Six minutes in the wrong place at the wrong time—that’s all it took to ruin Sydney Detective Ted Conkaffey’s life. Accused but not convicted of the brutal abduction of a 13-year-old girl, Ted is now a free man—and public enemy number one. He flees north to keep a low profile amidst the steamy, croc-infested wetlands of Crimson Lake.
There, Ted’s lawyer introduces him to private investigator Amanda Pharrell, herself a convicted murderer. Perhaps it’s the self-isolation and murderous past that makes her so adept at tracking lost souls in the wilderness, but her latest target, missing author Jake Scully, has a life more shrouded in secrets than her own.
Not entirely convinced Amanda is a cold-blooded killer,Ted agrees to help with her investigation, a case full of deception and obsession, while secretly digging into her troubled past. The residents of Crimson Lake are watching the pair’s every move…once Ted’s true identity becomes known, the threats against him become violent and the town offers no place to hide.
The newspaper article about Amanda Pharrell mentioned an office in Beale Street. I washed my face, brushed my teeth and arrived at the office at eight o’clock, wearing a neatly ironed light cotton shirt and grey trousers. It was already too humid for the town’s resident wild dogs, who lounged under trees by the Crimson Lake Hotel.
When I tried to decide what this was all about, I came up blank. Sean’s reasons for asking me to see Amanda were vague – the lawyer had learned during my trial that I over-worried about the small stuff and it was easier when he just told me what to do. I could only think that Sean had directed me towards this Amanda character because she was an ex-inmate, like me, and maybe she was having some trouble going about life as a pariah. Maybe he’d been involved in her case, way back when. Maybe he thought the two of us would have tips for each other on how to get through the day when nine out of ten people in the world would like to see you dead. Maybe, if she was doing worse than me (which I could hardly believe was possible), I might be spirited on in my own recovery and the two of us could get through it together.
Lying on my new bed the evening before, I’d been googling stuff about infant geese and read that if an injured baby bird won’t eat, it’s sometimes helpful to put it in the same box as another bird its age, so that it can be led by example. One orphaned bird cheers the other one on to survive. Maybe Sean thought that two public enemies were better than one. I didn’t know.
My punctuality was a mistake. I stood outside the small converted weatherboard house crammed between the bank and corner store, and looked at the drawn blinds. I thought I heard meowing behind the door. I took the article I’d printed about Amanda from my back pocket and examined it, checked the address. I found myself reading the words again, incredible as they were.
Convicted Killer Opens PI Agency
Kissing Point Killer Amanda Pharrell began trading in private investigations this week from a shopfront on Beale Street. Pharrell acquired her private detective’s licence while serving eight years in prison for the stabbing murder of Crimson Lake teenager Lauren Freeman in 2006. While some district residents have expressed dismay at the business venture, Crimson Lake Local Member Scott Bosc said there are no licensing restrictions preventing Pharrell Private Investigations from investigating “everything from insurance fraud to murder” in the greater tropical north. Pharrell indicated that the agency, which has been open three days, has already received inquiries.
There was a handwritten note in the window of the little office.
Hours 10 am – 10 pm
After hours, see Shark Bar.
The Shark Bar was an ageing tropical-themed diner, complete with potted bird of paradise plants and hibiscus-flower murals exploding over the walls. The counter was covered in junk – cups of novelty pens, battered three-month-old magazines, coral dive pamphlets and miniature solar-powered Hawaiian ladies who swayed at the hips. There was a waitress wiping the counter and two people at the tables; a colourfully tattooed junkie scouring newspapers and a lady reading a crime fiction novel, gray wisps creeping in from her temples into her orange curls. I went over and sat down, and she lifted her eyes to me.
“You start at ten?” I said. “Jesus. This place really is a holiday town.”
“Excuse me?” The woman frowned.
I sat back, disoriented.
“You’re Amanda Pharrell?”
“Sorry.” I laughed. Felt my face burning. “Sorry, ma’am.”
I patted her novel in consolation, stood up and backed away. The anaemic-looking tattooed butterfly across the room hadn’t looked up. I went over and stood uncertainly by the table. One of her hands lay fidgeting by the edge of the paper.
“Excuse me? Ms. Pharrell?”
“If it ain’t me, then Vicky over there is your last shot.” Amanda looked up over thick-framed red glasses and motioned to the waitress with her chin. I sat down, unsure whether to feel relieved or disappointed. There were five newspapers between us, three in a stack on her right, one under her hands and one on the left. I reached out but she didn’t shake my hand, just stared like she didn’t know what it was.
