Murder in Murloo

By Brigid George

Crime & mystery

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836
10 mins

Chapter 1

Up until the moment a human tornado hurtled past me roaring like an enraged elk, I had been lazing in the afternoon sun on the balcony of Murloo Mansion. The human tornado was really a petite young woman with a mop of wild red hair. When she scudded along the verandah spitting out angry reprimands over the rail at someone I couldn’t see, she jolted me out of my reverie.
Actually, an article in the local newspaper had monopolised my attention. The Claigan Clarion, which consists of local news when there is some, results of sporting fixtures, recounts of fishing conquests and detailed tide charts, is unlikely to hold the interest of a travelling Irishman like myself. However, this week’s Clarion carried a report of a murder that happened right here in Murloo, which is about ten kilometres south of Claigan where the paper is printed.
The headline read: Who Killed Gabby? A colour insert showed a pretty young woman with long blonde hair pulled back from her face, smiling at the camera with the confidence of youth. I found it difficult to reconcile this sleepy village, where the locals all know each other and visitors are mostly families or people interested in fishing, surfing and walking, with the violence of a vicious murder.
Another photo showed the dead girl’s parents standing side by side, the man with his arm around his wife’s shoulders. Profound sadness stared out at me from their faces. The article began directly below their photo.
Hans and Irene Peters should have been celebrating their daughter Gabrielle’s twenty eighth birthday this year. Instead, they will be observing the first anniversary of her death. The grieving parents are left frustrated by the lack of information about the murder of their daughter.
It was a warm autumn Sunday, one year ago this week. Murloo had settled back into its peaceful routine after the last of the summer visitors had gone. But evil lurked in Murloo. Gabrielle Peters, known to many of us as Gabby, was struck down when an unknown assailant entered her home and cut short the life of this popular young woman. Less than twenty four hours after Gabby had telephoned her parents in Claigan to let them know she would join them for dinner the following Monday evening, she was dead.
A murder had been committed in our tranquil seaside town for the first time in its history. One year on and police have no leads on who murdered the much loved daughter of Hans and Irene, or why.
That’s the point I was at when my serene solitude was fractured.
“Stop that! Leave her alone!” yelled the redhead.
Then, in a vision of colour, for she was dressed in a lime green shirt and multi-coloured leggings in a crazy pattern, she descended the steps. The fabric of her shirt clung to her bottom and revealed the shape of that part of her anatomy which I had time to admire only briefly. Angry words seemed to jettison off the ends of a turquoise scarf that billowed above her head during her frenzied descent of the stairs.
“What the hell are you doing, you idiot?”
Who was she yelling at? Dropping the newspaper on the table, I hurried to the balcony rail. On the grassed area below, not far from the path that circumnavigated the building, was a young man who was apparently suffering, or perhaps enjoying, the effects of liquid lubrication. One of those effects was the illusion that the woolly sheep in front of him was a fencing partner and the piece of timber he held in his hand a sword. With a drunken sneer on his face, he jumped, albeit unsteadily, and jabbed and blocked the sheep, his clumsy thrusts sometimes hitting the defenceless animal.
Onto this scene marched the red-haired young woman who planted herself between the inebriated youth and the frightened sheep.
She spat out a command. “Drop it!”
The youth waved the piece of timber and pointed it at her. “Who’s gonna stop me?” he slurred. “You and whose army?”
His derisive laugh was abruptly terminated when Redhead changed the position of her feet and brought her hands out in a combative gesture. In an instant, she had grabbed his wrist with one hand and flicked his hand with the other, ejecting the piece of wood from his grasp and sending it plummeting to the ground. Before he had a chance to blink, she flipped the youth over and tossed him onto the grass, pinning him there with her knee. The fact that her opponent was taller by five or six inches hadn’t deterred her in the slightest.
I was momentarily stunned by surprise and admiration. However, when I saw Redhead lean over to pick up the piece of timber with the apparent intention of beating the youth around the head with it, I pulled myself together and charged down the stairs. By the time I bounded off the last step, the bleating sheep had cantered away.
