SLEIGHT ~ use of dexterity or cunning,
especially so as to deceive.
MALICE ~ the intention or desire to do evil; ill will.
Rough hands grabbed her. Clamped across her waist, his powerful arm squeezed the breath from her lungs. He hauled her backwards, her thrashing arms and legs no more an inconvenience to him than if she had been a pinned fly.
She coughed, her eyes watering as the hot, acrid air seared the inside of her throat. With both hands, she tried in desperation to prise the immovable weight from her stomach. “Let me go! Get…”
Her chest convulsed against the heavy, grit-
Back into the arms of the firefighter.
“What do you think you’re doing? You can’t go in there!” shouted the hulking black and yellow protective-
Desley James scarcely heard him over the din of the fire trucks, pumps and roar of the blaze. Her only concern was for Laura. Where was she? Had she been at home? Had she escaped the inferno? What about Ryan?
She opened her mouth to speak, inhaling a mouthful of burnt air instead. Spluttering, she bent her head forward and drew the thin cotton T-
“Have you got everyone out?”
The firefighter leaned down, his ear almost touching her face. “Sorry, what was that?”
She repeated her question, watching his face as her words, muffled by the fine weave of her makeshift filter, sunk in. He averted his gaze, but not before she had her answer.
“Oh dear God, no. Please tell me it isn’t true. It’s not possible,” she added in a whisper only audible to herself.
This time when he lifted her off her feet she didn’t resist; all the fight had left her. A female police officer joined them, draping a blanket around Desley’s shoulders as the firefighter set her down beside the open back door of a police car.
She shivered, pulling the blanket in tighter as she sunk onto the backseat, the wool fibres bristly against her hot skin. The vehicle’s interior light cast a ghostly pall over the two faces staring down at her.
Like limp party streamers the night after, blue and white police tape fluttered in the breeze. In the stark morning light, the suburban Melbourne bungalow’s blackened skeleton seemed to mock Desley: You’re too late…
The nearer she went, the more overpowering the reek of water-
Tired and more than a little tipsy, Desley had gone back inside, bypassing the dirty glasses, plates and two empty wine bottles littering the oversized black-
She woke with a start, sitting bolt upright, her eyes wide. Disorientated by the red and blue lights strobing her bedroom, she wondered for one absurd moment if a UFO had landed outside her window. The high-
Her heart hammering, she jumped out of bed, crossed the room and opened the door that led out onto the bedroom’s narrow balcony. The night chill cut through her long-
Trying hard not to panic, she raced back inside and down the stairs to the front door. Halfway out the door, she realised she was still wearing her pyjamas. She faltered, but only for a split-
She hadn’t had to go far to confirm her worst fears. The blaze from Laura and Ryan’s rented home lit up the street. Would she have plunged into the burning house if the firefighter hadn’t stopped her? Could she have saved her friend? Why hadn’t she insisted Laura stay with her while Ryan was in Sydney? She shook her head, the only answers to the mounting questions, more questions.
Oh, God, she suddenly thought, does Ryan know? Had the police tracked him down yet, broken the heartbreaking news to him? According to Laura, Ryan was due back from his business trip that morning; a homecoming he would never forget.
“I thought I might find you here,” said an instantly recognisable voice from behind her.
She started, sidestepping as she glanced over her shoulder. “What do you want, Trent?”
“That’s a nice way to greet your husband.”
“Ex,” she reminded him, although technically she was still married to him. In her mind, he had ceased being her husband the minute he walked out the door of their home three years ago to live with his young mistress.
“Don’t be like that.” He stepped in front of her, tilting her chin up with his fingers. “Hey, you’ve been crying—”
Her head snapped back, her hand slapping his away. “Jesus Christ, Trent, what did you expect? Do you really think I'm that much of a cold-
Trent blinked, confusion clouding his tanned face. “I don't think we're on the same page here, Des.”
Page? What did pages have to do with anything? Numb with grief she couldn’t think straight. “For goodness sake, Trent, just for once can’t you speak English?” She wasn’t in the mood to play his word games; she’d had enough of it during their seven-
His pale grey eyes peered at her from under long, blond, almost transparent eyelashes. She felt a small tug somewhere deep inside her and immediately felt angry with herself. He meant nothing to her.
