First Chapter FREE – Eclipsed

 

CHAPTER ONE

Everything that deceives also enchants.     Plato

Jade Sheffield held her mobile phone in her hand wondering if she should try to call her younger sister back.  She had just missed the call but she was on her way out the door for an important function that her law firm was hosting.  She was already running late so she decided it could wait until tomorrow.  Amy was probably just calling about some trivial boy problem she was going through again.  She dropped her phone into her handbag as she raced out the door.

 

Detective Brent Hunter watched the lights of the Gold Coast glitter strip fade from his rear vision mirror as he drove west toward the foothills of Nerang.  He barely acknowledged his partner in the seat beside him as he cursed his rotten luck.  How long would this night end up lasting?  It was mid-week so he had expected a routine evening.  Maybe a few drunk and disorderly pick-ups on the beach then an early end to the night so he could be up with the sun for his morning surf.  This callout was outside of the usual run of things.

The harsh lights from the ambulance cut through the darkness alerting him that he had reached his destination.  He pulled up behind it then stepped from the car.  A tall lithe figure in his dark jacket, his wavy blonde hair glowed alternately red and blue each time the flashing lights illuminated it.  His shorter and stockier partner, Martin Andrews, stepped from the other side of the car then without a word, headed directly for the house. 

Hunter took a soft pack of Marlboro Lights from his pocket and gave the bottom of the packet two practiced flicks with his thumb.  A cigarette popped up and he took it between his fingers.  Smoking was the only vice in his otherwise healthy lifestyle.  As he lit it and looked toward the house, he braced himself for the scene he was about to witness.  His father, a career cop, had been able to detach himself in these situations.  He had discouraged the show of emotions in his son under his guise of ‘tough love’.  If his father were still alive, he would have been disappointed in his son’s progress.  In the few years since his promotion to detective, it had never become easy for Hunter. 

While he waited for the nicotine to settle him, he looked up and down the street.  There was movement behind some of the curtains but the neighbourhood remained behind closed doors.  It was a typical suburban street where everyone seemed to be content to mind their own business.  He watched as Andrews exited the house then sidled up the street and knocked on one of the doors.  He took a final drag on the cigarette, crushed it under his foot then headed toward the crime scene. 

The first thing he noticed as he entered the house was the distinctive smell of blood.  Its metallic scent reached his nostrils, and something else.  The faint smell of burnt meat.  He had a momentary flashback to backyard family barbeques, when his father frequently spent more time drinking beer and socialising than attending to the steaks.  He glanced toward the kitchen and saw a wok on the stovetop with strips of blackened beef in it.  A wooden spoon lay abandoned in the middle of the white floor like a blemish on porcelain skin.  Someone had turned off the gas and the meat sat unattended, part of a meal that the family would never consume.    

He turned his attention to the grisly scene in the living room.  There was blood everywhere.  Red splatters had ascended the pale walls and sprayed across the white tiled floor.  The family were Asian; though he could tell more from the décor of the room and the women’s traditional dress, than from any recognition of their disfigured faces.  A man sat slumped in a chair in the centre of the living room, his body tethered by loose ropes.  He wore dark trousers and a threadbare white business shirt.  What was once the back of his head was now a gaping hole of bloodstained black hair and cranial matter.  Blood pooled around his chair in stark contrast with the white floor.       

Around him, the rest of the family formed an audience-like circle as if witnesses to his demise.  An older Asian woman dressed in a red silk kimono slumped forward from the futon sofa, the remains of her grey head lolling between her legs.  Beside her, the lifeless arm of a younger woman reached across her shoulder.  The woman’s head was thrust against the back of the sofa, a red halo soaking the fabric around it.  He could tell from the entry wound on her forehead that the gunman had shot her at point blank range.  Hunter’s eyes moved slowly around the circle, taking in the positions of the victims and trying to make sense of the carnage.  He averted his eyes quickly when his glance first fell upon the children but forced himself to look back with a trained eye.  The other victims appeared to be in the positions in which they had fallen, but there was something more posed about the positions of the children.  The two small boys lay sideways on the floor, their eyes open, staring.       

Had they been forced to witness the brutal slaying of their parents?  Or had their lives been taken first while their family watched on?  He hoped the latter was the case, and was slightly heartened that it was the most likely scenario given the nature of the crime.  It appeared to him to be some kind of retribution killing so it was more probable that the man of the household was the last to perish, after the gunman forced him to watch the execution of his entire family.  

Hunter took a deep breath and stepped further into the room.  A neighbour had phoned in the report of screams, so the crime scene was still fresh.  He was relieved in that sense.  The smell of decomposing human bodies was not something he thought he would ever become accustomed to no matter how many times he encountered it.  He turned to a forensic officer who was inspecting one of the corpses.

