An excerpt from Moordenaar, Chapter 3 ….
The street she’d once lived in, that house with all the memories. Her house, now. Van parked in the street. Mum’s rule: “only use the driveway if my car isn’t there.” It was there. Her mother wasn’t, but the car was there. In the garage. Silent. But it was there, a dark blob through the visi-panels on the doors.
“. . . condolences, dear.” That was the common thread. They were people she had known for more than half her life. Still, they could not understand the pain. No one could understand this pain. Murder and suicide. Her father had at least held on until the very last. His illness had dragged on for years. Pancreatic cancer – it was supposed to be quick; stage four was always a quick road to the end. He held on, in weakness and pain and greyness, for three years after diagnosis. The pain killers, the drugs, the sleeping pills – he was always fuzzy in his interactions with Van. Towards the end, the pain was so clear in his eyes, the colour faded from a deep, dark blue to washed-out grey. He stayed for her; he said that. He hung on for his little girl, his life. Yes.
She had to believe that, had to stop thinking that everything in her life, everyone in her family, died horribly. She had to move forward, take action, believe in herself.
How? Her father’s slow, painful death had caused her to withdraw into a world of her own. Years of counselling, of therapy, did not take away that pain. She decided to forget. And she did. She forgot everything. She forgot how to remember.
Only years later, in adolescence, did she realise she’d lost all her capacity for memory. One counsellor gave her a task – learn how to use her mind as if it were a house. Create rooms, hallways, purpose. Put away the things that hurt too much until she needed them or could deal with them. Put the too painful things into little boxes, or behind glass so they couldn’t hurt her; put them into a safe, where she could access them only when ready.
Van created her own space in there; not like a house, like a library, like a bank. She learned it well. Used it for the rest of her life.
Her father she put in his own safe place. She hadn’t been back there yet. Not enough years gone to ease that pain.
Her mother – why? Why now? Suicide was against her mother’s principles and religion. It was a sin. And she had an obligation to her other daughter – to Van. Olympia’s death, her murder, was horrific. It tore at Van’s heart. It ate at her soul. But she had to go on. Her mother should be there too, shouldn’t she? How was that fair? Who would help Van deal with Olympia?
And now – now Olympia was a cold case. And no one cared.
What did she need to do to get the case opened again? Evidence. She would find evidence – hard evidence. She would walk this path alone, no one to support her, no family. Only the past to haunt her, and a future that held nothing if she did nothing.
Van stepped out of her car.
“You poor dear,” Mrs Petty cooed from behind her border of yellow buddleias.
“Thank you, Mrs Petty,” Van said without opening her lips too far. “I appreciate your concern.” Now would be the time to set up concrete alibies.
“I was wondering if you could help me with the house – not with cleaning up or anything like that – when I get it ready to sell, I mean. Could you show people through? Could you be the contact person for the real estate? I’m just not sure I could cope with that side of it – and you used to do that, didn’t you? Didn’t you sell the house to Mum?” Van’s voice cracked. She hadn’t meant to do that, but if the look on Mrs Petty’s face was anything to go by, it served her purpose. Mrs Petty’s eyes sparkled with unshed tears.
“Of course, my dear. I’ll do whatever I can. We all will.” Her arm swept the neighbours into her bosom with a gesture of encompassment. “We’ll be here for you. Anything you want, you just ask – anything at all, any of us. We all loved her, you know.” A strange look crossed her face. “We all loved your mother, of course, and everyone loved little Olympia.” Now a tear dribbled along the bottom of her eyelid. She turned away, flapping her gardening gloves behind her back. “Just let us know.” Mrs Petty disappeared behind the arch of orange vine, bowing her back as she toddled up the stairs and into the Federation style house that was typical for the suburb.
The whole street would know inside an hour that Van was going to sell the house. Now she just had to make it look like she was doing work, or getting work done, to keep them interested, but distant. It was the community thing, to give a person space to grieve, to give them time. And Van needed some time, and some distance, and some good alibis.
