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Hands tense on the wheel, Detective Sergeant Dylan Hastings drove his squad car along the undulating ribbon of tar that bisected miles of brittle-dry stud farm acreage dotted with stands of tall eucalyptus.
He was going to arrest Louisa Fairchild, the grande dame of the Australian Thoroughbred racing scene, a woman who thought she was above it all, who figured Commonwealth justice was the best money could buy.
Dylan was about to show her different.
Because he'd seen Louisa buy "justice" beforewhen he was just eight years old. It had changed his life forever.
It had made him become a cop.
It had made Dylan determined to fight for justice for all not just the stinking rich.
He turned off the Hunter Valley highway, heading for Fairchild's nine-hundred-acre estate along the Hunter River.
The route passed several miles of vineyards. It was March, and autumn colors quivered, brittle on the vines, metal windmills turning lazily in the hot wind. Here and there horses ran wild over the drought-brown hills, tails held high, frisky in the hot, smoke-tinged breeze.
It was all seemingly calm despite the political tensions simmering in Sydney, yet the ominous ochre haze over the blue hills of Koongorra Tops spoke of a different kind of threat.
The constant whispering reminder of bushfire smoldering in deep gullies just beyond the ridge across the Hunter River didn't bode well for a valley coming off a long, hard summer of unseasonable drought.
The homicide and arson case at Lochlain Racing, coming on top of these already tinderbox conditions, had left the town of Pepper Flats and the surrounding community wire-tense and baying for blood. The fire atthe stud farm had been ugly. Real ugly. And the community wanted someone to pay.
Dylan was about to make Louisa Fairchild do just that.
Still, like the smoldering hotspots across the Hunter, a small coal of doubt flickered quiet and deep inside Dylan. He knew he didn't have enough to officially charge her. Yet.
But his superintendent had issued the order to bring her in ASAP.
A gas bomb had detonated in the Sydney central business district less than two hours agopart of the APEC protests. It had gone off just as the U.S. President was landing at Sydney International for the leaders' portion of the Summit. The U.S. Secretary of State was already in town, at her hotel, where a second device had been primed to detonate simultaneously.
Techs had managed to defuse that one, but the death toll from nerve gas in the first explosion had already hit thirty-two and was climbing fast. The New South Wales police force had received threats from one of the radical protest groups that there were more bombs out there. Riots were now erupting, and part of Sydney had been quarantined. According to Superintendent Matt CaruthersHunter Valley Land Area Commanderthe Australian Prime Minister was about to go on air to declare a state of emergency.
Caruthers had also informed Dylan that the Prime Minister was calling in the military, and that the NSW police commissioner had ordered the majority of the state police force to the capital ASAPincluding just about every officer in the Hunter Valley Land Area Command. The homicide team working the Sam Whittleson-Lochlain arson case had also been recalled.
All that remained in the Upper Hunter was a skeleton staff for rotational patrol.
Dylan had been left to twist solo in the dry wind until the APEC dust settled.
This arrest was unorthodox. Everything about it.
And Louisa's lawyers were going to be all over it.
But Caruthers was worried Louisa Fairchild would use this very opportunity to slip through the cracks. She was already a flight risk, and so far, everything the homicide squad had found to date pointed right at her.
She had the motive, opportunity and means to shoot Sam Whittleson, her sixty-one-year-old neighbor and owner of Whittleson Stud, whose charred remains had been found at Lochlain the night of the fire.
Louisa and Sam had been fighting like dogs over rights to Lake Dingo for the last two years. The lake straddled their estates, but the farm boundaries themselves were in dispute, and Louisa had already shot and injured her neighbor over the water issue ten months ago. She'd shot Sam in her library, with her Smith & Wesson .38. He'd survived, but there were witnesses who'd heard Louisa say she "should have killed the bugger properly the first time."
That was a death threat in Dylan's book.
And now Sam Whittleson was properly dead.
The first shooting had never gone to trial, a fact that irked the hell out of local cops, including him. Louisa Fairchild with her overpriced lawyers and swanky PR team had claimed self-defense, wangling a deal with Whittleson's legal counsel that saw Whittleson dropping charges against Louisa for fear of being prosecuted for trespassing and assault himself.
But the homicide team now had witnesses who'd seen Louisa Fairchild's dark-gray Holden fleeing Lochlain the night of the blaze and murder. The soil in the tires of her truck confirmed she had been there.