‘Whatcha make of it Mac?’ 

‘Looks like he was mixed up in some pretty nasty shit.  Mafia hit I reckon.   Probably the work of those Russian bastards.’

‘Hmm.  Fits their trademark.’

‘Yeah, they’re a ruthless bunch.  Cross them and they’ll take your whole bloody family out, quick as look at ya.’  He pointed out an area of bruising on the younger woman’s cheek.  ‘Gun butt I’d say, unless they had another weapon.  She must’ve given them some lip.’ 

Hunter leant over to inspect the area more closely but shied away as the odour of death became stronger.  ‘What do we know about the family?’

‘Hardworking restaurant owners, according to the neighbours.  Never any trouble.  Worked long hours.  Kept pretty much to themselves.’

‘No form?’

‘Nothing we’ve been able to pull up so far.’

Hunter shook his head.  ‘Which means squat.  They come over here in the hundreds under fake names and visas.’

‘No, these ones seem legit.  The boys found all their papers neatly filed away.  They look pretty genuine.’

Hunter shrugged.  He had nothing against the Asian immigrants who did things legally and came through the right channels but the others, in Hunter’s view, left themselves open to exploitation and aided the corruption and mess that he and his colleagues were left to clean up.

He looked up as Andrews entered the room.  His senior partner started speaking before he had even reached Hunter so that he was almost shouting.  ‘Got a lead on a black sedan.  Neighbours that phoned in the screams watched it pull away.  Two occupants but they couldn’t make them in the dark.  I’m taking them to the station to get a statement and try to identify the car.’   

‘Good work Ands,’ he said but his partner was already out the door and was probably taking the damn squad car.  Hunter had never found him much of a team player.  He had an ardour for advancement that motivated him to take the credit for most of their work.  He didn’t mind that so much.  His motivation was to uphold the law and put away the criminals.  But sometimes the guy just got under his skin, and tonight had been one of those nights.  Now he would have to find another way to get home on top of everything else he had to deal with. 

He turned back to Mac.  ‘Think I’ll take a look around.’

Mac nodded his head and went back to his task of working the body.

Hunter walked down the hall glancing left and right as he went.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, in contrast to the scene in the living room.  The walls were bare except for one silk wall hanging strung lengthways down the wall.  Symbols adorned the fabric from a language he was unable to read, although he was familiar with it.  Many of the street signs and shop signage across the Gold Coast appeared in both English and Japanese to cater for the high level of Asian tourists that the area attracted.

He nudged open the door to the first bedroom and switched on the light.  Bunk beds against the wall.  Neat and tidy games and books lined the shelves.  It in no way resembled his childhood bedroom of toy guns, dress ups and general bedlam.  He moved toward the closet and opened the door.  Neatly arranged clothes, shirts at one end and longer items at the other.  Very well trained children for a family that allegedly worked long hours. 

He was about to leave the room when a flash of light caught his eye from just beneath the bottom bunk of the bed.  He leant down to see that it was a set of keys attached to a plastic student card for a local university.  He slipped on a rubber glove then picked it up.  The student’s name was Amy Sheffield and she certainly wasn’t Asian.  The photograph showed a young attractive blonde.  So who was Amy?  She didn’t look like the killing type.  Was she a family friend, or could she be an accomplice to the murder?    

He looked further around the room but there seemed to be no further clues as to who Amy was.  He headed for the next room.  It was a small bathroom with a shower over the bath.  He could see clearly through the glass screen.  He opened the cabinet doors and sorted through the contents of the shelves.  Nothing unusual.

He moved down the hall to the next room.  As he did, his foot hit something and it skidded along the carpet then hit the wall with a sharp bang.  He leant down and picked up a mobile phone.  He turned it over in his hand realising it was an older type that could not take photographs.  He would check it out after his search.  He opened the next door quietly and listened in the dark room before reaching for the light switch.  Silence.  As he flicked the switch there was a sound of a gasp.  It was faint, but he was sure he had heard it.  He edged toward the closet and removed his gun from its holster.  Cautiously opening the door, he stood spread-legged with the gun held out in front of him.  Nothing.  Moving the long flowing clothing aside with his gun butt, he checked the rest of the space.  He turned around slowly and surveyed the rest of the room.  Squatting onto his haunches, he lifted the bedcovers and checked under the bed but the space was vacant.  There was nobody in the obvious hiding spots.  It was then that he noticed the curtain behind the dresser move.  He knelt down and could see that there was a rounded bulge behind the curtain in the space under the dresser. 

‘Police.  Don’t move.  I have a gun.’  He heard a whimper.  ‘Put your hands above your head and come out slowly,’ he demanded.

