Raw and risky, a new rural romance that explores the dark side of small towns, and the people who put everything on the line to protect them...
Kat Daily is excited to trade her Sydney airport quarantine uniform for an RSPCA inspector's uniform and a job in the rural town of Walgarra. A fresh start in a new place, where she can make a real difference in the lives of the animals that she loves.
But Walgarra doesn't offer a peaceful, bucolic existence. Like many small towns, the distance from urban settings – and urban law enforcement – has allowed a criminal element to set in. Kat may only be looking after animals, but that doesn't mean she will be immune to people with sinister agendas.
The previous RSCPCA inspector was murdered, and Officer Luka Belovuk is determined to keep the new inspector from the same fate. He may have very broad shoulders, but carrying the safety of the law–abiding community just trying to live their lives has weighed him down, and one more death might be more than he can take.
Not all small towns are quaint and quiet, but they all have one thing in common: a community of people willing to protect their population with everything they have.
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By Rhyll Biest
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2017 Rhyll Biest
All rights reserved.
It was the Hervey Bay whale watching cap that pulled all his threads out and left him unstitched.
Just a hat, but it was Mark's hat.
And it didn't belong on a concrete slab in a service station, lying next to a diesel petrol bowser.
Luka took a photo of the cap before, on leaden feet, he approached and picked it up. Blue with white stitching and a smiling grey whale, the text on the inside tag erased by wear. He placed it in a plastic evidence bag.
Why would it be here? True, as an RSPCA inspector Mark spent a lot of time on the road and had to fill up regularly, but since turning twenty he'd been sensitive about his thinning hair which meant his caps rarely left his head. His wife liked to joke that her husband would be buried in one. In fact, she'd made that joke when Luka joined them for dinner the other night.
There was no way Mark was leaving his cap behind at a petrol station.
But it could mean other things too. No need to jump to conclusions. Mark had known his job was dangerous and how to take precautions, so in all probability he was fine.
Luka almost believed his own bullshit.
He raised his eyes from the cap to scan the service station's nondescript garage, the rows of bowsers and the glass walls of the store that allowed the cashier to monitor the cars filling up. The automated sliding door. It looked like every place he'd ever stopped for petrol.
However, the day before last, Mark's wife reported him missing after he'd failed to come home after work.
Cavernous. That was the size of the pit in Luka's belly, and it kept growing.
Just like yesterday, when a local found Mark's car, keys still in the ignition, at the back of a supermarket parking lot. Not a good sign. Then, this morning, the owner of a service station had called about the cap — correctly identifying it as Mark's.
Car and hat were accounted for, but not the man himself.
Mark, you tree-hugging, animal-pampering, do-gooder, what trouble are you in now?
Grief and uncertainty, two feelings a police officer should never own up to, circled him.
'Hey, Luka, you want me to bring you a coffee?' The service station owner's eyes were sympathetic as she paused by the bowser, hands stuffed in the pockets of her denim skirt.
'Thanks for the offer, but I'll pass.' His mouth felt full of sludge already.
'Sure, no worries. Let me know if you change your mind.'
He nodded. 'Okay. You mind if I take a look around out back?'
She raised her brows. 'Out back? Sure, though everything's locked up since we haven't used the tractors and whatnot for a long time. You want a key?'
'That's okay, I won't look inside.' Unless a door was already busted open.
'Okay, knock yourself out.' She wiped her hands on her skirt before returning to her post inside the shop behind the till.
The sun had no regard for his misgivings, shining brightly in the obscenely blue sky as he trudged to the back of the service station. Gravel crunched beneath his boots as he approached the first in a row of large machinery sheds. His feet slowed, as if trying to reason with him and keep him from seeing the thing they knew he was going to see.
First shed, padlock intact.
He headed towards the next shed. Nearby, bees grazed on the flowers of an apple tree, oblivious to the sea of dread he waded through. The metallic odour of grease and oil receded, the scent of grass and mown hay grew stronger.
Second shed, padlock intact.
The fierce morning sun stung his unprotected neck as the sound of the highway traffic grew fainter. Perhaps he should have persuaded Mark harder to take a self-defence course, or cautioned him more strongly about staying away from Daryl Hicks, AKA Grinder. Had he failed to do his job? He replayed his last conversation with Mark but couldn't come to any conclusion.
His feet stopped in front of the third shed.
Padlock missing. Door ajar. Code 134: break and enter. For a second his head grew light as he stared at the aluminium door. Things fought inside his heart. Don't be in there, Mark. Don't be inside. Don't you dare. Perhaps there was some other explanation for the open door.
Flicking his torch on, he rested a hand on his service revolver before nudging the door open wider with one boot tip.
The darkness clung so thick it took several seconds to interpret the shapes picked out by light of his torch.
A combiner, a fork lift, a tractor. A stack of pallets left over from fruit picking season. Some tools arranged on an empty wood crate set on the dirt floor beside a tractor tyre and some mechanical part spilling sump oil.
