I spent the afternoon in my study trying to focus on a book as I sipped from an expensive bottle of my inlaws’ wine.
How was I supposed to survive long enough to finish this job?
When I walked into the bedroom, Eli was sitting at the end of our bed, playing a shooting game. He was wearing his headset and talking to someone. I had no idea why he needed a second console in the bedroom, but I wasn’t going to ask. He narrowed his eyes when he saw me stumble into the room. My left leg still hurt from the fall, but Eli obviously thought I was drunk. I watched him look at his watch then press a button on his headset. “I thought you were helping Jules start her new job today.”
“It was quiet. Mrs Gregory let us leave early.” Plus, I almost died. I gave him a warm smile and met his eyes.
“Are you really going to the toilet with an almost empty bottle of wine?”
It had been half-empty when I took it from the fridge. I put the bottle of wine on his bedside table. “You have the rest.”
“If it stops you from drinking yourself into an early grave.” He lent backwards and grabbed the bottle as I walked to the bathroom. I knew he was a beer guy, but alcohol is alcohol.
“I think we’ll have a night in.” Eli shut down the console when I exited the bathroom. “Have those fish and chips tomorrow night.”
Shit. I’d forgotten our date. “We went there on our first date.” Maybe reminding him of our first date would make him less pissed off. I lay down on the bed, my head spun. The last thing I heard before I gave in to the pull of sleep was Eli. He said something about my grazed elbow.
It was dark when I woke. The TV was off, the room silent apart from Eli. He stood near the window, talking on his phone. I slowed my breathing to hear him speak.
“I have no idea why he left you to worry like that.”
He listened to the person on the other end.
“Maybe something happened, Jules. You know he’s not the type to just up and leave in the middle of the workday.” Eli turned around before I had a chance to close my eyes. “I’ve got to go.”
I looked at him without speaking. There was just enough light for us to see each other.
“I could hear your breathing change. If you’re going to eavesdrop on my conversations maybe keep your breathing even.”
I looked over at the bedside table to check my phone. I’d definitely messed up my sleep cycle.
“What happened at work?”
“I fell down the stairs when I was collecting some books.”
“Did you go to the doctor?”
“No. I didn’t want to worry anyone.”
Eli raised an eyebrow. “You fell down a set of stairs, and instead of going to a doctor, you come home and get drunk?”
The way he said it made me sound like an irrational idiot with an alcohol problem. “I had a little bit of wine to drink.”
Was I an irrational idiot with an alcohol problem?
“Right.” Eli gave me a tight smile and walked over to sit on the bed and pull his socks off. “You have dinner in the fridge.”
I looked him in the eyes when he laid on the bed. “I’m sorry about messing up our date tonight.”
“This family doesn’t do secrets remember. If there’s anything you need to tell me, I’m here.”
“Your mum’s golden rule.”
“Telling the truth is critical to a good relationship.”
“There’s nothing to tell. I was stupid and tried to walk down the front stairs of a house with an arm full of books. It was four stairs, and my head missed the concrete.”
“I’m allowed to be worried about you, Dex.”
“I know.” I smiled at him. “I love you.”
“Love you too, goodnight.”
“Night.” I walked into the bathroom. I noticed it under the cold bathroom light as I brushed my teeth. There was a violent hand-shaped bruise on the arm Nora Rowe had grabbed. I took a couple of slow, focused breaths to still my panic. The light had been on when I first walked into the bedroom… Eli had seen it.
I walked in on Mrs Gregory throwing books at the feet of a middle-aged man in a suit. The small, elderly woman stood behind the check out counter on her tiptoes. She threw one book after the other at his feet, and each one inched closer to actually hitting him. I stood between them and let the next book she threw hit me. The man behind me gasped louder then I did when the sharp corner of the hardcover book hit me. I gave her a sharp look and bent down to pick up the books off the grey carpeted floor. “Let’s pick these up.”
“Thank you, Sir.” The man straightened up his suit jacket and walked out the door. I followed him out to the car with the pile of books tucked in my arms. He looked surprised to see me when I apologised to him after he opened the door to his car. “I collected all of them for you.”
He looked at me for a few stunned seconds and handed me a business card. “I didn’t borrow those books. She started throwing them at me when I requested the accounts information for the library.”
I looked down at the card… he was an accountant, Alexander Lowe. “Why would sh-”
“Do you do the finances, Mr Lacy?”
“No.” I frowned. “She’s never let me see them.”
“Do you think you could get me a copy? I’ve been hired by the council to do the accounting for this financial year.”
“Why wouldn’t she let you see the accounts?”
“I assume it’s a physical accounts book.” He handed me a small, cheap smartphone. “Once you verify my identity with Mayor Chesterfield without hinting at why. You take a photo of every book with handwritten financials you can find in that building and send it to me.”
