Love, Honour, and O’Brien: A Holly Love Mystery #1

Love, Honour, and O’Brien: A Holly Love Mystery #1

She stared into the speckled mirror, wondering how she had come to this. How could she, Holly Love, apple of her parents' eye, competent manipulator of invoices in Gorgon Office ...

About The Author

Jennifer Rowe

Jennifer Rowe is a devotee of the murder mystery genre; she enjoys reading these 'extended brainteasers' as much as writing ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Holly Love’s life fell apart on a Monday. Somehow this made the whole thing seem even more surreal. Being an optimistic sort of person, Holly had always thought of Mondays as new beginnings, days of promise. For the past three months—since she had begun driving to the Blue Mountains most weekends to stay in Andrew McNish’s cute little house in Clover Road, Springwood—Mondays had also been characterised by discreet teasing at work and a feeling of enjoyable fatigue that was only partly the result of a long drive back to Sydney in late Sunday traffic.

The three older women who worked with Holly in the small suburban branch of Gorgon Office Supplies, where she answered the phone and shuffled papers all day, said they envied her weekends in the fresh mountain air. Every Monday morning, without fail, Anne, Paola and Justine remarked on Holly’s pink cheeks and bright eyes, and exchanged fragmented memories of hot chocolate, the Echo Point view and the lolly shop at Leura, which was supposed to have the largest range of sweets in the southern hemisphere. Since Holly and Andrew rarely left his bedroom from five minutes after she arrived on Saturday morning till thirty minutes before she left again on Sunday afternoon, Holly couldn’t contribute much to these discussions.

Maybe Anne, Paola and Justine had noticed. Maybe they had worried among themselves that Andrew was ‘taking advantage’ of Holly and would drop her when the novelty wore off, because when she came in one particular Monday morning and told them that she and Andrew were getting married, there was a definite undertone of surprised relief in their squeals of congratulation. Holly told herself that their concern was sweet and funny, sup- pressing the guilty knowledge that she herself had felt a primitive rush of triumph when Andrew had actually suggested marriage, rather than just ‘living together.’

‘You’re gorgeous,’ he’d said to her impulsively as they lay in bed among the toast crumbs while Sunday morning slid lazily into Sunday afternoon. ‘I adore you. Let’s get married.’

And Holly, stunned and laughing, had said, ‘Okay,’ literally without a moment’s thought.

She had always seen herself as a practical sort of person. As a child, she had always been level-headed. She had been famous for it. Among all the children in her extended family, she had been the sensible one—the one among all the cousins who could be relied upon. But now she was thirty-one, and being sensible had lost its charm. Andrew’s sublime confidence had swept her off her feet—or would have done if she hadn’t already been lying down.

They might have been Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in a for- ties movie—except for the being in bed part. In those movies men seemed to think nothing of proposing marriage, sometimes within hours of a first meeting, and women thought nothing of accepting. There was none of this timorous ‘let’s-live-together-for-a-while-and-see-how-we-get-on’ business. But then, of course, Holly reflected, in those days the Virgins’ Union had a rigid no-wedding-no-penetration policy.

Andrew had no such reason to propose marriage—far from it. Yet he had proposed—impulsively, warmly, delightfully. It was thrilling, and typical of him. His lack of caution, his absolute trust in his instincts, had attracted Holly to him from the start. Andrew had picked her up (there was no other term for it) in David Jones’ men’s shirts department, during the post-Christmas sales. They were both waiting to pay for purchases (his, two Italian shirts; hers, a suitably subdued small-checked number for her father’s birthday). Stuck halfway down a fidgeting queue, they exchanged rueful smiles as a hefty woman in green argued about her credit card with the patient man at the cash register. ‘Bugger this,’ Andrew said after five minutes. He stepped out of the queue, slung his shirts onto a nearby stand of men’s cologne, caught Holly’s eye and grinned.

‘Life’s too short to stand in line,’ he said. ‘How about a coffee?’ Two hours later Holly was back at David Jones retrieving the checked shirt, or something very like it, her blood zinging with caffeine overload, her brain zinging with Fascinating Facts about Andrew McNish.

Andrew McNish, thirty-four, financial advisor, coffee connoisseur, buyer of Italian shirts, had dark brown hair that curled crisply into the nape of his neck, roguish brown eyes and a wonderful smile. Andrew McNish loved hang-gliding and surfing and had once participated in a two-day tango marathon for charity. Andrew McNish had been left in the ladies’ room at Woy Woy railway station as a newborn baby—

‘You weren’t!’

‘Bizarre, but true. It was in all the papers. My fifteen minutes of fame.’

—and adopted by Frank and Mavis McNish, who died in a car crash when he was only eighteen. He had worked as a barista, worked in a call centre, worked in a bar, while he put himself through university.

