Read The Fourth Season Online

Authors: Dorothy Johnston

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The Fourth Season

Wakefield Press

The Fourth Season

The first of my mystery quartet,
The Trojan Dog
, was joint winner ACT Book of the Year, and the
gave it their ‘Best of 2000' in the crime section. It was published in Australia by Wakefield Press and in the United States by St Martin's Press. The second,
The White Tower
, was also published in Australia and North America, and the third,
, appeared in 2007. All three feature the cyber-sleuth Sandra Mahoney and her partner, Ivan Semyonov, along with Detective Sergeant Brook, of the ACT police. The fourth book, which completes the series, has an environmental theme, and is about who is going to win the battle for our seas and oceans. Each in the series is set during a particular season, hence the title of autumn:
The Fourth Season
. All four are available as ebooks.

I'm currently working on a sea-change mystery series, set at the home of
, the TV series, on the south coast of Victoria. The first of these is called
Through a Camel's Eye

Two of my literary novels,
One for the Master
, have been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. I've had numerous short stories published in magazines and anthologies, and I regularly review fiction for Fairfax newspapers.

I'm a founding member of the influential ‘7 Writers' group, which began meeting in Canberra in the early 1980s, and continued as a writers' workshop and discussion group for almost twenty years. A subject which continues to fascinate me from a literary point of view is Canberra, Australia's national capital, where I lived for thirty years before returning to Victoria. I'm also a member of the Australian Society of Authors and Sisters in Crime, Victoria.

You can find out more about me and my books by visiting my website:

By Dorothy Johnston

The Sandra Mahoney Quartet

The Trojan Dog

The White Tower


The Fourth Season


Tunnel Vision


Maralinga My Love

One For the Master

The House at Number 10

Short Stories

Eight Pieces on Prostitution

Wakefield Press

1 The Parade West

Kent Town

South Australia 5067

First published 2013

Copyright © Dorothy Johnston, 2013

All rights reserved. This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced without written permission. Enquiries should be addressed to the publisher.

Cover designed by Scarlett Rugers,

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Author:    Johnston, Dorothy, 1948–    , author.

Title:    The fourth season: a Sandra Mahoney mystery / Dorothy Johnston.

ISBN:    978 1 74305 253 2 (ebook: epub).

Dewey Number:    A823.3

To my mother, Ivy Johnston,
and my sister, Judith Johnston


I would like to thank Michael Bollen and Clinton Ellicott of Wakefield Press, Scarlett Rugers for her beautiful cover design, and all those people who gave their time to talk to me about environmental politics, in Canberra and elsewhere.


The story I'm about to tell begins and ends by water. It concerns two murders, one following a short time after the other. The mornings after these murders were similar, with heavy dew on the brown grass, an appearance that seemed remarkable after a relentlessly dry summer.

The precious moisture had evaporated before seven in the morning, but left a faint aftertaste, a memory of seasons that hadn't been so harsh. On both mornings, a mist hid the Telstra tower, hanging off Black Mountain's hips. It was gone by eight o'clock, before half of Canberra was up, before they'd heard the news.

Over time, the two deaths ran together in my mind and I came to think of them as the water murders. The name conjures up an image of fluidity; but could as well suggest stagnation; or the leaching away of what is held to be precious by those most in need of it. I don't mean life itself—that absolute division—or not only that. I mean that which gives each individual life its meaning.

I first heard about the second murder while I was eating breakfast at the kitchen table with my sixteen-year-old son. A man's body had been found in our local swimming pool, within walking distance of our house.

When Peter raised his eyes and met mine, they were wary, troubled, wishing to fend off any consequences this new death might have for him, or his family. Without knowing why it had to be this way, he was shouldering yet another responsibility, and was telling me by his expression, by the way his mouth moved, that he didn't trust me to look after him and his sister. He didn't trust me as a mother any more.

I put out my hand to reassure my son, uncertain that he would accept any form of reassurance, aware that my hand was shaking and that he was sure to notice.

Peter blinked and said, ‘I love Dickson Pool.'

We both did. We both hated the day, around mid-March each year, when one of Canberra's few outdoor swimming pools closed for the autumn and winter. Yesterday had been the pool's last day. I wondered if this meant anything in terms of the drowning, if indeed the man
drowned, and not been killed elsewhere.

