Murder Most Unusual
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They make it look so easy in books. Murder the victim, move the body.
Stacey Holland adjusted her grip on the mannequin and puffed the hair from her eyes. Squinting through darkness, she shrugged off the wish to be somewhere else. Warm wouldn’t hurt. The Bahamas. Or curled up on her couch, a good book in one hand and a spiced cider in the other. And a tub of the best choc-chip cookies in the universe.
Instead, she was Arctic-blast cold, plotting the perfect murder for her perfect manuscript. Because nothing less than perfection would do.
Damn the drill of her mother’s voice. Fame’s not won from the back-row seats, my girl. Get out there, get dirty and get it right.
She scrunched her nose against the crack of mud on her skin. Yep, if nothing else, she ticked that last box, tenfold.
A cow mooed in one of the far paddocks and another answered its call. The chill night air sliced through her wet clothes, labour’s sweat covering her skin, a trickle running down her collarbone and falling between her breasts.
She tightened her grasp on the fibreglass hand, breathed deep and heaved. Planting her gumboots into the rain-soaked grass, she braced, leaned back, used every last kilo that usually made her despair but now gave her leverage.
The ground slammed hard against her butt. If she’d shed those extra inches the fall would’ve hurt a helluva lot more. As it was, the jar slammed her tailbone and juddered up her spine.
Mud soaked through her jeans.
Goose pimples pricked her skin. Needled her blood. Chilled her bones. She shuddered. Slumped toward her bent knees. Stuck.
Her choc-chip-cookie obsession prevented her from slumping further than a few inches forward. Her head dropped to her palm, the squish against her forehead barely registering on her icko-meter. What was a little more mud?
She’d never been a “why me?” kinda girl, but now was as good a time as any to start. On paper the corpse would have moved.
Reality’s a killer. Her lips twitched.
So, why am I butt-deep in what better be mud?
Because death and despair are my fictional friends. And simply, superbly delicious.
The snort left her lips before she realised it had formed. It didn’t matter that the alliteration was as ridiculous as her ass dancing the hippo-shuffle through mud puddles and paddies.
Cold shivered through her body, a sensation chased closely by a sharp, “so what?” shrug. If it took mud-dancing to reach bestseller status, then she’d schlep a whole vat of mud back to her car.
Her heart skipped a heady cha-cha through her chest. She grinned, shook herself off, slithered and squelched her way to her feet. Her butt still protested, but it could have been worse. Could have been her arm broken, not the mannequin’s.
She brushed the muck from her hands, then crouched and clicked the ball joint back into its socket. Too thunderous for stealth. But thankfully, no one was around for miles.
Not that it mattered. She wasn’t doing anything wrong. Much.
Not long now.
Light winds fluttered the leaves above, eddying musty scents through the air. A promise of more rain.
He squinted through his night-vision lenses, his steel-tipped boots planted firmly in the muck.
A head-lamp bobbed through the black – distant, indistinct, like a lone firefly in search of its mate.
He dropped the binoculars, letting them hang from his neck, drawing on his cigarette, watching the smoke curl upward and mingle with the frostbitten sky.
Expectation slinked like a wild dingo up his spine. Stealthy. Ravenous. Insatiable.
A crack echoed through the paddock. He tensed, cigarette dangling between his lips. The faraway yellow flickered, bobbing its leisurely way toward the barbed boundary fence. Then a car door slammed. Another.
Dark swallowed the light. An engine growled then dulled as a double-wide beam tore through the ankle-length grass.
He pressed back, tree bark pricking his neck like a goad of conscience, had he been prone. The headlights bounded through the entry paddock until swallowed by the shadows.
His nostrils flared, drawing in smoke and icy anticipation.
Ten minutes of darkness ensured she wouldn’t return.
Stacey Holland. Author extraordinaire.
The beat of his heart quickened, the heady scent of imminent death pricking his senses. She thought she knew loss. Pain, even. She didn’t know shit from shitake. But she’d learn soon enough. He was one hell of a teacher.
