Natalie King is back: back from a stay on the psych ward. Her reluctance to live a quiet life has contributed to a severe depressive episode, and now it’s time for a retreat to the country. A borrowed house on the Great Ocean Road; a low-key research job at a provincial university nearby.
But Natalie and trouble have a strange mutual fascination. Her charismatic new boss Frank is friendly, even attractive. But it turns out his pregnant wife is an old enemy of Natalie’s. And when Frank’s tragic personal history is revealed—then reprised in the most shocking way—Natalie finds herself drawn deep into a mystery. And even deeper into danger.
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I have examined my life; but examining murder is another thing altogether.
The hospital door is ajar and I catch a glimpse of the uniformed officer stationed there. There have been no charges, not yet. But soon the ICU physician will take his head out of the chart where he has plotted my electrolytes, heart rate, blood pressure and fluid balance, and will decide that the morphine and pain are in equilibrium. Then Natalie’s detective friend will arrive armed with recording devices, reciting my rights. They believe that they know. But they are wrong. Natalie thinks she is my equal, with her intuition and her single-minded search for the truth. She believes that if she searches she will find the answer that she wants to see.
We are all guilty of wanting to see our world in a particular way, at least for brief periods of time. Who hasn’t looked back at a wedding or graduation photo and marvelled at the innocence and aspirations, at odds with the later reality in all its different, perverse forms?
I have allowed myself to be blinded for too long. I no longer have that luxury. The time to make decisions is running out; but the decision will be mine not theirs.
I have examined my life. I have reflected on what childhood experiences might have driven my parents and their choices and I know my own strengths…and those areas I was likely to avoid delving deeply into. How then, can I justify avoiding so much? How could I not have seen what was happening when I understood the why so well? How could I have persevered in my ignorance, now to have deaths on my conscience?
Impossible, unforgiveable. Eighty per cent of juries have made up their mind after the opening address, and do not change their view. No defence attorney’s arguments could possibly be as compelling as the simplest of statements from the prosecutor:
How could he not have known?
She watched the needle prick the vein in her hand and wished it hurt more. Pain—real pain, rather than the deadened reality of the last weeks—would have been welcome. Or had it been months? The man with the needle told her she was going to sleep; she had been doing a lot of that. The bitch nurse who talked to her like she was retarded put her notes on the trolley and walked off. The male nurse, still smelling of a recent cigarette, smiled at her. In her mind she smiled back, though she doubted her lips moved. The facial expression she saw occasionally when she caught sight of herself in a mirror was wooden, her hair hanging dull, the red highlights washed out; she couldn’t recall when she had last used a brush. She had barely recognised the face as hers. Her brown eyes appeared enormous, her cheek bones too prominent, her slender body wasted. The line of silver studs in her ear was the only hint of any kind of attitude.
The blood in the syringe confirmed Needle-man’s expertise. She closed her eyes as the anaesthetic took over, her last image the small white cubicle and the steel trolley of equipment, the anaesthetist turning to retrieve the mask. She felt him place it over her face as the psychiatrist, a tall lean Indian man whose name she had forgotten, checked dials and picked up the paddles that he would apply to the right side of her head. When she woke up, only a few minutes would have passed. She would be in the recovery room, as she had been twice already this week. She would have a headache and her memory would be hazy. If she was lucky, for a period of time she would forget where and who she was. The decisions she had to make. The things she needed to leave behind.
‘How are you feeling, Natalie?’
Declan’s look of concern had acquired a tinge of hope. The creases around his eyes seemed less compressed than they had on his recent visits. She had washed her hair and was wearing a clean T-shirt, not the grubby green one that had doubled as a nightie for most of the last two months. It wasn’t her usual bolshie sub-Goth style but it was a step in the right direction. And she was sitting upright in a chair. In his office, at the front of his house, surrounded by polished surfaces, brocade curtains and antique furniture.
‘Hamilton Depression Scale score of eight?’ She shrugged. ‘I’m cured.’
A slight exhale, but he was still watching her carefully as he ran his hand through what was left of his hair.
‘Don’t worry, they stopped zapping me when I asked Vijay Venkatasubramani for a date.’ Not a date exactly, but she thought she’d keep things nice for her supervisor.
She saw Declan smile before he was able to stop himself. ‘It was probably more that you could recall his name.’
‘Have you met him? At least there isn’t anything wrong with my taste.’ She knew she was avoiding what she was here to talk about. Knew Declan would be wondering if she even remembered the last conversation, when he’d come to see her in hospital. Speaking as friend and mentor, rather than as her supervisor.
She did remember.
You didn’t choose this illness Natalie, but you have a choice about how to manage it. Right now your lifestyle isn’t working. I know it’s not fair, but to stay well you have to make sacrifices.