Attack her best defence, she stood hands on hips, scowling at him, her chest thrust out like a puffed-
Cocking his head, he gave her a disarming grin. “You’re beautiful when you’re mad.”
Again, that familiar tug. She shook her head, dismissing it as stupid. He could save his corny lines and impish smiles for someone who cared. “And you’re bloody unbelievable!”
Trent sighed, his expression solemn as he looked past her at the burnt out shell of what had once been a house. “Perhaps we should start again.”
She gave a quick nod, her eyes following his gaze. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
“So,” he said, “do you know if they’ve unearthed Laura yet? It’ll take her a while to recover from this.”
Desley’s mouth dropped, her eyes brimming with tears as she turned on him. “You sick bastard!”
“What?” His hands came up, palms out in defence. “What have I done now?”
“Have some compassion. I know you and Laura never got on, but joking about her resurrecting is just too much, even for you.”
His face paled under his tan. “I didn’t know.”
“Didn’t know what? That they pulled what was left of my best friend’s body out of the fire last night? Or that she’s not going to miraculously rise from the ashes?”
She watched his lips moving soundlessly, and imagined his thoughts racing for the words to undo what he had said.
“No, you’ve got it all wrong, Des. Believe me.” He rubbed his hand back and forth across his chin. “God, I could do with a drink about now.”
She suspected it wouldn’t be the first for the day, but made no comment, waiting for him to go on. His drinking problems were none of her business.
“Unearthed; it was a poor word choice…”
What’s new, thought Desley irritably.
“I should have said located…”
She frowned at Trent as he snatched up her hands and squeezed them. His fingers felt hot and intimate against her cold skin.
“Look,” he said, meeting her gaze head-
She gasped, every muscle in her body tensing. Torn between disbelief and overwhelming relief, she searched his face for clues. Truth or sick joke? No smirk tickled the corners of his mouth. He held her gaze without blinking, his expression unchanged.
“Say that again,” she said, the hope cartwheeling through her head making her feel uneasy. What if he was wrong? What if she had misheard him?
“It’s simple: the body in the house was male. So unless Laura was a man in drag, it couldn’t possibly be her.”
“I don’t understand. How can that be? Laura was the one at home, not Ryan. He was supposed to be in Sydney.”
Trent shrugged. “I’m only telling you what I heard.”
Her heart sank. “Heard from who?” she asked, half-
“The police. The bastards woke me at some ungodly hour this morning, dragging me out of bed to answer their ridiculous questions,” he said, his voice taut with indignation. “Why the fuck they thought I might know anything, I don’t know!” He let out a loud huff.
The resulting blast of minty Listerine breath hit Desley square in the face. She blinked, her eyes watering. She wrested her hands from his grip and stepped backwards. She knew him well enough to know the overdose of mouth freshener was a cover for his drinking: either a heavy session the night before or a tipple or two that morning. She also knew him well enough to keep her mouth shut about it.
Although curious to the reason for Trent’s visit from the police, Laura’s welfare and whereabouts remained uppermost in Desley’s mind. “You’re telling me Laura got out in time, right? Is she okay? Where is she? Do they know who the man was?” She paused, took a deep breath and touched the back of her ex-
She groaned inwardly. Anxious as she was for immediate answers, she knew demanding he tell her there and then could only be counter-
“Not my place.” That would be too cosy, too much like how it used to be. Or rather, used to be before he decided he could do better with the floozy from the office. “Nina’s should be open,” she said, referring to the café and bar three blocks away.
The corners of his mouth twitched in the beginnings of a self-
Keeping up with his long-
Unwinding her scarf, she followed Trent through Nina’s arched doorway. A large Aboriginal Dreamtime painting in yellow and red ochres dominated one wall, providing the cosy café’s colour scheme. The superheated air inside felt like an oven after the cold outdoors. She took a deep breath, filling her nostrils with the tantalizing scent of freshly roasted coffee, and looked around for a vacant table.
Nina’s was surprisingly busy with only a couple of tables unoccupied. Desley spotted one for four near the window looking out to the street. She had begun to wend her way toward it when she realised Trent was making a beeline for a table she hadn’t seen, tucked away in a low-