Forensic psychiatrist Natalie King works with victims and perpetrators of violent crime. Women with a history of abuse, mainly. She rides a Ducati a size too big and wears a tank top a size too small. Likes men but doesn’t want to keep one. And really needs to stay on her medication.
Now she’s being stalked. Anonymous notes, threats, strangers loitering outside her house.
A hostile former patient? Or someone connected with a current case? Georgia Latimer—charged with killing her three children. Travis Hardy—deadbeat father of another murdered child, with a second daughter now missing. Maybe the harassment has something to do with Crown Prosecutor Liam O’Shea—drop-dead sexy, married and trouble in all kinds of ways.
Natalie doesn’t know. Question is, will she find out before it’s too late?
Anne Buist, herself a leading perinatal psychiatrist, has created an edge-of-the-seat mystery with a hot new heroine—backed up by a lifetime of experience with troubled minds.
There is a moment as she comes into frame when she hesitates. Just before the anger takes over, there is a glimpse of something else. Then she takes the stairs two at a time, headed towards the man with the wispy goatee standing halfway up. Mid-twenties, wearing a suit that looks to be borrowed from his dad, puffing nervously on a cigarette.
She turns and in the movement there’s that fierce energy. Her eyes are shining like a cat’s, brown pools in kohl rings. She shouldn’t wear kohl, it makes her look cheap. Her legs are bare, her knees knobbly over heavy black boots. The scar at the top of her right thigh is visible as her index finger drums against the chest of the man. She has taken a position two steps above him but he is still taller.
Goatee-man looks surprised at what she is saying. It’s impossible to hear her words over the standard-issue blonde reporter at centre frame reporting for Channel 7 from the Supreme Court. He tosses his cigarette away, narrowly missing Blondie, and looks around for help.
A curl of red-brown hair escapes the clasp on the top of her head and falls over an ear studded with metal. She ignores it and pushes her hand into goatee-man’s chest. He pulls back, grabs the banister and leans against the bluestone wall.
The Crown Prosecutor arrives—pin-striped suit, blue tie, cocky—and Blondie intercepts him. Will you be asking for the five-year maximum? He ignores her, not even breaking stride as the camera tracks him. He reaches the arguing couple and puts his hand on the woman’s arm.
Bad move. Her leg swings, with a flash of white inner thigh, then with a look of cartoon astonishment the Crown Prosecutor staggers backwards. His arm catches the banister and breaks his fall. But his Armani-ed arse still hits the concrete. She puts one hand on her hip, a naughty-girl giggle on the edge of her lips. Goatee-man smirks as Blondie races into frame, her microphone thrust forward.
Another lawyer, shambolic and aghast, descends with gown billowing. The microphone catches him saying, ‘Dr King…’ He grabs her arm, whispers in her ear. Whatever he says pulls her up. The intensity collapses and suddenly she looks young. Her face is a perfect oval. There is a tiny heart-shaped birthmark on her cheek that would be easy to miss. Like the faint scar where she used to wear a nose stud.
Unless you knew her. Really knew her.
The frame freezes and he rewinds to the moment of hesitancy that reveals her vulnerability; no, more than that. He knows this expression: shame. His own reflection is on the plasma screen, next to hers, as if they were joined in the same world. He leans forward, and his fingers trace over her image, tongue running over the edge of his teeth.
He replays the footage. Again.
Natalie gunned the bike through the gap in the morning traffic, then braked hard before she hit the driveway. She would have missed Liam O’Shea, standing just inside the wrought-iron gate, but he sidestepped into the flower bed anyway. She parked her bike, pulled off her helmet and shook out her hair.
He was wiping his muddied feet on the brickwork border as she walked back. ‘Fantahstic.’
She had forgotten his Irish brogue. And the bedroom eyes.
‘Didn’t anyone tell you motorbikes are dangerous?’
‘Yes.’ Her stepfather, most Sundays. She walked past O’Shea, towards the building.
‘I need to speak to you, Dr King.’
Over her shoulder she said, ‘You want to speak to me. I don’t need to speak to you.’
‘I’d only be wantin’ five minutes.’ The Irish accent was laid on with a trowel.
Natalie, halfway up the staircase to the Victorian mansion where she saw private patients, turned back to look at him.
‘Give me one good reason why I should waste my time.’
