About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The cellphone ring snapped me out of my trance. Well, it didn't ring, strictly speaking. It performed an electronic abomination that would have made Bach scream with indignation.
'Ah, God damn it.'
I slowed up, pulled the phone from my running-shorts pocket and gulped in a few quick breaths.
'Gore Watch House.'
It would have to be work. They could find you anywhere.
'Hi. What's up?'
'We have had a missing person report come in. Wyndham Road. Are you able to attend?'
Wyndham Road? I knew several people down there. I glanced down at my watch and calculated it would take another ten minutes to run home.
'Yes, I can be there. It could be half an hour, though. You caught me out on a run. What number?'
'One fifty-three. The Knowes household.'
'Knowes?' Lockie? Missing? My heart rate jumped up again.
'Yes, the reported person missing is Mrs Gabriella Knowes. Mr Knowes called it in.'
'Thanks. I'll be there soon.' I hung up, tucked the phone back in, then set off at a jog in the direction of home. My quiet little winddown after work was out the window.
Gaby Knowes? At least it wasn't Lockie. Curious, though: he wasn't the kind of man to panic if the wife was late home and there was no dinner on the table. And it was only 5.15pm. He must have only just got in from work and called the police straight away.
As the sole-charge policewoman at the Mataura station, it was my lot to be on call more often than not. But call-outs after hours were a rarity now. When I lived at the police house behind the station, I was fair game for the slightest gripe at any hour of the day, or night. The situation had improved only when I moved to a flat and put some distance between me and the job. Nowadays call-outs were usually for a fracas at the pub or a minor car accident – something quick to sort out.
I looked up at the horizon, judged that there were, at best, two or three hours of light left and took off at a trot, preferring the regularity of running on the road rather than on the scraggy roadside gravel and overgrown grass, and having to dodge the matchstick roadside markers. There was only the odd car to worry about, and they generally gave me a big swerve. Occasionally, I'd get some idiot who'd almost force me into the drainage ditch, but they were the exception around here. For the most part, farming folk were very polite. I knew most of the occupants of the houses on the outskirts of town. Molly Polglaise had lost her husband of forty-five years only a few weeks back; her granddaughter had moved in for a month or so as consolation company. The smell of her freshly trimmed macrocarpa hedge reminded me of Christmas. The Mayberry household had a new baby. John, who was out watering the garden, gave me an absentminded wave as I passed. Considering it had rained the day before, I wasn't quite sure why he was bothering.
Mataura was quintessential small-town New Zealand, although if I was being honest, it was a slightly shabbier and more run-down version of it. Like most towns, it struggled to provide employment and ways to entice the young folk to stay. How could it compete with the excitement of the city? It had a smattering of pubs, stores – mostly empty – and churches: the main ingredients for life in the sticks, although the pubs saw a lot more patronage than the churches. I knew the area intimately, and its residents. That included Lockie Knowes, though I hadn't had more than a passing conversation with him for an age. The fact I'd avoided him probably had something to do with that. Since he'd married the city girl and settled down to do the family thing, I'd pretty much sidestepped any contact – an achievement in itself, given the size of the town and my job. Now it looked like a good dose of professional detachment would be required. I would have to ignore the tightness in my stomach.
I slowed up the pace only when I reached the gateway to my house and its slightly skewiff letter box. Running was my vice – freedom of the road, isolation, being able to tune out everything but the rhythmic rush of blood pumping and powerful breathing. A legal high.
Bugger the telephone.
The sight of Lockie Knowes' house evoked visions of the British Country Living dream – elegant villa, white picket fence, perfectly groomed gardens surrounding a lush lawn, wisteria-draped veranda, bounding dog, radiant wife holding cherubic child. Well, it would have been if there hadn't been a problem with the wife.
I parked the police four-wheel drive on the grass verge and listened to the gravel crunch underfoot as I walked up the driveway. Lockie must have been lying in wait, as I'd barely made it past the letter box when he came out to meet me, his daughter, Angel, resting on his hip. He wasn't what you would call classically handsome, but being tall and muscular, with rugged, well-worn features, his presence demanded attention. He certainly got mine. I was shocked to see the straight-out fear etched in his eyes; its potency overrode any potential awkwardness.
'Lockie, what's up?'
'Something is really badly wrong, Sam. I just don't know what to do. Do I go looking or wait at home? Then there's Angel – what do I do with her?' One hand held a little too tightly on Angel's leg; his free hand tugged at his hair. This was a Lockie I'd never seen.
'Slow down. Tell me from the beginning. I take it you'd just got home from work? What happened?'
'She wasn't here, she was nowhere. I walked in, and nothing. She's always home. What's worse was Angel. She was asleep in the middle of the floor – filthy crappy nappy, and just lying there on the floor. At first I thought she was dead. My God, I panicked. I grabbed her, gave her a hell of a fright – thank God, she was OK. But no Gaby.'
