Ill-Gotten Gains: A Nell Forrest Mystery 2
I am emailing to thank you for your wonderful column Middle-aged Spread – and for the new website, too. Don’t listen to any of those naysayers; I think all your stories are interesting and of course you’re not past it. Keep up the good work!
The breeze shifted as we entered the cemetery, rustling dusty orange leaves from the oaks that shaded the graves. Those already fallen skittered to life, dancing along the uneven paths and eddying into corners. It was as if the dead were whispering a greeting, or maybe even a warning, in the only way they knew how. I paused by the hedged entry and then bent to stop our dog as he dashed past. He ducked, weaved, and continued towards a large marble headstone where he immediately cocked his leg and peed in a splashy arc over Freda Usachev, Beloved Wife and Mother, Sadly Missed.
‘Gusto!’ Quinn’s voice broke slightly. ‘No! Bad boy!’
‘Oh, did you know her?’
I regarded my fourteen-year-old daughter, and then gestured at the headstone. ‘She died in 1948.’
‘Is that a no?’
Rather than answer, I began walking swiftly towards our destination. Gusto trotted at my side, tongue lolling, hesitating every so often to smell a tuft of grass or tumble of broken concrete. He was a Westie cross, with short legs and an inquiring expression that gave a somewhat mistaken impression of intelligence. Our route wound between the Catholic section, featuring glossy white marble, black onyx and poignant photographs trapped behind glass, and the Protestant, which started off fairly average and then just got worse. Cracked headstones, rusty railings, even a few graves where the cement slab had caved in so that it looked like the dead had not only risen, but had done so in a disturbingly energetic manner.
The burial site we were aiming for was, however, in neither of those sections. Nor was a map necessary, or even a pause for orientation. The last resting place of Petar Majic sat in the very centre of the cemetery. The dead centre, as my father used to say. And the construction was so elaborate that it could even be seen from the road that snaked past on the way to the town of Majic itself, three kilometres away.
The size of a single-car garage, with carved pillars set into each corner, the crypt was crowned by a fat dome etched with long faded gold. A plethora of cheerful cherubs with penises like witchetty grubs gambolled around the base of the dome. Two smaller columns flanked the arched doorway, each holding a drowsy stone lion, his mane tousled and one paw crossed neatly over the other. The entire edifice was enclosed within an intricate wrought-iron fence. It was as if a child with a taste for gothic melodrama had been given free rein.
‘This is all for one guy?’ asked Quinn, coming up behind me.
‘Yes. I believe he designed it himself.’
Quinn walked around the edifice, followed by Gusto. She paused at the front and leant in to read the raised rectangular plaque on top of the archway. ‘Petar Majic. 1829–1867.’
‘Short and simple. Clearly he had nothing to do with that side of things.’
‘He wasn’t married then? Didn’t have kids?’
‘No, I think he was one of those perennial-bachelor types.’
‘I suppose he’d be, like, just all skeleton by now.’ Quinn paused. ‘And hair. Did you know your hair stays the same for ages after you’re dead?’
‘That’d be right.’ I put a hand up to my own hair, rather self-consciously. It was the bane of my existence, a bird’s nest of spiral curls that I had recently begun growing in an attempt to gain control. Perhaps at some point far into the future archaeologists would be perplexed by my remains. Hirsute skull uncovered at ancient burial site. Most probably mutant.
Quinn had begun taking photographs with her mobile phone. She took a step forward to capture the plaque and then moved back to take in the whole effect. There was a stone bench by the pathway so I made myself comfortable, making sure I sat on the overhang of my jacket to create a buffer between the bluestone and my nether regions. It was a cool, breezy day, with gathering possum-grey clouds threatening a more volatile change to come. August was my least favourite month, not just because it started with two vowels, which seemed a little gratuitous, but because the seemingly relentless wind played havoc with my hair and turned my cheeks a broken-capillary red.
