda put the idea in her head? Did she want so desperately for it to be true she believed a dream over facts?
The police forensics found no evidence at all to indicate a third person had been in the kitchen apart from the friend who’d called in later and found them. The time of death was put at about half an hour previously. One neighbour was deaf with the TV blaring, the other side were at work, over the back were away. No-one heard or saw anything unusual. It was her father’s licensed gun, his fingerprints alone on it, and the wounds told the sad story. No sign of a struggle. He’d shot his wife in the chest and then put the barrel to his own head. A hideous crime.
She hadn’t told anyone about her doubt. She knew what the police would say. They needed more than a feeling and the evidence from the dream of a bereaved daughter to reach a different verdict. It was a tragedy. Case closed.
Mia shivered. The rain had turned from mist to proper drops while she’d spoken to Arlo. He’d get wet walking home. Was he the man to tell? That was why she’d let him in, and if he hadn’t come to see her she might have gone to his office—to covertly interview him, see if his was a sympathetic soul.
He hadn’t been completely honest with her. Why hadn’t he mentioned the shooting incident in the strife-torn African country? Colleagues he knew well had been killed. He’d had a rough time over the last four or five years. After his return from Africa, suffering from a debilitating illness, he’d had a long, slow recovery.
No wonder he’d chosen to live quietly in rural New South Wales. How would he react to her theory based as it was, solely on a dream?
The bottom line was she was nearing the limits of her sanity and if she didn’t do something she’d fall through the rapidly fraying fabric into madness. Would Arlo be able to save her? Would he want to?