Chapter Twenty-Six

It was months before I came back home. I mean, I managed to pop down for a couple of weekends, but even the time I could get away from work, I spent some of that with Glen.

A bunch of things that kept coming up after we thought we’d wrapped filming meant I was pushing getting back before Laura’s Big Deal: the Carter Club Twentieth Anniversary. She was working her arse off for it, being charming and implacable. Almost everyone was coming, Committee members going back two decades. Laura was organising events and accommodation, tracking ex-members down through the Club records kept immaculately by all the Thoths over the years. People were coming from Europe and the States. It would have been unforgiveable if I didn’t make it down from Auckland in time.

Laura met me at the airport. She looked… well, she looked like money. It was nothing most men would have spotted, but her dress was expensively tailored, and I reckoned she was spending five times what she used to on a haircut. And good on her, frankly. She’d always had exquisite taste, and it was clear that Michael’s money wasn’t wasted on her. There were streaks of gray in her dark hair, which was also new, but it suited her somehow. Made her beauty look more natural or something.

She enveloped me in a scented hug. “Oh gods, Hera, I’ve missed you. Rana will be so pleased to see you when she gets out of day-care. Bastard won’t give a shit but still, it will be good to have you home.”

We only stopped by home very briefly so I could drop off my bags and check the place over, and then Laura apologetically took me down to the Carnarvon. We were using it as the assembly point as people arrived in town, and she was personally greeting as many of them as she could.

Even in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week, the bar of the Carnarvon was about half-full. There were a whole bunch of people I didn’t recognise at all, both older and younger, and a few more that were vaguely familiar. On the whole I felt a little bit out of place.

Laura wasn’t about to let that bother her in the least. After a quick look around, she pushed gently past a very attractive bartender, grabbed us a bottle and a couple of glasses, and took over a booth.

“Now,” she said, as she finished pouring and leaned back on the well-upholstered seating, “tell me your plans. Are we going to have you around for a while, or are you bent on your super-star glitterati jet-set lifestyle?”

I shook my head. “Oh no, darling. You tell me about your plans. What’s this I hear about Mister Michael Rogers and wedding bells?”

She laughed, and ran a hand through her hair. It fell right back where it had been, in soft black waves. “Oh bollocks. We have talked about… maybe moving in together. It’d be less disruptive for Rana than all the shuttling back and forth. We’d be rather leaving you in the lurch, though. This wasn’t how I was going to bring it up.”

Despite her pretend-chagrin, she had something a glow about her. Laura was happy. I laughed. “Oh, dude, seriously? Don’t worry about me. You want to go live with the millionaire, you do it. How’s he handling Rana?”

She grinned, and that happy glow just wasn’t going anywhere. “He adores her. He knows I’m busy, he’s picking her up from day-care today. I think she’s what he thinks children should be like: quiet and smart and, well, basically short adults. I really… gods Hera, I hadn’t hoped for that, but he really loves my daughter. Who the hell is that? She looks familiar.”

I turned, following Laura’s eye-line to a tall slim blonde woman, so nondescript she looked screamingly out of place. Laura was right; she did look familiar, but I couldn’t place her.

She came right on up to our booth, and looked us both over. “You’re Laura Campbell, yes?”

Laura looked right back at her, cool. “That’s right.”

She got an envelope out of her jacket pocket, then opened it and took out a photograph. Passing it to Laura, she said, “What can you tell me about this?”

Laura raised an immaculate eyebrow. “What can I tell you? Quite a bit. What am I going to tell you? That depends. Who are you?”

The woman’s nostrils flared. She really didn’t like Laura. “Detective Sergeant Forbes.”

I clicked. “You’re one of the officers who came when Marianne went missing. And you interviewed Laura when Samuel died.”

She turned her disdain on me. “Yes. Perhaps that’s why that photograph was sent to me. There’s writing on the back.”

Laura turned it over, which meant I could see the front. It was of the Committee at a party, in half-costume. We were clearly drunk and happy.

Laura shrugged. “It’s what it obviously is. A bunch of us at a party. I couldn’t tell you who took it or when. Unless that’s the date on the back. Hera?”

She passed the photo to me, upside-down. On the back, in neat pencilled block capitals, were the names of the people in the photo:

Darren Peebles
Glen Nichol
Hera Lawley
Laura Campbell
Pete Webster
Marianne Bradburn
Richard Tulse

Under that was written a date, towards the end of my second year. It didn’t ring any bells. I’d seen the important thing, though, and I gave Laura a Look as I passed the photo back. Then I shrugged at the cop. “No, can’t help you.”

“That’s not what the date is,” she said icily. “A couple of the faces looked vaguely familiar, so I did a search on the names. Hera Lawley and Pete Webster were interviewed concerning the suicide of Lynne Dobson. That date is the day she died. It seemed like someone was trying to tell us to look harder.”

Laura’s face was tight with suppressed rage. “Lynne killed herself. There’s nothing to look for.”

“Lynne killed herself,” the cop replied. “Pity she didn’t leave a note, so we’d know. Thing is, when you keep looking at those people, well, the death rate around you is awfully high. Marianne, she died as the result of a tragic accident. So did Samuel. Possibly. Unless he committed suicide. Just this year, Benjamin Hastings shot himself. We don’t even know what happened to Patrick Kruger, he just disappeared. I’m not one to be superstitious, but I’d suggest to anyone I cared about that they stay the hell away from you lot.”

Laura slid to the end of the booth and got smoothly to her feet. She and the cop were standing way too close together for comfort, but neither of them was giving ground. Laura pushed the photo at the other woman. “Take your own advice, DS Forbes. Get the hell away from us. We’ve been through enough, as you so bitchily pointed out, and we don’t have to tell you anything. Leave my bar, now.”

