Read STRANGE BODIES (a gripping crime thriller) Online
Authors: Antonia Marlowe
She paused for breath and Nicholas jumped in quickly. He realized that with Adelaide one needed to seize the opportunity. The others were smirking a little at his discomfiture and even Fraser was trying to conceal a grin.
‘Er, Adelaide, could we get back to the purpose of this visit, please. Oh, yes. First, as your phone rang you said there was something else.’
‘Well, a couple of things actually. The Richardsons were supposed to be from South Africa and they claimed they were being persecuted because Roberta was mixed race. That’s a load of bollocks. There’s no way she’s coloured … Lucy, tell Nicholas what you saw.’
‘Well, I’m a beautician and when Adelaide went to see them to try to get them on the show I went with her and I particularly noticed her hair.’
‘But a lot of women dye their hair, don’t they?’
‘Yes, but I can tell the difference between a home job and a professional one. And another thing, she was probably taking tan tabs … her skin colour was just a bit off. Now I worked on plenty of coloured folk in the US and believe me she ain’t one of them, or mixed race either.’
‘Thank you, Ms Winsome. That confirms what we learned recently about her. Now, what was the second thing you mentioned, Miss Browne?’
‘I keep the information about the Richardsons and other guests on my office computer, nothing here at home. It’s passed on to the police the night of the interview. We always do that when we’ve found enough information for the cops to mount a good case against the person, fraud or other illegalities. In one instance, they arrested them on camera. Pre-arranged, of course.’ She grinned.
‘I see. So in what format is the information passed on? Emails? And to whom is it sent?’ He turned to Bob Fraser. ‘Have you heard about anything like this, sergeant?’
‘No, sir, nothing comes to mind. I’ll check when we get back.’
‘Oh, no need, I can tell you. It’s sent from my work computer ... I have an office at the station I use two or three times a week and my PA does all the donkey work … answering my fan mail, calls, all that stuff. She sends the info out when I tell her to.’
‘Again, who is this sent to?’
‘Oh, didn’t I say? Usually North Sydney, they’re the closest. To the man in charge, I think it was a Chief Inspector … George something … no, the name’s gone. It’s funny, one time we sent the information as usual, irrefutable proofs and evidence and no one turned up, police I mean. That fellow got away and they didn’t find him for months. They swore they didn’t get the info till the next morning. That was odd.’
She looked thoughtful. ‘We suspected at the time that someone may have diverted or delayed it for a few hours. I thought maybe I’d been tapped. Or hacked or whatever you call it.’
Adams was starting to get a headache, but ploughed on valiantly. ‘Ms Browne, I need to know more about where and how you got the information about the Richardsons. This was a very nasty murder, one of the worst we’ve come across. I can’t give you the details but someone very sadistic has done this and we need to catch him or them. I’m not giving away much when I say we think this murder is a result of something from their past, a revenge killing perhaps.’
‘Look, I can’t really tell you more. I am given the information; I don’t find it myself. I am but a mere conduit.’ She smiled sweetly, but there was a glint in her eye.
‘Then just tell me just who gave you the information about the Richardsons.’
She glanced quickly at Verity and shrugged when Verity frowned at her. ‘I think Verity might be able to give you more help with that.’
‘Well, Ms Burne, is that correct?’ asked Commander Adams turning to her.
‘Well, maybe to a certain extent that’s true but I use various researchers and there is information coming from all sorts of places,’ she said blandly.
‘Don’t mess me about, please. I want everything you’ve got on that couple. And I want your sources.’
‘Sorry, but I can’t do that.’
Nicholas knew stalling when he heard it. He said forcefully, standing as he spoke, ‘Quite frankly, Ms Burne, I don’t give a damn at this stage. We’re trying to catch a sadistic murderer.’
‘This is a formal request. Attend my office tomorrow morning, eleven-thirty, please, with all the data you have on the Richardsons.’ He handed her his card. ‘This is the address and the office number. You’ll be met in the car park. Sergeant Fraser, arrange that, please.’
Verity opened her mouth as if to object as he fixed his eyes on her challengingly. She tried to answer his look defiantly but dropped her eyes first.
‘Very well,’ she said, quietly. ‘I’ll be there at eleven-thirty.’
Bob Fraser handed her a coded card, smiled sympathetically. ‘This will get you into the car park where someone will be waiting to bring you up to the Commander’s office. We’re on full security at all times. You’ll be driving, Ms Burne?’
‘Yes, I’ll be driving.’
Adams turned to the others who were now looking a bit shell-shocked. ‘Ms Browne, ladies, thank you for allowing us to intrude on your evening. I hope we haven’t disturbed you too much.’