It was therefore a time when I avoided the great outdoors. A quick dash to and from the car was about the extent of my exposure. And as fond as I am of cemeteries, in a touristy above-ground sort of way, the only reason I ventured out this afternoon was that half an hour ago Quinn suddenly remembered some homework upon which her entire future, apparently, was dependent. Despite having had all the school holidays to complete it, plus the tools of the World Wide Web in central-heated warmth, this homework necessitated a last-minute trip to the burial site of the man who, one hundred and fifty years ago, along with his friend James Sheridan, became the forefather of our little town. Legend had it that the first of these gentlemen rode out from Bendigo vowing to build a house at whichever point was reached when the sun set. Given the fact he was as drunk as a skunk at the time, it was something of a miracle he didn’t topple off his horse as he mounted, which would have seen Majic being founded on the footpath outside the pub.
Quinn’s project was clearly designed to segue into the anniversary of the sunset ride, an upcoming event that had the whole town in something of a festive tizz. A range of celebrations were planned, advertised on posters tacked to every available surface, and it seemed most local businesses had found a way to cash in. We had Petar pastries and Sheridan shashlicks and, according to the pub, a not-to-be-missed offer on the chicken parmigiana that had allegedly been their meal of choice. We even had T-shirts that read One hundred and fifty years of Majic!, but as these had proved unexpectedly popular with the older residents, the slogan had become open to interpretation. As the pièce de résistance, funds had been found for a statue of Petar and James that was to be unveiled in two weeks, amid speeches and fireworks and no doubt the obligatory sausage sizzle.
I looked up, a little surprised to see that my daughter was now standing astride one of the stone lions, inside the fence, peering at the plaque above the archway. ‘Ah, what are you doing?’
‘There’s a gap here. I think this thing was added later!’
‘Fascinating. Now get down.’
‘No, Mum, don’t you see?’ She ran her finger along the seam between the plaque and the larger concrete structure. ‘It could be hiding something – like someone else’s name!’
‘Yes, because crypt theft was rife back in the 1800s.’
Gusto barked, dancing along the fence in frustration. I opened my mouth then closed it again as Quinn scrambled down. But instead of scaling the fence, she squatted and began turning over the stones scattered around the tomb’s perimeter.
‘What are you doing?’
She held up two triumphantly, as if these were answer enough, and then used one of the lion’s paws to heft herself back up. Wedging the thinner stone in the seam, she drew back the second purposefully.
‘Quinn!’ I rose to my feet just as she swung, making contact with a loud thwack. ‘Stop!’
She paused in the middle of the second swing. ‘Why?’
‘Because it’s vandalism!’ I hurried over as she lowered her arm. The thin stone stayed where it was, now wedged behind the plaque. ‘Get that out and get down.’
‘Okay,’ she said obediently. Then she whipped the larger stone back and used it as a hammer once more, this time sending the thin one flying over the fence. With a dry, raspy sound, the plaque separated from its base and slid down the structure at an angle, tumbling forward when it reached the top of the archway and falling to the stone lion, where it broke in two. We watched its descent in unison, blinked, and then immediately raised our eyes to the recently vacated space. A rectangle of darker, unweathered cement framed a cluster of recessed letters. I took a step closer even as Quinn read it out.
‘Petar Majic, tragically taken 1 April 1867. Beloved.’
‘I am so angry with you right now.’
‘You said get it out. So I did. And look.’ She waved at the inscription. ‘I was right. There was something hidden.’
‘Congratulations, I can see the headlines now. Teenager discovers that long-dead man was beloved. Society rocked to the core. You’re going to pay to get that fixed.’ I glared at her and then walked back to the bench. Clearly having decided she now had nothing to lose, Quinn took a few photos of the inscription before jumping off to collect the two plaque halves. Gusto leapt skywards in excitement as she clambered over the fence, her hands full.
‘You should be.’
She came over to join me. ‘I’ll get it fixed.’
‘Yes, you will.’