Andrew McNish knew the ingredients for six hundred different cocktails. Andrew McNish had his own business—had never liked working for a boss. He revelled in the cut and thrust of the sharemarket, and knew all the (legal) ways of minimising tax. He had kicked around in Melbourne, Darwin, Montreal, spent a bit of time in New York, now had a little office in the Blue Mountains. Lifestyle choice. He was over big cities.

He was straight. He was single. And he thought Holly had beautiful eyes.

Andrew McNish was so different from anyone Holly had ever known—so different from her kind, careful parents  back in Perth, from her nice but faintly boring old friends, and especially from her stolid ex-fiancé Lloyd, about whom the less said the better.

Really, she never stood a chance.

# # #

Holly’s Day of Doom dawned bright and clear. Waking for the last time in the boxy little bedroom of her flat, she saw sunbeams filtering through the cream plastic slats of the Venetian blind, and felt it was an omen. Today she was to cast aside her past and embrace her future. And she was ready. She had made a list, and for the past fortnight she had stayed in town and followed it with single-minded determination.

She had cleared out her flat, amazed at how many household objects she had amassed in a mere half-year. She had paid her bills. She had arranged for her mail to be redirected. She had had her legs waxed and her light brown hair freshly cut and streaked. On Friday she had said goodbye to Anne, Paola and Justine, who had taken her to lunch at a Turkish restaurant near the Gorgon office and presented her with a china biscuit barrel shaped like a goose. Her replacement, a shiny-haired, anaemic-looking girl called Beck, had manned the office in their absence with an air of competence that Holly found very annoying.

On Friday afternoon, abandoning the pretence that she was going to be married in whatever was clean on the day, she had bought a floaty white dress dotted with butter-yellow spots, and some very cute little flat yellow shoes that cost more than the dress. She had also bought some lacy underwear and a bottle of Moët—Andrew’s favourite—for a pre-wedding celebration. She had arrived home on Friday evening laden with carry bags and filled with elation spiced by guilt, the predictable result of having recklessly spent her last cent. It wasn’t really her last cent, of course. Just the money she had left in her personal bank account for exactly this sort of purpose when she and Andrew had ceremoniously opened their joint account and bought their wedding rings during her last, luxuriously three-day visit to Springwood.

Still, it had been daunting to see the modest balance in her old, familiar account shrink so quickly, finally reduced to the point of almost complete disappearance. It had made her feel so insecure, in fact, that she had rifled her wallet for the hundred-dollar cheque her parents had sent her for her birthday, and deposited it just before the banks closed, to make herself feel better.

Afterwards, she had felt better, in a foolish sort of way. And not just because the account balance looked more respectable, though the funds wouldn’t be available till the cheque cleared. She had been carrying that cheque around for a week, continually forgetting to put it into the joint account, knowing all the time that it wasn’t really a memory lapse that kept it in her wallet but procrastination brought about by guilt and divided loyalties. Her parents would never have known where their money ended up, of course, but Holly was all too aware of how they would feel if they did know it was in an account with Andrew’s name on it, and that was enough. Now it was where they had always intended. There it would remain, no doubt, a sacrifice to her guilt, being slowly eaten up by bank fees.

The weekend had drifted by in a haze of cleaning and final packing, punctuated by hasty, lonely, takeaway meals. Throwing rubber gloves, some limp cleaning rags, an empty Spray and Wipe bottle and the remains of her Thai takeaway dinner into one of her building’s communal garbage bins at nine-thirty on Sunday night, Holly knew that she had left nothing undone. She was ready. Now, on Monday morning, with a strange sense of unreality, she stripped the bed, showered, dressed, and toiled up and down the stairs packing her car—a small, ancient and genteel white Mazda which had previously belonged to an equally small, ancient and genteel acquaintance of her grandmother’s. When she had finished it was still early—too early to drop the apartment key into the real estate agent’s office. She told herself to go out and get some breakfast, then felt sick at the thought. She considered ringing Andrew, but told herself he might think it gormless of her to call so early, bothering him like an overexcited child looking forward to a treat.

Andrew was probably already at the office anyway. He was working hard to clear the week to come, which was to be their stay-at-home honeymoon. He had obviously spent Sunday and half of Sunday night in the office, because his phone had still been turned off when Holly went to bed at ten.

Poor Andrew! Part of the problem was that he had been operating without any assistance for almost as long as Holly had known him. His receptionist, Aimee, had let him down and left with practically no notice, he had told Holly ruefully on her second weekend at the Clover Road house. These local girls were bloody unreliable, unfortunately.

Holly had commiserated, but in truth she had not been sorry to hear that Aimee had departed. Andrew had never mentioned what Aimee looked like, but it was hard to imagine his hiring someone who didn’t look good.