“Edward Conkaffey,” I said. “Ted.”
“Sean’s guy.” She gave me the once-over. “I didn’t expect you to be so tall.”
“I didn’t expect you to be so . . .” – I looked at the tatts – “colorful?”
She smiled. There was a twitch to her. A repetitive jerking of her head sideways an inch or two. I told myself not to stare.
“You know Sean, do you?” I said.
“I do not.”
“Well, this is interesting. How did you come to speak to him about me?”
“He called me,” she said. I waited for more. There wasn’t any.
We examined each other in ringing silence. Her arms were skinny and veined, but there seemed to be an awful lot depicted on them. Radios and microphones, birds and angels, lush jungle plants hiding gaping Louisiana-style plantation houses. Feathers and beautiful women in portrait: black, Asian, a mixture. On her left hand, a rabbit in a three-piece suit.
“Sean said you’d be able to begin work over the next week or so,” she said. “That right? Or do you need the weekend?”
“Sean said I’d come work for you?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Is that funny, honey?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling. “It’s funny. It’s funny and annoying and ridiculous.”
“What the hell did you think he was sending you my way for?”
“I don’t know, to be honest.” I shrugged. “I guess I didn’t think too much about it. I’ve been following his directions mindlessly for about a year now.”
“I guess I wondered if maybe… Maybe he thought I could help you. Both of us being ex-inmates. I see you’ve been out for a couple of years, but –”
She laughed hard. “Do I look like I need your help?”
“I’m doing fine, sweetheart.” She patted my arm, patronising. “It’s funny that you assumed he wanted you to help me, rather than wondering if he wanted me to help you. You’re the one wearing Eau de Jack Daniels.”
“It’s Wild Turkey.” I sniffed the collar of my shirt.
“Sean wanted you to get off your arse and get to work.”
“Yeah, thanks.” I cleared my throat. “I get it.”
She smiled. The whole thing was steadily becoming absurd, uncomfortably absurd, a joke gone wrong. A prank. I glanced towards the door.
“From what I understand, you run some homegrown private investigations firm?”
“That’s right.” She twitched.
“And Sean thinks I’m just going to throw my lot in with you and start working cases like nothing ever happened?”
“I don’t think he’s under any illusion that nothing happened.” Amanda got bored looking at me and turned the page of her newspaper, examined the pictures carefully before letting her eyes drift to the text. “He’s well aware of what your life has become. That’s probably why he thought of me. Because I’m the only person in Queensland likely to hire someone accused of what you’ve been accused of.”
My stomach really wasn’t taking this well. I looked at the door again.
“He said you’re up shit creek,” she said, smiling. “I had a look at your case. I think he’s right.”
“Christ. Look, pardon me, Ms. Pharrell. But just because you’re the only person in around who would hire me for detective work –”
“For anything, really.”
“For anything,” I conceded, “doesn’t mean I’m interested. I mean, you yourself. You’re –”
“A convicted murderer?” She looked up at me. “Look, sugarplum. Convicted, acquitted. Guilty, not guilty. Charges entered. Charges withdrawn. It’s all the same around here. If you don’t get it now, you will soon. You’re doing time. We’re both doing time.”
I toyed with the napkin holder beside me. Sean had dropped me in the middle of an awkward mess, but scoping out the town I’d decided to settle in for employment opportunities for me had been very kind. I supposed I was lucky that I’d stopped in Crimson Lake, and the local ex-con who had work was an investigator. If I’d picked somewhere else, I might have got a type of employment less suited to my skills. If all Sean had been looking for was someone who had also committed or been accused of a violent crime, and who therefore wouldn’t mind taking me on, I might have ended up gutting fish with serial killers or cleaning toilets with child molesters. I told myself Amanda would turn out to be a lucky break. I looked at her twitching before me, picking her nails. Murderer, I thought, then scolded myself.
“We’re a good match,” she continued. “Think about it,” she continued. “What’s the real difference here, between you and me?”
“There’s plenty of difference,” I said.
“Okay, you’re still in denial.” She turned back to the paper, waved dismissively at me. “That’ll wear off.”
