Authors: Kathryn Ledson
For Dad who was always there,
often in the shadows, quietly applauding.
Rain pummelled my tin roof. It alternated between deafening and nothing, with some pitter-patter between. When it came it roared; a million tennis balls served at 200 kilometres per hour. When it stopped the wind stepped up, raging in great bellowing gusts.
Something scraped my bedroom window. I got up, peeked through the gap in the blind.
In the dim light from the street I could see some of my tiny courtyard. The scraping, skinny branches of my pear tree. A tornado of leaves and paper, the clattering front gate, dark corners. Beyond the walled garden, the sky was blacker than the night itself. Lightning approached, its thunder trailing behind.
I tugged at the blind, pulling it to the side to try to cover the gap, as I'd done a million times before, also without success. I needed a new blind. I got back into bed.
At the back of my half-demolished house, I could hear Steve's tarps fighting for freedom. They snapped, up and down, a loud clapping sound. The back door rattled.
It was a warm night, but I snuggled under the doona. Put it over my head. Tried to think positively, like how lucky I was to have a roof that would probably stay put, unlike the poor buggers in Western Australia, not knowing which direction the prowling Cat 5 cyclone would take on a whim, its eye on defenceless roofs and our oil rigs.
Axle was suddenly alert next to me; I felt his body tense. I snatched the doona away from my face and in the increasing flashes of lightning, I watched him watching the window. He sat up, his long, black tail twitching. I turned my head and together we stared at the pear tree's madly waving limbs, at its eerie strobing image through the thin blind.
I sat up too. Axle lowered into a crouch, paws tucked under, tail still twitching. Now he stared at my bedroom door.
âBloody hell, Axle. You've slept through worse than this. You've slept through Jack's snoring.'
He didn't respond. I tickled his ear. He stared at the door. Against all usual desires I had about really big mice and where I'd like them all to go, I hoped that's what had his attention. But then I heard a sporadic thump, thump, thumping sound. I, too, stared at the bedroom door, holding my breath for a full minute.
I shook my head. âThis isn't helping.' I turned on my bedside lamp, threw off the doona and got up, scanning the floor, knowing but still not believing that big mice couldn't fit under the bedroom door. I pulled on my dressing gown, changed my mind and donned a raincoat and runners. I held the door knob, took a breath, yanked open the door. Nothing there but my passageway full of boxes and crap. Directly to my left was the front door. I checked all three locks. Down the passage, next to my bedroom, was the spare room, then the bathroom, and that's where my house ended. Where Steve had temporarily placed the old back door. The cat flap blew in, horizontal. It dropped, blew up again. Too small for someone to crawl through. Too small for a big bad man, anyway. Not too small for a really big mouse.
I shivered in spite of the heat and my sweating armpits, and tiptoed around the mess, arms out for balance. I stepped over a box of saucepans, stopped, picked up a small but heavy one. At the door, on my knees, I stared through the cat flap. No-one there. Hold on, wasn't I supposed to have a security guard? Didn't Jack say he'd put one there every night until I moved out?
I unlocked the back door and pushed it open. The wind snatched it off me, slamming it into the old brick wall that separates my house from its twin. Something smacked my face and I dropped the pan, reeling back, palm to my stinging cheek. A rope danced in front of me; one of the tarp's ropes, broken free. I grabbed it with both hands and it yanked me into the backyard, the rain, the mud. A wind gust flipped the hood off my head. The rope tried to shake me off. I looked for an anchor, somewhere to secure it. Above me was an exposed beam, its likely home. Too high for me to reach without a ladder. Too dangerous even if I had one. Should I call Steve? No, because he'd nag me to move out. I let the rope go, arms up to protect myself from its crazed flapping. I pulled the hood back over my head and squelched across the yard to the cyclone-wire fence at the back. I checked the padlocked gates and pressed my face into the fence, peering up and down the narrow street, full of nothing but quivering back fences, sleeping vehicles and torrential floods in the gutters. None of those cars contained a security guard, that I could see. Now I thought I should call Jack, but he'd definitely make me move out if there were noises keeping me awake and his security guy hadn't fronted. I'd rather risk my life than move to my mother's. Well, for a couple more days, anyway.
But what if the security guy had been murdered by bad men? Who were now waiting in the shadows? Waiting for a chance to come and get me. I mustn't think about bad men. I mustn't! It was hard not to, though. Shane McGann was now in jail because of Jack and me. His friends might want payback. That's what bad guys do, don't they? Dish out payback? Avenge their mates in some horrible, throat-cutting, body-dumping fashion? Tyre irons and boots of cars. Bottom of the river and all that?
