- Publisher: Painting the Bridge Books
They say lightning never strikes twice, but Rae Holland knows better.
Already dealing with the aftermath of death and betrayal, Rae’s life is thrown into crisis when her neighbour is murdered. She wants to know who killed ‘Smokey’ Joe Whitmore and why.
For John Lawrence, Smokey’s death is an affront to the natural order. Smokey was a brother. A warrior who shared John’s pain and scars. He deserved to die fighting, not trapped in his wheelchair.
But Smokey was a man with secrets. Despite losing his legs in Uruzgan, he established a successful business. If you wanted something dangerous, and had the money, Smokey knew where to get it.
Now his business partners want to know what happened to their money and weapons. They don’t care who gets in their way.
Can Rae and John avoid getting each other killed while they pursue their own leads? At least long enough to find out who killed Smokey?
Here is Chapter 1 of COMFORT ZONE
“I’m meeting him tomorrow, Mum.” Rae Holland switched her phone to the other ear and twisted to keep an eye on the grey-muzzled crossbreed that had trotted away to share an arse-sniffing moment with a chocolate-brown labrador.
Across the park, late afternoon shadows had pushed the sunshine off the lawns and onto the wall of the old cemetery, giving the graffiti-covered sandstone a warm glow. Humans clustered in chattering groups over the grass while their dogs dispersed around them, the older ones socialising with sniffs and tail-wags, the younger ones chasing balls. Or each other, tearing around in mad, tongue-lolling circles.
“Not before time,” her mother said. “You only get one chance at this. You need to make sure you’re good and ready.”
“I’ll be ready. Stop worrying.” Rae moved the phone aside, put two fingers in her mouth, and blasted a whistle towards the dog. It was loud enough to draw looks from half the people in the park. “Selective deafness,” she muttered, apologising to everyone and no one. “Come on, Stoker. Time to get you home.”
This time the dog decided to respond, but only after pausing for one last sniff of the lab. He had an expectant look in his milky old eyes as he trotted up to her.
“Good boy,” she said, clipping on his leash.
Her mother was still talking when Rae pushed her hair out of the way and put the phone back to her ear. “—and you’ve only got a week.”
“It’s nearly two weeks. Patrick knows what he’s doing.” She pushed herself up off the grass and brushed leaves off the bum of her cut-off jeans.
“Well I hope so,” her mother said. “I really do.”
“I’m paying for his expertise, Mum, and I’m going to listen to him.”
“Are you sure he’s up to—”
“Yes, I am.” Rae cut her off before she said something about Patrick being Vietnamese.
“Because I spoke to Donald Prescott the other day and he—”
“I like Patrick. And anyway, it’s too late to change now.” She set off down the hill as gold and pink clouds flared in the west. A jet climbed into the darkening sky, leaving Sydney behind. “Don’t worry, it’s all under control.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“What time is your appointment? I’ve got the hairdresser at ten… I could reschedule that. Janice won’t mind.”
“No, Mum. I’ll be fine. I’m going to get past this inquest, then I’m going to get on with the rest of my life.” She said it confidently, to convince herself as much as her mother. Get through the inquest and draw a line. Move on. Make a fresh start. She just wasn’t sure yet where to go, or what to start.
“It wouldn’t be a bother,” her mother said.
It would bother me. “There’s no need.”
Stoker led the way to the bottom of the park and across the road into Callow Street, where giant fig trees made a tunnel of the road, blocking out the glow of the sky. Fruit bats arriving for the night shift clawed the air between the trees, caught in flapping, squealing silhouette against glimpses of sky.
“You should have someone with you, Rae, especially for something this important. It’s what Dad and I do when we see his doctors. We always have a coffee afterwards and compare notes.”
“It’s okay, Mum.” Stoker stopped at the gate to his house, a converted warehouse next to the townhouse where Rae lived. “Let me handle it, please. Let me do it my way.” She slipped her key into the street gate and pushed it open. “I have to go now. I’m back at Smokey’s place. Bye.”
Rae disconnected the call and pocketed the phone.
The brick facade of the renovated warehouse had been turned into an external garden wall, with barred-steel gates in the doorways and windows, allowing leafy glimpses into a courtyard. The old roof trusses formed a kind of industrial-grunge pergola above.
On the inner side of the courtyard there was a new wall, clad in corrugated steel to match the industrial feel of the building.
No lights were visible inside as she unclipped Stoker’s leash. He ignored the water bowl that was his usual first stop and went straight to the front door.
“Out of the way, mate.” She pushed him aside with her knee so she could get to the door, but he squeezed past as the door swung open.
Don’t mind me. She hung the leash on the coat rack by the door and called out to Smokey. “We’re back. Do you want me to feed him?”
There was no response, so she stuck her head into the kitchen. “Smokey?”
Tree-filtered light was spattered across the polished concrete floor between the benches and the kitchen table. Stoker’s claws clicked as he walked into the middle of the room and whined.
“Smokey? You there?” Rae reached for the switch and a grid of LEDs froze the kitchen in brilliant clarity. Rae blinked once, taking in the sprays of blood, then she screamed.
Smokey was face down on the table, blood pillowing his head. Grey and red glistened in his hair, his massive shoulders slumped against the edge of the table. Rae’s head was full of screaming. Hands over her face, she managed two steps away from the horror before her legs went.
No no no. Not again. She slid to the floor, screams becoming sobs, eyes squeezed shut, as she tried to hold away the images. Destroyed heads and too much blood. Henry and now Smokey.
Stoker sniffed the blood and let out a short whine before coming back to stand over Rae. He nudged her shoulder and licked her face until her sobs became whimpers. She slowed her breathing and let the shuddering gulps fade before she looked again. With her head on the floor, she could see beneath the table where Smokey’s blood had sprayed and puddled around the tyres of his wheelchair.
She sniffed and wiped snot off her face before reaching for her phone. Her fingers tapped in the three zeros automatically, just like last time.