An older couple walked past, both carrying flowers. They were bickering in low voices, without pause, even as they nodded in my direction. I was struck by a sudden urge to jump up and tell them to stop, to appreciate what they had, to take the time to smell the roses. Not necessarily here, and not necessarily in a literal sense. Gusto followed them for a few steps and turned to run back, tail wagging. I dragged my eyes from their stiff backs. Quinn had now fitted the two halves of plaque together and was holding them steady, as one. We sat in silence.
‘Like, I really am sorry.’
‘You always are. But perhaps you should think first.’
‘Okay.’ She swung her legs. ‘It is a bit interesting, though. Why cover the beloved bit?’
‘And the tragically taken.’
‘Yeah, and that. So maybe he wasn’t a perinatal bachelor after all.’
‘Now that would be interesting. The word you want is perennial.’ I thought for a while. ‘Maybe she died too, just after.’
‘Of a broken heart.’
‘Or a normal illness. And they had no children so she was never given a plaque.’
‘Then who put up the new one? With just his dates?’
I frowned as I considered a variety of explanations, none of which made sense. The breeze picked up again, whistling through the wrought iron. Leaves flurried against my feet.
‘I reckon he was married,’ Quinn declared. ‘Like, apart from anything else, why would you build something like that if it was just for you?’
‘Because he was an ostentatious sort of fellow? Just look at his house in town.’
‘Then wouldn’t he be more likely to have one of those concrete coffin things that you can see, so he could be, like, worshipped? Why get all closed away?’ Quinn gestured towards the crypt. ‘I think he planned to have a whole big family that’d all be buried here. Maybe they even are, and nobody knows.’
‘Well you’re not levering the door open to find out.’ I tugged my jacket forward so that I could do up the zip. It seemed to have shrunk since it was last worn. ‘Finished?’
‘Then let’s go.’ I rose, brushed myself down, ruffled Gusto’s neck as he jumped against me. We passed an elderly man on our way out, kneeling by a grave and industriously plucking grass blades from around the stone slab, one by one. Gusto detoured off the path to give the man’s proffered buttocks a friendly sniff and then dashed back. By the time we got to the cemetery gates, the gathering clouds had all but gathered and were now swirling portentously overhead. Sure enough, the first droplets hit as we reached the car and by the time we were heading down the highway towards home had settled into a downpour that blew in gusts across the windscreen.
‘You realise that this –’ I nodded towards the weather just as a particularly squally burst of wind rocked the car ‘– is most probably Petar Majic, responding to your vandalism.’
‘Yeah, sure.’ Quinn rolled her eyes, but went quiet as she stared at the darkening sky. As the next gust swirled up, blustering against the windows, she jumped, and then wrapped her arms around the dog as she moved infinitesimally closer to me. I smiled to myself. The best piece of advice I had ever been given about parenting was that one had to cultivate patience. Because revenge was sweet.
There were three other cars in my driveway, none of which had been there when we left. A pair of hatchbacks, one musky yellow and the other intestinal pink, belonging to two more of my daughters, and a sleek silver Prius that heralded my sister. None of these people actually lived here, nor had a visit been anticipated. The rain increased in intensity as I found a spot to the side, in the mud, allowing them plenty of room to exit.
‘Why would you want a car that looks like Barbie vomit?’ asked Quinn. She opened the door before I could answer and a sheet of rain billowed in. Gusto scrambled across her lap and launched himself into mid-air, sailing a good metre from the car before landing nimbly. He took off immediately, rushing over to one of the marshmallow cars and relieving himself against the back wheel.
‘That dog has a bladder the size of a pea.’
‘Worse than you,’ said Quinn. ‘No offence.’
‘None taken.’ I shrugged as I leant towards the rear-vision mirror to check my appearance, quickly realising my error. Sometimes ignorance was bliss. I took a deep breath and jumped out, hurrying towards the house. There was a jumble of shoes spread across my sister’s backseat that a casual observer may have assumed indicated shoe salesmanship, or something similar. In fact Petra was what she called an entrepreneur, and I called a renovator, buying old houses and then repairing, restoring, redecorating – and making an obscene profit when she sold. Her latest project had brought her back to Majic for the first time in many years and apart from a couple of side effects, such as impromptu drop-ins, I was quite enjoying the proximity.