And soon she’d lap up every one of his lessons. Would drop to her hands and knees at his feet, greedily begging for more.
His lips spread wide, the smile of a lover seconds before satisfaction.
He stubbed his cigarette into the ground. Dropped it into a zip-lock bag and into his pocket. It paid to be careful. Others had been caught with less evidence.
His ute wasn’t far. A hundred metres or so away, behind the hay barn. He opened the boot and wide eyes stared out from the cramped plastic-lined interior.
He withdrew a tiny bottle from his pocket, grinning as the man shrunk further back like a steer roped and ready for a butcher’s knife. He found the racing pulse at his neck. Felt the blood course its tribute through the body for the last time.
‘It’s useless wasting your energy, trying to change destiny. You can’t. Fighting will only prolong the pain.’ He snatched the blue collar and dragged him closer. ‘Be a good boy and I might let you go. What do you say?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. Truth? He didn’t care. Either way the man would die, the method already prescribed.
He patted his inside jacket pocket. The knife hadn’t moved.
Palm braced against the man’s temple, his thumb and forefinger folded back the eyelid. Clear liquid spilled from the nozzle onto the red-rimmed iris, pooling at the edges as if clamouring for escape. There was none.
He pressed harder against the sweat-soaked temple, stalling movement that might see the liquid spill free. He didn’t have to wait long. Life’s force raced its death march through the trembling flesh until it could run no more. The body spasmed, stilled. The pulse at his neck sprinted erratically, then stopped.
Extracting the body from the boot was easy. It hung limply over his shoulder, still limber, still warm. Muscles flexed, he steadied, then began the trek. Only a kilometre to the spot she’d chosen for him.
Only a kilometre to her scene of the crime.
2 days later …
It’s just research, you nut.
Rain streamed down Stacey’s hood, plops the size of elephant’s tears dripping onto her already sopping face. She rolled her eyes and huddled further under the building’s narrow eaves.
Try telling that to my heart.
Driving tight fists deep into her pockets, she blew, but no amount of puffing dislodged the hair plastered across her cheek. She relented, dragged a hand out and pushed the strands back, before returning her frozen fingers to the warmth.
Somehow imagination helped romance flow easily onto her pages. Suspense was a different, prickly-thorn-in-your-butt story. Hence the reason she stood outside Detective Chase Durant’s precinct, sodden and shivering, in the wettest May on record for twenty years, trying to still her senses before she bowled inside and had to unglue her tongue from the roof of her mouth. Again.
He did that to her. Why?
She’d never been a sucker for broad shoulders and fathomless blue eyes. Or a smile that made her knees fold like the billows of an accordion. She wrote sexy detectives, and he happened to be a particularly sexy detective, in the flesh. Maybe that was it. Or her overactive imagination getting the better of her. Or maybe she needed to take Shazz’s advice and get out more.
Either way, wavering outside his place of work wouldn’t catch her anything but a cold, something she needed less than his amused tolerance and a desire to prove she deserved otherwise. It didn’t matter how he viewed her, as long as she left today with enough info to finish her book.
Another bracing lungful of frost and her hands left their warmth for the two-way double doors. Her palm connected with the glass and it sprung outward, driving her back. She stumbled, overcorrected, propelled forward into a solid mass – strong arms, warm, spicy scents, and muscles both delectably superhuman and male all at once.
Murphy’s Law chuckling at her expense.
Chase’s fingertips dug into her upper arms, pushing her back. ‘Lurking outside police stations now, are we Stacey? Hoping to catch a killer? Or maybe a detective?’ Humour tumbled across his lips, calling her resident kittens to romp and roll across her stomach lining. ‘I guess it’s your lucky day. You found one.’
She stepped back, giving the kittens a stern back-in-your-basket warning. Chase yanked her from the path of a passer-by and she toppled back into his body.
