As Long As She Lives

By Darcy Conroy

General fiction, Thriller, Crime & mystery

Paperback, eBook

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708
6 mins

Chapter One

The Great Ocean Road plunged into the Otways Forest and Cait Lancaster lowered the window of her borrowed car. Eucalyptus. Ti-tree. Damp bracken. Home.
She wasn't ready. She could still turn back. No-one knew she was coming. Which was terribly rude, when she thought about it. Sure, if they'd known she was in the country she would have been invited but as it stood, she was basically crashing the party. It would only be polite to do a U-ey right now and head back to Melbourne.
"Merde!"
A bright orange ute fishtailed onto the road in front of her. She swerved into the emergency lane and stamped on the brake. Two trail bikes swayed in the ute's tray and a beer bottle flew out the window as they disappeared around the bend.
Handbrake. Emergency lights. Breathe.
In her side mirror, the dirt road they must have come from was clear and signposted. She hadn't registered it at all. She reached for the hair band she kept around her wrist, pulled hard and let it slap against the tender underside. She wasn't sure if it was the pain itself or the gasp that the pain caused but it always cleared her mind.
She was ready. She had, quite literally, trained for it. Steve had chosen her niece's birthday party for good reason. The family camp site was familiar, happy ground for Cait and they’d be less likely to ask difficult questions surrounded by six-year-olds.
If worse comes to worst, Steve had said before she'd set out this morning, let them see that it makes you uncomfortable to talk about it. When you have to, give everyone a different part of your story, then the gossip will be all about putting your story together, not questioning it.
She pulled back onto the road.
It wasn't long before a flutter of red and yellow caught her eye against the grey-green of the eucalypts. Balloons tethered to a familiar roadside mailbox marked the track into the forest. No turning back now.
The track was chopped and muddy – too many tyres too soon after rain. The steering wheel fought her as the car rocked and slipped toward the campsite. She didn't dare take her foot from the accelerator for fear of getting bogged.
Handmade "Parking" signs pointed to what they had always called the top paddock, though it had never held animals. The sundried ground was firmer under her wheels as she made her way along careful rows of sneaker-shaped four-wheel drives, each with what seemed to be an obligatory stick-figure family on the back window. The sight of a white four-wheel drive with a vanity plate reading FLISS made her chuckle. In his last email, only weeks ago, Sean had told her that Felicity wanted one of the gas-guzzling cars. He’d sworn he'd never have one in his driveway.
Leaving her gear in the car, she made her way down to the main clearing. A veritable village of tents surrounded the shed, which had always been the heart of the site. Actually "shed" was an understatement. It was really a triple-car garage on a concrete slab raised a metre from the ground to guard against flooding. All three roller-doors were open but the shed was deserted. A CHOCK! and a cheer floated in through the back door. A game of cricket was in progress in the lower paddock.
Peeking out the back door, Cait watched as the batsman whose dismissal had no doubt caused the cheer exchanged the bat with the next player, who posed when he reached the wicket. The bowler ran in and, with a windmill of arms, sent the ball down. The batsman stepped in and swung so hard he spun right around. Half the spectators cheered. The fielders moaned as the ball flew over their heads, through gum tree branches and into the river. Beyond the natural boundary of the field, this was a clear six runs. One of the fielders sank to the ground, shaking his fist at the sky, getting a good laugh from the rest of the team. Cait grinned; Felicity hadn't trained the larrikin out of her brother altogether.
Cait slipped out the door as the wet ball was returned to the bowler. He took a slower run this time, building to speed then another windmill of arms and a yellow-green blur spat out. The batsman whacked it higher and further and this time it was heading straight for Cait. Sean turned and barrelled after it but had no chance of stopping another six. He dropped his gaze and pulled up as he spotted her. "Kitty? Kitty!"
She waved. "Hi!"
"Catch it!"
"What?"
"Catch the ball!"
"Oh!" Already the ball was on its downward arc and if it hit the ground the six would be her responsibility. "Right!"
Relocating the ball in the sky, she ran, lungs bursting, legs pumping. She wouldn't make it. Unless she leaped.
Her elbows gouged the bare grass as she landed. The ball dropped into her hands. Childhood training took over and she rolled onto her back, holding her prize high off the ground. The fielding team's cheer told her she'd done her country proud and she laughed her first deep laugh in months.
"What are you doing here?!" Sean pulled her to her feet and hugged her so tight she lifted from the ground. "Where have you been? We've hardly heard from you for months!"
"I know. I'm sorry. I emailed when I could." That was true, at least.
"When did you get in?"
"Yesterday." Technically true.
"You should have called! We'd have picked you up."
"I wanted to surprise you."
"Mission well and truly accomplished!" Felicity arrived, smiling a little too brightly, and leaned in for an air kiss. "Are you staying tonight?"
"Of course she is!" Sean said.
"Only if there's space. I didn't realise how many people you had coming."
"We'll make space."
"We'll chop down a tree if need be." Riley, their oldest friend, strode up to them balancing a small girl-child on his shoulders.
"Hey Riley."
"Hey Kitty Cat."