A nerve in the other woman’s jaw twitched. She seemed angrier than she had any right to be. “And I’m sure everyone on my list will be just as flawless and adamant as you. Your organisation, whatever it is, it doesn’t have any weak points, does it Laura? Because I will find them.”

She stalked out, and Laura stood and watched her all the way before dropping back down into her seat. She looked vaguely uneasy. Almost worried.

I reached across and took her hand. “It’s okay. Even if we did have talky idiots on board, she’s looking for the wrong things.” I bit my lip. “I’d never thought about it all together like that before, but still. It really is just a massive co-incidence.”

Laura shook her head sharply, as if she were trying to clear it. “I know, love. And I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

I shrugged. Yeah, Patrick’s name side-swiping me like that was rough, but it had actually taken me by surprise so much that I still hadn’t really reacted. “I’m fine. But… you saw, right? What are we going to do?”

Laura leaned back and rubbed her temples. Again, her beautifully-cut hair fluffed about for a bit and then settled sleekly. “I don’t know. Good gods, she’s such an idiot! Even then, she couldn’t use his real fucking name. I think we have to tell him. Don’t we? Do we tell him?”

I grinned. “You’re asking me? Wow. You’re actually asking me. There are only three options, really. We talk to Peter about it, we talk to Gillian about it, or we do nothing. I don’t think that’s an option, though. If Gillian’s done this, I don’t think she’ll stop. I just, man, I really don’t understand what brought it on.” I paused. No, Laura wasn’t going to help me. “You haven’t been… um…”

She laughed with genuine warm delight. “Oh gods. No. I haven’t um. I’ve had other things on my plate. I haven’t been near that um for years. And… Peter and I are actually about to retire. We talked it over, and after the big Twentieth ceremony, we’re going to hand over to a new Isis and Osiris. It’s time, and then some. I’m getting too old to be hanging out with kids.”

I stared at her blankly, then drank the rest of my wine. Nope, that hadn’t helped. “You’re what now? But… what will you do?”

“Run the club. The Carnarvon, I mean.” Yeah. Right. I was pretty sure that’s what she would actually continue to do: run the Club. “And, well, I have plans. Dammit, I was supposed to wait and talk about this with all of you. I think we should expand. I mean, obviously we can’t just take in more members here, we’d become too noticeable. But I think we should open a branch at Otago, and Victoria. We have enough people in those cities these days, people shifting to do grad work; seeding would be simple. Think of how many more people we could help, that we could give this gift… Oh shit, I think that’s Lucy. Scuse me for a bit, Hera.”

I watched her sashay over to the bar and shake hands with a short dark woman in her thirties. After a couple of minutes they were laughing like they’d known each other for years.

They lost my attention when Peter came in. He stopped, and Laura introduced him to her new friend, who was almost ferally interested. Laura pointed me out, and he managed to gracefully extract himself.

He gave me a kiss hello, and then sat where Laura had been. Like her, he was now sporting a sprinkling of gray in his hair, and it suited him. I could see he’d keep his looks as he got older, in a George Clooney sort of way. Unlike Laura, he looked tired. Weary. He did not have a happy glow.

“So,” I said, a bit awkwardly, “I hear congratulations are in order. Laura says you two are retiring.”

He smiled ruefully, and starting drinking Laura’s wine. “About bloody time, too. That costume is not kind to a man no longer in the first flush of youth.”

I snorted. “Right. Whatever. I am not going to be goaded into a conversation about your arse. Largely because Laura isn’t here. She’s the God of Conversations About Your Arse.”

His smile slipped. “Not so much any more. She’s a bit preoccupied with her new man.”

I shrugged. “She’s in love. I think it’s sweet.”

“What?” He was staring at me, which I always found a bit hard to handle. It was too much eye contact, and I started getting shifty. “You think she’s in love with him? No. Why?”

I was thrown. He’d never been like this before. “Well, she looks… like that. Like she’s in love. Like she remembers he exists when he’s not here. Happy.”

He sank back into the seat, nursing his glass against his chest. Lucky glass. “Of course she’s happy. She’s got what she wants. You know she’s given up her job at the gallery? Michael thought she should. And he’s invested in the Carnarvon. They agreed she should be able to devote more of her energy to making it work as a business. Even if that means she has to live off him. Just for a while, you understand. Laura’s always been the Champion of the Underclass, and yet somehow she’s always been… money-adjacent.”

I shrugged uncomfortably. He was pretty much right, but I still couldn’t really see the problem. “They’re both happy. Let it go. What about you? How are things with Gillian?” Oh, yeah, Hera. Smooth.

He grimaced. “She’s… to be honest? I think this baby thing is slowly killing her. I wish she’d just… Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if I left her. She’s still young, she’d have plenty of time to find someone else. Someone who could give her children.”

I had a moment of Merlot Introspection. He loved Laura so much he was jealous when she fell in love with someone else. He loved Gillian so much he was prepared to give her up to give her a chance at happiness. I couldn’t work out which love was greater. It all meant something I couldn’t quite get my head around, something profound and sad. “Don’t be such a cock, Peter. Gillian’s a grown-up. She should get to make those decisions for herself.” I said it, but I wasn’t sure it was true. Gillian would never leave Peter, no matter how miserable she was. Who would leave Peter? It wasn’t a thing that could be done.

He raised a hand and waved, and I turned to see Glen and Darren, talking animatedly. “Oh shit,” I said. “Quick, we need a topic of conversation. Otherwise they’ll keep talking about whatever procedural motion they’re talking about, and we’ll have to drink our way out.”

Peter smiled, which was all kinds of good to see. “That’s going to happen anyway, Hera. Give in to it.”

I kissed Glen hello, we got some more wine, and it quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to get a private chat with Laura any time we were sober enough to cope with it. That was okay. There was no hurry.