Authors: Diana Hockley
The Celibate Mouse
by Diana Hockley
Copyright © Diana Hockley 2011. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Celibate Mouse
Diana Hockley 2011
Book layout and cover design
by Publicious Pty Ltd
Also available in paperback
All characters and events in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, or any events past or present are purely coincidental.
Copyright © Diana Hockley 2011.
For Lara, my daughter, of whom I am very proud.
Also by Diana Hockley
The Naked Room
The Celibate Mouse has been a product in the making since 2008. During that time I have had the help, support and encouragement of many people on the Next Big Writer, worldwide workshop site extraordinaire. There are so many to thank on there and here are the main suspects!
Many hugs for my long-suffering husband, Andrew, for his patience and perseverance in coping while I am in a daze.
My gratitude to my writing friends and colleagues for all your assistance in getting this novel off the drawing board: Joy Campbell, Jessica Chambers, Caroline Kellems, Wayne Zurl, sonny, kyla, Verity Farrell, Nathan B Childs, R M Keegan, Carolyn Kuczek, Susan Ethridge, Susan Stec, Isobel IV, James, Sue (slho9o6), Jeni Decker, Sibyl Nelson, Skeptikoi, Stefanie Dubois, Greg Crites, glenmore, eskay, Sean Walsh, Kydd Dustin, C L Withers, Tina Hayes, Jeanne Bannon, Caminara, Ceridwen, Keith Campell, Ann Elle Altman. Thank you to my mate, Pam, for your support and encouragement on the many occasions when I was a wreck and ready to hit the bottle, and to Margaret, who encouraged me and stored many CDs of this novel when I was paranoid about losing the original manuscript to fire, floods and aliens.
A special thank you and hugs to Melanie Mather, who was so patient and kind when I rang or emailed begging hysterically for police procedural information, and to Rachel Kriel for her nursing advice on the art of murdering.
To Andy from Publicious, thank you for your patience and as a fellow author, your understanding of paranoia!
Control was everything.
A Little Unpleasantness at the Sheepdog Trials
here is no mistaking the crack of a high-powered rifle. Jack Harlow, competitor in the sheepdog championship, was shot in front of an audience of twenty-five hundred people, two judges, three sheep and his border collie, Stephen. He went down like a pole-axed steer, slamming into the gate at the last holding pen, a moment frozen in time before pandemonium erupted. The sheep, seizing the opportunity to escape, leaped over the dog and took to their trotters.
Perspiration prickled up my spine and then spread over my body. My daughter, Marli, buried her face in the front of my sweater.
At first, people believed that a vehicle had backfired behind the grandstand. Rumours circled the arena at lightning speed. A wave of conflicting information, punctuated by cries of disbelief, spread around the grandstand. A young woman seated a couple of levels below shouted, ‘I thought he had a heart attack, but someone said Jack’s been shot!’
The people in our immediate vicinity, gasped. White-faced, Marli pulled away and wiped her eyes. ‘Aren’t you going to go down there, mum?’
‘Certainly not! I’m on stress leave, remember? The local police will handle it.’
I can’t cope with this, it’s too soon.
Officiating over another crime scene, even temporarily, would shatter my hard won fragile composure.
The overcast, sullen day got worse. A woman whom I later discovered to be Harlow’s wife, Penelope, was walking back from the food kiosk when a group of agitated people encircled her. A moment later she dropped her takeaway meal and attempted to scramble, screaming, over the fence into the arena. She got stuck. Bystanders pushed and pulled until she landed in a heap on the other side. Clouds of dust rose as she got to her feet and staggered across the grass to be met by a flustered official waving a clipboard. The mob of people around the victim parted for a moment and I glimpsed someone folding a coat to put under Harlow’s head.
No, you mustn’t do that!
As Jack Harlow’s dog was hauled away from his inert body, its heartrending howls reached the stand. Distressed, I fumbled for a tissue. A man jumped the fence, rushed over, picked the animal up and headed for the exit gate. A judge removed the coat from under the victim’s head and commenced CPR. People sat, white-faced with shock. Denial seemed to be the initial reaction; fear had yet to set in. ‘Did you hear that, Fran? Who on earth would want to shoot Jack?’ called a woman sitting on the seat below us.