‘Not at all, Commander. And I’m sure Amy didn’t mind catching up with her old friend.’ Adelaide was all charm.
‘I’ll see you out,’ said Amy. Bob Fraser took her hand as they reached the door and murmured, ‘See you tomorrow, Amy.’
As they made their way to the car Nicholas merely raised an enquiring eyebrow at his sergeant.
‘What!’ Bob exclaimed. ‘I canna have a private life!’
‘Sergeant Fraser, Robert, old mate, you are one lucky bastard. She is a lot of woman.’
‘Yes,’ he grinned. ‘She is that. She certainly is that.’
‘Didn’t she say Mrs Lightfoot—or did I mishear?’
‘Aye, she did, but I asked and she’s divorced. What was it with you and that Verity Burne? Mind you, she’s another stunner. Different style to her cousin, quietish but... Was there something going on there?’ asked Fraser.
‘No, no, nothing,’ Adams muttered. ‘Look, drop me off at HQ and take the car home. I’ve got a couple of things to do first. We can ride in together in the morning.’
Bob Fraser gave him a look that would have had lesser mortals confessing all but just said something that sounded like, “Humph.”
Adelaide said, ‘Nicholas Adams was well worth meeting again, even in these circumstances. What do you think, Verity?’
‘Mmm,’ she said, gazing off into the distance.
‘Oh, come on, Verity. Even you must agree he is some delicious eye candy,’ said Lucy with spirit. ‘He is just about the cutest guy I’ve seen since I left New York. And that voice … I just love that classy English accent. Everything he says sounds so important. Did you notice that scar on his forehead? I wonder if that’s from a bullet.’
Adelaide laughed. ‘And did you notice he couldn’t take his eyes off Verity? I don’t think the rest of us existed once she came in. Hey, Vee darling, looks like you’ve won the most eligible bachelor in Sydney. After my Dr Dick, that is.’
‘Don’t be so stupid,’ snapped Verity. ‘He wants to question me about my research! Do you have any idea what that means? He’ll want to dig and I’m going to have to stall and lie. You know how I blush when I lie.’
‘Hey, calm down. And don’t forget, he doesn’t know about the blushing problem,’ said Amy soothingly.
Adelaide looked amused. ‘I’ve decided I want to see more of the doctor, a whole lot more.’ Her eyes lit up at the thought. ‘I did rather fancy the Commander when I first met him, and so did every other woman in Sydney, but he seems to be smitten with Verity. I’d better go or I’ll be late for the jet and Irlana will fret. See you all tomorrow. Verity, be sure to call me when you escape from the third-degree and thumbscrews.’
Verity arrived at Fortuna House a few minutes early. She had expected to spend the morning working on a tricky electronic problem so the timing of this interview was particularly annoying
She felt apprehensive, not only because of the information he would ask about, but because of the attraction she had sensed between them. She pushed that out of her mind and thought about how she would handle this; she had to keep her methods of circumventing
The barrier dropped as she approached, reading the pass she’d been given, and sensors guided her car to a vacant bay where a uniformed security guard waited.
‘Ms Burne, your pass, please.’
He took the pass and exchanged it for a small silver badge. ‘Please pin this on and I’ll take you to Commander Adams’ office.’
‘You take your security duties seriously here, I’m pleased to see. Now can I see
He tapped the badge on his shirt pocket with a small scanner, then turned it to show her the result. She read his name, Max Weller.
In the elevator he touched the palm plate. ‘Floor sixteen. Express.’
The full-length mirrored walls of the elevator reflected her pale face and set expression; she tried to relax and adopt a more neutral expression. She had dressed for an editorial conference later that day, or so she told herself. Her makeup was subtle and her hair brushed to a gleaming cap. The red jacket looked good over a black on black striped top and knee length black skirt. Since she wasn’t intending to walk very far today she had worn medium heels, black sandals passed on to her by Adelaide. In fact most of her clothes came from Adelaide who tended to wear things once then hand them on. They wore the same size though Verity was taller and Adelaide had bigger breasts which she enjoyed emphasising with low cut tops. Those Verity rejected.
She felt a bit overdressed and wished she had worn her usual casual clothes and comfortable slides. Suppressing all thought of the unwanted attraction she had for the Commander, she moved into the reception area.
‘Good morning, Mrs Halifax. Ms Burne to see the Commander.’
‘Thank you, Max. Ms Burne, please have a seat. He won’t be long. Would you care for a drink while you wait?’ She smiled.
