Brian slugged the dregs of his coffee and flopped the empty mug onto his desk. He rested himself in a slump onto his right forearm, head bowed heavily on his chest. He reached up and loosened his necktie, smoothing the grainy fabric to its pointy tip. Twice. There was a yellow tinge to his shirt, bought sometime in the late eighties by his ex-wife. He hadn’t really bought any clothes since he divorced Carol nearly a decade ago. He got the odd jumper from the kids, and he’d lashed out on a new pair of runners but only because the soles wore through on his old ones. He looked down at his shirt, at the ageing polyester with its slightly crusted underarms and scuffed collar. He reached down to his shoes and took one off. His heel had ground right down through the thick rubber sole and the scratched uppers were unpolishable now. He dropped the shoe back on the floor and slipped his foot back inside the warm leather.
There were no windows in his one-man office. Just a desk that took up three quarters of the room and a door that hit his chair when it opened. Which didn’t happen often. He rarely spoke to anyone in the office, obligatory nods of the head, or a ‘good morning Brian’ acknowledged his presence out of workplace courtesy only. He preferred it this way. He didn’t like engaging in idle chit chat with his younger colleagues, their constant whining and bragging annoyed him. They didn’t know the meaning of hard work these days, swanning it at quarter past nine and taking extended gym breaks over lunch.
His own children were no better of course. Peter had dropped out of university to travel South America and was currently somewhere in Peru sleeping in the back of a van. And Ellie was still living at home with her mother, hell bent on pop stardom. He had forked out god knows how much money on singing lessons, studio time, production fees, makeovers, and other glittery detritus over the last ten years – always prompted by an angry phone call from Carol guilting him for more money. ‘You never come and see her’ she would say. ‘You can afford to help her chase her dream’ she would say. ‘You don’t have any kids living with you, you don’t know how hard it is, you don’t understand.’ So he would relent and transfer more money to the Ellie who justified her obsession more to herself than to him. ‘I’m on the cusp, Dad’, she would say, ‘I just need to get seen. I just need to build my profile. Oh my God, I’m so so ready, Dad’.
Brian had always preferred numbers to people. They made more sense to him. There was only ever one true answer with numbers, no middle ground, no guesswork. But people? People baffled him. Their wants, needs, their weird rituals and obsession with clothes and phones and photographing themselves. He couldn’t understand the preening rituals, the weird shade of orange all the girls in his office were, their giant eyebrows, or the sickly floral mist that followed them around. Women should be natural, he thought.
The phone on his desk bleated. “Brian Fossick” he answered.
“Brian, it’s Harrison. Can you spare a minute please, buddy? I want to see the latest cost base movements for our CGT assets, and discuss this local charitable donation scheme Dad set up.” Harrison Kielty had taken over the family business after his father disappeared three months ago. His smooth manicured hair and his perfect pinstriped jackets bore no resemblance to the man who had built this firm. Harrison had kept Brian on to do the accounts out of ignorance rather than loyalty – he had no idea how to run this business. No idea the hours, effort and manpower it took to produce quality Tasmanian oak timber, to market it, package it, export it, keep clients happy. He was a shiny-faced fraud with a silver spoon in his mouth as far as Brian was concerned.
Brian knocked on the door. He sat in one of two cream leather armchairs opposite the young man and carefully slid a thin file onto Harrison’s desk.
“Nice aren’t they?” Harrison proffered. “Sorry?”
“The chairs. I had them shipped in from Italy last week. This place needs an interior revamp don’t you think? It’s so dated. So ’90s. I’m thinking swan yellow or fantasy grey II for the walls,” he fanned out two colour charts in the air “I haven’t decided yet. And we need some beautiful artwork for the conference rooms, a coffee machine, and a spin bike sauna in the new shower block area – everyone’s on board. Georgia’s sourcing these gorgeous pot plants from Ukraine, hand grown by some people in the coldest village in the Northern Hemisphere apparently, and I’m loving the idea of a chevron rug for the foyer.”
Brian sat there watching Harrison’s perfect white teeth glisten as he spoke. His tanned hands wildly animated at the prospect of ‘re-staging the office, modernising the space to maximise team morale and build a holistic, organic environment, conducive to low impact, high output tasking’.
“I’ll look at these after lunch” he said picking up the file, “but I’m thinking we can probably cut the charitable donations to like 1% for the next three to four quarters to cover the modernisations. I mean, we need to drive business forward, step up our look for 2016. It’s all about having the right look in our market place, everything else will happen after that.”