And the fire-damaged murder weapon had finally been recovered from the crime-scene rubblea Smith & Wesson .38. The gun was currently being processed by forensics techs, and a serial number should be legible before the day was out, which meant the weapon could be traced.
Quite possibly right back to Louisa Fairchild.
Dylan would have been happier to have known for a fact the murder weapon belonged to Louisa.
Instead he'd been sent in prematurely. To squeeze her, bring her in for questioning, rattle her cage, find anything that would allow the NSW police enough to hold her for trial while they built their case.
Right. And who was going to take the fall if the weapon wasn't hers, if the charges didn't stick?
Dylan pinched the bridge of his nose.
He could see himself going down as the scapegoat on this one. Once those APEC stories started dying back from national headlines, this was going to be the news.
A small fist of tension curled in his gut as he caught sight of the bronze-and-red Fairchild logo emblazoned on massive stone pillars flanking the entrance to the estate. Dylan's jaw tightened as he signaled to the guard his intent to enter and swung into a driveway lined for almost a mile with mature jacarandas that knitted branches in a canopy over the hard-packed dirt.
On either side of him white fencing trailed across acres of dry grassland that was being cut to the quick for fear of bushfire, the tractors boiling soft clouds of dust that blew like spindrift. But as he neared the manor house and saw sprinklers shooting long white staccato arcs over lush emerald-green lawns and vibrant flower beds, Dylan's acrimony bit deeper.
Louisa Fairchild defied even the drought.
There were severe irrigation restrictions on the river. She was likely pumping water from Lake Dingo which belonged, allegedly, to a dead man.
A man she might have killed. For this very water. For the stud farm she was still trying to snatch out from under his family.
Dylan reminded himself to bury his personal hatred of Louisa Fairchild. It could cost him down the road if his animosity got in the way of her arrest.
The mobile phone on his belt buzzed as he pulled into the circular gravel driveway.
He reached for it, checked caller ID. Heidi. Probably calling to pester him about that party she was desperate to go to tonight. Or the private art school in Sydney she suddenly so passionately wanted to attend.
Dylan let the call flip to voice mail, feeling the tension in his gut wind tighter as he pulled to a stop.
His kid might be as fickle as the wind, but she'd also had a rough ride lately, nearly losing her own horse in the Lochlain fire. Yet no matter how Dylan tried to help, Heidi was throwing up barriers, acting out, making additional demands. She'd just have to wait until he got home tonight, because right now he had a potential career-breaker on his hands.
And Heidi wasn't going to have a future if this case ended up taking him down.
He got out of the squad car, adjusted his gun belt, and put on his hat. It was unusually hot for an autumn evening. He squinted into the haze, waiting for backup from the neighboring Scone station to arrive.
He'd asked for a female cop to help him execute the warrant. What he'd gotten was Ron Peebles, a probationary constable on the job for all of three weeks.
Already things were going sideways, Dylan thought as he watched a plume of dust rise behind the squad car approaching in the distance.
Constable Peebles drew up alongside Dylan's vehicle, got out, his movements taut. It was the young rookie's first arrest and it showed.
"Ready?" Dylan said.
Dry gum leaves clattered suddenly in a gust of hot wind, and a flock of lorikeets burst from the branches in an explosion of color as they took flight and darted through the sprinklers.
Peebles tensed, cleared his throat. "Yeah, I'm ready," he said, looking everything but.
Boots crunching over the gravel driveway, they made their way to the entrance of the massive stone-and-stucco mansion, built ten years ago. Dylan still remembered the old house. He'd played on this farm as a kid with his brother Liam and their friend Henry. That was many years back, before Liam had been murdered.
He climbed the stairs to the door, chest tightening.
He glanced at Peebles standing slightly to the side of the door, feet planted square, hand near his weapon. Peebles nodded.
Dylan rang the bell.
A great booming clang resounded inside the house, and the door swung open, two blue heelers barreling out.
"Officer Hastings?" Louisa's housekeeper, Geraldine Lip-ton, regarded them with a frown.
"G'day, Mrs. Lipton," he said. "Is Miss Fairchild in?"
Her eyes darted to Peebles, then back to Dylan, hand tightening on the brass doorknob as she pulled the door slightly closed. "Miss Fairchild is busy riding," she said tersely. "And then she'll be busy packing. She leaves for London tomorrow."