“Thank you, Evelyn,” Van said into the phone, responding to the fourth offer of help so far. The cracked voice had worked well on all of them. The demonstration of grief was easier to do on the phone – all she had to do was picture the soggy roses drooping on her mother’s rain-soaked coffin, the lack of people at the un-consecrated section of the cemetery where the coffin went into the ground. There had only been two of her mother’s work colleagues, the un-ordained minister, Van, and the detective watching from a distance. And Van’s stepfather, Bob, on the other side of the grave. Why had he allowed them to bury her there? Her mother had her own plot, in Houghton, in the hills, where the summers were cool and winters sometimes brought snow. Where apples grew, and cherries, and pears and grapes and almonds. Where life after life might have brought some calmness.
“I just need some time to sort through the things here; go through the paperwork,” another sob, suck in a deep breath, “before I get someone in to do maintenance.” She listened carefully to the noises coming through the phone – was Evelyn holding her hand over her mouth? Probably.
“When you’re ready, Van, we’ll be here. All of us. We’ll be here for you.” The voice was muffled. It seemed she was trying hard not to cry. Now all Van had to do was hiccough, and Evelyn would cut the conversation. It was bad form to pester a grieving person. Van did the hiccough. A subdued stifle of sound came through the earpiece. Van clapped her own hand to her mouth, but something escaped. She couldn’t giggle now. Not now.
“Van, we’ll be here. Call when you’re ready. Bye for now. Bye. We love you.” Her voice was pitched high, like a child’s, the last few words the highest. Evelyn had responded with the expected empathetic response.
Worked like a charm. Van smiled as she disconnected the call. The half-laugh must have sounded like something else to Evelyn. How many else would call? The top five street mothers were in the know – surely, the others would leave it at that, get their gossip from the main arteries? She turned down the volume on the phone and got to work.
From the car boot she dragged in the folded packing boxes, rested them up against the miniature statue of Michael in the front hallway. The front room, her mother’s room, was large, airy, with the best view of the front garden – weeping trees and tall tree ferns. Van opened all three windows. The greenness in the front garden made the room so cool in summer, so fresh with the smell of lavender, rosemary, and sunshine brought in with the breeze.
A sour smell hit her throat. What was that? The smell seemed familiar, but wasn’t nice. She sniffed. Maybe it was from the house being empty of people, or locked up. Maybe a leak, or something mouldy somewhere in the room. Van walked over to the wardrobe and opened the doors – yes, the smell was in there, too.
All the clothes from the double wardrobes she pulled out. Her mother’s clothes she threw over the bed. The wardrobes were jammed full, and only about one third belonged to her mother. Bob’s clothes she threw on the floor.
Van sat on the edge of the bed. All the colours of the rainbow littered the multi-hued silk patchwork bed cover. She and her mother had made this quilt together, in the year after her father died. It held all her grief for him. She’d keep the quilt.
The clothes were bright, shiny, deep, glossy, dark, luminescent, twinkling, wavy, woven, patterned, plain, but not one piece was dull. Her mother had never been shy with colour. When she wore them, they were alive. Now all dead. Lustreless. Nothing but material. Van threaded her hands through the cold pile of colour.
It had been a joy to her, as a child, to be able to play with her mother’s beautiful things. Not allowed, certainly, but when mother wasn’t looking, little Savannah had played in the wardrobe of grown-up clothes and colours. Even when they had scrimped and saved on everything, her mother made her clothes into something magical, mystical, memorable. A hot tear ran down Van’s cheek, splatted onto the fabric, left a dark mark in the water-silk material. She dropped the dress, stood, staggered out of the room, left the windows open, but dragged the door shut behind her.
The cardboard boxes stood there, waiting.
