It’s tough being a Detective Senior Sergeant in the Sex Crimes unit. DSS Stevie Hooper is fighting to balance the seamier side of being a cop with her role as a mother—and her latest case is not going to make it any easier. It starts with a deserted house, an abandoned baby, and an elderly neighbor who has the answers but cannot speak. Then the body of a woman turns up in the river with its limbs bound and a shotgun wound to the head. Soon DSS Hooper is on the trail of a human trafficking ring and discovers a ruthless group with international connections that has at its rotten heart a disregard for all human life.
About the Author
Felicity Young is the author of A Certain Malice, An Easeful Death, and Harum Scarum.
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By Felicity Young
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2000 Felicity Young
All rights reserved.
The dead cycad might look like a rusty buzz-saw in a pot, Stevie thought, but it was hardly a portent for disaster.
'Have you been inside?' she asked Skye, who had joined her on the front porch. Stevie's fingers grazed one of the plant's leaves. 'Ouch!' She pulled away, beads of blood welling along the small cut.
'Tetanus up to date?' Skye asked.
Stevie pulled her stinging finger from her mouth. 'Yes, Nurse Williams.'
'If I'd had the guts to go inside,' Skye went on, 'I wouldn't have bothered calling you, would I?' She gave a characteristic eye roll that made Stevie smile despite her irritation. 'Mrs Hardegan's positive no one's been home for days. I mean come off it, look at all this.' She waved her hand at the overflowing letterbox and the rolled newspapers cast about the lawn.
'And the grass needs a mow,' said Stevie, 'I can see all that, but why didn't you just wait for the local cops?'
'I told you,' said Skye. 'They never showed. 'C'mon, you owe me. Let's get this over with. I've still got another three home visits to make and she's watching.' Skye tilted her head towards the squat pre-war bungalow next door. Stevie caught a shadow of movement from a window, the snap of venetian blinds. With a resigned sigh she gave the lion-head doorbell three sharp jabs.
Skye fumbled in the pocket of her uniform for the key Mrs Hardegan had given her and reached for the doorknob. 'I rang before and got no answer, had a look around the garden, the back shed, looked through the windows — there isn't anyone about.'
To their surprise the door opened under her touch.
They found themselves in a cool front entrance with a high ceiling. A stained-glass skylight shone down on them and a black and white tiled floor chequered its way down the passageway to the left and right. There were plenty of larger mansions in the area, but this Federation-style reproduction was the biggest in the block. Stevie regarded the spacious lounge room ahead. Two modular sofas gripped the walls, the type found in airport lounges or hotel lobbies, not really designed for lounging. Not even a coffee table filled the void between them. The room was bare: there were no paintings, no TV, books or magazines. Stevie had seen display homes that looked more homey.
'Police! Is anyone here?' she called out, her voice echoing down the passageways.
'Nice place,' Skye mumbled.
'What exactly did the old lady say?' Stevie asked as they headed down the right hand passage, footsteps scuffing on the gritty tiles.
'Mrs Hardegan said she hasn't seen the couple for several days, and they always tell her if they're going away. She likes to keep an eye on things. It gives her something to do.'
'Good neighbour,' said Stevie, glancing into an open-plan dining room that contained a dusty antique table and no chairs. A picture window, designed to capture rolling farmland or sweeping cityscape, revealed a cramped backyard.
'She said she'd got her son to call the local cops — several times — and they promised they'd look into it, but they haven't. I tried them too, also with no luck. I reckon the old dear might've cried wolf one too many times.'
'So you called me instead.'
'Mrs Hardegan's recovering from a serious stroke and I don't want her having another. She's been getting more and more anxious over this and I can't see the harm in putting her mind to rest. Besides,' Skye added with an ironic smile, 'we were planning on catching up anyway.'
'This isn't exactly what I had in mind.' Stevie pulled at her paint-spattered overalls. 'I was doing the eaves of my house.'
Skye shrugged. 'Give a girl a spanner.'
Stevie thumped on the closed door of what she assumed to be the master bedroom, expecting and receiving no reply. 'Has Mrs Hardegan told you anything about the couple?'
'Delia and Jon Pavel, early thirties, filthy rich.'
