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first time I was nearly murdered was on a Wednesday in mid-April.
afternoon, though, I had no idea what was happening. As always, my heart had
lifted as I pulled up outside my little cottage in
being murdered was the last thing on my mind when I opened the driver’s door
and got out of the car.
was at that precise moment that a big battered vehicle hurtled around the corner
from behind and clipped the door. I dropped my briefcase and instinctively
flattened myself against the car. Missing me by a whisker, the offending vehicle
lurched wildly across the road then straightened up and screeched off around the
next corner before I could collect myself, scream abuse or read the number
hoons,’ I muttered when I started breathing again. I inspected the damage: a
big scratch, a small dent, but on the car, not on me. Oh well, I thought, maybe
I should be thankful for once that I drove an ageing
heart juddering, my mouth dry, I unlocked my front door and headed for the
bathroom to splash my face with cold water. I leaned over the basin, my slight
frame trembling; in the mirror my green eyes were suddenly round with fear, my
small face ashen. I gulped down a glass of water. It wasn’t every day I had
such a close call. I debated ringing the police, but what, I asked myself, could
they do? All I could tell them was that the vehicle had been big, old, and muddy
grey, maybe a van, maybe something like an old Land Rover. That wouldn’t be
much use. It would be pointless to mention the other, quite pointless, I
decided. So I wouldn’t call them. I pulled myself together.
was still feeling a bit shaken as I plugged the kettle in and noticed the
answerphone blinking busily at me. I jabbed the playback. It was no surprise
that the first flashing light signalled a message from Steve, my business
partner: ‘Give me a bell, Annie, when you get in.’
big and bearded, quick-tempered but with a ready grin, had spent several years
dragging me along behind him professionally until disaster struck. It was his
appetite for extreme sports that had led him into trouble; now he was gradually
getting back into the swing of work, and life, after nearly wiping himself out
in an ultralite crash the previous year. That accident had put him in hospital
for months with multiple fractures and severe internal injuries and in line for
half a dozen bouts of surgery. Watching his desperate and courageous struggle
back to mobility and independence had been a gut-wrenching experience for me,
and I’d privately shed more than a few tears in the process.
one way and another our relationship had changed dramatically over that time,
progressing from constant head-butting over work, to mutual support after his
accident, to a brief passionate encounter. I’d hastily extricated myself from
that, heeding my well-developed sense of self preservation. Steve’s natural
position was in the driving seat of life and I valued my autonomy much too
highly to want to go there. Added to that, I hadn’t forgotten the parade of
blondes I had met at his bedside, about whom he’d never spoken. Not once.
Clearly he had another life about which I knew nothing.
I’d met someone else who’d simply blown me away, a high-profile
conservationist based in
Steve had backed off – for the moment, he’d reported calmly. Now he and I
were circling warily around each other, our relationship somewhat precariously
restored to a work-based footing. He had a lot on his plate too, dealing with
ongoing medical treatment while he tried to resume his career as a
photojournalist, for which he had talent by the bucketload. Awards had been
rolling his way when his accident had called a halt to life as he knew it.
first love was local history, but when I’d found to my cost that it didn’t
pay the mortgage I’d put my journalism training to work and fallen into a
freelance team with Steve. I bolstered that income with all sorts of assignments
mostly involving research, writing or editing, but occasionally travelling into
more adventurous territory. While he’d been out of action I’d had to swallow
my pride and take on whatever work I could get to pay the bills. Like
babysitting, for example. I’d hung on to freelance life by my fingernails for
a while there, but by this stage the work was again trickling in steadily.
second message on the answerphone was much more mysterious. It was a woman’s
voice, very precise and clipped: ‘Miss Bryce, I wonder if you would telephone
me. You’ve been recommended, and I’d like to meet with you. My name is
Lavinia Robertson.’ She gave a number. A tingle of anticipation travelled down
my spine. That’s why I loved freelancing, I just never knew what could be
waiting for me round the corner.