We sat in silence for a long time, Amanda reading the newspaper like I wasn’t there at all, me staring at the top of her head, her glasses, the flaming orange roots of her dyed black locks. I couldn’t believe how casually she was talking about my life. My charred wasteland of an existence. She slurped her coffee, loudly, like a child. I sat bewildered and disturbed in my seat, the passenger of a car wreck, trying to reorient my up and down, trying to understand why my forward motion had stopped.
“So how free are you to work?” she asked finally.
“I’m pretty available, I guess.”
“What’s your background?”
“Drug squad. Couple of related homicides,” I said. My mind was spinning. “I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation.”
“I mean, is your business real?” I leaned forward, conspiratorial. “You actually have clients?”
“It’s real.” She smirked. “What? You think it’s a front or something?”
“No, I just. You’re a convicted murderer. Don’t people wonder if you’re dangerous?”
“I’m a convicted murderer,” she whispered, her red lips spreading into a grin. “I am dangerous.”
“So why do people hire you?”
“Dunno.” She shrugged. “Guess they think I’ve got the criminal mind. I’m on the bad-guy wavelength. I can sniff out the cheaters and the dodgers and the villains using my ultra-evil senses.” She snuffled loudly.
“It also helps that I’m the only private investigator this side of Brisbane.”
“Well, look.” She leaned back and gave the weary groan of someone resigned to doing a huge favor that could possibly sink their entire business. “I’m willing to give you a shot. As a favor to Sean.”
“But you said you don’t know Sean . . .”
“Why don’t we try this out?” she said. “We can head back to the office, and I’ll set you up with your pick of the case files this morning. We can use one of those as a sort of unpaid trial. See if you’re any good.”
“What case files?”
“Oh, I’ve got plenty that’d suit you.” Her head jerked once harder, her ear almost touching her shoulder. “Infidelity cases. Insurance stuff.”
“That’s just lovely, but I’m not interested in going around snapping pictures of bare arses in hotel rooms.”
Amanda’s entire demeanour changed, cracked with open-mouthed laughter. She gave herself a little hug, like she was being cuddled by the very humour itself.
“Bare arses in hotel rooms! Oh lordy!”
“I’m not so sure this is a good idea. This whole thing.”
A long slurp of coffee. “Well, I’m not here to convince you.”
I looked at my hands. Thought about good ideas, bad ideas, Sean. And money.
“I’m not interested in working for free,” I said. “This is not an apprenticeship, and I’m not fourteen.”
“Well, it was worth a shot, love. You’ve got to admit.”
“What are you working on?”
“Oh, you’re not having my case,” she laughed. “I don’t work well with others.”
“Neither do I,” I said. “So maybe we ought to forget this thing altogether.”
Vicky the waitress had come and barricaded me into the booth just as I was about to dramatically exit it. She stood with her pad and pen and smiled. I looked at Amanda, and she returned my gaze passively, the choice mine. I ordered a coffee with milk and sugar and Vicky went away.
“This is going to be difficult.” Amanda gave a bored sigh and stared at the windows.
“I think you’re right.”
“Most people have almost forgotten who I am in this town,” she said, ignoring me. “What I did. If they haven’t forgotten, they’re at least not as confronted by me as they were when I first got released. They’re used to me, I guess. But you? You’re going to be like a ghoul around here, once the mob finds out you’re in town. I really think you should take the office. The night work and the bare arses in hotel rooms.”
She tore a corner off the newspaper and folded it into a tiny, bulging square. I watched her stick it between her front teeth, pressing it flat, before sucking it onto her molars.
“Look.” She munched the paper thoughtfully. “I feel for you, mate. So I might let you follow me around for a little while. See if you can do more than kick down doors. But you better keep your brim down. You’re going to have to be incognito, you understand? Like a mosquito in a burrito.”
She seemed pleased with her impromptu rhyme. Slurped her coffee with a smile. I considered whether to thank her.
“You could grow a beard, maybe.”
“I’m trying,” I said, feeling my stubble.
“So, you want to do it? Are we partners?” she asked, the long-suffering exhaustion gone and excitement of a girl about her. I rolled my eyes, and she clapped in glee.
“Tell me about your case,” I said.
Vicky brought my coffee, and Amanda pulled a couple of silver rings off her left middle finger. The two smaller rings, I realised, were holding a much larger ring on the base of the finger. It was so large that it clunked loudly on the table when she finally got it off. She rolled it towards me and I caught it before it could roll off the table.
“The local celebrity is missing,” she said.
Copyright © 2017 by Candice Fox
Order Your Copy