Excerpt from chapter 1
This is an unedited extract from my Work in Progress, due for release on November 5
Forty-three years of smoking had left Wendy Bennett with a low, gravelly voice but she hit a much higher pitch when the old man came around the corner.
She had been rummaging around in her handbag looking for the key to her mail box when the clip-clop of approaching footsteps on the polished concrete floor made her look up.
It was 6 o’clock in the morning, and the Post Office alcove was doused in eerie, yellow light from the fluorescent strip bolted to the wall.
When he appeared from around the brick divider, he froze and clutched his chest. “What do you think you are doing scaring me like this?”
“Lovely to see you too, love,” Wendy shrieked back. “I didn’t even know you had a mail box here!”
James Northan was still known as The Mayor of Windy Mountain. Even though he hadn’t been the town’s leader for a very long time and now wore chunky hearing aids in both ears, he still dressed each day like he was going to the office. Tailored suits, shiny leather shoes, crisp blue business shirt, his old school tie and a superiority complex.
He studied her for a moment, trying to work out what was wrong with her. “Your hair looks different in this light, dear. Have you finally relented, and gone grey?”
Typical bloke! Double standards!
It had nothing to do with the light. Her hair really was grey, rather than the blonde cover-up she had kept up for years. Something had to give as money got harder to come by. It was either her monthly trips to the hairdresser or her packet-a-day habit, and she really needed her nicotine hit.
But she was not even going to dignify that with a reply. He’d find out in time. Instead, she fired back with a question of her own:
“How come I haven’t seen you or Oodles and Wish-Wash at the cafe for months? Was my cheesecake really that bad?”
James stared at her humourlessly as he twiddled with his hearing aid controls. “Actually, I haven’t seen Clarence and Bert either. I thought you might have run into them?”
She shook her head.
“I wouldn’t normally be worried, you understand. It’s just that I lent them money.”
“You lent them money? You? Really?”
Last time she had seen James he was as miserable as ever on his 83rd birthday.
He was locked up in quarantine with Clarence ‘Oodles’ Noodle and Bert ‘Wish-Wash’ Whish-Willson.
It was for their own good. Friends and relatives wanted to keep the three elderly men out of circulation when there was a fear COVID-19 might strike them down.
But James hated having to share a three-bedroom, one bathroom weatherboard house for three months.
He missed the comfort and privacy of his own home and hated the other men’s childish pranks.
He particularly resented having to share his birthday with Wish-Wash, who was turning 84 the same day, and who actually thought his new quarantine digs were pretty nifty. But he was bound to have a different perspective to a former mayor because he had once been the town drunk and comfort to him was a park bench and access to the Windy Mountain Recreation Ground public toilets.
Wendy had taken a strawberry cheesecake to the quarantine house and set it up with candles on a table in the front yard. But even that didn’t cheer James up.
Before the pandemic, the three old men had been among her best customers. The only thing they had in common was they remained alive when 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 people, they had stopped visiting the cafe.
As much as she needed the business, she could not blame them.
The Wind Tunnel Cafe had shrunk, if that were possible. It had only ever had room for two tables. But now she was restricted to just three customers at a time and to enter they had to log in by smartphone with a QR code. People were still nervous, especially old people. And the technology hoop was probably the final straw.
“Bert caught me in a weak moment,” James said. “He visited me at my cottage and told me Clarence didn’t want me to know he had cancer.”
Oodles had cancer? This was news to Wendy.
The Mayor unlocked Box 15 on the chest-high second row as he spoke. “Did he look sick to you the last time you saw him?”
When he stood back up with two letters in his hand, Wendy was glaring at him. She had been stooping down to Box 30 on the lower row for months now, and it really did her back in.
“What’s wrong?” James said.
“How long have you had that box, love?”
“A few weeks. Why do you ask?”
“The rotten buggers! We’ve had our names down for a better position for two years!”
“What can I say?” The Mayor puffed out his chest. “It pays to know the right people, especially when they think you can return the favour.”
“Oh yes. How?”
Concern washed over James’s yellowy face. “I thought you would have known about the new development by now.”
“What new development?”
“Oh?” He coughed nervously. “That’s not for me to say. I’m sure you’ll hear officially in the fullness of time. Anyway, I’m more worried right now that Clarence and Bert have done a runner with my money. I’ve heard of old people going on cruises so they can die in style, but I didn’t think you could get on a ship at the moment.”
“I’m sure they’ll turn up.” She smiled. “Just what kind of cancer does he have, anyway?”
“Do I look like a doctor?”
“Well, he looked fine the day you all came out of your quarantine. Before he was laid low by the food poisoning anyway.”
“Did you have to remind me? Damn Dave Jenkins and his tainted ice-cream!”
“So, how much did you lend them?” Her voice dropped back into huskiness.
“Are you trying to change the subject, Wendy?”
“Dave 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’m now thinking too much.”
“OK, but this is just between us. Ten thousand dollars.”
“Ten thousand dollars!” Wendy started coughing, bending over and hacking.
She composed herself and straightened up.
Everyone knew The Mayor had money hidden away in family accounts, even though he claimed to have lost all his money in a bad investment.
But ten thousand dollars? Wendy had never seen that number of dollars in the same room at the same time.
Now Gordo was gone, fetching the mail from The Post Office was another of her many jobs, and the short trek to next door was the nearest to a holiday she got these days.
She got to relax when she look the letters — increasingly bills — back to the cafe and opened them over her first cup of tea and her third and fourth cigarettes for the day.
“Clarence’s and Bert’s suspicious disappearance is just another thing I have to raise with Sergeant Stretch,” the Mayor said. “That’s where I’m going as soon as the police station opens this morning.”
He bowed his head. “Merry Christmas to you.” He trotted back around the corner.
Wendy resumed searching her handbag, and found her keys among the lipsticks, tissues, hair bands, hair brushes, breath mints, fingernail polish, cigarette packet and matches.
She bent down, opened Box 30 and saw a letter waiting.
She took it out and turned it over to see who it was from.
Kipling and Howard Property Management Pty Ltd.
She sighed and dropped the unopened letter into her handbag. Don’t tell her the rent was going up yet again!
* * *