‘Half the fucking town, I’d say,’ a man sitting nearby muttered. Sniggers of agreement rippled through the surrounding spectators.
Shocked by their callous response, I watched as the woman named Fran glanced around the stand, presumably hoping to pass on the information to anyone who might be appreciative. We made eye contact. She hesitated a moment, and then asked, ‘Do
know the Harlows?’
‘No, we’re visitors here.’ I took a couple of deep breaths to quell an imminent threat of nausea. Disappointed, the woman turned away to join a nearby huddle of frightened onlookers.
The action in the ring stepped up as someone with common sense began to manage the situation. The mob of people around the victim parted; a coat was placed over Harlow’s head. His widow flapped around in the centre of the group, while a woman tried to comfort her. Men circled, staring at the ground, speaking into mobile phones. An official from the sheepdog association organised another dog to round up the three sheep cavorting across the trial bridge.
‘How they’re going to get this lot organised I don’t know, but I’m damned sure not going to be amongst them,’ I muttered, watching the children caught up in the drama. Several small boys had taken advantage of the lull in proceedings to kick a soccer ball back and forth on the far side of the arena. A patch of sunlight suddenly pierced the clouds, lighting the scene in the centre of the arena like a surreal theatrical production.
When the report and inevitable phone video footage aired on the early evening television newscast, many would kick themselves for not making an effort to attend. The final of the championship sheep dog trials had never been so exciting.
I cast my eyes around the surrounding area. The victim had dropped like a stone, so it had been most likely a direct hit to the head or heart. He’d fallen to his right, so the shooter needed to be somewhere in the vicinity of the announcer’s box to my right. The tower at the side of the arena, about five metres high, looked like an excellent place to pick off a target, but was a risky proposition which would take a lot of nerve. Heads bobbed inside the box, as I weighed up the likelihood of it being the source of the shot. A man leaned out of the window and shouted to someone on the ground.
Not up there, unless it is a conspiracy.
Unlikely. Cars lined the fence on both sides of the pillars which supported the small announcer’s box. The sniper could have fired from inside one, or crouched between the cars. Maybe from the hillside behind the arena? No, too exposed. A long distance shot would require a telescopic sight which could reflect the light and draw attention. He or she was long gone, unless the rifle had been hidden while the perpetrator mingled with the crowds.
My police training warred with an overpowering urge to escape, to avoid any involvement. Private fear won hands down, coupled with the necessity to keep seventeen year-old Marli from experiencing the aftermath of violent death. A vivid memory of scolding a woman for fleeing the scene of a gruesome crime sprang to mind. ‘If you ever get to walk in my shoes, officer, then you’ll understand how I feel,’ the woman had retorted. Now I, a Detective Senior Sergeant, recently Acting Inspector, was intent on emulating her. It was not an auspicious start to our stay in the country.
We arrived before lunch, to house-sit for my sister-in-law and her husband while they were in the UK on urgent family business. My other daughter, Marli’s identical twin Brittany, had chosen to live in Sydney with their stepfather, Harry, and his new partner. In an effort to assuage my daughter’s loneliness, I allowed Marli to buy a puppy from a breeder of border collies. We called at the local showground to collect it, but the woman was competing in the trials, so we found seats in the grandstand to watch the competition until she was ready to meet us.
Never having attended a sheepdog trial I was interested, but confused about what the competition involved. The farmer sitting beside us, leaning closer than strictly necessary, explained the procedure sotto voce, like a commentator at a billiards tournament. ‘The man and dog are a partnership, see? They have to drive three sheep through the gates, over the bridge, then into that pen.’ He pointed to the one near the exit to the arena and then continued. ‘They have fifteen minutes to do it before the hooter sounds. The handler has to keep walking between the points without stopping or backtracking. He can signal or whistle the dog, but nothing else. We can’t clap until he’s closed the gate at the last pen, otherwise the sheep’ll most likely take off and they could lose points.’
The canine half of the team cast a swathe around three recalcitrant sheep on the far side of the arena and turned them toward the next obstacle, whereupon they bolted in different directions. Undaunted, the dog streaked, a black wraith, around the arena and gathered them together again. Amid much stamping of feet and defiant glares, the sheep were herded into the last pen, whereupon the dramatic conclusion to the life of Jack Harlow had taken place.