The picture that came to me while I sat there with Peter was of a giant plug suddenly removed from its snug fitting.

Peter licked toast crumbs from his lips and seemed about to ask a question when his sister, Katya, appeared in the doorway, her thin cotton pyjamas twisted and crumpled around her wiry six-year-old body. Katya was as restless a sleeper as her brother had been at her age. When I'd looked in on her shortly before midnight, she'd been lying with her feet on the pillow and the sheet corkscrewed around her middle.

‘Hey Kat,' Peter said.

I leant across and switched off the radio, while Katya balanced on one leg, rubbing her calf muscle with her bare toes, then walked slowly to the table, still in that lazy half sleep of the very young. She picked up one of the crusts Peter had left on his plate and began to chew it.

Peter smiled, wanting to escape the atmosphere of anxiety the news had created, yet feeling protective towards his sister, needing to hang around for her sake, some part of him wanting to be her age again, young enough to trust the stories adults told.


Laila Fanshaw's death was first reported on the late evening news, though her name wasn't included in any of the initial reports. Katya had been asleep for hours. Peter should have been in bed as well, but he had a swag of maths homework, and, though he was tired and irritable, he'd insisted on waiting for Ivan to come home and explain a problem to him. Ivan was my partner, Peter's step-father and Katya's natural one; and that night I had no idea where he was. He'd left the house straight after dinner and he wasn't answering his phone. Peter had given up and was cleaning his teeth when Ivan walked in and went straight to the television.

As soon as the newsreader began to speak, the room contracted to a tinny box, ridiculously bright. The camera panned around Lake Burley Griffin. The reporter's face glowed white, while police lights flashed behind him. As with all reports of violence at night, the scene, busy yet curiously static, took its atmosphere from dreams. The journalist stood in front of blue and white tape cordoning off a section of lake shore, where, he speculated, the assault may have taken place. The pulsating lights, the intensity of his face and body movements, made him seem closer to the water than he was.

A young woman had been found floating in it shortly before nine. Probably she would not have been found till morning, except that a middle-aged couple walking their dog had been alerted when the dog, a black Labrador, took off into the water and wouldn't come back. When he did, he was dragging a corpse by the arm.

The reporter repeated these few facts, since he had little more to tell his audience—nothing that would identify the victim, only that she was young, and had been wearing a red waistcoat.

Ivan was standing close to the TV, absolutely still.

Peter came up behind him and I caught my son's expression, the glint of fear that came as much from Ivan's failure to react as what filled the screen.

The presenter moved on to another item while Ivan brushed past us and went to the phone.

I heard the words, ‘I'm coming over,' before he grabbed a set of car keys and was gone again.

Peter's face was closed and blank. I wanted to put my arms around him, but knew that, if I tried, he would push me away.

. . .

What does it mean to be told too little? What does this particular lack mean to an adolescent boy, or to his mother, who happens to be a person endeavouring to make her living by collecting information? It was an endeavour that, for years up until that moment, had sustained, if only just, both my life and that of my children—sustained in a thousand practical, easily overlooked ways. While I tried to think of something to say to Peter, and worried about where Ivan had been, and where he was going now, I knew I was facing a moment that severed before and after with the sharpest of knives. Like all such extraordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people, I initially rejected what it meant.

Peter shook his head, his lips pressed tight together. When I tried to speak, he growled a wordless protest and disappeared into his room.

I realised that my hands were still shaking as I turned a light on in the office I shared with Ivan, and sat down at my desk. I pressed my hands out flat out in front of me, staring at the tendons and raised veins as though they must belong to someone else, seeing them clearly, yet in a distant, dissociated way.

How dare Ivan march in and then leave again like that, without saying a word to me or to Peter?

I stood up and pulled the curtains, taking some small comfort from the softness underneath my fingers, recalling—a memory excised from domestic time, where it belonged—how behind the curtains had been my daughter's favourite hiding place. Katya's small feet, perfectly straight and close together, had always given her away. She hadn't seemed to realise that they were perfectly visible underneath the curtain.