Dylan flashed Peebles a looka definite flight risk. "It's important we speak to her immediately, ma'am," he said.
The pinkness of irritability reached up Mrs. Lipton's neck and into her cheeks. "Why don't you wait in the library, officers?" she said curtly. "I'll see if Miss Fairchild can meet with you."
Dylan removed his hat as they followed the stout housekeeper in her starched navy-and-white uniform through a vaulted hallway decorated with broad-leafed plants, sleek sculptures and breezy rattan furniture. The decor had been redone since Dylan had been here last winter. It looked cold to him. But then they didn't pay him to pick out color swatches and match drapes. That was his ex's department.
The thought of Sally shot a familiar jolt of annoyance through him that compounded his feeling of ill will toward Louisa, the past suddenly crowding in on him.
Mrs. Lipton threw open a set of solid old jarrah-wood doors, ushering the two men into the library of polished wood, leather furniture, antique tomes, old art and a general aura of established wealth.
Dylan immediately eyed the elaborate, glassed-in gun collection beyond the fireplace. If Louisa's Smith & Wesson was in that cabinet he was going to have a problem. It would mean the pistol they had in the lab belonged to someone else.
Again, he cursed that he'd been forced to move prematurely. He needed the serial number on that murder weapon.
"Can I send for some tea while you wait?" The housekeeper's voice remained tight.
"No. Thank you," Dylan said, striding into the vast room where Sam Whittleson had come damn near to getting himself shot to death the first time.
Late-afternoon sunlight streamed in through French doors open to the patio, the water in the pool outside shimmering as if someone had just dived in. But Dylan made straight for the cabinet, pulse quickening as he noted a vacant spot on the red velvet where Louisa's .38 had rested last June.
It was missing.
But as he leaned forward for a closer inspection of her collection, the library doors swung open with a crash and Louisa Fairchild's voice resounded through the room.
"What in hell do you people want now!"
Dylan straightened, turned slowly to face her, projecting a powerful confidence and calm he didn't quite feel.
Framed by the double doorway and flanked by her stubby housekeeper holding her black velvet riding helmet, Louisa Fairchild cut a tall, sophisticated and formidable figure for her eighty yearsspine held stiff, crisp cotton stock-tied blouse high at the neck, tan breeches, dusty leather riding boots and silvery hair pulled back in a sleek chignon. She had handsome features and the very tanned and lined face of an Australian outdoorswoman. Her hands were brown, too. Veined, but elegant. Strong. Working hands, if rich ones.
Louisa was a blend of what defined this country in many ways. A woman of the land, one who'd made her wealth from it. Descended from a family that had risen from common stock brought over on boats to the penal colony to become rich in a warm climate of equal opportunity.
If Louisa had the same respect for equal justice as she had for opportunity, if Dylan didn't hate her so much for what she'd done to his family, he might even find a grudging respect for this matriarch. He thought of his own frail mother, of this formidable woman's indirect role in unraveling her.
"G'day, Miss Fairchild"
"Cut to the chase, Detective Sergeant," she snapped. "What do you want?"
He noted the strain in her neck muscles, the way she held her riding crop tight against her thigh, and he let silence hang for a few beats, just to rattle her further.
"We'd like to ask you some questions, Miss Fairchild," he said, walking slowly toward her. "We'd like to know, for example, where your Smith & Wesson revolver is."
Her eyes flicked to the gun cabinet and back. Her hand clenched the crop tighter. "If you're here about that Sam Whittleson thing"
"You mean his homicide?"
"I have nothing to say about that. And I must insist you get off my estate."
"Perhaps you'd like to come down to the Pepper Flats station then, just to answer a few questions?"
"Are you arresting me, Detective Sergeant?" Her chin tilted up in defiance. "Because if not, I have no intention of going anywhere with you, and I'm ordering you off my land. Now. Before I call my lawyers."
"Then I'm afraid we'll have to do this the hard way, ma'am," Dylan said, reaching for the cuffs at his belt.
"Miss Louisa Fairchild," he said, reaching for her arm, "I'm placing you under arrest for the murder of Sam Whittleson."
Megan Stafford stepped out of the pool, wet hair splashing droplets at her feet as she reached for her towel, the evening sun balmy and soft against her bare skin.
She began to towel herself as she studied the purplish-yellow haze on the horizon. It looked as though a thunderstorm was brewing, but she knew better. The haze was from the Koongorra fires.