‘A chance to get Amber Hardy out of gaol?’
Reasons didn’t come any better than that, but O’Shea was expecting opposition and she’d have hated to disappoint. ‘You got her in there on your own didn’t you? I imagine you can get her out as well.’
She could think of a more enjoyable way of spending five minutes with him; but that would have been almost as problematic as reopening Amber’s case. He followed her up the stairs, across the balcony and into the dimly lit corridor. Natalie nodded good morning to Beverley, the office secretary, whose smile was directed at Liam as he followed Natalie to the coffee room. They had the space to themselves.
‘I’m here about Amber’s ex-husband,’ Liam said. Natalie turned towards the espresso machine and tamped the coffee down hard.
‘Him and his new partner. Did you know about her?’
She knew. Where was he going with this?
He continued. ‘She was pregnant pretty damn quickly.’ Amber had been her patient until just after the plea hearing, and was devastated to discover that Travis had found a new partner so quickly. At that time she was still coming to terms with the charges, with incarceration and life without her infant daughter. ‘Didn’t he love us?’ she had asked, bewildered.
Natalie handed Liam the coffee. If he took it any other way than short and black he didn’t say. She studied him for signs he was leading her into a trap. ‘And?’ He had the grace to look away briefly. ‘Look, we all knew she did it. She confessed.’
‘There were extenuating circumstances I could have raised if I’d been allowed to take the stand.’ She felt a surge of guilt and squashed it. She couldn’t afford to feel vulnerable in front of Liam.
‘Defence’s call, not mine. Anyway the judge, he wasn’t going to buy anything you said. The media would have crucified him.’
‘She shouldn’t have got a custodial sentence.’
Liam drank his coffee, watching her. ‘Your testimony wouldn’t have made any difference.’
‘Just given you a chance to destroy my credibility and bolster your own ego?’
‘It wouldn’t have helped her. She’d already refused to request bail. The expert witness was good but Tanner wasn’t going to accept the dissociation line. Nor anything else you came up with.’
Natalie put her cup down. A trail of black liquid slopped down its sides.
Liam placed a photo on the table next to her coffee cup. A blonde-haired girl of about a year old looked up at the camera. The photographer had caught her in a moment of delight, blue eyes shining and hands coming towards her mouth as if to suppress a giggle. She looked vaguely familiar.
‘Chloe. Travis’s daughter with the new partner.’
‘Disappeared two weeks ago.’
That was where she’d seen the girl’s photo before: in the newspaper. She hadn’t paid much attention. Certainly hadn’t connected it to Amber. The article had been more about the subculture of chaos and irresponsibility in their regional town than about the child.
‘I’d love to hear your thoughts.’ Liam was watching her intently.
‘Could Travis have got Amber to take the rap for him?’ He added his heartbreaker smile to the accent.
Natalie stared at him. ‘You think you got it wrong?’
‘I want to know the truth. Which could take a wee while—and I’ve already used my five minutes. Can we do it over lunch?’
‘How about we leave it at coffee and you finish telling me now?’
‘We’re talking about a child here. She may still be alive.
To say nothing of Amber. You surely want to hear the full story?’ He paused. ‘Dinner?’
Natalie narrowed her eyes. He was using Amber as bait. ‘As in a date?’ She made a point of looking hard at his wedding ring.
‘Call it what you like.’
‘Let me guess. She’s got cancer. She doesn’t understand you. You’ll leave as soon as the kids are grown up.’
‘I’m thinking we’re as happy as most and my kids like things the way they are.’
She didn’t believe him but at least his position was clear.
‘Okay, tomorrow night then. But I don’t discuss wives.’
‘That’d be just on first dates?’
‘Don’t expect to make it any further.’
She watched him leave. If Liam’s suspicions about Travis were right, there might be a chance of getting Amber out of prison—a chance to rectify an injustice that Natalie was partly responsible for. There were just three problems.
After the incident on the Supreme Court steps she had been forbidden by her supervisor to see Amber and Travis.
She’d just agreed to have dinner with someone who had an axe to grind with her and whom she loathed. And wanted to sleep with.
And Bella-Kaye, Amber and Travis’s baby, was still dead.
Natalie’s first patient didn’t turn up. No surprise there. At least one patient a day failed to show, without bothering to call, apologise or explain. Half the women who saw Natalie existed in a permanent state of chaos.