We bustled through the door, Gusto shaking himself vigorously and scattering tiny flecks of mud over the parquetry floor. Fortunately they matched. Quinn headed towards her bedroom with the dog at her heels, while I followed the sound of voices. My visitors were in the family room, having made themselves right at home. Ruby was sprawled across the couch with my new lap-rug, while Lucy was curled in the armchair with her laptop. Petra stood on the kitchen side of the island bench, levering the cork out of a bottle of wine. She looked up, smiling.
‘Oh good, you’re here. I was beginning to think tea would be late, and I’m starving.’
Ruby pulled herself up. ‘What is for tea?’
‘Ah, you do all realise that you don’t live here? That part of the whole not living here thing is that you also don’t eat here?’
‘It’s Sunday!’ said Petra, getting another wineglass down from the cabinet.
‘And Sunday is family dinner night. It’s tradition.’
I stared at her. ‘Since when?’
‘Since last Sunday, when I was also here for tea.’
‘Me too,’ said Lucy, stretching languidly. The laptop rocked on her knees.
‘You dropped in to borrow my drill, and you, Pet, only came by because you got stood up.’ I took the glass of wine she was proffering and then ushered her from the kitchen. ‘You both just happened to be here when I was serving up tea so I offered you some. That’s called coincidence.’
‘Coincidence … or tradition?’
‘What is for tea?’ asked Lucy. ‘Don’t forget I’m vegetarian.’
‘And I’m not,’ said Ruby.
I regarded her thoughtfully, and then transferred my gaze to her sister. I had five daughters, of which these were numbers two and four respectively. The eldest, Scarlet, was a police officer in Melbourne, while the middle one, Bronte, more commonly known as Red, had recently deferred university to take up a public relations internship in South Yarra. Tertiary studies were not proving particularly adhesive with my lot. Lucy had abandoned her own course last year in favour of finding herself, while Ruby was making a career of commencing degrees and diplomas only to discover her aspirations lay elsewhere. So far she had collected varying portions of librarianship, nursing, psychology and primary-school teaching. If anybody was in need of a partially qualified teacher who knew how to put a book away, a bandaid on, or spot the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath, she was all set.
Both girls were now temporarily employed by my mother, who owned a bookstore-cum-cafe in the centre of town. I had no idea how Lucy intended to go about finding herself, nor was I conversant with Ruby’s latest aspirations. In fact, these latter were being studiously avoided in all our current conversations, probably because the merest mention reignited my bitterness. It remained the elephant in the room. The perennially uneducated elephant, who had taken all the opportunities offered and then pissed them up against the wall.
‘That reminds me,’ said Petra, sitting on a bar stool and swivelling to face the girls, ‘will one of you two be home tomorrow around six? I need someone to let the shower-screen guy into my place and I’ve got another appointment.’
‘I’ll be there,’ said Ruby. ‘Just tell him to honk and I’ll come over.’
Petra living in the area was an unusual occurrence, but the unusualness was compounded by the fact that the house she was now renovating was on the same road as a house our mother was also renovating, which she had arranged for her two itinerant granddaughters to housesit. And both these houses also happened to be in the same road where she herself lived. So that currently my mother was living at 5 Small Dairy Lane, next door to her youngest daughter at number 3, who was next door to her two nieces at number 1, on the corner. It was like a bad soap opera for which I do not recall auditioning.
Quinn came into the room, followed by the dog. She was carrying a rectangular gift box, patterned with ninja turtles. ‘What’s for tea? And why’s everyone here?’
‘Apparently it’s tradition.’
I opened the fridge even though I knew there was no miracle waiting within; not even the odd loaf or fish with multiplication potential. There was, however, a lump of mince. I did some quick calculations regarding use-by dates.