Stevie opened the door and saw an unmade bed, scattered shoes, dirty carpet. The windows were shut and the room smelt sour.
'Filthy seems to be the operative word,' she said as she approached the bed. She poked for a moment among the tangle of forget-me-not blue sheets and floral pillows, noting the absence of doona or blankets.
Skye tugged at an earlobe peppered with empty holes. 'Stevie, maybe we shouldn't be doing this ... '
Stevie barely heard her. She was in full cop mode now and it was too late for second thoughts. She indicated an open satin box on the dressing table containing a magpie's nest of jewellery: gold chains, silver, diamonds and pearls, 'Look at all this — they obviously haven't been robbed.' Nodding to a plasma TV on the wall opposite the bed she said, 'And that would've been easy enough to take.' A knot formed in the pit of her stomach. Robbery was now the least of her concerns. 'Wait outside if you like, Skye.'
'No, no, you might need me, I'd better stay.' A tremolo underscored Skye's earlier confident tone. A uniformed constable would be a lot more useful than this skinny girl with the dark rings under her eyes, Stevie thought as she flicked her friend an unenthusiastic smile.
They picked their way around piles of unwashed clothes in the doorway of the ensuite bathroom. Scattered beauty products oozed over the vanity, blobs of dried toothpaste dotted the green marble top. The taps of the claw-foot bath were edged with slime, the tub ringed greasy grey.
Skye shuddered. 'Looks like my sister's bathroom,' she said as she toed a towel with a white Doc Marten, releasing an invisible cloud of mould into the air.
'What you might expect from a teenager, but not a wealthy couple in their thirties,' Stevie said.
A tap dripped a steady pulse into one of the double basins. The basin would have flooded over if the plug had been more securely rammed in the drain. Stevie reached for the faucet and stopped the flow. 'Their toothbrushes are still there, his shaving stuff, her make-up. Maybe they had toilet bags packed and ready to go?'
'Maybe. I only saw one car in the triple garage.'
'What kind of car?'
'A new Range Rover, very dirty, filled with burger wrappers and junk. Why bother going to the tip when you can carry it around with you?'
They continued to look around the east wing of the house, taking in the few pieces of expensive but carelessly arranged furniture, the layers of dust and the rippled oriental runners in the passageway. It seemed to Stevie as if the trappings of wealth were of little consequence to these people; things in this household were taken for granted, neglected. They passed a sweeping wooden staircase. 'We'll search downstairs first,' she said.
The family room and kitchen were cavernous. Stevie folded her arms and slowly pivoted on her heel. There wasn't enough furniture to fill the room or muffle their footsteps. There were no curtains on the windows or ornaments on the jarrah fire surround other than a mute carriage clock, hands stopped at 10.15. Possessions tended to give off echoes to Stevie but the few objects in this room told her nothing. All was silent except for the faint humming of the fridge and the popping of blowflies against the windows.
She ran a finger across a windowsill. The paintwork looked fresh under the dust. 'Have the Pavels lived here long?'
'Long enough for Mrs Hardegan to get to know them. The house is obviously fairly new, not bad for a reproduction.' Skye pointed out a row of brass light switches and the tracked ceiling lights. 'Expensive, too.'
Stevie's eyes were drawn to the adjacent kitchen area some metres away. The rancid smell of old food became sharper as she zeroed in on the kitchen table. Laid for two, it held the remains of an unfinished meal — TV dinners by the looks of the empty food packets on the granite bench top. Both plates contained thin slices of drying beef, crusty cauliflower and half nibbled cobs of corn. Flies skated on ponds of solidified gravy splashed across the tray of a baby's highchair.
The knot in Stevie's stomach tightened. 'Mary Celeste,' she whispered.
Stevie waved her hand. 'Forget it.' As she walked she kicked a scattering of shrivelled peas across the floor. A glass of pale liquid teetered on the table's edge, too close for comfort. She lifted the glass to her nose and sniffed.
'Stale wine,' she said, sliding the glass into a less precarious position. 'Looks like this food has been here for several days.' She pointed to the table. 'The meal's only half finished, the chairs are skewiff, as if someone left in a hurry.'