Monday was the hardest day of the week. At times she felt like she was on a treadmill for months with her psychotherapy patients, listening to similar stories of abuse and its aftermath of anger, pain and despair. And each patient had to play out the same scenarios many times before the endings changed. The process was slow, and it was repetitive. She often wondered if she was doing any good at all.
Jessie Pryor, the new patient, arrived five minutes late. The one-line referral she had brought was over a year old and said nothing about why she might need to see a psychiatrist. Natalie didn’t know the referring GP, and there was nothing to indicate why Jessie had decided to see her now.
Jessie was exactly twenty-two. ‘Happy Birthday to me,’ she said, rolling her eyes. She was wearing a Misfits T-shirt, cut off at the shoulders to reveal heavily tattooed rolls of flesh. The upper part of her left upper arm was a mess of anime cartoons inked onto her skin, overlapping with other figures that had been partly removed. Black roots were showing in her short blonde hair. Her demeanour communicated a succinct message: ‘I hate you and I hate the world, but I hate myself even more’. Natalie had been in this space at sixteen, minus the weight and with piercings instead of tatts.
Probably with a lot less cause.
Grist for the treadmill.
‘What do you ride?’ asked Jessie as she threw herself into the corner armchair rather than the upright one opposite Natalie.
Liam’s arrival had interrupted Natalie’s routine and she hadn’t had time to change out of her leather trousers. An analyst would have said, ‘Why do you ask?’ Natalie was happy just to have the connection.
‘You ride too?’
‘Nah, my brother. Used to take me on the back.’ Her look suggested bike riders were cool, but that she wasn’t sure what to make of a psychiatrist who rode to work.
Natalie smiled in response. ‘How old were you?’
‘Twelve. Me and Dad had just moved in with Jay and his mum. His real name’s Jesse, can you believe? We had to call him Jay to stop the confusion.’ One of the more benign problems of blended families.
It had been a turning point, after two years alone with her father. Jessie denied he was abusive, just said that ‘he drank too much’ after her mother died. But she had all the hallmarks of abuse: poor sense of self, inner emptiness, suspicion about people’s motives and instability in her relationships. The marks of self-harm on her arms, half-hidden by the tattoos, were testimony to the times these things had overwhelmed her. Textbook borderline personality disorder.
The fifty minutes were nearly up before they got to why she was there. Jessie’s life was spinning out of control and she was having thoughts of self-harm. Again.
Natalie began to outline the rules of therapy. Turn up on time, no suicide attempts, use the crisis line…
Jessie was grinning. There was the hint of a twinkle in her eye and dimples that negated the tattoo artillery as Natalie walked her out to the waiting room and watched her leave.
‘Did you forget your change of clothes?’ Beverley scanned Natalie’s attire with a what were you thinking? expression.
Natalie let the comment go. Since her divorce, Beverley’s mission had been to find a man. Her latest outfit was a canary coloured skirt and jacket that screamed out a refusal to disappear at forty-five.
Beverley handed Natalie a red envelope. Her name was printed in neat capitals, but there was no address or sender’s details. ‘Someone gave this to one of Dr Miller’s patients as she came in and told her to give it to you,’ she said. Her tone made it clear that this was both weird and interesting.
Natalie opened the envelope. A plain white filing card with a handwritten message: Breaking the rules has consequences. It sounded like something Declan would say but he was hardly going to send an anonymous note to remind her. He was her supervisor; he got to tell her in person on a weekly basis. What rule was the note referring to? Some perceived breach of ethics? The duties of patient confidentiality and mandatory reporting of risk were sometimes in conflict.
Confidentiality? She didn’t discuss patients with anyone except Declan so it was unlikely to be anything she had said.
Risk? She flipped mentally through her current patients. No apparent danger to any of their children. The two in domestically violent relationships were already well known to police and Natalie had done nothing to incur either partner’s anger. Maybe it was something she had yet to be told or figure out. Apart from child abuse, the only thing that mandatory reporting covered was the risk of serious harm to someone. As far as she knew, none of her patients was planning a murder any time soon.
Shit, this had to happen to forensic shrinks all the time. In any event, the note was just stating the obvious. It wasn’t like there was any real threat. She’d better get used to it. She turned the card in her hand, considering her options, but in the end dropped it in the paper shredder pile as she headed out the door.