So this is the one he got all bothered about. First he asked me to book an interview room, then changed his mind and said he’d interview her in his office. Not like him to dither.
‘No, nothing, thank you,’ said Verity as she took a seat and looked around the reception area. There were couches and a couple of matching chairs, a small table or desk to one side and an end table. Mrs Halifax had a pot of colourful flowers on her desk but apart from some framed maps of old Sydney on the cream walls the room was quite anonymous.
After a few minutes the office door opened and several people came out talking amongst themselves as they left. She recognised Bob Fraser who gave her a nod and a smile.
Adams appeared in the doorway. ‘Come in, Ms Burne.’
He turned and walked back to stand in front of his desk.
She took a couple of steps inside then stopped dead—the floor to ceiling windows with a magnificent view across the harbour froze her on the spot. For a few seconds she was swept back to another time and place, the horror and fear draining the colour from her face. With an enormous effort she pulled herself back to the present, hoping he hadn’t noticed her momentary hesitation.
Nick had noticed, but said nothing.
I wonder what alarmed her then, a fear of heights or a memory of something
‘We’ll sit over here, Ms Burne,’ he said gesturing to a compact conference area on the other side of the office, well away from the windows. She sat and waited for him to begin the questioning. He followed her and put a small silver disc on the table.
‘I’ll be recording this to protect both of us. As you see I am interviewing you alone, as this is not so much a formal interview but more in the nature of a fact-finding mission. I’ve turned off the cameras so this will only be a voice recording. In fact, I’ll give you a copy when you leave.’
He sat opposite her and continued. ‘Thank you for sending through all that information about the Richardsons. I gather you are the liaison for RAZZ, the collator, as it were. We spent some time this morning going over it. Quite extraordinary the amount of detail you … that is, the researchers have uncovered.
‘As I said before I need to know more about where you got this information as it appears someone else with superior skills has been at work too. Our own c-tecs, the cyber crime investigation detectives, would be hard pressed to dig up what your researchers have. The fact that the Richardsons are using false identities is significant and to be able to enter Australia from South Africa with the names they’ve been using shows they had a lot of money to be able to buy false IDs.’
She nodded but said nothing; she seemed determined to say nothing until he asked a direct question.
He went on, ‘This was a very nasty murder. The microchips of both victims were neutralised ... something no one outside authorised government agencies should be able to do. The data you’ve given us about the Richardson’s secret bank accounts, and the fact that they are now empty, is one of the aspects we’re very interested in. I need you to tell me how you got the information and more importantly, who you discussed it with.’
She sat still silent, her head down.
‘Ms Burne, I need an answer, please,’ he said looking directly at her.
Verity said, ‘I’m sorry, Commander, I can’t help you. I can’t reveal my sources and under existing law I am not required to.’
Nicholas Adams was holding tight to his emotions but anger overrode his personal feelings. He stood up, his eyes went flat and hard as he said angrily, ‘I don’t accept that. You need to give me that information. This is a major crime—my job is to investigate and under
code I can use any and all means to pursue the information I need. I don’t give a
for your ethics. Look, look, this is what you are protecting, the person who did this.’
He grabbed a remote and pointed it at the wall and a huge video image of the fig tree appeared. Then she gasped in shock as the picture moved, the branches of the tree swayed gently in a light breeze, as did a grotesque figure dangling at the end of a rope. The camera slowly moved in for a closer look and she realised that it was two bodies, not one, that were somehow joined together. She fell back in her chair, but before she could see any more details the image winked out and she looked dazed.
Nick was alarmed at her reaction and said, ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry, so sorry. I shouldn’t have shown you that.’
He got up and walked quickly to the door. ‘Mrs Halifax, coffee please. Quick as you can. And some water too.’
‘There’s water in your fridge, sir,’ she said. ‘I’ll bring the coffee in a few minutes.’
He got a bottle of cold water from his small fridge, filled a glass and took it to her. Her hands were shaking so much he had to hold the glass steady so she could take a few sips. He watched as she pulled herself together.
Her colour came back and after another minute, she looked up at him and said, ‘I have seen some pictures of this but they were still photos, and the bodies were lying on the ground, separate, not tied together like that.’ She gestured to the wall screen where the video images had been. ‘I also saw some shots of their backs. There was something carved there but I couldn’t see what it was. I think it was deliberately blurred, because the rest of the shot was clear. What was it? Was it words? They ... the images were emailed to my computer at home yesterday, last night. I don’t understand what’s happening. I didn’t discuss this with anyone. I don’t know how but I think some information on the Richardsons was lifted from my computer.’