“How old are you?” Lowe asked.
“Twenty three,” I said.
“Legally I shouldn’t be telling you anything, but I’m going to give you the same advice I’d give my son.” He swallowed and looked at his carefully polished leather boots for a couple of minutes. “Get the fuck off that burning ship while you can. You’re too young to be there when it explodes. You will be caught in the crossfire.”
I nodded and pulled the books closer to my body, the sharp corner an anchor to reality against the panic that threatened to engulf me. “What exactly is it you’re asking me to do?”
“Just take photos, then once I’ve confirmed I’ve got them, destroy the phone.”
“Is that legal?”
“Nothing that can be taken to court, but it can’t hurt to know where to look for evidence we can use.”
“Mayor Chesterfield is my husband’s uncle.”
He knew who I was… the age thing had been some kind of trick question. I looked at the man before me carefully to take in the navy, pinstripe three-piece silk suit, pearl cufflinks and expensive black leather shoes. No accountant I knew had the money for an outfit like that. He’d been scanning our surroundings out of the corner of his dark eyes. I caught a whiff of his cologne. He smelt like a cop.
My eyes fixed on the tree line behind him, the river that cuts through the town was just visible through the tree branches. We were alone at the far end of the town hall parking lot, a parking lot that backed onto a large river and empty park.
The park would be empty; it held a depleted toilet block, weather-beaten toddler-sized wooden playground no one would actually let their kid play on and about three car parks. Every town had a park that everyone avoided unless they were looking to shoot up after dark.
I was alone with a cop who’d just asked me to do something illegal near a spot perfect for hiding a body. Why would they look for me in the river? I had no reason to walk through the rugged line of bushland between the town hall and river. I’d always thought it was a little convenient that no security cameras faced this part of the parking lot. I didn’t feel comfortable with what this man was asking. Despite his age, he was slightly taller and stronger built then I. Would I be able to run, if he decided my refusal meant I was going to tell Mayor Chesterfield what I’d just learnt?
“Will you do it?” Lowe took a step closer to me, his hard eyes locked on mine. I felt exposed as though he was trying to find a way into my brain through my eyes. There was a presence building at the back of my mind, something worming its way into the back. I tried to blink and break the contact, but I couldn’t, my eyes refused to close.
He knew. He knew I knew he had magic. I forced myself to speak. “Yes.”
“You’re not the rat I’m looking for, but I won’t hesitate to step on you. Some might consider it a favour.” He raised an eyebrow, smiled and chuckled darkly.
I couldn’t bring myself to laugh at his joke. I let out a breath I didn’t realise I was holding.
“I can do as you asked. Is there anything else I can help you with?” I brought out the ‘customer service’ smile and voice.
“You look like you’re about to piss yourself. Are you really as powerful as they claim? Is this whimpering coward thing, all just an act? If I didn’t need you, I might take the chance to see.”
I swallowed. “Mrs Gregory will be looking to yell at me for taking so long.”
“Chop, chop, Dexter.”
“You have permission to be there, and I don’t.” He hopped in his car and drove off; the car narrowly avoided my feet as he pulled out from the car park. I made my way to the back door of the town hall and quickly let myself in.
I relaxed as I walked down the dark hall, hardwood floor creaking under my feet. I had permission to be there. The building sang the same tune as all of the other pre-twentieth-century buildings, ‘lock the door and never return’. I’d practically grown up in this building, and it felt like home.
I slipped the phone from my pocket to the desk drawer and then proceeded to place the books back on the shelf after waving at Mrs Gregory. All of them were basic accounting books. I had no idea how she’d accumulated half of the accounting books in one place to use as projectiles.
I sat down at my desk after sending Julie off with the afternoon’s coffee order. Was there a way out? If what that rat was implying was true… I needed an out. I punched the table… fuck. I wasn’t about to give up my dream job because of something that Mrs Gregory and Mayor Chesterfield had done. I knew I could get thrown in jail if they proved fraud. I was here everyday for over a year and didn’t notice anything… Would the authorities believe that? I knew they were crooked but crooked enough to fudge the accounting? Eli and Julie’s maternal family were wealthy in their own right. Why would someone like Mayor Chesterfield steal from the town council? Lowe seemed like he was ready to spray and pray when it came to the workers for Dunn Council. Where had his hatred for me come from? I’d never seen the man in my life. I was playing with half a deck, and I needed to find out more information. If I wasn’t going to take the photos, I’d have to destroy the phone. The phone had to be a plant; he wasn’t just going to trust me to do what he asked. I left the phone buried in my bottom desk drawer, because I wasn’t stupid enough to bring it home even though it would be safer where my bosses were concerned.