Olympia’s room was silent. Oppressive. The bushes outside the window were too tall; the light was gone. Darkness invaded and stayed. The corners hid in the dullness. Van walked to the wardrobe and slid the door open. The clothes all looked the same colour, the same shape, the same size. This wasn’t like Olympia. She loved colour as much as her mother. When was the last time Van saw Olympia? What was wearing?
Grey. Why would Olympia wear grey? The school uniform was blue-grey with red markings. Where were her other clothes? The real ones. With colour.
Van reached up to the overhead storage, pulled down all the cases, flung them onto the bed.
The strange smell wafted up, stung her nose. Sour. There must be a leak somewhere. The maintenance program her mother held to would not have allowed a bit of damp to linger for even a second. She would’ve jumped on it.
Before Olympia . . . before all that happened, she would have. Now? Now, the house felt unloved. Empty. Dirty, somehow.
The walls closed in, the shadows crept closer. Van tried to suck in a breath. Couldn’t. Stepped back. Crashed into the wall. Where was the door? She felt with her hands. Nothing. Blackness crept in from the edges, closed in on her, closed her out. She slid along the wall to the floor. Sobbed.
It was too hard. She shouldn’t have come here. She should call someone else in to do this. The lump in her chest eased. Yes, she would call someone else to do this. To clean up. To fix the house. Get rid of that smell. To sell it.
The cellar! The smell probably came from the cellar. The dark curtain across her eyes faded, allowed light in. Of course. There was a sump-pump down there. The power was off, so the auto kick-in was off. That was it! She could do something about that right now.
The handle to the cellar door didn’t turn. Locked. When was a lock fitted? Not in the time she lived here. A good lock, too. Top of the range. Why would that type of lock be on a cellar door? She looked carefully at the door. New. She tapped on it. Solid core; this was a fire door. Her experience in security said this type of door was used only when there was a third party risk – usually a business or warehouse or manufacturing site – or to protect items of high risk or high value.
She’d call a locksmith if she couldn’t find a key during the clean-up. Another thing to add to the long list of tasks.
The door to her mother’s room had swung partly open. Van stepped in, looked at the mess. She walked to the bed. Her mother’s clothes she would leave until later. All Bob’s stuff she shoved into garbage bags. Donations to Vinnies, or dump it? Dump.
Her mother’s clothes she wrapped carefully into long-term vacuum bags and laid them across the bed. Shoes – where were her mother’s shoes? One pair stood alone in the shoe rack designed for dozens of pairs. Her mother loved shoes. Beautiful shoes, all the colours of the rainbow to match her clothes and bags – bags? Where were the bags, the belts, the brooches? Jewellery?
Why was she just noticing these things? Had someone stolen them? No. The house was secure. She should check the floor safe on the far right of the wardrobe, hidden under the ratty carpet.
Van shimmied in close so she could see the dial, and opened the safe. She had always been trusted with the her mother’s collections.
One box was in the safe. One. There should be at least ten folders – all the important paperwork – and four carved wooden boxes for the jewellery pieces. Most were costume with little or no value, but there were some things – the emerald ring, the parti-coloured sapphire triple set of earrings, ring, and necklace. An unset pink diamond, Olympia’s favourite colour, set aside for her eighteenth birthday.
She inched her hand around the box and lifted it out. The outer rim of the box had glue overflow set hard. The box was sealed. Why?
This box she added to the pile of things to take back to her unit.
The pile was small. A few books, two paintings done by Olympia, one of the pair of Persian rugs she and her mother had bought together. Van had the other rug in her unit. Two vases that had originally belonged to her paternal grandmother, which she didn’t like, but couldn’t leave. And the quilt. Her mother’s red beauty case sat on the carpet beside the dresser. She picked that up and added it to the pile. And the box from the safe.
Van packed the pile into a cardboard box, rolled the rug, and had to make two trips to put the lot into the backseat of the car. The curtains fluttered at the main window across the road. Good. They saw her. She slammed the door and went back inside.
Now that the watch was in place, and the day was almost night, she was ready.