Goosebumps crawled up my back. There was a movement behind me that I sensed rather than heard. My head snapped around and I stared at the square, dark space between me and the back of my house. Axle stood silhouetted in the open door, ignoring the leaping rope. I strode across the yard and through the door, slamming it behind me, unconcerned about my muddy shoes on the old carpet. I bent to pick up Axle but he hissed at me â hissed! â and streaked up the passage, his body low, to my bedroom. I followed, hesitated at the bedroom door. There was a new noise. I stepped up to the front door and peered through the peephole, waiting for my vision to adjust to the darkness. But I knew without looking that my front gate, which was closed ten minutes ago, was now open, and banging against the wall. Somebody was out there.
I rushed into my bedroom, to the laundry hamper. I hadn't touched my gun since Jack gave it to me over a year ago. Back then I'd pushed it into a sock and dropped it into the hamper and covered it with a pile of clothes. Which were still unwashed because I'm scared to touch the gun. I reached into the hamper, changed my mind. I'd simply freeze if I had to use it. The bad guy would take it off me. I closed my eyes, took a huge, shuddering breath. I simply forgot to lock the gate, that's all. If it had been locked, no-one could have opened it. Unlocked, it was old and unreliable, like the rest of my house, especially in this weather. I relaxed my shoulders, rolled my head, opened my eyes.
From the end of the bed, Axle growled. It was a low, warning sound I'd never heard come out of him before. As I stared at him in horror, it took me a second to realise that he wasn't staring back at me, but rather past me, at the window, where I now looked, and where a sudden flash of light showed, in sharp outline, a human shape on the other side.
Amazingly, I survived the night. After the human-shape-at-the-window incident, I'd hidden under the bed for twenty minutes, thinking about Shane McGann and the other enemies Jack might have who'd like to hurt me, just for the pleasure of pissing Jack off. But McGann's friends didn't come through my window and I gave myself a good talking to about being brave, finally working up the courage to approach the front door and flick the outside light on and off a million times to create an annoying disco effect for the intruder. Then I'd stared through the gap in the blind and the peephole in the door for another twenty minutes before actually opening the door, venturing forth and shutting (and locking) the gate.
Back in bed, Axle and I had discussed the plethora of possibilities around finding someone in a front garden in Richmond on a stormy night, the most likely scenario being a homeless person in search of shelter, which he/she had found until I scared him/her off with the disco effect. By the end of our conversation, Axle had curled up and fallen asleep again, and I'd lain there relieved of the burden of fear, which had been replaced by guilt at having scared off a poor, shelterless, homeless person. Unfortunately, guilt, like fear, can keep one awake.
So now I stood at Richmond station, yawning, waiting for the next train direct to Flinders Street, trying to focus on the moment, if not the day ahead. I watched the Punt Road traffic crawl in from the north. It was doing what it always does, and commuters were doing what they always do. Council workers mopped up after the big storm. This morning's weather was a balm on the memory of last night's horror. Hot, dry and still â my favourite. Good things happen when the weather's like this. The Yarra River would be glossy and teeming with rowers; at lunchtime picnickers would take to its banks. I imagined the lonely beaches of winter swarming with crowds. Cricket was on at the Melbourne Cricket Ground â the MCG. I could hear the crowds from my house. My summery thoughts â acting with sudden positive fervour â turned to the approaching Australian Open tennis tournament, and that reminded me with great delight of Emilio MÃ©ndez who, on the international tennis circuit, is this:
And I was about to meet him. Which is why I'd spent hours on my hair, even though I was already sleep deprived without the extra-early start. It had been a mighty effort to find my hair straightener; an extreme sport with my bathroom full of renovation dust, all my hair goodies in plastic bags scattered around what was left of my house, mostly in the passage under piles of cutlery and tampons. But worth the sweat and tears because my hair looked fabulous. If I hadn't straightened it, I'd look like a broccoli.
On the train I stood squished next to the door, facing out so I could watch Rod Laver Arena glide by. My company's logo was everywhere, flapping in the breeze and stretched across billboards, all ready for the Australian Open. I couldn't help smiling at my good work, and looked around to see if anyone else was admiring it. Nope. Phones and iPads were far more interesting. The man next to me was reading about the cyclone in Western Australia. Maybe Dega Oil should have paid for some e-ads. Although you couldn't help but know who the major sponsor of the tennis was. It had been quite a coup for the company â an expensive one, but worth it, according to our CEO, John Degraves. Dega's reputation and share price had lagged last year but now, things were looking up. Among the neatly mown expanses I could see landscapers creating pop-up gardens around great, white marquees. Tennis Oz staff would be working long hours. Like me. I yawned.