The championship competition having been destroyed beyond repair, the farmer abandoned us with a regretful glance accompanied by a muttered apology, to join an agitated group in the stands below. Ashen-faced, Marli sat still, hands tightly clasped around the neck of the tote bag which carried everything she considered necessities of life.
‘Come on, Marli, it’s time we left.’ Once we collected and paid for the pup, I intended to leave the area immediately and go to the farm where we were to house-sit, five minutes outside Emsberg.
Trying to hurry my daughter along, I grabbed the tote bag, stuffed Marli’s iPod and hat inside and thrust it back into her hands. A police uniform moved into the centre of the crowd around the victim as we started down the steps to the exit gate. Almost immediately, an announcement came over the loud speaker ordering everyone to remain on the grounds until further notice. Some of the crowd moaned collectively but others, terrified, clutched their friends and neighbours. Protests flared, as people tried to control fractious children. Nearby, a newborn baby bawled and what appeared to be its toddler sibling set up a sympathetic wailing. A tired-looking young woman grabbed the child by the arm and jounced the pushchair down the steps making the baby screech even louder as they left the stands. A man rounded up the young soccer players on the other side of the showground, his body language indicating he was sending them back to their parents.
A man cupped his hands around his mouth and roared displeasure at having his family trapped at the grounds. A couple of small girls, giggling hysterically, jostled through the crowd, almost knocking Marli off her feet. I sensed tension rising; soon there could be a stampede for the exit. Unable to censure them without revealing myself as the “police,” I ducked my head and pushed through the crowd, towing Marli behind, hoping any observers would think we were heading for the restrooms.
Within a couple of minutes we arrived at the back of the grandstand in the competitor’s camping area, where I propped myself against a fence post and waited for Marli to locate the breeder. Happy, hairy faces beamed at me from behind mesh dog boxes; tails swished enthusiastically. Resisting the impulse to “sweet-talk” to the fur-faces, I hoped the promise of five hundred dollars would outweigh the woman’s curiosity about what had occurred in the arena and she would wait for her young customer. James Kirkbridge, my brother-in-law, had already taken our dogs to a neighbouring property, before he and his wife, Eloise, had flown from Brisbane to the UK due back in a few months. The animals would be delivered to the farm later this afternoon.
The sun vanished behind the clouds again, as though to underscore the day’s disaster. A chill wind rose, seemingly from nowhere. I was struggling into my coat when Marli arrived back at the car, clutching a curly-coated, squirming black and white bundle with beguiling blue eyes. Colour blossomed in her cheeks again as she smiled and nuzzled the pup, thoughts of the tragedy in the ring briefly forgotten in the excitement of the moment.
I paused, battling a modicum of guilt and indecision about leaving the grounds. ‘Marli, I need to check out what’s going on. Don’t worry, I promise to be right back.’
‘Mum, for God’s sake, I’m seventeen, not seven! I’ll be here, okay?’
I eyed my daughter’s stormy expression and hastened to ward off a “teenage moment. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to treat you like a child.’
Marli shrugged, giving off an air of nonchalance, though the expression in her eyes retained the shock of what she had witnessed. I left her struggling to hold the over-excited pup and walked to the corner of the grandstand to peer at the action.
The centre of the ring resembled a kicked ant heap, as agitated officials and competitors buzzed around bumping into each other. High-pitched screams, like the squeaks of a mouse, came from inside the melee. Any decision I might make to get involved after all, became irrelevant when an ambulance trundled through a side gate onto the grounds, closely followed by a red and white checked patrol car. A movement on the town side of the grounds revealed the arrival of a media van. Fear shot through me. The last thing I needed was anyone from the press to spot
. I slunk back to Marli.
‘Come on, let’s get out of here!’ Doubling back, and then dodging behind trees and advertising hoardings as we passed gaps in the buildings ensured no one saw us, as did the circuitous route through the competitor’s caravans and motor homes which enabled us to reach the car park without being prevented from leaving.
If I lost my hard-won control, my stress leave would be blown before it had even begun and the counselling I received after Detective Constable Danny Grey’s death barely two months ago, would be all for nothing.