An odd smell. Not the rich, thick, loamy scent of dirt long left undisturbed or touched by sun but something else.
His eyes adjusted to the dark.
Not a tractor tyre. A figure curled into a tight ball, and it was the rich, red engine oil of the human heart pooled around him rather than sump oil.
That could be anyone.
But it was a man, a man with short, dark hair and a stocky build like Mark's.
He limped closer, not wanting to disturb the crime scene — if that's what it was — but needing to know if the man was still alive. 'Sir, can you hear me?'
It's not him. It can't be. We laughed together over dinner two nights ago.
The torch, however — that bastard, bloody torch — picked out a black tattoo on the man's inner forearm, a woman's name. The name of Mark's wife.
A wounded sound escaped him.
The young eucalyptus forest whispered 'rural bliss' rather than 'murder scene' but Kat knew better.
Will be your murder scene too, Galenka muttered.
Since Galenka, who sometimes preferred to be called Galina, was merely the vestigial remains of Kat's childhood imaginary friend — a sad, mean half-Russian girl with snakes for eyes who relished her role as a troublemaker and prophetess of doom and who only made an appearance during times of great stress — Kat felt justified in ignoring her. Especially since Galenka spoke with an east European accent and haphazard sentence structure eerily similar to that of Kat's late mother, whereas Kat's English was perfect.
You can't forget us, Galenka sneered.
Just watch me. I'm going to do my new job well and forget about everything else. You included.
Galenka, the little bitch, had appeared as soon as Kat had crossed the state border. Any psychologist would have a field day with that. Despite working at an international airport, Kat had never left Australia, had lived her whole life in and around Sydney. So now that she'd split up with New South Wales to take a job in Victoria, it only made sense that — like a cat dumped a long way from home — she was spooked by the wrong colour of the sky, the strange-smelling air and the wrong number of trees.
How she longed for her comfortable former rut right now.
The fierce afternoon sun baked the hard plastic steering wheel, the heat transferring to her engagement ring to turn it branding hot. Handling the steering wheel gingerly, she took the turn-off indicated on her GPS before pulling over to tug her fake engagement ring from her finger and slip it in her pocket. Petra, her quarantine colleague, had suggested the fake engagement ring. 'Unless you want every two-headed, potato-humping breeder pawing at you, toots.'
Not a fan of country life, Petra.
Serenaded by shrieking cicadas she squinted at two pock-marked road signs through the heat haze rising off the bitumen. One sign, the one with a black blob with a tail on a yellow background, warned of crossing kangaroos, the other indicated that the Walgarra RSPCA shelter was thirteen kilometres away. Some friendly local had blasted holes through both signs so that each looked like a chewed leaf.
A nice, friendly touch. The urge to turn around and drive right back home made her fingers twitch.
Minutes later she passed the Welcome to Walgarra sign, bullets centred together in one large gaping hole, a mortal wound designed to spill guts.
Like last RSPCA inspector, Galenka leered.
A cluster of blood red, rusting farm letterboxes flashed by.
Don't think about the murder.
But it was a lot like telling herself not to think of a blue cow. As soon as she did, all she saw were blue cows. Bullet-ridden blue cows. And no amount of self-administered pep talks changed the fact that violence was an occupational hazard that any RSPCA inspector could expect. Galenka's comments had nothing on the news stories that a cursory google search produced. Inspectors who'd been choked out, stabbed, punched and spat on. It was a sad fact that the people most likely to neglect or abuse animals were also likely to react inappropriately, and sometimes violently, towards inspectors investigating a case. And sure, that violence smeared queasy doubt all over the joy of working with animals, but those animals needed her. If she didn't help them just because she was afraid then she was just as bad as all the people who never helped her, or her mother, because they were afraid to. Because her dad was not only a mean bastard but also a cop.
So stuff the queasiness, stuff the sweat that slicked her hands whenever she thought too long about the murdered RSPCA inspector. Faith in people — and she had no such faith — was not enough to protect the weak and vulnerable. Only laws and protective authority could work that magic and she'd signed up to do her bit.
She'd seen too many terrapins stuffed down travellers' pants, too many rare birds tucked into socks. The parrots, pangolins and pythons stuffed inside suitcases, the drugs sewed into the bellies of puppies, she was sick of it, choking on it.
And all she had to do to change things, to feel clean again, was to hang onto courage and do her job.
You can do this.
One of her mother's favourite sayings slouched by: disaster is hungry for us, Kat, your grandfather was cursed by Kazak gypsies.
Bullshit, bullshit, all complete bullshit.
And yet so hard to shake ...
Since her last stop for petrol, a gang of bad-news scenarios had lined up to mug her, each jostling with sharp elbows for equal attention. She would apply the RSPCA legislation incorrectly and get her employer sued, she would escalate rather than de-escalate situations when talking to emotional members of the public, or people wouldn't take her seriously because she didn't project enough authority. She would be too much of a perfectionist and fall behind on her caseload, or she would prioritise the wrong case and animals would die because of her lack of judgement.