On reaching the duelling duo, I discovered the youth hadn’t been beaten to death after all. One side of his head was still flush with the ground. His eyes were swivelled sideways, fixed on the piece of timber that threatened to smash his head in. His squirming and wriggling attempts at escape were futile; Redhead had him firmly pinned to the ground.
“How would you like it, you snivelling, cowardly bully? How would you like a few jabs with this piece of timber?”
“Bloody hell. You’re crazy,” said the imprisoned youth who had apparently made a rapid return to sobriety for he no longer slurred his words. “What’s the matter with you? It’s just a dumb sheep.”
I looked at Redhead. Her nostrils flared. Her green eyes blazed. Wary of that piece of timber and the volatile hand that held it aloft, I remained a few paces away.
“Are you planning on killing him?” I asked.
Her prisoner seized the opportunity to enlist an ally.
“Get her away from me,” he whined.
She answered my question without taking her eyes off the youth. “This scum? He’s not worth it.”
With one smooth motion she released her hostage and straightened up, still wielding the piece of timber. The youth rolled away and scrambled to his feet.
Redhead yelled at him. “Don’t you ever do that again, you hear?”
He didn’t look back as he hastened off. Redhead projected a parting shot at his back.
“And for your information she’s not just a dumb sheep. Her name is Mimi.”
Behind us, I could see grinning faces at the long windows of the public bar. Several of the drinkers saluted Redhead with their tankards of beer.
“What you need is a drink,” I said.
She stared at me. Her sharp breathing and flushed cheeks indicated her anger level was still high.
“Can you believe that miserable little wimp? It’s only a dumb sheep.” She repeated the youth’s words with severe indignation. “It’s only a woman; that’s what he’ll say when he beats up his wife one day; if he finds any woman stupid enough to marry him.”
I wasn’t sure that she had heard my invitation for a drink. I thought it might be prudent to wait a few minutes before repeating it. I was definitely going to repeat it because I wanted to get to know this fascinating creature. She wasn’t what I would call beautiful. Apart from the green eyes, she had fair skin with freckles and, as I have already mentioned, a mop of red hair. It hung thick and loose with curls that cascaded around her face and below her shoulders like a mass of wild heather. When I say red hair, I mean a darkish red, not the carroty red, but she was a definite redhead.
Back home in Ireland, a girl once told me I had a disarming smile. I was contemplating using it to try to pacify the angry woman before me when she finally managed an abrupt response to my suggestion.
“Fine! Yes! A drink.”
Thrusting aside the piece of timber, she headed for the steps. I hurried after her. When we reached the balcony which doubled as an outdoor dining area for the bistro, I pointed to the table I had been sitting at.
“Have a seat. What would you like to drink?”
“Oh. Whatever!”
Damn! How was I supposed to guess what drink she’d like? I turned and headed toward the panelled French doors that led into the bistro. Wine? That seemed to be what most of the women I met in Sydney had preferred. But white or red? I had just reached the door and was pulling it open when she called to me.
“Make mine a G & T.”
Thank goodness for that. When I returned with her gin and tonic and a Guinness for myself, Redhead was staring out across the water. As Murloo Mansion is situated on a bluff overlooking the Southern Ocean, the balcony offers magnificent views. The cries of seagulls mingled with the breaking of waves beyond the sand dunes which separated the ocean and the narrow estuary. She turned toward me when I placed the drinks on the table and I saw that she had calmed down. The flush had left her cheeks to reveal a creamy complexion beneath the freckles.
“My name is Sean,” I said, sinking into a chair. “Sean O’Kelly.”
She raised the glass of gin and tonic and flashed a smile at me.
“Sean O’Kelly,” she said. “Your name suits your accent.”
“Right. Yes. I suppose it does.”
I cast a surreptitious glance at her fingers. No rings! Still, that didn’t really mean much these days; she could be in a relationship or even living with someone.
“Thanks for this. I needed to calm down a bit,” was all she said.
Her Australian accent wasn’t broad and I found it pleasant to listen to.
“And you are?” I tried not to make my question sound too interrogatory.
“You want to know if my name suits my accent?”
“Something like that.”
“It does,” she said.
I didn’t respond to the teasing challenge in her eyes by asking again for her name. Instead, I changed the subject.