Heat still radiated from the electric oven. In it she found a baking dish containing several charred spheres.
'They never got their pies,' Skye said, voice hushed as she pointed out the carton of ready-made apple pies next to the other empty food containers.
Stevie replaced the oven tray and chewed on her bottom lip, trying to make sense of it all. At once she became aware of a strange sensation at the back of her neck, a warm breeze, the feathering of a breath.
Her sudden turn towards its source caused Skye to clap herself on the chest. 'Holy shit! Don't do that!'
Stevie spotted the open gap in the sliding window behind the sink and let out her own pent-up breath. 'Sorry, I thought for a minute someone else was in the room.'
'Look, I don't feel right about this — this place gives me the creeps,' Skye said, drawing a breath and exhaling with an unmistakable wheeze. 'I think we should leave and call the proper police. I reckon they'll listen to you rather than me.'
The 'proper' police, jeez.
'I'm not pulling out now,' Stevie snapped back. 'Wait outside if you like while I check out the rest of downstairs.'
Skye reached into her pocket for a Ventolin inhaler, took a couple of puffs and sidled a step closer to Stevie.
Two of the bedrooms in the west wing were empty and dusty with spider webs parachuting from the cornices. Another room served as a study. A computer on a fake antique desk stood next to a single bed with nothing on it but a bare mattress. A scraggly bottlebrush from the garden bed outside scratched against the window. Stevie cringed at the sound. Blood-red flowers pressed against the glass — as if anyone or anything would want to get into this desolate, inhospitable house.
There was still one room left to check at the end of the passageway, next to a bathroom. She sniffed at the odour leaking through the gaps of the closed door and felt nausea rise. Skye dug her bitten fingernails into Stevie's arm. The door creaked as Stevie eased it open. She drew a sharp breath.
'Oh my God,' Skye said.CHAPTER 2
The room was as bare as a prison cell. The only item in it was an old safe cot of the style now deemed politically incorrect. Like an old-fashioned meat safe its walls were made of tough flyscreen topped by a heavy wooden lid.
The cot reeked, the bedding a jumble of urine-soaked sheets, flyscreen walls clogged with lumps of faeces. A soiled disposable nappy had been flung to the far end of the saturated mattress.
The naked baby inside lay still.
With trembling fingers, Stevie fumbled with the latch and flung back the door, making the wooden frame rattle.
Skye pushed her aside before Stevie could reach for the child. 'Wait a minute,' she said. Leaning over the wall of the cot she gently inserted her finger into the baby's mouth. 'Airway's clear but the inside of his mouth is dry — he's very dehydrated.' Her finger pressed the side of his neck. 'Pulse rapid, but not too bad. We're not too late.'
The baby stirred, whimpered and sucked his thumb with increasing vigour. Skye ran her fingers over his dark, matted hair and looked desperately around the room.
'Here.' Stevie grabbed a cot blanket from the floor and handed it to Skye who wrapped it around the baby and clasped him to her chest. 'Let's get out of here,' Stevie gasped, as the movement of the bedclothes disturbed the foul air.
In the kitchen they made the necessary phone calls. Stevie reported the incident to the local police, stressing the emergency and then took the baby from Skye so Skye could call for an ambulance. After consulting with the on-call medico Skye decided the baby could be given a small amount of water. She filled a cup from the kitchen tap and put it to his lips. He drank greedily, snatching at the cup with stained fingers, mewling like a kitten when she wouldn't let him hold it himself. 'Poor little bugger's still thirsty,' she said as she pulled the cup away and placed it on the kitchen table. 'We'd better not let him have any more, he might vomit it up — this should get him by until he reaches hospital. They'll need to know how much fluid we gave him, put an IV in.'
The baby didn't have the strength to yell; his eyes were sunken, his skin hot and dry. He soon gave up his fight to reach the water and flopped his head against Stevie's shoulder. 'How could anyone leave a baby like this?' Skye asked, rubbing soothing circles on his back, eyes glistening with unshed tears.
Don't go sentimental on me now, Stevie thought. 'Here take him.' She passed the baby back to Skye. 'Wait in the fresh air for the ambulance, I want to make sure no one's upstairs.'