No suitable replacement for Aimee had presented herself, and of course as things had turned out, this was lucky. Now Holly didn’t have to spend time looking for a job in the mountains. Andrew said that her experience at Gorgon’s and, before that, at the bank in Perth, had given her just the experience he needed. Strangely unwilling to leave the small, featureless space that had been her refuge since she had arrived in Sydney, Holly dithered, closing the blinds, checking under the bed and sofa which, with a surly refrigerator, a coffee table, a rickety dining table and two chairs, had qualified the flat to be described as ‘furnished.’ When on the last of several nervous visits to the bathroom her mobile phone fell out of her jeans pocket into the toilet and died, she told herself that this wasn’t an omen, just carelessness.

But afterwards, she saw the drowning of the mobile phone as the beginning of a downward slide.

At five minutes past nine Holly returned the apartment key to the agent, who was snappy. She bought a takeaway coffee from the café next door to the agent’s and discovered, when she got back to the car and took her first sip, that the coffee was weak and very sweet, though she had distinctly asked for a double shot and said she didn’t want sugar.

She set off through the Monday peak hour. The other drivers on the road were all in ferocious tempers. They glared through their windscreens, a horn-blast away from road rage. There had been a smash on the M4, and traffic was bumper to bumper as far as the eye could see. The news on the radio was a depressing succession of bomb blasts, government denials, share crashes and abused dogs. And after a while, the Mazda started stalling. Holly called up the spirit of her grandmother and told herself that it was always darkest before the dawn. She wished her phone were still alive so she could ring Andrew and tell him she was on her way. She wished the car had air-conditioning and a CD player. Then, as the stalls became more frequent, she forgot all other wishes and just started praying that the car wouldn’t, like the phone, choose this particular day, of all days, to expire.

The Mazda made it up to Springwood, but only just. When it gave its last gasp on the main street, a teenage boy and a gallant old man who Holly thought might have a heart attack at any moment pushed it to the nearest service centre while she steered. The mechanic at the service centre cast his eye over the car, sucked his teeth and said he’d take a proper decko later on but it looked like the distributor. Plus the points were rooted.

‘I’m getting married tomorrow,’ Holly said, as if this made a difference.

‘Good on ya,’ said the mechanic sourly. ‘First time, is it?’

Holly said it was and he nodded as if this explained her enthusiasm.

‘Want a quote?’ he asked, jerking his head at the car.

Holly thought quickly. ‘Only if it’s going to cost more than— um—two hundred dollars, say,’ she said. ‘Or two-fifty, maybe.’ The mechanic stroked his chin. ‘Might be able to lay me hands on a secondhand distributor,’ he offered. ‘How’d that be?’ ‘Fine,’ Holly assured him. The whole car was so extremely secondhand that she felt a secondhand distributor would be the least of its worries.

They did the paperwork, and after that the mechanic let Holly use his phone. She rang Andrew, quickly rehearsing some witty remarks about her nightmare journey.

Andrew’s mobile was turned off, and he didn’t pick up the phone in his office. The home phone seemed to be out of order. Only slightly disconcerted, Holly called a taxi, then lugged all her possessions out onto the pavement and sat on the largest of the cases to wait, cradling the china goose and the bottle of Moët, feeling like a refugee.

The taxi driver was a solid, middle-aged blonde woman wearing a Disneyland cap. She eyed Holly, the goose, the champagne and the luggage dubiously. On the plus side, she didn’t ask any questions, or try to chat.

In silence they drove the short distance to Clover Road. As they drew up in front of the house, Holly could see that Andrew’s dark green Saab was not in the carport. She hadn’t really thought it would be, but she felt a pang of disappointment anyway.

She paid the taxi driver, who then seemed to feel it was safe to unlock the boot and help her unload her luggage.

A bitter little wind blew down the street. A few sheets of newspaper tumbled over the nature strip, wrapping themselves around the grey trunks of the almost naked cherry trees.

Holly ferried her things through the front gate and fumbled for her door key. She was aware of the taxi driver watching her with interest as the cab made a lingering turn, and smiled at this evidence of small town curiosity. Feeling cheered, she let herself into the silent house, kicked off her shoes and padded into the kitchen to put the champagne on ice.

The sink was full of unwashed dishes. The benches were sprinkled with toast crumbs. An envelope marked with her name was stuck to the fridge with the tooth-shaped magnet Andrew’s dentist gave away with every clean and fluoride treatment. The envelope contained forty dollars and a note.

Dearest Holly,

I tried to call you, but your phone was off. Sorry for the short notice, but I have to leave. Something has come up. Don’t try to find me. Just forget I ever existed. Forgive me.

Andrew

Standing there in the kitchen with her handbag still slung over her shoulder and the champagne bottle in her hand, a few things occurred to Holly.