That meant giving up the stressful work that energised her; the late nights; the alcohol and wild sex in favour of a quiet life. Early nights, a balanced diet and a stable relationship.
Could she? Maybe.
Alcohol wasn’t such a big thing for her, and in the short term she wasn’t contemplating any kind of sex. But the band, the music that made her feel alive—that would be harder.
And her job? Impossible to give that up. Right now she didn’t need the money, but she needed the sense of purpose. And she was good at it. It had taken her five years of medical school and five years of specialist training to get to where she was. She wouldn’t throw that away.
‘I asked the hospital manager for a six-month leave of absence,’ Natalie said. A compromise. ‘To decide what I want to do.’ And to avoid running into Liam O’Shea until she knew she could handle it.
Declan nodded, pouring tea from a faded bone china teapot. No wine today. He was being careful with her.
‘I thought I’d move to the country. Maybe try out research.’ Declan raised an eyebrow. He knew of Natalie’s fraught relationship with academe. But all he said was, ‘Anywhere particular in mind?’
‘Little spot west of Lorne on the Great Ocean Road. I used to holiday near there when I was a kid. Fresh sea air and not too many people. Not now the summer’s over.’
Declan rubbed his chin. ‘It’s a long way from Melbourne.’
Natalie shrugged. ‘A two-and-a-half-hour ride. I can come up once a week to see you and my Monday patients. And Geelong’s only an hour away.’
She’d done a cursory search of the university department in Geelong, which boasted Associate Professor Frank Moreton as the sole psychiatrist with any academic standing. She remembered him vaguely from some lectures he’d given on somatisation; how people’s early childhood and personality could influence the type of illnesses that afflicted them. He was British, from memory. Good looking but way too self-important. A few of the female registrars had been conned, but good looking and arrogant was not her style. Not since Liam, anyway. The new Natalie King was going to do yoga every morning and be in bed sipping herbal tea by nine each night. Alone.
The concern was still there in Declan’s eyes when he wished her well.
Natalie packed up her Ducati, carefully covering Bob’s cage so the ride wouldn’t strip out all of his feathers. As relationships went, this was one of her more successful. Since a patient had asked her to take care of the cockatoo and then gone AWOL, Bob was one of the few predictable elements of her life.
She took the wide new freeway that led to the winding coast road. A chill blew off the cool grey ocean, and there were long sections of sweeping curves with no traffic. After she’d left Lorne behind, the houses on the hills to her right were lost among the trees. The only light came from her bike, sending eerie shadows across the road.
When she arrived at Separation Creek, fog hugged the meagre street lights and the houses—mostly built on stilts to deal with the steep hillside, probably all weekenders—were dark. She slowed the Ducati. Keep on after the last house, was the agent’s instruction. You won’t get lonely will you?
She only found the driveway after the road disappeared into a dip and she knew she’d gone too far. Slower on return, she caught sight of the track between two gum trees shedding bark like snake skin and gunned the bike up the steep incline. She cut the engine as she roared into the carport, which was empty except for a stack of wood.
‘How do you feel?’ Poor Bob. He sounded like he wasn’t feeling well.
Natalie foraged for the key and opened the door, then grabbed his cage and headed up the staircase.
‘You could have been a star,’ Bob muttered unconvincingly. Why did the damn parrot have to misquote Dylan?
She forgot him as soon as the stairs opened into a huge living area. Floor to ceiling glass doors led to the balcony; beyond, the moon was just visible through the sea mist, the wide expanse of the bay below largely hidden apart from splashes of white surf.
Natalie threw open the doors. The sounds of waves crashing in the distance and a gust of cold salty air greeted her. It couldn’t have been more different from the warehouse in Collingwood where she had lived for the last two-and-a-half years, wedged between a printer’s office and a brothel. Her new home backed into a thickly wooded forest. Only a few lights twinkling on the distant hills opposite suggested any civilisation at all.
If isolation was what she wanted, she’d certainly got it.
She was woken by a screech, like a train going through a tunnel. Several trains. Natalie was out of bed clutching a knife before she even remembered where she was. There was more screeching; too loud to be just Bob. The bright light streaming through the doors was dazzling and she had to squint to make out what the problem was.
Bob was marching up and down the far banister periodically letting rip. Six very large white cockatoos were lined up along the balcony. Another two were fighting over an empty feed container surrounded by cracked seed hulls. They eyed Natalie with minimal interest, even as she opened the door to join them. Bob flew to her shoulder and bit her ear.
‘I don’t think you’re going to be lonely here Bob,’ said Natalie.