“You know I asked your father set up those charity schemes?” Brian said leaning forward in his chair and looking Harrison in the eye. “And how much the community relies on us for them?”
A neat tap knocked on Harrison’s door.
“Oh and those door handles, have to go” he said. “Come in.” A short blonde girl with long purple nails and an oversized chest poked her head round the door.
“Your 3 o’clock’s here,” she said twisting a coil of hair between her fingers.
“Thanks Georgia. Offer them a macchiato, and I’ll do a green tea with a stick of ginger, no wait, no ginger, oh no I should, I need the vit. C. I’m all coffee-d out today,” he said turning to Brian and flashing him another glimpse of the pearly shiners in his mouth. “Okayee. Good meeting” He paused to watch Brian’s face. “Right then.” He got up and followed the scented trail of flowers down the corridor. Brian stayed seated for a moment, frozen to the clinical plushness of his seat. His muscles stiffened. “If only he knew where his father had ended up.” Brian muttered to himself. “Maybe then he’d show a little more respect for what really matters.”
He lifted himself slowly out of the chair and went back to his office, stopping briefly in the kitchen to make another coffee. Two scoops of International Roast, two sugars and milk. He stirred diligently, dinging the cup with his spoon. He took an orange from the near empty fruit basket, and shuffled slowly back to his quiet, unscented sanctuary. He opened the door part way and slid himself expertly through. Sitting back down in his own chair, photographs Peter had sent him flashed up on the screensaver. The sky was clear and the water looked warm and still. Peter was smiling. He looked healthy. Brian didn’t condone the dreadlocks, or the filthy van life, but he thought his son looked happy.
He double clicked the mouse and picked up the phone. “I’ll be over later” he said, and hung up.
Della knelt back down on the soggy lawn and gently replanted the final rosebush. The grey horizon was almost purple over the frothing ocean and moving quickly towards her. The rain was getting heavier, and her knees and back were stiff. She stood up, slowly unbending her shoulders. Up here on the Cape her lone cottage took the full onshore force of the moving weather, striking first at the scrubby cliffs before it rolled inwards over the paddocked hills. In well practised routines, sheep flocked together in woolly huddles, and silent birds took cover in trees, bracing themselves for the rain.
Della discarded her muddy secateurs between bags of feed, old dishes and a fresh tub of carcass cut offs. With numb fingers she picked up the foul smelling tub and hoisted a bag of feed onto her hip. Her wet hair stuck to her forehead and eyelids as she crossed the field to the devil enclosure. She had built it single handedly twelve years ago, fencing off over a hectare of leatherwoods, rocks and celery pine. Congealed blood soaked through Della’s gloves as she threw scrag ends and sinewy entrails over the meshed fence. Her population of thirty-eight had risen this year, with the addition of two male devil cubs. They were always intended for release but Della had named them anyway: Smite and Fury. They were stout and feisty cubs, with no fear and greedy bellies. Smite charged towards the fence, outsmarting his mother to a chunk of meat. She bit him on the foot provoking a spiral of petulant screeching. In his rage he knocked into Fury, doubling the hateful whirlpool.
Hurling the last of the bloody meat over the fence Della left them to it.
Her first rescue was at the age of five – a plover caught in a fishing net. She had tended to it, digging out worms from the dirt with her chubby fingers and hand feeding the pathetic bird. She had kept it in a tiny box, filled with dollies and blankets, where it eventually died and decayed and was removed by her mother, who had been appalled by the smell emanating from beneath her daughter’s bed. She was a grubby child, happy amongst the mud and the seaweed slime. Her boots always filled with wet sand and her hair kept short because she wouldn’t wash it.
Making her way back up to the house, the sky suddenly cleared and the fine rain glistened in the sun. The ocean sparkled beneath the single crack of light that was slowly widening the clouds. She took off her woollen hat and stuffed it into her pocket feeling the warmth of the sun on her clammy head. Behind the verandah she could see the bonnet of Jo’s red Falcon in the driveway.
“Jo?” she shouted. “Jo?”
She stepped hurriedly through the back door into the kitchen. “I thought I saw your car in the driveway.” She removed her coat and hung it on the back of the door, carefully looking around the room. “How long have you been here?” Della reached out to the young woman and hugged her. “Sorry about all the blood and guts, I was up feeding the gang.”
