PAPERBACK BOOKS
ROCKHOUND

Journalist Annie Bryce just can’t help herself. On the run from a killer who wants her dead before she can testify in a murder trial, she and photographer Steve are hustled out of town for their own protection. But even on the arid gemfields of central Queensland Annie’s nose for mystery finds fertile ground. 
Probing the secrets of a  long-dead wheeler and dealer in sapphires, she once again discovers that there’s no escaping the dark shadows of the past …

In Store Price: $AU25.95 
Online Price:   $AU24.95

ISBN: 978-1-921240-12-6
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 248
Genre:  Fiction/Crime

 
By the same author

Loose Ends
(2006)

 


Author: Pat Noad 
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2007
Language: English

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Pat Noad lives in Brisbane but does most of her writing with sand between her toes on the Sunshine Coast . Rockhound is her second novel in the Annie Bryce mystery series, and she has finished drafting the third, which has the working title of Backwash.  

A founding member of CrimeWriters Queensland , she is still active in the group and a number of her short stories have been published in CrimeWriters Queensland ’s anthologies and elsewhere.

CHAPTER 1      

The first time I was nearly murdered was on a Wednesday in mid-April.

That afternoon, though, I had no idea what was happening. As always, my heart had lifted as I pulled up outside my little cottage in Dutton Park . I’d fallen in love with the forgotten inner suburb of Brisbane in my student days – now nearly fifteen years behind me – when I’d shared a house there, finding shadows of my nineteenth-century neighbours still drifting around its narrow streets. Dutton Park had more than character: it had attitude. Its little timber workers’ cottages clung tenaciously to their steep blocks; with tall stumps on one side and shorter ones on the other, over the years some had lurched slightly to one side but somehow they still exuded an air of defiance. But now gentrification was moving in with some houses renovated to a state far beyond their original inhabitants’ wildest dreams while others, like mine, remained comfortably shabby and spoke of good intentions. I sighed as, yet again, I recalled the yawning abyss between my freelance income and the cost of my best intentions.

So being murdered was the last thing on my mind when I opened the driver’s door and got out of the car.

It 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 plate.

‘Bloody 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 Toyota , not a BMW. Dazed, I swallowed and shook my head, trying to replay the incident and note the detail.

Dutton Park was close to two universities and lots of students rented there. Hooning was how a few of them regularly let off steam − but not often in mid-week, nor in daylight. It was only late afternoon. The small hours at the weekend were usually preferred for hooning. Surely, I told myself firmly, it had to be the work of hoons. I squashed the shadowy thought that it could be something else. Or someone else. Someone in particular. No, that was unthinkable.

My 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.

I 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.’

Steve, 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.

So 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.

Anyway, I’d met someone else who’d simply blown me away, a high-profile conservationist based in Italy . Rafaelo was constantly in my head, and our long-distance affair was a whole new experience. Every morning when I woke, the first thought that flitted across my mind was a scene from the utterly fabulous fortnight in Noumea we’d shared a few months earlier. We aimed to meet up again somewhere sooner rather than later.

 So 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.

My 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.

The 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.

As 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.

I 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.

As it turned out I was right, but I was also wrong. Very wrong.

I 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.

‘Annie.’ His voice was warm. ‘Hi. How’s things?’

‘Okay,’ 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.’

‘Were you hurt?’ His sharpness was softened by a touch of anxiety.

‘No, I’m fine. Took a bit of paint off the car door, that’s all.’

‘Are you going to report it? You should, you know.’

‘I decided not to, Steve, mainly because I couldn’t pass on anything useful. It all happened so fast.’

He hesitated. ‘You don’t think –’

‘No way.’ I closed the subject before he could get any further. ‘Anyway, what about you? And what’s up?’

‘Right. 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.’

Steve 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 Queensland . His keen eye for faces and his passion for mechanical ingenuity had produced some arresting images, and I’d uncovered some intriguing stories to match. At my suggestion he’d phoned around to check out possible publishers. A Sydney firm had expressed tentative interest, so he’d sent two draft chapters off to test the water.

‘And …?’

‘Well, 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.’

That cheered me up considerably. ‘Hey, that’s great. Well done us.’

‘Don’t start counting any chickens yet, Annie … anyway, how are you placed?’

‘Let’s 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 Monday?’

There 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 take.’

‘Are 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.

‘No, 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.’

‘Well 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.’

‘Okay. 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 House.’

‘See you then.’

 

The next morning my first call was to Lavinia Robertson.

‘Ah, Miss Bryce. Thank you for returning my call,’ she said formally. I could almost see the pearls glistening on that imposing bosom.

‘Please call me Annie.’

‘I 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 freelance basis.’

‘Meredith Robertson. Of course. I haven’t seen her for ages. How is she?’

Meredith had been in my history honours year, a rather subdued and unremarkable girl who always looked impossibly neat and tidy.

‘She’s 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.’

I winced. Don’t tell my mother, I thought. But my theory about family history was holding up well.

‘And what can I do for you, Mrs Robertson?’

There 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.’

Not straight family history then. I was interested. ‘I could do that. Next week would suit me.’

We agreed on Monday morning. Lavinia Robertson lived on Mowbray Terrace in East Brisbane . I was right, I thought with gratification: that was definitely bosom-and-pearls territory.

 

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