I guided him back towards the house. 'It's getting a bit cool out here. Let's get inside.' Angel was wearing only a singlet and I could see tiny goosebumps on her arms. 'You've checked everywhere, she hasn't just left a message and ...?'
Lockie's face crumpled. 'There was a note.'
'What kind of note?' I hoped my voice sounded neutral.
'I don't know, I don't know what to think. I don't want to think it.'
I kicked my boots off at the door and followed him into the house. The carpet looked new; it smelled new too. The place was a mess. Toys everywhere, clothes strewn – it looked like a hurricane had hit. By the description Lockie had given, it was probably hurricane Angel, left to her own devices. I picked my way through the rubble and followed Lockie to the table. He stopped and pointed at a lone piece of paper on an otherwise clear surface. I moved around to get a look at it.
My dearest Lachlan, I'm so sorry. Look after Angelica. I love you both. Gabriella.
'Shit, Lockie.' Not good. Again, I forced my voice to remain neutral 'This was sitting on the table?'
He just nodded.
'OK. Sit down.'
He sat. He was still holding Angel, as if he feared she too would disappear into the ether.
'Have you rung anyone? Family, friends?' I had a few ideas of my own, but to be honest, I didn't think Gaby Knowes had many friends.
'I rang her mum in Queenstown. She's on her way. I don't know her friends' phone numbers.'
'Has she ever gone off and left Angel before? Been missing before?' I approached that one carefully. I had to ask.
'No, no, she'd never do that, to me or especially to Angel. She wouldn't even leave Angel in the car alone to go into the store; she'd always get her out in case some lunatic stole the car or hit it. She's always cautious, overly cautious. She would never leave Angel alone.' He brushed his fingers through Angel's hair and kissed the top of her head as she nuzzled in closer to him. 'This is so unlike her. Something has happened to her, I know it. This, this,' he gestured around him, 'it's just not her.'
'What about around the house? Is her car gone? Purse? Shoes? Where was the dog? Does it look like she popped out on an errand?' It was a bit rapid fire, and Lockie looked a touch overwhelmed, but my mind was racing through the possibilities.
'Radar was shut off in the spare room. Made a hell of a noise when he heard me come home, poor guy.'
'Would Gaby normally put him in there?'
'Well, no, he's got a kennel by the garage. She'd put him in there if she was going out.'
'So what about her car?'
'It's in the garage. I didn't think to see if her purse was here.' He stood up and disappeared down the hallway to search.
It didn't look good. That note could have meant Gaby had buggered off and left them, or worse, she'd decided to kill herself – but that hardly seemed likely. Firstly, she didn't seem the type, if there was such a thing. Who really knew what was going on behind people's façades? But mainly, she had a great husband and a gorgeous little girl. You would have to be pretty bloody desperate to leave that. I scanned the room. Other than the massive toy mess, nothing seemed to be amiss. Furniture seemed properly positioned and there were no obvious signs of a struggle, no blood. I looked up as Lockie came back into the living room. He had a handbag.
'That's her only one?' I asked.
'No, she's got a few, but it's got her purse in it.' His voice shook.
'I think they're all there, I'm not really sure. She could have more. She's a woman, after all.' It was a valiant attempt at humour.
Angel was starting to whinge and wriggle; she pushed her tiny hands against her father's chest to get away from his grasp.
'Have you had a chance to give Angel her dinner yet?' Feeding her might at least stop the whining and distract Lockie for a moment.
'No, I just changed her and gave her a biscuit.' His chin quivered again.
'Why don't you get her some dinner and get her ready for bed while I make a few phone calls,' I said. He looked relieved and headed into the kitchen, talking away quietly to Angel. I guessed to comfort himself as much as her.
The telephone calls didn't serve much purpose. The two people I thought Gaby might contact had not seen or heard from her. If that note read the way it looked, she would not have wanted to see people anyway. She was either long gone or dead already. I looked through the living-room window and could see the light was beginning to fade. Could we mount a search tonight?
'Fuck,' I heard Lockie exclaim.
'What is it?'
He was standing in the kitchen, staring at the sink. From behind him I could see a prescription box and empty tablet strips in the bottom of the sink, next to a large glass. Lockie was frozen to the spot and I had to shove him out of the way.
'Excuse me, I need to get a proper look.'
Hypnovel. A sleeper. I recognised the name: my mum used to take them on the odd occasion. The pills had been made out in Gaby's name and, going by the date, dispensed only the previous day. The box indicated there would have been thirty tablets. This changed things dramatically. I was pretty sure that wouldn't be a good thing in one hit.
'Did you know Gaby was taking sleeping tablets?' I said.
'No, no, she wasn't. She wouldn't have. I would have noticed. Anyway, she's still breastfeeding.' He ran his hands through his hair, intensifying his expression of misery. 'God, she wouldn't have a glass of wine, let alone tablets. She wouldn't have taken anything if she thought it could harm Angel; even Panadol she thought twice about. No, there's no way she'd have been taking those.'
