A free sample from the first two chapters
- Box of tricks
The old man in the suit kept yabbering as he unlocked P.O. Box 15. “Did Clarence look sick to you the last time you saw him?”
When he stepped back with two letters in his hand, Wendy was looking daggers at him.
“Is something wrong?” James Northan said.
“How long have you had that post office box, love?”
“Not long. Why do you ask?”
“I’ve had my name down for a higher-up one for two years! Bending down to the bottom row every day does my back in.”
“What can I say?” James pretended to adjust one of his hearing aids, but only to give himself time to come up with a plausible explanation. “The local postmaster has got it into his head I am somehow behind the new development. He is wrong, of course. But if people want to try to curry favour, who am I to stop them?”
Wendy frowned. “What new development?”
“You really do not know?” James twiddled his other hearing aid. “I thought you would have been advised by now!”
2. The bottom line
Wendy was not used to seeing anyone else on the post office verandah at this hour — just before dawn, before the heat of the day.
A yellow glow came from the fluorescent strip bolted to the red-brick outer wall of the building, but the only other light came from a flashing red and green reindeer in the window of her cafe next door.
She had been rummaging around in her handbag looking for the key when she heard approaching footsteps on the concrete path and looked in that direction.
She had never been so relieved to see the former mayor come around the corner dressed in his familiar suit, shiny, black shoes and old school tie, and carrying a briefcase, as if he were going to chambers.
James recoiled and clutched his chest. “You scared me half to death, Wendy!”
“Nice to see you, too, love,” she shrieked, reaching a higher pitch than her normal gravelly voice that had been deepened by thirty-five years of smoking.
She didn’t even know James was renting one of the 45 private boxes. Why would he? The letterbox at his gate was more elaborate than some houses in this town.
She had last seen him on his 83rd birthday.
He had been sharing a three-bedroom, one-bathroom weatherboard house with two other old men, Clarence ‘Oodles’ Noodle, 85, and Bert ‘Wish-Wash’ Whish-Willson, 84, for three months of quarantine.
Friends and relatives wanted to keep the three elderly men out of reach of COVID-19.
But James hated being locked up with lesser beings. Oodles had once worked for him at the council and was still wearing the same overalls, Bert had once been the town drunk who, in James’s mind, had brought disgrace on the town by claiming to have seen a Tasmanian Tiger, the problem being the species had been listed by the Government as extinct.
Wendy had tried to cheer James up on his birthday by taking him a strawberry cheesecake and setting it up with candles on a table in the front yard.
But it didn’t seem to make him any happier.
* * *
James studied her for a moment, like he was trying to work out a clue for one of his beloved cryptic crosswords. “Your hair looks quite drab in this light, Wendy.”
Really? How rude!
Her grey hair had nothing to do with the flashing light. Something had to give as money got harder to come by. She had a packet-a-day cigarette habit, and the comfort of a nicotine hit rated higher right now than her monthly trips to the hairdresser for blonde tints.
He’d find out in time her hair really was ‘drab’ these days.
Instead of dignifying his comment with an explanation, she asked him a question.
“How come I haven’t seen you or Oodles and Wish-Wash at the cafe for months? Was my cheesecake really that bad?”
James gave her a humourless look as he twiddled with his hearing-aid controls. “Actually, Clarence and Bert seem to be missing. I thought you might have run into them?”
She shook her head slowly.
“I normally would not be worried.” He twiddled a hearing aid. “It is just that I lent them money.”
* * *
Before the pandemic, the three old men had been among her best customers. They didn’t have much in common other than remaining alive when so many of their contemporaries had dropped off the perch, but they came at least once a day, drank tea, dunked their biscuits and squabbled.
But like a lot of older people, they had stopped visiting the cafe.
As much as she needed the business, she could not blame them.
The Wind Tunnel Cafe was an imposing, colourful building with large windows at the front and one side. But it was a bit like a reverse Tardis. Inside was smaller than it looked from outside, and there had only ever been room for two tables. Social-distancing restrictions limited the cafe to just three customers at a time now and to enter they had to log in by smartphone with a QR code.
* * *
“Bert caught me in a weak moment,” James said. “He visited me at my cottage and told me Clarence did not want me to know he had cancer.”
Oodles had cancer? This was news to her, which was another consequence of the pandemic. Wendy used to be first to hear the town gossip, before even the hairdressing salon got wind of it. But fewer customers meant fewer wagging tongues.
“I am worried now they might have done a runner with my money,” James said. “I have heard of old people going on cruises so they can die in style, but I thought all the ships were tied up in port at the moment.”
“I’m sure Oodles and Wish-Wash will turn up, love.” She paused. “Just what kind of cancer does poor Oodles have, anyway?”
He adjusted a hearing aid. “Do I look like a doctor?”
“Well, he looked fine the day you all came out of your quarantine — before he succumbed to food poisoning, anyway.”
“Did you have to remind me?”
“So, how much did you lend them?” Her voice dropped back into huskiness.
“We could have died because of that man’s actions.”
“Dave Jenkins didn’t even attend your coming-out party. He was conducting a funeral.”
“Yes, well, we will see about that flimsy alibi. If you must know, Bert said Clarence was too proud to tell me he needed help paying his medical bills.”
Her voice dropped even more. “How much did you lend him?”
“I am now thinking too much.”
“OK, but this is just between us. Ten-thousand dollars.”
“Ten-thousand dollars!” Wendy started coughing and spluttering. Everyone knew James had money hidden away in family accounts, even though he claimed to have lost all his dough in a bad investment. But ten thousand dollars? She only dreamed of having that kind of money. The cafe needed repainting and she could really do with a holiday.
Now there was no Gordo, fetching the mail from the Post Office fell to her, and the short trek to next door was the nearest to a holiday she got these days.
The only time she got to relax was when she took the letters back to the cafe and opened them over her first cup of tea and her third cigarette for the day. If they were bills, that might call for a fourth cigarette.
* * *
James studied the return addresses on both of his letters before unzipping his briefcase and putting them inside. “I need to attend to this mail as soon as possible.”
“Should I be worried about this development?” Wendy said.
“I am sure you will find out about it in the fullness of time.” He lifted his head. “You will have to excuse me. I am very busy. Amongst other things, I need to go to the police station as soon as it opens this morning. Clarence’s and Bert’s suspicious disappearance is just another thing I have to raise with Sergeant Stretch.”
“But . . .?”
“A merry Christmas to you.” He bowed his head, then turned and trotted back around the corner.
* * *
Wendy resumed the search for the keys in her handbag. She sifted through lipsticks, tissues, hair bands, hair brushes, breath mints, fingernail polish, cigarette packet and matches before she found them.
She bent down, opened P.O. Box 32, on the bottom of three rows, and saw a letter waiting inside.
She took it out and turned it over to see who had sent it.
Kipling and Howard Property Management Pty Ltd.
She sighed and dropped the unopened letter into her bag. Don’t say they were raising the rent again!
* * *