Jo smiled, politely brushing her jumper. “Not long. Tea?” she said taking a sip from a giant Cornflakes mug.
“Thank you.” Della sat down and watched as Jo added milk from a glass jug and pushed a steaming mug across the table.
“Did you hear about David Kielty’s boy?” she blurted out. “He’s gone missing. Just up and left.” Della blew gently over her mug, and sipped carefully at the rim. “I just feel awful, I mean I lost it at him last week.” The young woman gripped her mug tightly, staring into her tea. “I shouted at him in front of everyone in the pub, like completely lost it at him about the funding cuts to the Devil Sanctuary, in front of everyone, Mrs Fossick.”
“What on earth are you talking about, Jo dear?”
“Harrison Kielty. I told you about the snarky email he sent me. ‘Kielty and Sons are regrettably withdrawing their funding of your charity’. I just don’t know how to feel, like I’m still so angry with him, but what if something’s happened? What if he’s hurt himself, or worse. I feel sick. I can’t stop thinking about it, what if it’s my fault?”
Della sipped her tea coolly. “Don’t be silly, Jo. Come on now.”
“I know, I know, but I can’t help it. The woman in the fish shop says she saw him driving up this way last Saturday night, no-one’s seen him since. They’re going over the cliffs tonight to look for the car. I want to go, but I don’t know if I should. Will you come?”
Della placed her mug gently on the table, clasped her hands together and looked up honestly at the helpless girl. “I don’t know what help I can be at my age, dear.”
“Now who’s being silly!” Jo’s face uncreased and a warm, sad smile crossed her face. “You’re the fittest seventy-something I know! I can’t keep up with you, feeding all your animals, gardening, painting, fishing.”
“I don’t think so” she smiled. “You should go home. You look tired. Things will look brighter in the morning.”
Della hugged her friend tightly, waved her goodbye and watched the red car drive down the lane until it disappeared.
“I didn’t think she was ever going to leave. I’ve been in there an hour, Mother. I didn’t think anyone visited you up here these days. What if she’s seen me here? Shit, my car!”
“Calm down, Brian.”
“I can’t. What if she saw me? She might put two and two together.”
“Well you should have thought about that beforehand, shouldn’t you?” Della mocked.
“What would you have done, then? He had to go didn’t he? We couldn’t risk him finding out about David.”
“He would never have figured anything out, Brian. The boy could barely read a newspaper. He was an imbecile, darling.”
“A dead imbecile” Brian laughed, smoothing his green tie. “Like his father.”
“Yes, well, quite. But to David’s credit he has fertilised the soil rather nicely. My gardenias have never looked so good. I might even show them this year.” Della cleared the tea things from the kitchen table and methodically wiped down the chairs she and Jo had sat in. “Is the shed clean?”
Brian sighed. “Yes, Mother.”
“I’m only asking, dear. It’s not me they’ll come looking for if they find anything.”
“I know, I know, I know.” Brian shouted, wrinkling his forehead. He smoothed his tie a couple more times. “I’m leaving. I need a bath.”
Jo sat motionless, staring at the piles of paperwork on her desk. The sky was grey out of her fourth floor window and the wind was whipping up dried leaves in the car park. She was at the university as part of her PhD on devil facial tumour disease and last year had added being chairman for The Stanley Devil Sanctuary to her plate. She worked tirelessly with the community, visiting local carers, organising fundraisers and finding volunteers. The sanctuary’s paperwork had slowly been building up over the last month and Jo was loathed to begin sorting through the mess. It hadn’t helped losing the funding, which she now spent too much time trying to scrape together.
Some-one knocked on her door.
“Come in.” The door opened slowly. Brian poked his head round the door before entering. “Oh, Brian. Thank you for coming. It really is good of you to take time out to do this.
Especially on a Sunday.” She had originally resisted Mrs Fossick’s offer of her son’s help. Brian made her nervous. He was a quiet and lonely figure around town and people laughed at him for it. Only a couple of weeks ago she had visited Mrs Fossick at her home on the Cape and Brian had hid from her in the bathroom. She knew he was there because she had seen his car parked in the garage.
Brian closed the door softly behind himself and scurried to a seat opposite her. “Happy to help” he said fishing out an ancient laptop from his bag. “Mother told me you were having a bit of bother with your funding efforts.”