Firm, muscular, warm …
Before she became too comfortable or kidded herself that she’d enjoy the wrap of his arms and the press of his lips too much, he dragged her through the station doors.
Her skin tingled, not from cold.
She shrugged free of his grasp, tossing the rain from her hair, avoiding his gaze. There it was again, that amused forbearance she hated so much. It hauled her back two-and-a-half years. Made her feel worthless and small, and left her questioning how far she’d come.
And whether she’d ever really moved on from being nothing at all.
Stacey’s lips tightened like a bow seconds before the arrow’s fired.
Chase’s first impulse was to lean across and drown in the scent of honeysuckle and woman. His second was to get the hell away before he did something stupid. Like kiss her.
‘What are you doing here, other than wreaking havoc on everyone within bomb-blast range?’
One-and-a-half metres of curvaceous irritation uncoiled, like a taipan ready to strike. ‘You bowled me, buddy, not the other way round!’
He bit back a retort. Rolled his shoulders and winced.
His troubles were no fault of hers, and projecting them only added guilt to his ever-growing dung-pile of emotions.
Still, that didn’t change the fact that Stacey Holland was trouble, with her dripping blonde ringlets, bright pink cheeks and wet ruby lips. He had no time for distractions. The Night Terror had struck again, killing a friend. That was his focus – that and stopping the bastard before he murdered again. That and showing he deserved his lead role on the case.
He had so much to prove.
The second hand on his watch hacked at the last threads of his patience. ‘I have to go.’
‘But we have a meeting.’
‘Today.’ To prove her point, she shoved her mobile in his face.
He read: Appointment. Detective Durant. 1.30 p.m.
The words were a mental slap about his head. As if things weren’t bad enough, his memory had become another dud bullet in an already dwindling chamber.
He pushed the phone away.
She snatched her hand back as if his fingers were the last thing she wanted against her skin. Or maybe they were the first?
He couldn’t help it. Her reaction tugged a dry smile to his lips. ‘Appointment? Don’t you mean date?’
‘This is work, not pleasure!’
Red flooded her face and he bit back a laugh. ‘Ouch! Yet another slap to my ego. If you’re not careful, I might think you don’t like me.’
She had that startled deer look – wide eyes, ready to bolt – and his laughter slipped into a chuckle. ‘Work and pleasure aren’t mutually exclusive, you know.’
‘They are for me.’
‘Live a little, Stacey. Life’s too short.’ Which reminded him. His real appointment awaited. He side-stepped and pushed open the door. ‘Call and we’ll make another time.’
She scampered up beside him, didn’t notice the puddle until she ploughed through it, splashing water halfway up his leg. Great!
Water plastered her trousers to her calf, but she didn’t seem to notice, or care. ‘Can’t we at least walk and talk at the same time?’
His right arm spasmed. Reason enough to end things here. His squad believed he was following up on a lead and he didn’t need some ditsy romance writer catching him on the lie. He stopped, and pulled her in before she pitched into a lamppost. How the woman survived her day without him was a mystery. Wide green orbs stared up through the rain, her lips parted and ready …
He released her and stepped back. Not now.
‘I’m busy in the real world, solving real problems, catching real killers. I don’t have time for pretend.’ He glanced at his watch. Dammit, if he didn’t move, late would be an understatement. No brisk walk to clear the cobwebs now.
He raised his hand to a passing taxi and sighed inwardly when it pulled into the curb. He brushed past her and this time she didn’t follow. ‘Call me and we’ll have that date. Just not today.’
Her frown deepened. No sense of humour – that was her problem. And he had neither the time nor the inclination right now to help her find one. Stacey lived in a fairytale world where princes rode in on white horses and the damsels they saved were young and perfect and innocent; where life always ended with a happy ever after.
Fiction. He wasn’t fool enough to think life even remotely resembled that.
His fist clenched in his lap as he tried to hold it steady.
That didn’t mean he was willing to give up hope.