A small hand appeared from behind the curtain, followed by an arm wearing a series of gold bangles.  Hunter lowered his gun as an adolescent girl crawled out of the space under the dresser.

‘Let me guess.  Amy?’

The girl was shaking, but nodded her head.  ‘Who…who are you?’

‘I’m Detective Hunter.’

‘Oh thank God!’  She fell into his arms sobbing.

Hunter held the young girl uncomfortably for a moment then led her down the hall.  He guided her toward the front door, trying as best he could to shield her from the bloody scene in the living room.  She was still shaking as he handed her over to the ambulance officer.  He went back into the house and checked the other rooms quickly before returning outside.  Amy sat on the back floor of the ambulance looking dazed, her feet dangling in the air as the ambulance officer cuffed her arm to check her blood pressure.

‘Can you tell me what happened here tonight?’ Hunter asked softly.

She started to talk.  ‘I…I don’t know.  I heard shouting and screams and I just hid until you came.  I tried to phone someone but I dropped my phone and I was too scared to go back for it.’ 

He held up the phone he had found in the hall.  ‘Is this yours?’

‘Yes.’  Her words turned into sobs and her face collapsed into her hands. 

He reached out then put a hand on her shoulder.  ‘Do you remember anything they said?’

She looked up through tear-streaked eyes.  ‘No, they had accents.  It was hard to understand them.’

It’s OK, we’ll leave it for now.  Is there someone I can call for you?’

‘Jade,’ she managed then pulled a business card from her pocket with trembling hands.

Hunter took the card from her and read the name.  Jade Sheffield.  He knew of her.  She was a junior partner at a prominent legal firm on the strip.  He looked back at Amy.

‘My sister,’ she said in answer to his quizzical look.

The girl was quite visibly distraught so he did not want to press her any further.  They could question her at the station after the initial shock had worn off.  He took his phone from his pocket and dialled the number on the card, moving away from Amy to explain the situation to her sister.

 

When Jade arrived at the scene, the ambulance officers were removing the first of the bodies from the house.  She raced up to her sister and took her in her arms.  Amy crumbled against her sobbing. 

Hunter made his way toward them and held out a hand in greeting.  ‘Hi. Detective Hunter.’

Jade looked up but did not offer a hand in return, her arms clasped firmly around her sister.  ‘Jade Sheffield,’ she said.  Their eyes met and flickered briefly before Jade returned her attention to her sister.

Hunter persisted.  ‘Can you tell me what your sister was doing here tonight?’

‘She’s the babysitter,’ Jade responded in a protective tone.  ‘She only started working for them a few weeks ago when their older daughter started college.’

‘Daughter?  We’ll have to locate her.  Look, I’m going to have to ask you to bring Amy down to the station.  What about her parents.  Where are they?’

Jade’s eyes wandered into the distance.  ‘They’ve both passed away.  I’m her legal guardian, but she lives on campus most of the time.’

‘Sorry,’ he said then paused, momentarily lost for words as he thought about the impact of his own father’s death.  ‘I know it’s unorthodox, but my partner’s left so do you think we could go in your car?  I’ll have to ask Amy a few more questions but we’ll leave it for a bit until she’s had a chance to overcome the shock.  It was pretty awful, what happened in there.’

Jade extracted herself from her sister’s grip and stroked the girl’s hair before moving away to speak to the detective more privately.  ‘What exactly happened in there?  I want to know what I’m dealing with.’

‘Wish I could tell you.  The whole family was blown away, except maybe this daughter.  Could be Mafia related.  You know the kinds of things they’re into here on the Coast.  But we don’t have any suspects or even a motive as yet.’ 

‘She tried to call me earlier tonight but I missed the call.  If only I’d called her back.’

‘It’s probably a good thing you didn’t.  She’d dropped her phone and the ring may have alerted them that she was in the house.’

Jade drew a deep breath and held a hand to her chest.  ‘Oh God!  I could have lost her.  We only have each other.’ 

Hunter ran his hands through his hair, feeling a sudden vulnerability in Jade’s presence.  She was a few years his senior but it wasn’t only that.  He pointed her toward her car.  ‘I’ll be with you in just a few minutes.’  He watched Jade walk her sister away, surprised by his unexpected attraction to the stunning lawyer despite the horrors that had unfolded that night. 

As he lit up another cigarette he noticed a slight tremble in his hand.  Delayed shock.  He looked up at the sky as he drew on the cigarette.  A thick cloud cover had moved over blocking out the moon and stars.  It looked like the weatherman’s prediction for bad weather the next day had been right for once.  He shrugged in resignation as he checked out with the other boys then headed toward the car.  It was not looking like a morning surf was going to be on the agenda now anyway. 

Excerpt from Eclipsed, © Lea Scott 2009

 

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Lea Scott