“Yes, yes it’s all got a bit overwhelming and I haven’t had any time to sort through all of this” she said lifting her palms to the air.
“How much exactly did you lose?”
“Almost seven thousand a year. This really is good of you, Brian. I don’t even know where to start.”
“How about consolidated income and cash flow statements.” Brian smirked. Jo sifted through a pile of papers, shuffling them over each other like cards. “No, I didn’t think so. What do you have to hand there, Miss Yeed?”
Brian watched carefully at the young woman fumbling nervously.
“You know what, it might just be better if I just take whatever you’ve got here,” he said reaching across the desk and collecting together the stray leaves of paper. “You can email me the previous three quarters’ spending and revenue statements. Then we can see about setting some forecast targets for you.” He raised his head and looked her in the eye, “I’ll make things better, don’t you worry.”
Jo shuddered. He had a dry patch of skin above his left eyebrow that she couldn’t stop staring at, and each time she did, he would catch her. She smiled weakly at him, trying to conceal her disgust.
“So, they haven’t found his body then?” Brian said neatly tucking the papers and laptop back inside his bag.
“Who, Harrison? No it doesn’t look like it. It’s awful isn’t it. First his father and now him.” Jo was sympathetic to Harrison despite his decision to cut the sanctuary’s funding. She understood how it felt to lose a parent, that helpless emptiness that snatches the world from under you. The suffocating feeling that you are alone. The guilt rose up again inside her.
“I heard the police visited you” Brian said, watching her pale quivering face. “Yes. I had a fight with him in The Bells about a week before he disappeared.”
“Did they say anything?” He sat still and upright, clutching his bag to his chest, studying her mouth as she spoke.
“What did you tell them?”
Jo looked up at the middle-aged man. He was fishing for information. She could see him having some weird fetish for true crime, keeping newspaper clippings in his bedroom with red string and pins connecting evidence, like a crazy amateur sleuth. She wondered how such a lovely woman as Mrs Fossick had produced such a weird child, without any of the friendly charm of his mother.
“Nothing really. Just that we’d had a fight.” “And they didn’t ask about anything else?”
“Not really,” she said shifting awkwardly in her seat. “Just where I was, who I’ve visited recently, that sort of thing. I really appreciate you coming out here to see me Brian. I’m so bad with numbers.” She paused. “Look, I don’t want to hold you up, I’m sure you’ve got better things to do on a Sunday afternoon than look over my shambolic accounting.
Perhaps I’ll see you up at your mum’s again some time.”
Brian stayed silent for a second. He made a weird little high pitched noise through his nose and began nodding at Jo and smoothing his tie. “Yes, yes” he said standing up. “I’ll show myself out.” He closed the door behind himself and Jo unclenched her jaw breathing out a long slow breath. She was tired. All this can wait until tomorrow, she thought. She grabbed her bag and switched off the light.
Outside, it had begun to rain. Jo wrapped her coat tightly around herself, wishing she had driven in. She only lived a short walk from the university but her tired body wanted to be home already, soaking in the bath with a large glass of wine. She thought about ordering a pizza and sitting in front of the fire watching something crap and mindless on TV. The rain was heavier and the bottoms of her jeans were getting wet around her ankles. She rounded the corner onto her street. Behind her she heard tyres screeching to gain control on the wet road. She turned around and saw Brian’s white Toyota careering towards the curb. His eyes were bright and his mouth fixed shut. The wheels spun and squealed against the tarmac.
“Stop!” she screamed. “Stop!”
The car glided towards her on the pavement, planing over puddles.
“What are you doing, you maniac!” She turned her back on the speeding car, glancing behind herself as she ran towards home. The car revved and sputtered, lurching forward and mounting the pavement with its front wheel. Jo darted into the road and crossed the street, she shook her head from side to side unsure which way to run. Brian stomped heavily on the brakes and skidded sideways, drifting towards her. His eyes widened through the windscreen and looked straight at her. Jo held her breath. He clipped his rear wheel against the curb and the car leaped into the air. It spun and landed heavily on its roof, softly crumpling the white metal into the ground. The car hissed and groaned in the rain. She delved into her bag, fumbling wildly with wet shaking hands, and pulled out her phone. Her heart chattered beneath her coat and her stomach surged with adrenalin.
She dialled 000, staring at the crushed wreck in front of her. “Police, please. I think some-one just tried to kill me.”
By Jennifer Stokes from Australia