Or, like last Walgarra inspector, get gut-shot.
Thanks for being so positive.
Galenka could have at least given Kat some credit for being an efficient and effective quarantine officer for the past five years, possessed of an uncanny sixth sense for hidden contraband, whether it was a troupe of ballerinas smuggling bananas up their tutus, or a posse of hikers returning from Papua New Guinea carrying Kathmandu backpacks bristling with penis gourds.
The nose for contraband was hers, and no one could ever take it away from her. She would succeed as an RSPCA inspector, learn on the job and adapt.
You believe own lies. Loser.
Galenka never pulled her punches.
Another scarred road sign indicated only two hundred metres to the shelter, and soon a squat brick building came into view. She ignored the first driveway, barred by unfriendly steel gates, and eased into the second. The staff car park lay behind the security gates but she needed to be issued with her pass and code before she could park behind the safety of a three-metres high fence.
She pulled in past a hedge as ragged as her nerves.
Kat squinted against the glare rising off the bitumen. No shade, not a scrap of it. To deter people from lingering? She parked between a beat-up Datsun and an ancient hatchback. The Beast, her white Holden, didn't look so shabby parked between those.
She slid out of the driver's seat, stretched. A puff of air too hot to be called a breeze cooled the damp patch of t-shirt between her shoulder blades. She waved off the flies keen to cluster on her face. Were there always so many around?
Scanning the car park for clues to explain her inner sense of threat, she studied the not-so-discrete security cameras, two of them — black and nosy as crows — staring down at her from the eaves of the animal shelter. Should she wave? Your new staff member is here, keen to do good while avoiding the fate of the last inspector.
Pebbles crunched under her sneakers as she stood, knees stiff from the long drive. She wiped her sweaty, steering-wheel-cramped hands on her jeans and scanned the halfempty parking lot. As she waited for her knees to unlock she stretched her neck.
No Jerry Springer-style wrestling matches broke out between unhappy customers and shelter staff, no one was hurled out the door by a bouncer as she stretched her legs. That was a good sign, right?
She had to admit she'd half expected to see a brawl in full swing given all she'd heard about Walgarra. The lack of one raised her spirits somewhat.
Booty-bumping the car door shut, she eyed the shelter.
The building looked familiar, which she put down to the amount of media coverage it had received. RSPCA Inspector Murdered, the headlines had screamed. She'd had to turn the word around in her head a few times before it sank in. M-u-r-d-e-r-e-d.
Abuse she expected as part of the job, but not a shallow grave. And yet here she was, the new inspector, ready to start work and more afraid of failure than meeting a bad end. Because two inspectors murdered in a row was statistically unlikely, right?
Stupid girl, Galenka sang.
She hovered next to her car, terrified that her temerity in applying for the job, and getting it, might end in tears.
Too late now, dickhead.
She locked the door, stifled the urge to unwind the windows and leave them open to disperse the heat. People could break in and hide in the back seat, the sort of people who held grudges against animal shelters and the people — like her — who worked in them.
She tried to recall the number of RSPCA inspectors, nationally, who were threatened or attacked each year. Over two hundred? Something like that. Death threats against their families, and everything waved at them from shotguns to claw hammers. Nobody could accuse her of playing it safe now.
Say, for example, her friend Peter.
Dickhead, he forgets you already. Go home.
Galenka's hectoring only drove Kat's feet forward. At the entry she paused. A bright riot of petunias grew in a bed of cigarette butts. She rehearsed her introduction in her head one last time.
Hi, I'm Kat Daily, the new inspector.
She swung the door with its heavy steel bars and stepped inside her new workplace.
Disinfectant settled over her, pungent and yet unable to entirely mask the scent of anxious animal pheromones and pee. What the disinfectant missed, stark fluorescent lights vaporised.
Eyes turned her way, but she studied the pets rather than their seated owners. Two Angora rabbits, one morbidly obese cattle dog, a spooked crated Burmese, a shivering toy poodle. All the four-legged visitors had either been brought in for veterinary treatment in the attached clinic, or to be surrendered to the shelter. A few might be lucky enough just to be boarding with the commercial kennel and cattery in the building out the back.
She approached the desk where two receptionists wearing seen-it-all faces stood.
Her brain did its usual thing and classified them according to what she imagined they'd be most likely to try to smuggle through customs and quarantine.
The heavy-set brunette with a rockabilly beehive, a rainbow of tattoos on her arms, and a name tag that read Sharon, would be most likely to smuggle counterfeit designer handbags. Not a quarantine issue unless they were made from untreated hides, which would be most unlikely. More of a customs issue. Kat admired her tattoos but getting inked was not for her. Tattoos carried the potential risk of infection with HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, staph (including drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), and tuberculosis.
Sharon didn't look Kat's way, kept busy by a thin man in a singlet and grubby, threadbare tracksuit pants with a folded magazine shoved down the back of the waistband.
Excerpted from Shelter by Rhyll Biest. Copyright © 2017 Rhyll Biest. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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