Cait was surprised to feel herself blush and amused to see Sean scowl briefly. Riley had started calling her Kitty Cat when she'd hit puberty and Sean had begun over-reacting to any male attention she'd received. Evidently it still got a reaction. She rolled her eyes and tried to catch her niece's eye all the way up there. "Hello Daisy."
Daisy squealed and buried her eyes in Riley's hair, which wasn't long enough to give her much cover.
"Daisy," Sean said, "say hello to your Auntie Kitty. She's come all the way from Africa for your birthday."
The sound of her own lie from Sean's mouth set Cait's chest throbbing. She focused on the two blonde pigtails waggling over the top of Riley's head.
"She's a little shy," Sean said.
"'M not!" But her gaze stayed firmly hidden.
"Come on Daize," Riley pried her hands from his forehead, lifted the little girl from his shoulders and set her down inside the circle of adults. "It's just Auntie Kitty."
Chewing the inside of her cheek and twisting her fingers together, Daisy stared at her aunt's feet. Cait crouched down.
"Hello Daisy. Do you remember me?"
Daisy nodded at the ground.
"Really?" Cait said. "You were only two when I was here last."
"I do."
"Daisy, sweetie," Felicity said. "You were too little."
In an instant the little girl's face reddened and her hands balled into fists.
"I do! She wears yellow dresses and … and she eats flowers and she cries all the time!"
A rich silence fell upon the circle. Cait was glad she was squatting down, not having to look any adults in the eye
"Auntie Kitty doesn't eat flowers Daisy!" Sean said, forcing a guffaw.
"Yes she does. She does!" Daisy's little fists flew to her hips as Felicity joined the laughter. "Stop laughing! I remember her in our back yard!"
"Actually, she's right." Riley joined Cait crouching at Daisy's eye level. "Kitty does eat flowers."
"I do?"
"Sure you do. You've never been able to walk past jasmine without plucking a flower and sucking the nectar out of it."
Cait looked into Riley's crinkle-eyed smile and was surprised by a zing through her body. For a moment she was a teenager again, wishing the sexual frisson in "Kitty Cat" wasn't just to tease Sean.
"That's true!" Sean swooped his daughter into his arms, leaving Cait and Riley smiling at each other. "Uncle Riley used to call Auntie Kitty Ermintrude – after the cow in The Magic Roundabout with the flower in its mouth."
The zing blinked out. Riley smirked and straightened up. Cait followed his lead.
"See?" Daisy's voice was shrill. "You and Mummy should say sorry for laughing at me."
"You're right," Felicity said. "We're very sorry. We shouldn't have laughed."
"Can I have strawberries now?"
"Of course you can." Sean set Daisy down again and she skipped away.
"That's my signal to get dinner started," Felicity said. "We'll have to catch up later Kitty."
"Of course. Is there anything I can do?"
"It's all under control. Riley's on tent duty, he can help you find a tent and a spot for it."
"Will do," Riley said as Felicity headed toward the shed.
"I brought a tent, actually," Cait said. "I thought you might be using the ones in the shed."
"You bought one just for this weekend?" Sean asked.
"No. I found one in the house I'm staying in."
The two men's eyes widened.
"The house you're staying in?" Sean said. "How long do we have you?"
"How long do you want me?"
"You're home?" Riley said. "For good?"
"I've got a house sitting contract for twelve months, so at least that."
A sharp pain stabbed at her right shoulder blade as Sean whooped and lifted her from the ground again. "Where?" He set her down and the pain subsided. "Not too far from us I hope?"
"Prahran. Off Commercial Road, near the market."
"Prahran's not as safe as it used to be. Maybe Riley should check it over. Make sure it's safe."
Cait began to laugh but Sean wasn't smiling.
"For goodness' sake, Sean–"
"No. No. Kitty. He's right," Riley said. "In fact. If you give me your mobile number, I'll put a trace on the GPS and a panic button app that'll come straight through to Major Crime." Riley held a straight face for a full second and Sean was soon laughing at himself. Cait chuckled along but her humour was dampened by the thought of the GPS tracker and panic button app already on her phone.
"If you two are going to gang up on me," Sean said, "I'm going to go and get the fire started. Riley's rostered on tent-putting-upping, so he'll help you get settled."
Sean put his hands on either side of Cait's face and pulled her forehead down for a kiss.
"So happy you're home."
"Right," Riley rubbed his hands together as Sean left them. "Let's get you set up."
"Riley!"
They turned to see one of the former batsmen waving.
"One sec!" Riley called. "Sorry. I promised I'd find him an air pump. I'll meet you in the car park."
"I'm fine to put a tent up. It's a little one."
"Ah, but you don't know the Fliss-approved sites."
"Just point me in the right direction. I know this place pretty well and it looks like you're needed."
A group was forming around the man waiting for the pump, each of them casting expectant glances Riley's way. "If you're sure."
"Absolutely."
"Okay. We put the singles in the little space up near the pond. There's only a few of us, you'll see the small tents." He leaned down and planted a gentle peck on her cheek. "Welcome home."
Cait smiled as he jogged away and kept smiling as she made her way past the shed, through the forest of tents and back to the top paddock where she ducked down behind her car and hugged herself. She rounded her right shoulder blade as much as she could but dislocating it wouldn’t have stretched the damaged muscle enough to provide any relief. A familiar swelling heat told her new bruises were forming. The pain was going to get worse and she didn’t have anything to treat it. Idiot! She'd considered packing some pain killers but she hadn’t needed them for a month and she was sick of being a walking pharmacy. What had she been thinking, diving on to the ground to take that catch? "Stupid! Stupid!"



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