She couldn’t seem to stop talking now. ‘No one should be able to get into my system—it’s protected with multi-level security.’ She bit her lip as if realising the implications of her words.
Adams was watching her carefully. She was shaken out of her usual calm and now was the best time to push for the information he wanted. He knew she was being less than truthful about something but he before he could push harder, there was a rap at the door and Mrs Halifax came in with coffee for them. ‘I don’t know how you prefer it, Ms Burne, so I brought milk and sugar. The Commander has it black.’ She put the tray on the table.
She gave a strained smile and said, ‘Thank you, I have it black too. No sugar.’
As Mrs Halifax left, they both drank, grateful for the respite. Nicholas noticed then what she was wearing. The strong colours suited her as did the subdued makeup she was wearing.
Verity finished her coffee and put the cup back on the tray between them on the table. He followed suit then said, ‘I am truly sorry, Ms Burne. My anger got the better of me then. I should never have shown you that. Any murder makes me angry and when it’s the sort of overkill that this one seems to be I get even angrier.’
‘I understand, but it’s not just the video ... I feel guilty. I feel as though I was responsible for that ... that.’
He said, with some passion, ‘No, never think that. The people who murdered that couple are the ones responsible, you know that. No matter how corrupt, how bloody awful the Richardsons were they did not deserve that. No one does. And no one has the right to act as judge and jury, to take another life, to decide that they are above the law. I have come a long way to make my home here and I have sworn to uphold the laws of this country, as I did in the Met.’
He looked a bit embarrassed at the speech that had burst out of him. Verity was looking at him now, her head on one side and, he was pleased to see, a very small smile played around her lips for a second or two.
‘To answer your question—the word you saw on their backs—it was burned in with a laser scalpel. It was used to do other … no, believe me you don’t want to know what else was done to them.
‘Now, I know you have to protect your sources so we’ll come back to that later. But please tell me how long ago you obtained this information and who you discussed it with.’
‘I can’t be exact, but about five or six weeks ago, I received an anonymous email, data about Gerald and Roberta Richardson, and Walter and Cissy Cooper. There was a note telling me to take a very close look at these people, that they were not what they seemed and would make good subjects for RAZZ! I checked them out, found plenty about the Coopers who were on her last show. I’ve still got the emails and I’ll send them to you.
‘I tried to trace the source but got nowhere. Well, I got everywhere, bounced from one country, one city to the other, even off Lunar Station Four and various satellites. Someone really knows what they’re doing, which is not easy with
monitoring all transmissions. They must have some powerful programs to do that. And another thing—someone knew I was a researcher for the show and that’s not generally known.’
That was food for thought and needed further investigation, but Nicholas said, ‘Indeed. In that case, are you sure you didn’t talk to anyone else, Ms Burne?’
‘I am sure I didn’t.’
He took a different tack. ‘Ms Burne, you were seen having lunch two days ago with Marcus Havington at the
. And I’ve been told this is quite a frequent occurrence when he is in Australia.’ He looked straight at her and willed her to meet his eyes. ‘Tell me, what exactly is your relationship with him?’
He didn’t really think there was anything in those meetings, he still had to check, and he had a personal curiosity that he barely acknowledged. He didn’t, at this stage, know what would turn out to be important.
Verity looked startled for a second, gave him a steely gaze then said, ‘Excuse me one moment,’ as she tapped a gold pendant on a fine chain. He’d noticed it earlier but had paid no particular attention to it. She stood and walked a few steps away.
‘Marcus? Verity. I’m with Commander Adams in his office. He asked me a rather personal question about our relationship … yes … no, I’d rather you spoke to him.’ There was a pause. ‘No, not now. Yes, good idea.’
She tapped it again and said, ‘Sir Marcus would like a word with you please, Commander. Just speak.’
‘Sir Marcus, Nicholas Adams here. I’m sorry to …’
The voice was surprisingly strong coming from the tiny speaker.
‘Nicholas, my boy. Lovely to speak to you again so soon. Now why don’t you pop around to my office and we’ll get this all sorted out.’
Nicholas glanced over at Verity and couldn’t help noticing a barely concealed smile on her face. ‘I didn’t know you were still in Australia. I tried to call to make that appointment as we discussed but your … Orlando Gray said you didn’t have any time available until next week and that you would be away until then.’
‘I was planning to head to New Zealand for a day or two but I can handle that from here. Other more important matters arose. Gray is very protective of me—it is his job after all.’
‘Well, I’ve never been clear on exactly what he does.’
‘He’s my Systems and Security Chief. Very clever, very highly qualified in all branches of electronics. In fact he’s been head-hunted by almost everyone including …’