All this week Kill Your Darlings is showcasing extracts from this year’s KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award shortlist, who are spending the week fine-tuning their work at Varuna, the Writers House in the Blue Mountains, thanks to the support of the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.
In Shelley Burr’s Wake, Mina McCreery has grown up in the shadow of her twin sister Evelyn’s disappearance twenty years ago. The impossible case of a rural girl who vanished from her bed has long fascinated the press – internet forums and conspiracy theorists pick over the case, many believing Mina herself to be the killer. When private investigator Lane Holland takes it on himself to reopen the case, Mina is sceptical – Lane, though, is persistent, and his unusual methods show promise. But what Lane uncovers will threaten not only the investigation but his and Mina’s lives.
I live in that house you’ve seen on the news. In your mind it’s white, but we painted it robin’s egg blue the summer I turned sixteen. Two little pink bikes lean against the verandah, and one wall glows blue with the reflected light of a police car. They use the same picture every time there’s ‘news’. It’s not worth the expense to send a photographer out to get a fresh picture. Not when they want the two little bikes and that streak of blue.
Nobody wants to see proof that one of those little girls grew up.
The sign above the door read ‘PLEASE KEEP CLOSED – AIR CON RUNNING’ in slanted texta, but if it was going it was losing against the hazy late summer heat. Mina remembered the blast of cold air when they pushed open the door to the combined general store and post office as kids. Usually when their mother, worn down packing a dozen errands into a single trip into town, agreed to a stop at the ice cream chest. Either the air conditioner had grown too old, or electricity prices too high, or Mrs Gilligan had hit that age where skin stretched over bone and the hottest day was too cool for comfort. Mina supposed she could ask, but when you asked people personal questions they got comfortable asking them back.
The door opened behind her, and a man shuffled in. She studied his warped reflection in the glass door of the cigarette cabinet. He was tall, and broad, wearing a black pullover and cargo pants despite the heat. He had a black knitted cap on, but what she could see of his hair was blonde, with the fuzzy texture that might be curls if he used the right conditioner. His face was unfamiliar – an unusual quality in a small town. Nganine wasn’t a highway town, no travellers passed through searching for hot pies and public toilets. The seasonal workers at the surrounding farms were all in place by this point in the year.
Mrs Gilligan straightened her posture, looking at him with an open curiosity that meant Mina wasn’t out of the loop on any gossip. He was a new face, and that sent anxiety slicing through her gut.
She walked away from the counter with quick steps. Even though she rarely shopped there she had the layout of the store, and the location of all her typical items, memorised. Three aisles, six shelves and a row of fridges and freezers at the back. An anti-shoplifting mirror hung from the ceiling, and in it she saw the man come to a stop at the end of her aisle. He examined the display of chips in front of him, but flicked his eyes to the side, once, to look at her.
She planted her feet and stared down at her basket, dragging in a deep breath. He wasn’t the first person to watch her, but this was the first time one of them had shown up in public.
He wasn’t the first person to watch her, but this was the first time one of them had shown up in public.
He was waiting for her, waiting until she pushed past him on her way back to the check out. How long could the two of them stand there, pretending to be interested in their respective displays?
‘Sweetheart,’ Mrs Gilligan said, her voice warm and low.
Mina startled, her groceries rattling in the basket. Her hyper awareness had been focused on him, so she hadn’t noticed Mrs Gilligan circling around to come the other way.
‘Can you get that can of tinned peaches off the top shelf for me? Save me grabbing the step stool.’
She indicated a shelf with her chin, where some customer far taller than the diminutive Mrs Gilligan had changed their mind and abandoned the can amongst the condensed milk. She smiled, the message clear in her eyes. I see you’re upset. Don’t forget I’m here.
Mina smiled back. Say what you want about small towns, but if you’re one of theirs they know when to huddle up and raise the shields.
As she passed her the peaches, Mrs Gilligan grabbed it with both hands, squeezing her fingers between the cold metal and the warm skin of her palm. ‘I’ve already rung those couple of items up,’ she said. ‘I had the codes from the invoice. Want me to put it on your account?’
Mina didn’t have an account. The General didn’t even do accounts, they’d phased them out long before Mina was born. ‘That would be lovely.’
The street outside was washed with sunlight, but so empty. She walked fast but didn’t run, her keys clutched in her palm with the longest and sharpest of them peeking between her middle and index fingers. Running would be overreacting. Running would be hysterical.
The man had no such qualms. His feet slapped against the pavement, and her heart froze. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, his voice surprisingly soft. The gentle tone jarred against the havoc he was causing inside her.
She came to a stop in front of the old bank. The branch was long closed, the tellers all laid off, but the ATM still worked.
‘There’s a camera,’ she shouted. ‘You’re being filmed.’
‘Um.’ He stopped, looking back down the street as if replaying his actions. ‘Actually the camera only comes on while a transaction is in progress. But if you want to swipe your card, I can wait.’
She wavered. Digging for the card buried in her bag meant taking her eyes off him and occupying both of her hands. Making herself vulnerable.
‘Are you Mina McCreery?’
‘You know I am,’ she said.
Say what you want about small towns, but if you’re one of theirs they know when to huddle up and raise the shields.
She’d forgotten her groceries, she realised, feeling so tired. She’d fled with her handful of items and left the actual order she’d come for sitting in Mrs Gilligan’s back room. She needed to double back.
‘And Evie McCreery was your sister?’
‘Evelyn McCreery,’ she snapped. Mina gave in to the pressure to accept a nickname, as a defence against the much worse alternative of ‘Willie’, but Evelyn stood firm. ‘Evie’ was an invention by the press, saving space in their headlines and upping the ‘cute’ factor. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I actually knew that.’
Of course he knew. She bet he knew enough about her to fill a notebook. And enough false information to fill a second one. And she didn’t even know his name.
‘Who are you?’ she asked.
‘My name is Lane,’ he said, reaching into his inside jacket pocket and pulling out a wallet. ‘Lane Holland.’ He flipped the wallet open to show her his driver’s licence. ‘I specialise in cold cases.’
‘This isn’t a police badge,’ she said. She reached out and took the wallet. A flicker of surprise crossed his face. She doubted many people crossed that boundary, but social mores could suck her dick.
The licence was real, to the best of her abilities to tell. She tilted it, and found no sign of scratches or discolouration that would show he had doctored the name. It was a Queensland licence, putting him far from home. The picture had the same light hair, dark eyes and solid jaw line as the man in front of her. She focused on the nose, the shape of the hollow beneath the eyes, and the ears to assure herself it was him.
‘I’m not with the police,’ he said. ‘I’m a private investigator.’
She tossed him the wallet back. ‘I see. So do you already have a book deal? If you’re planning to shop one around, you’re shit out of luck. There are already two books being pushed out in time for the twentieth anniversary, nobody’s looking to buy a third one.’
‘I’m not writing a book,’ he said. ‘I just want to lay some ghosts to rest.’