Would she be? Or worse? Natalie looked at the blade in her hand. It had been over six months since the attack, and the Worm was now in prison awaiting trial on child-porn-related charges. But his intent when he came for her had been clear, and she’d escaped more through good luck than good management. And it had left a mark: she slept with a knife now.
It was only six-thirty. She tried meditation for ten minutes then abandoned it for coffee and the view.
By nine she was on the road, to make a ten o’clock appointment in Geelong. She’d told Declan she’d take it easy, and she intended to. But she knew she needed something to focus on. The arrogant associate professor had said he’d be happy to see her, and some low-key academic work would be perfect. Stimulating enough; nothing to get her into trouble.
Frank Moreton’s office was easy enough to find. The department of psychiatry was sign-posted in the hospital foyer. But the secretary’s desk showed no evidence of any recent activity. Behind it, a door was propped open with a pile of journals. Natalie peered cautiously into a large room. Three dormant computers in carrels. No paperwork or personal touches. Two office doors, one open and the other closed, at the other end. Natalie was debating whether to try the far door when she heard a chair scrape. A head appeared above a carrel.
‘Yes?’ High cheek bones and cropped black hair above prominent ears. Behind red-rimmed hipster glasses, wide-spaced eyes suggested a Chinese heritage.
‘I was looking for Professor Moreton.’
‘Is he is expecting you?’ An educated British accent.
‘I’m Natalie King. Prof Moreton suggested this time.’ Natalie kept a careful neutral smile in place.
There was a fleeting expression of impatience before a reluctant smile. ‘I’m Wei.’ An androgynous figure rose. About the same age as Natalie, and a willowy five centimetres taller. Skinny jeans. No visible waist or bust—probably male, Natalie decided, although close up it looked like he was wearing mascara and nail polish, so she wasn’t putting money on it. Wei looked at the bike helmet in Natalie’s hand, seeming equally uncertain how to categorise her. Natalie had changed into an unusually demure dress, so the confusion was understandable.
‘You can leave your gear here. Frank’s in his office.’ Wei tilted his head backwards, towards the closed door, then sat down and went back to his computer.
Natalie recognised Associate Professor Moreton immediately. He stood up, smiling. As she had recalled, he was good looking. Maybe even exceptionally good looking. A little under six foot and solid. Not overweight, but filling the room with his presence. Blue striped shirt with sleeves rolled up to expose a smattering of fine dark hair; silver-blue tie. Pretty, she decided. Boyish, with dark hair that curled over his collar and long eyelashes. He was wearing a wedding ring.
‘Dr King.’ He took her extended hand with both of his, smiling playfully, and held it. Pulled back an instant before it became too much, too long.
Frank went to the door and stuck his head out. ‘Wei? Would you mind getting us some coffee?’ There was a slight formality to his speech: a British childhood that had given way to some Australian broadening of vowels, was Natalie’s guess. He’d been in Australia longer than his research assistant.
Natalie didn’t hear Wei’s response.
‘So, Natalie, you’re interested in research?’
Not really, but that probably wasn’t the ideal comeback. ‘Looking at possibilities.’
‘You said in the email that you were interested in PTSD?’
It had been the only overlap between his publications and her interests. ‘I was thinking childhood abuse as a risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder and postnatal depression.’
‘Excellent! We have an obstetric ward here and I’m sure we could set that up easily.’ He was outlining some of his own research when Wei returned with plunger coffee and a surly expression. When he left he banged the door loudly behind him.
‘We might get you a scholarship,’ Frank continued, oblivious, pulling mugs from his shelf, ‘but it wouldn’t pay anything like your clinical work.’ He sat back in his chair, at ease, eyes not leaving her.
Natalie nodded and took the coffee he poured; luckily she liked it black and unsweetened.
‘But,’ Frank leaned forward so she could see the flecks of green in his irises. ‘I could easily get you some clinical sessions to top up your income.’
‘How about I try out the research first?’ asked Natalie.
Frank smiled. ‘Of course. We…I…look forward to it.’
He made no move to touch her. Why did it feel as if he’d patted her hand?
At that moment a pretty blonde woman Natalie recognised breezed into the office and stopped dead when she saw who Frank was talking to. She was obviously pregnant, probably early third trimester. Her skin had the glow that women get when the hormones agree with them, and she exuded a kind of satisfaction; her life was apparently on track. Her outfit was tailored, in a pale blue that offset her eyes, with whimsical lace at the sleeves and hem. Feet in strappy heels, light blonde curls framing her face. The blue eyes narrowed as they moved from Frank to Natalie.
At that moment something Declan had said flashed into Natalie’s mind. Something about what she was making sacrifices for, but she lost the thought with the final realisation.
Alison was not happy to see her.