Quinn cleared her throat, but still nobody asked her what was in the box. She put it on the counter and made a show of peering inside. ‘Auntie Pet, do you know anything about Petar Majic? Like his background?’
‘Just the sunset story. Why?’
She closed the box, ran a finger around the edge. ‘I’ve got to do a project about him that includes something unusual. Like his favourite colour, or the name of his horse, or –’
‘The fact he had a secret family no-one knew about,’ I interjected, turning on the electric frypan. ‘All of whom might be buried in the crypt with him.’
‘I did not say that!’ She turned back to her aunt. ‘But the situation is suspicious. Listen to this – his grave thing had an inscription that said he was beloved, which had been covered by a plaque that just had his name. Like, what’s that about?’
Petra raised her eyebrows. ‘You know this how?’
‘By vandalising the grave.’ I leant over to push the box towards her.
After glancing curiously at Quinn, she opened it. Her eyebrows shot up even further.
‘What is it?’ asked Ruby, pushing the rug away as she leapt to her feet. She came up to peer over her aunt’s shoulder. ‘That doesn’t say beloved.’
‘No, the other one does,’ said Quinn eagerly. ‘This was the cover-up.’
‘So you stole it?’
‘It fell off.’ Quinn avoided my gaze. ‘I’m going to get it fixed.’
‘So what’s your theory?’ asked Petra as Ruby laid the halves on the bench, fitting them together.
‘I think he had a secret wife who’s buried in there with him. Together forever.’ Quinn paused to let the romanticism of this concept permeate. ‘That’s going to be my fact.’
‘But didn’t he leave all his property to the –’ Petra glanced across at me fleetingly ‘– Sheridans? Why would he have done that if he had his own wife?’
Lucy twisted around. ‘I remember Mr Emerson coming to talk to us at school about him. I’m sure he said something about a woman. Hang on, let me think. No, I think she was someone else.’
‘Breaking news,’ said Ruby.
‘Maybe they weren’t married.’ Quinn’s eyes widened. ‘Maybe they were lovers, and their wedding was all planned. But he died first. Tragically.’
‘Or maybe the Sheridans were so happy about their windfall that they put the beloved bit.’ Ruby rearranged the two halves so that they now read JIC PETAR MA. ‘Then everyone was jumping to the wrong conclusion so they changed it.’
‘How did he die?’ asked Petra.
‘Fell off his horse.’ I was certain of at least that much. I was also happy to have the conversation move away from the Sheridans, who were not my favourite family. I took a sip of wine, then put a large pot of water onto the stove and stirred the mince. A search of the freezer yielded half a French breadstick, so I balanced that on the side of the electric frypan to defrost. Perhaps we could attach some conditions to this fledgling tradition, like guests bring something along. Or help.
Quinn gingerly laid her ill-gotten prize back inside the box. ‘Anyway, why would you have a huge crypt thing just for yourself?’
‘Maybe he was just a big man,’ said Lucy. ‘Or fat.’
Petra shrugged. ‘Or maybe he was planning ahead. Thought he’d get married one day in the future. After all, he wasn’t that old when he died.’
‘Thirty-eight,’ said Quinn, rather doubtfully.
‘And that sort of forward planning doesn’t really sit with his other actions,’ commented Ruby. ‘Like the sunset ride and all that. He sounds like he was more into spontaneity than deferred gratification. Personality types don’t generally change without a significant life event. It’s basic psychology.’
I opened my mouth and closed it again. Took another sip of wine instead.
‘Can I help?’ asked Ruby, now watching me.
‘No, all under control.’
‘Mate!’ exclaimed Lucy. ‘I remember now! He had a friend called Mate, and he was the one with the woman. I remember because it was so funny. Having a mate called Mate.’
‘Handy,’ said Petra. ‘Nell, are you teary?’
‘Onions,’ I said shortly, tipping the offending items into the frypan and then blowing my nose. Gusto ran into the kitchen and stared at me. I opened the fridge and removed his alfoil-covered can. It was empty.