That was emphatic.
'Did she have any medical conditions?' I asked. The image of Gaby lying unconscious and dying under some bush barged its way into my mind, and I made a conscious effort to push it aside in favour of objectivity. Dramatics wouldn't serve anyone.
'No, healthy and, I thought, happy.' He reached out to pick up the tablet strips, but I placed my hand on his arm to stop him. 'Sorry, Lockie, I'll need to keep those as evidence, and also the note.'
I looked around the rest of the kitchen. It was pretty tidy other than the tablets in the sink, some dishes, baking on cooling racks and the beginnings of Angel's dinner on the counter.
'I'm going to pop out to the truck to get my kit and have a look around outside. You get Angel organised and into bed, then we can sit down and plan what to do. You can do that?'
'Yeah.' The strain in his voice was obvious.
Even after all these years, the urge to nurture him overwhelmed. But it was not the time, or the place. I turned, headed for the front door and flicked on the outside light switch on the way past. It would be getting dark soon enough. I jogged down the driveway, and a sense of urgency overtook me. When was the last time anyone had spoken to Gaby? When did she scull those tablets? I collected the kit and torch from the police truck, then methodically worked my way over the yard and surrounds.
The Knowes' house was separated from its neighbours' by 150 metres or so in each direction. There were several large trees, macrocarpa and totara, which acted as a framework for the traditional garden. Rectangular beds of roses and perennials flanked each side of the long gravel driveway; a lavender hedge bordered the veranda. Everything was neat and well maintained. Someone clearly loved gardening, and previous experience told me it wasn't Lockie. He only liked gardening if it involved chainsaws and RoundUp. I didn't get why people would want to emulate the perfect British country garden in New Zealand. Me, I was all for native plants, the sort that drew in the birds – cabbage trees, flaxes, kowhais, toetoe – nothing too prissy, but even I had to admit the Knowes garden was beautiful: structured and open with plenty of well-manicured lawn. From a more practical but slightly sinister standpoint there were no dense areas of bushes or shrubbery that could conceal a person. I moved around behind the house to the garage. Radar was there in his kennel and run. He gave a token woof as I approached, but that was it. I gave him a scratch under his chin as he came up to sniff me.
'You're a great guard dog, I see,' I said in that special voice saved for babies or pets. 'You're just a big lump of porridge. I think you'd lick an intruder to death.' He reinforced my view by giving my hand a thorough cleaning. I scanned the back of the section. Again, the view was unimpeded and visibility helped by a full moon on the rise.
I hadn't realised how close the house was to the water. I walked to the back of the section, through a dense row of agapanthus – standard issue on rural properties – and up to the wire and batten fence. There was only another twenty metres or so of long grass down to the Mataura river. The surface wasn't visible from where I stood, just a dark slash in the dim-lit landscape where it cut its path through the fields, but I could hear its gurgling song. I walked along the fence line until I reached a wooden strainer post and then climbed over. From there it was long grass and the occasional broom bush to negotiate.
Once at the edge there was a four- or five-metre drop down to the water, which, at this point, stretched thirty metres across to the far side. The bank wasn't too steep though. I stood, hands on hips; I watched the rippled reflection of the moon as it marked time in the steady current, listened to the river's accompaniment. It seemed a possibility. Drug yourself up to the eyeballs, then ease down into the river. Drowning was supposed to be a reasonably gentle way to go; numbed by hypnotics, it would be a pain-free way out.
The path from the house to here was not difficult. I worked my way down the slope to the water's edge. There was a slick of dew on the grass, so it took a bit of care not to slip over. Gaby could have made this trip earlier in the day when the grass was dry, so even if the drugs had started to kick in she could easily have managed it. For that matter, she could have walked down to the river, waited for the sleepiness, then slipped in. The fence was the only obstacle, but if I could do it, Gaby, who was half a foot taller again, wouldn't have any problem. I looked around and didn't notice any obvious tracking in the grass to the river's edge, but light was poor and decisions had to be made.
I looked down at my watch. It was just after 6pm. Could I muster up a search party tonight? I crouched down and ran my hand in the water; the ripples' concentric circles fractured the reflected moon. The water was frigid, even for this time of year. If there was even a remote possibility Gaby was still alive, I had to pursue it, and quick.
I'd ring Bill Stevenson to see if he could get a jet boat out onto the water. I knew he didn't take them out in the pitch black, but it was a clear evening and with the full moon visibility might be good enough. The Eastern Southland Search and Rescue group had had a night-training session less than a month ago; they'd be sure to help. With them and some of the locals, we'd have a sizeable search party, and soon.
Still, time was not on Gaby's side.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Overkill"
Copyright © 2018 Vanda Symon.
Excerpted by permission of Orenda Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.