“So, what was all that about?”
“That moron, you mean?” A tinge of anger was back in her voice.
It seemed to me the actions of the moron had touched her on a personal level. I wondered if there was more to her anger than a response to the abuse of a defenceless animal. Perhaps she had once been in a similar position to Mimi; being bullied by a violent male. On the other hand maybe she had some sort of personal connection with the drunken youth.
“Right, that moron with the sheep. Do you know him?”
“No. I heard Mimi bleating and looked out the window and saw him tormenting her. Poor Mimi; she’s an old lady. She’s fifteen years old, you know.”
“Jaysis! Is that right? I didn’t know sheep lived that long.”
“They probably don’t as a rule, but Mimi’s been well looked after. She belongs to Giuseppe—Giuseppe Di Stefano. He lives just down the road. Mimi’s always getting out and wandering around the place; sometimes gets into people’s gardens and eats their flowers.”
“Right. I’m guessing that doesn’t make her very popular?”
“Oh, people get mad at her and chase her away but everybody loves Mimi really.”
“You used some pretty smooth moves. I take it you’ve studied martial arts.”
“Karate. Since I was a kid.”
“Right. I’m guessing you’re a black belt.”
“You’re guessing right.”
“That’s impressive. What made you take it up?”
“I learned early on that the world isn’t always a safe place.”
Her face hardened when she said this and the firm set of her mouth warned me that I might be on dangerous ground if I questioned her further. For a few moments she seemed oblivious to my presence. Then she sipped her drink and looked over the top of the glass at me.
“And what brings you here to Murloo, Sean O’Kelly?”
I risked teasing her a little. “What makes you think I’m not local?”
“Well, apart from your blarney-stone accent, you haven’t got the right skin to be an Australian, let alone local to this area.”
I put a hand up to my cheek. “What’s wrong with my skin?”
“Nothing. It’s just that it’s obvious you didn’t grow up in the Australian sun, that’s all.”
“Right. You know, I was half expecting you to have an Irish accent yourself. With all that red hair, I mean. Lot of red hair in the Irish genes.”
“But not in your genes?” she said.
“Well, my hair does have a reddish tinge. That makes me special, you know. Blue eyes and red hair is a rare combination.”
“Your hair’s brown,” she said, her tone dismissive of my attempts to claim special status. “And you didn’t answer my question.”
“What brought me to Murloo? Right. Yes. Well, I came to Australia about three months ago. On a working holiday, you know. Since then I’ve spent most of my time in Sydney. I wanted to see more of Australia so I took a few months off work, you know, to travel around. Came down the coast, crossed the border into Victoria and I saw the name Claigan on the map. As a kid I once went on holiday with my family to a place called Claigan in Scotland. So, of course, I had to stop and look around. Anyway, when I came down here to Murloo, I liked it; wanted to stay on for a while.”
“And you can afford to stay at a place like this?”
Perhaps I should have been affronted at her assumption that I wouldn’t be able to afford the luxurious accommodation of Murloo Mansion, but it was a reasonable supposition. One glance at the brochure had told me the prices here were definitely out of reach of the average person.
“Right. Yes. Well, no. I’m not actually staying here. I thought I might pick up some work in the bar, you know, if I hang out here and make a nuisance of myself for long enough.”
“Casual bar work won’t bring in much money.”
I shrugged. I wasn’t about to tell her that my mother had sent me a nice fat sum of money as a Christmas gift. Probably not a good look.
“Did you work in hospitality in Sydney?”
“Mostly.”
I had acquired some experience in hospitality through working part time while at university so when I arrived in Australia had found a job in a Sydney restaurant almost immediately.
“Is that what you trained for?”
I shook my head.
“What then?”
I hesitated, considering inventing an occupation that might dazzle her. Would I arouse her interest if I were a pilot? Perhaps an international entrepreneur who knew famous people would appeal to her? With her green eyes fixed on me in a direct gaze, I had the feeling she saw right through me. In the end I decided, reluctantly, on the truth.
“Information Technology.”
To my surprise, instead of her eyes kind of glazing over which was the usual polite way of saying, Oh, no not a nerd, I saw a gleam of interest appear in them.