‘Did you tell Red we were having a family tea tonight?’ asked Lucy, staring at her laptop. ‘Because she sounds a little pissed.’
‘I didn’t even know we were having a family tea tonight! How could I tell her?’
‘Good luck explaining that.’
‘I’ll set the table.’ Ruby looked at me as if waiting for praise, and then headed over to the dresser for placemats.
I poured a jar of bolognaise sauce over the mince and stirred it in, taking an obscure pleasure when the mixture turned blood-red. I wondered whether Petar Majic had died immediately or if he had lingered for a few days. I didn’t subscribe to Quinn’s theory, that there was a Beloved hovering over his deathbed, lace handkerchief clutched to heaving bosom. It didn’t fit with the other facts, such as him leaving all his possessions to his friend, the first of those damn Sheridans who now figured so large in our small town. And our lives. But perhaps the ‘beloved’ reference had been from the other people then living in Majic. Perhaps Petar had just been enormously popular, enormously missed. Even though he, himself, was actually alone.
I wondered how it must have felt, to have achieved so much, riches from the goldfields, a town named after him, a crypt the size of a small cottage, and yet have no-one to share it with. I glanced across at my tribe and it occurred to me that I was the exact opposite. No riches, or town, or crypt, but with people aplenty. Invited or not. In other words, I needed to count my blessings.
‘Mum, can you pick me up during lunch tomorrow and take me over to the community centre?’ Quinn leant across the bench to wave her hand in front of my face as if I was mentally deficient. ‘Can you?’
‘Don’t do that. And you’ll be in school.’
‘No, it’s curriculum day. Did you forget?’
I blinked, tried to ignore my sister’s grin. ‘Of course not.’
‘C’mon, it’s for my homework. And how long will tea be? I’m famished!’
‘If I take you there, then you can bring along the plaque and explain what happened.’
‘Famished actually means to endure severe deprivation,’ said Ruby, laying out cutlery. ‘Which is also a motivational state. Both of which I suspect are alien to you.’
‘Mum, did you remember that I’m a vegetarian now?’ asked Lucy, hoisting herself up to peer at the frypan. ‘Which means I don’t eat meat?’
I took a moment to inhale the smell of bolognaise and chardonnay and company, while trying to get back to counting my blessings. Unfortunately I’ve never been very good at maths.
There are secrets in the sleepy town of Majic, where the past trips over the present … and then looks the other way.
The country town of Majic is about to celebrate a milestone. It’s been 150 years since the founding father, Petar Majic, rode into the bush after a liquid lunch, vowing to build a house at whatever spot he reached by sunset. However, what happened next isn’t quite what town legend would have you believe. A minor act of cemetery vandalism lands local columnist and amateur detective Nell Forrest right in the path of historical inevitability. An apparent murder-suicide leads to the unveiling of a century-old scandal and a trail left by a trio of long-dead women.
Nell’s investigations are hampered both by the arrival of the handsome district detective and by her family. With directionless daughters, unplanned pregnancies, a spot or two of adultery and an ex-husband who wants her house, Nell barely has time for the case, let alone the energy to keep her wits about her. And Nell will need her wits as the mystery of Majic begins casting its shadow, putting Nell and her family in grave danger. In the end, Nell must decide whether it is a tale of epic fortitude, or treachery and ill-gotten gains, before the past catches up with her.
Ill-Gotten Gains is the second book in Ilsa Evans’ Nell Forrest Mystery series. Nefarious Doings is the first.
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Ilsa Evans was born in the Dandenongs, east of Melbourne, in 1960 and enjoyed a blissful childhood that has provided absolutely no material for writing purposes. Fortunately adulthood served her better in this regard. After spending time in an eclectic range of employment, from the military to health promotion to seaside libraries, she returned to tertiary studies and completed a doctorate on the long-term effects of domestic violence in 2005. She has now settled into an occasionally balanced blend of …