Two weeks to solve a murder in a small town style forgot.
When Tippy Chan’s school teacher is murdered, she teams up with her babysitters, Uncle Pike, a Sydney-based party boy, and his younger designer boyfriend Devon, to form ‘The Nancys’, a secret amateur detective club.
What starts as a bonding and sightseeing opportunity quickly morphs into a risky investigation. A wrongful arrest, close call with the killer, and an intervention from Tippy’s mum conspire against them. Tippy perseveres and The Nancys uncover the murderer, along with some of the saddest fashion and interior design in the world.
Uncle Pike’s plane was late and I was getting sweaty hair from the stupid Santa hat Mum had made me wear. The scarlet kidnap-proof jacket wasn’t helping either. Mum thought the hat was hilarious and so far, thank God, no one from school was here at the Dunedin airport although it was massive, way bigger than the new supermarket at Riverstone, and that was huge.
My phone buzzed and I flipped it open. It was a text from Todd, he had sent me a pair of boobs. I checked to see if anyone beside me had seen and then texted back ‘ur a dickhead’ and snapped it shut. Mum wouldn’t let me have a smart phone in case I got groomed, whatever that was, but I really wanted one for Christmas.
It rang and this time it was Mum.
‘Fuck you!’ she said. I could hear cars horns blasting in the background. ‘Sorry honey not you, the taxi behind me. Is he here yet?’
For the twelfth time I checked the arrival screen for the Sydney flight. Finally it had changed. ‘Just landed.’ I reached for the hat with one eye on the bin.
‘Don’t take off the hat.’ She hung up.
I pulled it off. I’d put it back on when I got to the car, or not. I scanned the crowd, not sure about taking off the jacket. Across from me was a little girl in pigtails.
Her eyebrows suddenly shot up and her eyes bulged. She put her hands to her mouth and started jumping up and down. ‘Santa!’ She tugged on the sleeve of an old woman who looked like she had just licked a lemon. ‘Granny, it’s Santa.’
The first arrivals were coming through the automatic doors from Customs and towering above them was Uncle Pike with his shaggy, snowy hair and bushy beard. He wore a singlet and shorts with a bag slung across his big muscled shoulders. One hand held duty-free bags while the other towed a huge red plastic suitcase.
‘Santa, over here!’ Her waving made her body move like an over-excited dog wagging its tail.
He saw the little girl in the waiting crowd and smiled. ‘Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas.’
She froze like a rabbit. ‘How come Santa’s got so many tattoos?’
Uncle Pike walked over and bent down to her eye level. ‘What a good question,’ he said. ‘That’s because the elves normally Photoshop them out.’
She nodded. ‘Like Mummy does with Daddy.’
‘Exactly. Daddy’s been naughty, hasn’t he?’ He gave the girl a wink.
The woman glared at Uncle Pike and grabbed the little girl’s hand. ‘Say goodbye to Santa.’
‘Merry Christmas,’ he said in a deep Father Christmas voice.
I waved and he gave me a huge grin. He pushed himself back up and then kicked his bags across the floor to me. His eyes looked red from the flight.
‘Tippy Chan!’ he said, startling the arrival hall crowd. He swallowed me up in a huge bear hug and swung me around. ‘How’s my most favourite niece in the world?’
‘I’m your only niece,’ I said muffled in his stinky singlet.
‘Lucky you’re his favourite then,’ said a man beside us smiling.
He looked like Action Man. He had thick black hair cut short at the sides and bluey greeny eyes. He seemed to sparkle.
‘Tippy Chan, please meet Devon.’
Devon even wore Action Man clothes—cargo pants and a tight camo t-shirt, except it had the words ‘Flicky Bean’ scrawled across it in gold glitter. He held out a big hand, which I shook.
‘Great to meet you, Tippy, your uncle has told me a lot about you.’
I lied. We only found out yesterday he was coming. Mum said this was the first boyfriend Uncle Pike had ever brought home and it must be serious because three months was a long time in gay years. I had sneaked on to Mum’s Facebook and seen pictures of Uncle Pike, Devon and their friends dancing. It must have been hot as they all had their shirts off and Uncle Pike’s hair was like a mad professor’s in a sauna. They all had big smiles and in one photo I could see his chewing gum. My best friend Sam said if they had big pupils it meant they were on drugs, his mum was a doctor so he should know. Uncle Pike’s blue eyes had been completely black.
‘Where is that dreadful woman?’ Uncle Pike said.
‘She’s double-parked out the front.’
‘And left you here alone?’ Devon asked.
I shrugged. ‘I’m wearing the jacket.’
‘My sister’s so cheap. I blame Tippy’s grandparents.’
Devon looked confused.
‘Our parents said if you wore a bright red jacket you wouldn’t get abducted.’
I nodded. Devon was frowning.
‘True story, Tippy is living proof.’
‘Very Schindler chic,’ Devon said.
‘Come on, let’s go see if she’s been in a punch-up.’
The airport doors opened and I could hear car horns blasting from all directions. Mum was in the car and had parked diagonally in a taxi drop-off zone. She yelled out her window at taxis trying to pull over in her spot. Another taxi behind her was trying to leave but seemed wedged in by our car.
‘Good to see your mother has her road rage under control.’
Mum did get cranky with other drivers. Well, anything to do with cars really. I guess that’s why Dad used to do a lot of the driving.
‘Home sweet home,’ Uncle Pike said and tapped on the boot.
‘Fuck off!’ Mum yelled.
Pike moved to the passenger window. Mum glared at him.
‘About fucking time.’
He gave the window a massive raspberry and then lifted up his singlet and rubbed his chest around it.
‘Yuck!’ Mum blared the horn and popped the boot and we threw the bags in.
Uncle Pike somehow managed to shove in the massive red suitcase as well.