Peter, when he'd played hide and seek as a small child, had needed to be found within minutes of secreting himself. The tension of remaining hidden was too much for him, so he coughed and gave the game away. Katya, right from when she was a toddler, had been able to sustain the suspense for much longer. Once, when we'd all been playing hide and seek, and I was ‘he', and Peter's dog Fred was still alive, between Fred and myself we'd found the two males in the family immediately. But Katya, who could not have been more than two and a half, had stayed hidden, not behind the curtain this time, until I began to worry that she'd gone outside. I finally found her in the laundry cupboard, crouched behind the vacuum cleaner. As I switched the light on, calling out with relief, bending to hug my daughter, she turned up to me a face that expressed both the fear she'd overcome, and triumph.

I turned on the radio. The news presenter repeated what we'd already heard. The dead woman's name had not been released; but a car, presumed to have been the one she was driving, had been removed by the police from a parking area about a hundred metres from where the dog had dragged her in.

. . .

Next morning, I woke to an empty place beside me in the bed.

Birds were calling outside my bedroom window, so I knew that dawn could not be far away, yet, when I lifted the curtain a fraction, the world outside looked black.

I found Ivan in the kitchen, making tea in two saucepans by the light above the stove. The streaks of grey in his hair seemed to be spreading outwards. He was bent almost double, his shirt half out, his trousers crumpled. We'd been using matches for a few days because something had gone wrong with the gas lighter. Dead matches were lined up along the kitchen bench, and I stared at them as though any one might suddenly stand up and speak.

Ivan turned around. His eyes flickered, missing mine, returning to his makeshift samovar. Conscious of two children asleep on the far sides of thin walls, I took a step back and closed the kitchen door.

‘Laila's dead.'

Ivan delivered those two words as though they were all the explanation I would ever need. Again, his eyes brushed over me, fixing this time on the row of matches. He frowned, as though wondering how they'd got there.

‘They wouldn't let us see her,' he said grimly, returning to his task, pouring tea for himself but not for me, sitting down heavily, pulling the sugar bowl roughly towards him so that it almost spilt.

Ivan held his face over the steam, but made no attempt to drink, and like that, in a kind of suspended animation, deliberately avoiding my eyes, he told me how he'd picked up Laila's housemate, Tim, and they'd driven to the lake, or as close as they were allowed to go.

Roadblocks on Kings Avenue Bridge and Brisbane Avenue diverted traffic away from Bowen Drive. They'd had to detour in a circle and double back on foot, before hitting a second row of cars. They'd spoken to a policewoman, saying how they'd been alerted by the mention of a red waistcoat.

Ivan placed his large hands around the cup and said, ‘That DS in charge, now he's a piece of work.'

When I asked what the officer's name was, Ivan replied, ‘Brideson. Son of a bride. Son of the devil, I think.'


‘This Bride's Son thinks that maybe I am guilty. Tim also. That we are plotting a conspiracy.'

Though Ivan had lived in Australia since his early twenties, at times of stress his verbs regressed and his voice took on a Russian intonation.

I remembered how, a week or so ago, he'd come home brittle, fractious, refusing even Katya's attempts to distract him. I'd taken Kat away, fearing Ivan would loose his anger and frustration on the one who least deserved it.

He put his head in his hands and muttered through them, ‘Idiot!'

I heard the sounds of bare feet on a floor, then the phone rang in the hallway.

‘Don't let Pete and Katya see you like this,' I said, as Ivan got up to answer it.

. . .

For the next two days, I tried to prevent my children from seeing how worried I was, and to keep up the pretence that our lives were going on as usual. Ivan disappeared for hours without offering me any explanation. When I was interviewed by DS Brideson, I had to wing my answers, and Brideson, by the way he smiled, made sure
knew he knew this. I cursed Ivan for putting me in an impossible position, but I did not believe for one moment that he'd murdered Laila.

At the end of the second day, a surprise phone call and an even more surprising offer of money gave me the opportunity and the excuse to ask questions in a more active way. During those two days, I'd come to understand that Ivan had been in love with Laila Fanshaw; I guessed that he'd quarrelled with her and had failed to patch up the quarrel.

Laila's father, Henry Fanshaw, who'd flown up to Canberra to identify her body, pleaded for help in tracking down her killer. Listening on the radio to his broken, desperate voice, I realised how little Ivan had told me about Laila, how the impression I'd semi-consciously formed of his attachment had been created from emotions speaking through gestures and sudden, captured facial expressions, chance words that ought to have been instantly forgettable, but weren't.