The first, and most paralysing, was that her mother had been right.

The second was that when she had called Andrew on Saturday, he had seemed slightly distracted, but she hadn’t wanted to appear clingy or lacking in confidence, so she hadn’t asked him if anything was wrong.

The third was that she wouldn’t be surprised if the ex-receptionist, Aimee, had something to do with this.

The fourth was that she wasn’t crying, and she should have been.

The fifth was that it was sort of insulting that the note was on the fridge. It was as if Andrew had assumed that this would be the first place she would head for when she arrived. Well, he was right there, she had to admit. But the fridge wasn’t      a dignified place for a farewell note. A farewell note should   be stuck on a pincushion on your dressing table. Or placed  on your pillow, under a single red rose. Holly couldn’t help but believe that the fact that Andrew, who valued style above everything, had chosen the kitchen as the place to bow out, said a lot about his opinion of her.

Then there was the money. Forty dollars. Did Andrew think she would be too upset to go to the bank for the next day or two? Did he think she would need money for dinner? Or was it—could it possibly be—some symbolic thing?

Facts absorbed in childhood flashed out of the murk of Holly’s unconscious. Forty days’ rain caused Noah’s flood. Jesus wandered in the desert for forty days. Lent was forty days long. (No meat in Lent. Her mother always insisted on that, though she only went to church once in a blue moon. Forty dinners of fish cakes, salmon mornay, macaroni cheese…)

Could Andrew be hinting that his affair with Holly had been some sort of penance? Desperately she tried to think of another explanation. The Roaring Forties. Life Begins at Forty. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves…

She was shocked, of course. She told herself that, later. Concentrating on details instead of focusing on the main issue. The main issue being that Andrew had gone and, presumably, wasn’t coming back.

But that was crazy. The kitchen Holly was standing in was Andrew’s kitchen. The fridge was his fridge. The house was his house. She had disposed of her own scrappy array of household goods. All she had brought with her were her personal belongings, a bundle of bed linen, a feather and down quilt and the goose-shaped cookie jar.

Andrew might have felt he owed her something for standing her up more or less on the registry office doorstep—ducking, right at the death, out of his promise to make what her grandmother would have called ‘an honest woman’ of her. But guilt wasn’t usually a problem for Andrew. He didn’t seem to have what most people thought of as a conscience. He never looked back, or regretted anything. He lived for the present.

Holly had always found that exciting. In fact, she had envied it, since she herself was quite capable of groaning with shame about things that had happened when she was still wearing long white socks with lace around the tops, and going to Sunday school. It had never occurred to her that one day she herself might end up being a casualty of Andrew’s ability to move  on. But even if, on this occasion, Andrew had felt guilty, she reasoned, there was no way he would leave her in possession of everything he owned.

Well, as she was soon to discover, yes, he would. Because it turned out that Andrew had been living for the present in more ways than one.

Holly had several visitors in the next couple of hours. They were all very polite, and they all apologised for not phoning, but it seemed the phone had been disconnected. She tried to make coffee for the first one, but by that time the electricity had gone too.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Andrew’s cute little house in Clover Road, with its fireplace, its broad polished floorboards, its original kookaburra leadlight front door and its elaborate ceiling decorations, was in fact not Andrew’s at all, but rented. The furniture was rented, too. And the fittings, glassware, china, cutlery…even the fridge, which Holly thought was rather an irony. The rents, it seemed, hadn’t been paid for quite a while. Just like the lease payments on the Saab, which according to a note she found in the letterbox had been repossessed earlier in the day. Andrew, it seemed, had owned nothing but his clothes, his shaving gear, his laptop computer, his phone and his watch, and they had gone with him.

The real estate agent, and the men from Home Comforts, the furniture and fittings rental place, seemed rather sorry for Holly. The agent, who had bushy black eyebrows and mournful brown eyes and whose name was Len Land—a fact that only added to Holly’s sense that all this must be some bizarre joke—even lent her his phone so she could try to ring Andrew. But Andrew’s phone was still turned off.

Mr. Land said it had been off, as far as he knew, for days. He said he didn’t want to upset Holly, but unless she could come up with the rent owing, plus another month in advance, she was out by the end of the week. Her name wasn’t on the lease, he explained carefully, so effectively she was squatting.

And the furniture and fittings rental men were not prepared to wait. As they said, proffering a yellow form covered in indecipherable writing, they had their orders. They just took everything out piece by piece and loaded it into a truck.

Holly stood there watching, clutching her cookie jar and surrounded by her suitcases, her quilt, neatly packed in its original zippered bag, the bottle of champagne, and a slightly damp bundle of sheets, towel and bathmat. She could see the men felt bad about it, but they kept on going until the house was empty. She supposed they saw a lot of desperate people like her in their job.

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