From Flinders Street station I crossed the Yarra, squinting up at the flashy Dega Oil building, its eastern side ignited by the morning sun. In the building I rode the lift to the 46th floor and crept to my desk as quietly as possible, knowing Rosalind would be in her office. She usually was. Maybe she worked through the night. I suppose when you're a vampire you don't need sleep.
Marcus was there â Rosalind's PA. He stopped by my desk on his way to deliver her coffee, sat one pert bum cheek on it.
I leaned close. âTell me again why my desk is closer to her than yours?'
âGood management on my part, darling. I love your hair.' He tucked a few strands behind my ear and I untucked it.
âDon't touch. This took me hours. I had to get up at five.' Not that I'd been asleep anyway.
âI'm impressed with your efforts. You don't usually bother.' He made a sad face.
âGotta look good for the “world's sexiest man”.' I made quotation marks in the air. Not sexiest according to me, but some magazine. Second sexiest, according to me.
âSpeaking of sexy men,' said Marcus, âhow's that
hot spunk of yours?'
âWhich one? I have so many.'
âActually, dear one, haven't seen Jack for about a week.'
âWhen you do, give him one for me.'
âI'm sure he'll be flattered.'
âYou know, darling, he'll realise one day it's me he wants. I hope you're prepared for that.'
âAnd I hope you're not looking for commitment.'
Marcus gave me a wink and as he stood to leave, I asked if there was any more news on the cyclone.
âIt's slow but still on course for Port Hedland. Next couple of days, they say.'
âAre we evacuating the rigs?'
âThat's the plan, honey.' He carried on to Rosalind's office, and I threw a paperclip at his back.
I heard Rosalind say, âIs that Erica?'
âYep â she's been here half an hour.'
I both loved and hated him for that â posting me at my desk before I was really there but then telling her I was there, which meant she'd want to see me. No time to get coffee.
My phone rang as Marcus walked by and ruffled my perfect hair. I smacked his hand and picked up the phone, smoothing my hand over my head. It was Rosalind calling from her office, which is about three metres from my desk. Marcus's desk is next to mine and there's a partition between us. A paperclip landed on my head.
Pretending not to know who it was, I said into the phone, âMedia and investor relations. Erica Jewell speaking.'
âWhy aren't you standing in front of me? I need to see you.'
My telepathy skills have been a bit off lately, I admit. With pen and paper, I passed through the gateway to hell, fixed a smile and waited for her to tell me if I was allowed to sit.
Rosalind's head was down as she examined the magazine on her desk. Her stiff black hair was fake, I was sure; the drag-queen disguise designed to distract people from the truth of her nature. They say, just by the way, that the creator of the vampire based the creature on the narcissist who, in her most vile form, is a psychopath. Apparently, the difference between a psychopath, sociopath and someone with narcissistic personality disorder is quite fuzzy. The psychopath may kill without hesitation or remorse, apparently, while the others have some semblance of conscience that prevents murder. Perhaps I exaggerate. Maybe the sociopath would murder if necessary. If she were pushed.
âYou need to get to the hotel early.' She didn't look up from the magazine. There was a photo of Emilio MÃ©ndez on the cover. It was one of those action shots, mid-serve with shirt riding high, showing off those magnificent abs, his face contorted from the effort but still beautiful.
âI'll leave here at ten thirty. Plenty of time.'
âWe don't want the tennis player arriving without a host to look after him.' She tapped the magazine, looked up and scanned my body, just like my mother does. Unlike my mother, though, there were no comments about my clothes or hair. Rosalind's gaze landed on my jugular and stayed there.
âI agree.' I took a small step back.
âWe need to be ready when the cyclone hits. It's a big one.'
âWe'll be ready.'
âYou might want to prepare a media release with the usual business. All's well, our staff are safe, no oil spills, et cetera, et cetera.'
âI've got one ready.'
She shooed me. âOff you go.'
I held my smile. âSee you at lunch.' And turned to leave.
She took off her glasses, stared right at me. âGod help us if it doesn't go well.'
âThe lunch? The cyclone?'
, Erica. The whole thing. God help us.'