I had not known, for instance, that Laila was twenty-one years old, in her third year of a science degree; though I had known she was a student. She'd been a committed member of an environment group—yes, that had been brought home to me through Ivan embracing her cause. I kept seeing Ivan's shattered face, at daybreak in our kitchen, with that row of dead matches as blind, insensate witnesses.

Laila had been murdered on her way to an appointment with Greens Senator Brian Fitzpatrick, who, according to some news reports, had been her friend and mentor. Fitzpatrick's office confirmed that an appointment had been made, but declined to comment further. Laila had borrowed a friend's car to drive to Parliament House. Detective Sergeant Brideson wasn't speculating about why she'd never made it, why she'd detoured to the lake instead. He appealed to the public to come forward with information, in particular anyone who might have seen Laila at the lake, or on her way there, in a dark green Nissan.

Brideson was one of those big men who effortlessly fill a television screen. He had a suitably deep voice, and looked as though he'd never suffered a day's illness in his life, which made me think of my friend Brook, and wish Brook was in Canberra.

A news item that I barely noticed at the time, but that stuck in the back of my mind, concerned an accident with a pneumatic drill. There was a lot of roadwork going on around Parliament House. A member of the construction team, drilling just above the parliament's underground carpark, had gone right through the roof and taken out a security camera.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister promised that any security issues arising from the accident would be dealt with immediately. The construction worker whose drill had slipped was refusing to speak to the press.

I tried to put myself in Ivan's shoes and failed miserably, as I might have known I would. Yet I felt surrounded by his emotions as though they held me in a bubble. The bubble's skin was fragile, but I could not burst out.

A report I was writing for the education department was in its final stages. I had a few more details to add to a section on the use of filters to block websites considered unsuitable for children. I'd had some experience of filters when I'd taken on the job of investigating a company that manufactured them. I'd found filters to be pretty dodgy, technically speaking, though there'd been a few improvements since.

Electronic security was becoming more and more of an issue, which should have meant more work for people like Ivan and me, but somehow we'd missed the gravy train. Perhaps it was our approach, our style, our lack of glamour, the fact that neither of us looked the part. But I'd won the education report from a batch of rivals, and knew I'd made a good job of it so far. I had to, if I was going to stay in the running for contract work of a similar kind.

A phone call from a journalist friend, Gail Trembath, was a welcome interruption.

Gail said, ‘I heard Ivan joined that dead girl's environmental group.'

I sighed. ‘Like that, was it?' Gail asked.

Her tone dismayed me. Gail and I had been friends for years, and if our friendship had included antagonism and hard words from time to time, it had also included warmth and sympathy.

‘Rumours are flying thicker that dust in a high wind,' Gail said cheerfully.


‘Like there was more to her and Brian Fitzpatrick than saving trees. What does Ivan think?'

‘I don't know. What about that broken security camera in the Parliament House carpark?'

‘Just a guy whose finger slipped. Fitzpatrick's refusing to give interviews. Is Ivan there?'


‘When are you expecting him?'

‘I'm not.'

Gail muttered something that I couldn't catch. I told her that I had to go.

I missed Brook badly then—to give him his full title, Detective Sergeant Brook. Same rank as Brideson, friends for all I knew, though I'd never heard Brook speak of the big, healthy, confident-looking man. I thought of Brook basking in the Thai sunshine, while his colleagues searched an artificial lake; Brook tramping through the jungle, striking a path out and away from the leukaemia that had almost killed him and still might.

I smiled and made a slight correction to my day-dream. Brook was a basker, not a tramper. In my heart, I wished him good basking. He was better off over there. I expected him to return from leave only to announce his retirement.

At the beginning of the summer, which, when I thought about it, was when I'd first picked up hints of Ivan's attraction, I'd told myself that I had no right to feel jealous of Laila Fanshaw. I'd gone to the group's Christmas picnic and seen Laila for myself. I'd watched Ivan being expansive, sociable, at ease with people in their early twenties. Not that I expected him to be socially inept. I knew Ivan could be charming when he took the trouble. But the whole evening had a weird, unsettling colour in my memory, a dark green undertow like the thick waterweed that covered the edges of the lake. At Lennox Gardens, under tall trees as the sun went down, I'd retreated to the shadows, becoming one myself, following patterns in the twilight, and the way Ivan moved with them, laughing, telling Russian stories, always conscious of Laila, performing for her, as three-quarters of the men there were.

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