‘Welcome to New Zealand.’ He grabbed Devon and gave him a big kiss on the lips then squashed in the front seat and tried to smooch Mum, who laughed and pushed him away.
Devon clambered in the back seat with me and leaned over to Mum. ‘Hi, I’m Devon. Thanks for picking us up.’
Mum put her hand on the horn, wrenched the wheel and sped off. Behind us I could hear yelling and more tooting.
‘Do you have a last name, Devon?’ she asked.
‘Like Madonna or Cher,’ Uncle Pike said.
‘Who?’ I said.
‘Oh my God, Helen, what have you been doing to this child?’ My uncle craned his neck around to look at me in the back seat. ‘Don’t worry, Tippy, we have two weeks to make a gay man out of you.’
Mum wound down her window and stuck her head out.
‘Jesus, Pike, you smell like Tippy’s birthday present. Seriously how many bourbons have you had?’
‘On the plane? Or in the last 24 hours? And I put a lot of effort into choosing the perfect single malt for Tippy, thank you very much.’ Uncle Pike turned around. ‘Did you enjoy it, Tippy?’
I nodded. In my birthday card he had written ‘to the best looking kid in that fucking dump’ but had scribbled out ‘that fucking dump’ and put in ‘town’ but you could still see it. Mum took the card and Dad drank the whiskey.
‘Of course she did,’ Mum said. ‘It’s what every eleven-year-old girl dreams of, a bottle of Glenlivet.’
‘Good, I’m glad,’ my uncle said, smiling at me.
Mum left the airport and turned on to the main road, I felt myself being pressed into the back of the seat as she floored it.
‘Great to see your driving’s improved,’ Uncle Pike said.
Devon’s eyes widened and he gripped the armrest. He turned to his window where farmland was whipping past.
‘It’s very green. I feel like I’m looking through a filter.’
‘Not his favourite colour,’ Uncle Pike said. ‘In fact you told me you hate it.’
‘You hate New Zealand?’ Mum asked.
‘No, no, no!’ Devon looked alarmed.
‘I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re implying,’ she said.
‘Not at all. I haven’t been here before. It looks lovely.’
‘She’s very sensitive to colour.’ Uncle Pike reached back and patted Devon’s leg. ‘A colour savant.’
‘Don’t you have green in Sydney?’ I said.
Mum looked up in the rear-view mirror and gave me a wink. I could see her knuckles turn white as she gripped the steering wheel tighter. ‘I think I should stay. Going away on a cruise, what was I thinking?’
Uncle Pike snorted. ‘Rubbish!’
‘I’ll be fine, Mum.’
‘And I promise to take good care of them,’ Devon said.
‘Who are you?’ Mum said.
‘Loosen up, would you? It’s Christmas!’
‘That’s the problem with you, Pike, it’s always Christmas.’
It was still light when we reached Riverstone. From the top of the hill the town spread downwards to the banks of the Clutha River, which ran slow and deep. Riverstone Bridge, with its four concrete arches, connected the town. On the flat was Main Street with its shops and then houses as the road headed up the hill, snaking onwards past the old hospital on the other side of the valley. I loved how the sun made the coiling river sparkle.
‘So this is where the magic happens?’ Devon said, leaning forward in his seat.
‘Welcome to Riverstone,’ Mum said. ‘Population three thousand six hundred and eighty seven.’
‘Eighty nine now,’ I said.
Uncle Pike peered out the window. ‘This is it.’
‘This is where your boyfriend spent the ’70s and the ’80s.’
‘Until I escaped,’ Uncle Pike said. ‘Helen spent most of the ’80s on her back.’
I tried to picture Mum as a teenager lying on grass reading or watching clouds drifting across a big blue sky. All I could manage was Mum yelling about clean clothes and washing.
We turned off before the bridge and drove along the riverbank, passing Duncan Nunn’s billboard. He was Riverstone’s number-one real estate salesman, according to his billboard, poster in the supermarket, and ad in the local paper.
Devon craned his neck out the window. ‘Is that his real hair?’
‘I think so,’ I said.
Then just before a blind corner we took a left towards the golf course. Our street was a cul de sac on the top of the hill. It looked over the town and the people on the flat called it ‘Snob’s Hill’.
Mum pulled into the driveway and yanked on the handbrake. Devon bolted out before the engine had stopped.
Our white house was made of wood with a red corrugated iron roof and a grey garage roller door. The garage was big enough to fit the car but once inside you couldn’t really open the doors to get out.
Devon stretched his arms above his head like a cat. ‘Is this where you grew up?’
Uncle Pike shuddered. ‘A period of my life I choose not to re-enact.’
‘I love it. Your garden is beautiful.’ Devon crouched and then sprung up in the air. ‘I need to do five of these.’
Mum raised her eyebrows. ‘Thanks, I think. We share the garden with the Browns, saves paying for a fence.’
Roses and dahlias the colours of jelly beans competed for space among the Browns’ creeping bushes.
Uncle Pike grabbed his suitcase out of the boot.
‘You know they’re dying to see you,’ she said.
‘Literally,’ he said.
‘Who?’ Devon asked.
I could hear a screeching noise.
Uncle Pike groaned and rubbed his face. ‘Oh my God.’
‘Is that a bird?’ Devon said.
‘More like an old bat.’ He opened his bottle of duty-free bourbon and took a large swig. ‘I’m surprised it took her this long.’
Mrs Brown opened her bedroom window and frantically flapped a tea towel at us.
Rob McDonald is a Kiwi living in Melbourne with his two daughters and an extended family of two baby mommas, an estranged cat, Flower, and Stevie Nicks the chicken. Rob works in international education and realised while studying journalism that writing fiction, rather than reporting facts, was his true bent. The Nancys was Highly Commended for an Unpublished Manuscript in the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
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