“IT? Is that right? Are you one of those unbelievably clever people who know the inside, backside and all sides of a computer?”
“I don’t know about unbelievably clever, but I do have a degree in electronic engineering from Dublin University.”
“So you know your way around the internet?”
I nodded.
“Maze masters, that’s what I call people like you.”
“Maze masters?”
“Yep. Well, to most people all that stuff is like a maze; the more you try to work it out, the more confusing everything gets and the more mistakes you make and the more frustrated you get. But someone like you—you just walk through the maze as if it was a straight path. It blows my mind.”
Here was my opening to ask her about herself.
“What about you? What brings you to Murloo?”
“Oh, work...friends...family...lots of things really.”
“You live here?”
“Used to. Grew up in Claigan.”
I waited, but she offered no more information. Her mind seemed to be preoccupied with her own thoughts. Nostalgia perhaps? Having grown up with seven sisters I prided myself on my ability to understand the female mind—notwithstanding my obvious limitations as a male. But there was something elusive about this lady with the wild hair.
Out in the estuary a pelican, its long bill stretched forward and wings expanded, was gliding, swooping and circling against a backdrop of blue sky. I watched for a few moments, admiring the impeccable grace of its undulating wings. Then, to break the silence before it became awkward, I held up the newspaper I’d been reading earlier.
“Bad business, this.”
Sadness clouded her face. I realised, too late, I had been a fool to bring it up. Since she grew up here, she probably knew the dead girl; it wasn’t just a newspaper report to her.
“I’m sorry. Did you know the girl: Gabrielle?” I folded the paper over so that the front page was no longer visible.
“It’s all right.” She reached over for the paper and opened it again, smoothing out the creases. “I didn’t know her, not really.”
I decided silence was the best response.
“But I know how the family must feel,” she continued. “Their lives have been shattered since this happened. I know what that’s like. A fatal accident would be tragic enough but this is so much worse. Murder; it spews a vile gloom. Their lives will never be the same again.”
Her comments prompted me to look at the picture of Hans and Irene Peters again. I wondered what had been reflected in their faces before grief settled there. Did they once smile at the camera with carefree confidence like their daughter in the other photo?
“It must be hard for them; the family I mean,” I said. “Knowing the murderer is still out there somewhere, you know, maybe even in the community.”
“Yes. But I think most people here have convinced themselves it was an ‘out-of-towner’. There were a couple of itinerant surfers here that weekend and they disappeared the day Gabby was murdered.”
“Right. You mean the police never tracked them down?”
“No, which is pretty weird. It looks as if they’ve deliberately disappeared.”
“Suspicious.”
“And convenient,” said Redhead.
“Convenient?”
“Because the locals can convince themselves the murderer wasn’t one of them.”
An elegant finger played with the ice cube in her drink. “They’re probably right,” she continued, “but no-one really knows for sure. That’s the worst thing; for the family especially.” She pushed the ice cube under the liquid and watched it bob up to the surface again. “Gabby was only a couple of years younger than me. I can’t help thinking if I had a younger sister, she might have been the same age as Gabby.”
That, and the fact that the murder had taken place in the area she grew up in, probably made it personal for her.
“The murderer has to be found,” she said.
I detected a hint of a challenge in her tone.
“It says here,” I said, turning the paper towards me and scanning the last paragraph of the article, “that some big shot author from Melbourne is coming here to write a book about the crime apparently with the intention of solving it. Dusty Kent, his name is. Never heard of him myself but I guess his fame hasn’t reached Ireland.”
I read aloud from the paragraph. “Kent’s best-selling book, Murder Upstairs, resulted in the killer finally being brought to justice four years after the brutal slaying of an innocent teenager.”
“So there you are,” I said as I folded up the paper. “One best seller and he probably thinks all he has to do is write a book and the killer will confess.”
That’s when I heard Redhead laugh for the first time. It was a tinkling, tickling sound that floated across the table and encircled me.
“I like you,” she said when her mirth had subsided.
Unsure if she was being sincere or just pulling my leg, I opted for what I hoped was a dignified demeanour and said nothing. The wisdom of keeping my mouth shut soon became clear.



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