I made a cup of tea I tried to take my mind off my close call by conjuring up an
image of Lavinia Robertson: she wasn’t young, both her language and voice
suggested she’d be over fifty and well educated, confident, probably with a
touch of class bred through family money. For some reason an imposing bosom and
strings of pearls flitted past my mental eye. I wondered what she could want
with me. At the same time I wondered what she would make of me. One of the joys
of freelancing was living in jeans and Doc Martens, this to the dismay of my
mother who still harboured ambitions to get her thirty-something elder daughter
married and reproducing like my irritatingly perfect younger sister Kaye. Mum
had a little speech which I heard regularly about how I could look quite
attractive, with my green eyes and fairish hair and petite figure, if only I
Made an Effort. Lavinia Robertson sounded a bit like my mother, when I came to
think of it.
made a bet with myself that Lavinia would want help with family history. This
seemed to have become the passion of the newly-retired when they achieved
grandparent status, and those who were sufficiently well-heeled were often
looking for some professional assistance to dig out the facts or to put them
into readable prose, or occasionally both. Either way, it was undemanding work
that I loved, even if it didn’t come with big dollars attached.
it turned out I was right, but I was also wrong. Very wrong.
called Steve back. When he was fully functional his mobile had been the only
means of reaching him, but since getting out of hospital he’d been relatively
housebound. Surprisingly, he was coping with that much better than might be
expected of a high-octane, sports-mad, energetic and impatient bachelor in his
late thirties, with a penchant for action – all the traits which had led him
right into disaster.
His voice was warm. ‘Hi. How’s things?’
I said, ‘apart from a near miss when I got home. There are a few hoons around
here, and one of them got a bit too close to me and my car for comfort.’
you hurt?’ His sharpness was softened by a touch of anxiety.
I’m fine. Took a bit of paint off the car door, that’s all.’
you going to report it? You should, you know.’
decided not to, Steve, mainly because I couldn’t pass on anything useful. It
all happened so fast.’
hesitated. ‘You don’t think –’
way.’ I closed the subject before he could get any further. ‘Anyway, what
about you? And what’s up?’
Me? I’m getting there,’ he said, a bit of an edge to his voice. ‘I wanted
to let you know … I’ve heard back from that publisher, the one I sent the
rusty tractors chapters to.’
had been itching to get back to work. He’d come up with a sedentary project:
hoping to tap into the growing nostalgia market, he was putting a book together
on Queensland’s lost rural past, photographing old farms, their owners, and
the old machinery they had lying around. We’d dubbed this initiative ‘rusty
tractors’. I was researching and writing the text, and we’d had a lot of fun
tracking down suitable properties and interviewing the owners, then putting it
all in the context of local history, developing technology and the rapidly
changing face of
it’s a fairly cagey letter, plus two pages of comments. They’d like to see
another couple of chapters before they decide. We should get together sometime
soon and have a look at all of that, work out where we go from here.’
cheered me up considerably. ‘Hey, that’s great. Well done us.’
start counting any chickens yet, Annie … anyway, how are you placed?’
see.’ I groped for my diary, flicked through to the current week. ‘I’m
working out of town for the rest of this week, and I’ve got another
appointment here to set up. I’ll try to make that Monday morning. Maybe later
was a pause while he riffled some pages. ‘I’ve got a check-up with the
surgeon, up on Wickham Terrace, at three. Don’t know how long that will
you driving in?’ After being off the road for over twelve months, to his great
relief Steve had recently resumed his relationship with his Subaru WRX.
I’ll catch a cab. The driving’s not the problem, it’s all those damned
hills to negotiate between the car park and the medicos. The disability parking
is pretty limited, you’ve got to get lucky. I won’t risk it.’
why don’t I pick you up there, and we can look at it over at your place. Give
me a call when you’re through. The Terrace is only ten minutes from here, and
I’m planning to work at home in the afternoon.’
Should be around four, I guess, give or take emergencies … I’ve developed a
lot of respect for specialists, they work bloody hard. He’s in Alexandra
next morning my first call was to Lavinia Robertson.
Miss Bryce. Thank you for returning my call,’ she said formally. I could
almost see the pearls glistening on that imposing bosom.
call me Annie.’
believe you were at university with my daughter Meredith. It was she who
suggested I get in touch with you. She understands you take assignments on a
Robertson. Of course. I haven’t seen her for ages. How is she?’
had been in my history honours year, a rather subdued and unremarkable girl who
always looked impossibly neat and tidy.
married now and living in the States at the moment,’ her mother informed me
with a touch of pride in her voice, ‘and she’s just had her second baby.
She’s very well.’
winced. Don’t tell my mother, I thought. But my theory about family history
was holding up well.
what can I do for you, Mrs Robertson?’
was a slight hesitation. ‘It’s a bit complicated, Annie. I wonder if you
could come around to the house so we can explain it to you. There’s something
we’d like to show you.’
straight family history then. I was interested. ‘I could do that. Next week
would suit me.’
agreed on Monday morning. Lavinia Robertson lived on Mowbray Terrace in
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