She had a quick look around the upstairs of the house, relieved to find just three deserted, almost empty rooms.
Back in the family room rays of light shone through the French doors, highlighting the dusty coating of the tiles, sticky patches and faint footprints. Stevie slowly examined the tracks on the floor from different angles, all the while conscious of the smell of the baby on her clothes. It was during one of these shifts of position that she noticed a clean area of tiles in front of a leather chesterfield, as if the tiles had recently been washed. She pushed the couch back, the sudden draft making the dust-bunnies underneath tumble. Earwigs hiding from the light scampered away across ominous brown splats. She dropped to her knees to examine the stains. Could be spilled Milo or tomato sauce; could be dried paint. Or blood.
It was tempting to search the floor for further evidence, but fear of contaminating a possible crime scene held her back. French doors led from the family room to the small back garden; she'd cause less damage out there, she decided, as she opened the doors up.
The walled garden seemed as badly kept as the inside of the house, although the surrounding flowerbeds, crowded with roses as tall as Stevie herself, suggested a time when it had been well maintained. Somewhere in the distance she heard the wail of an ambulance.
At the swimming pool's fence she stopped. An ominous bulge pressed up from under the pool's cover.
The gate creaked as Stevie opened it, hurrying across the weed-choked paving to the cover's reel. The pool surface gradually appeared as she wrestled with the stiff mechanism, and she found herself breaking into a sweat despite the mild temperature. Leaves and dirt swished from the bubbly blue surface, leaving black scum upon the green water. The reason for the bulge, a pink lilo, sprang from the confines of the cover. Globs of algae bobbed on the water's surface next to the body of a disintegrating blue-tongued lizard. It was impossible to see through the murk to find out what else might be down there and she decided she didn't want to know either; the rest of the job could be left to the police search team. Finding an abandoned baby was enough for one day.
She heard the ambulance pulling up outside the gate and walked a brick-paved path to meet it at the front of the house. The baby had fallen asleep against Skye's shoulder. She continued to rub his back, cooing something tuneless under her breath. Stevie explained the situation to the ambulance attendant and asked where the baby would be taken.
'Straight to PMH. Lucky you found him when you did.'
Skye pushed past him into the back of the ambulance before he'd finished swinging open the doors and settled on the seat with the baby tight in her arms. She cut the man off before he could voice his protest. 'I'm a nurse, I'm going with him.' She swung defensively to Stevie as if expecting to be challenged by her too.
Stevie shrugged. 'Good idea, you can tell me what the doctors say.'
Skye held up a hand as the doors were closing. 'Look in on Mrs H for me, Stevie, make sure she's okay, yeah? And call me: I want to know what's going on here — none of your secret police business.'
Easier said than done, Stevie thought. This was out of her jurisdiction; she'd be lucky if the local police confided in her at all. She pulled her blonde ponytail through her fingers as she watched the ambulance speed away, and tried to remember which police division covered the Peppermint Grove area, pondering the likelihood of knowing anyone in it. No names sprang to mind.
Excerpted from Take Out by Felicity Young. Copyright © 2000 Felicity Young. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Skye Williams is a district nurse and Stevie Hooper's friend. Skye is visiting a stroke patient Lilly Hardegan who has become worried because her neighbours have disappeared. Stevie belongs to Perth's Central Crime Squad and really shouldn't be entering the house, but Skye has already tried unsuccessfully to get the local cops to take an interest. There are clear signs of what seems to have been a hasty departure - an unfinished meal, an overflowing mail box, and the stove is still on and contains the charred remains of apple pies. And then they make a discovery they had not expected.Mrs Hardegan lives next door with her son who is also absent. Her speech has been severely affected by a stroke, which makes communication difficult, particularly as she seems to be prone to make up her own words.Stevie feels that the local cops are not taking the case seriously enough and continues to take an interest even though she knows she should walk away. She has more than enough on her own plate - her husband Monty is due to have heart surgery any day now - but when Skye Williams is killed there is no way she can disconnect.I liked the way TAKE OUT is constructed. There are some threats that raise the level of tension in the book very effectively. There is Monty's impending surgery, threats to Stevie herself and to her daughter Izzy, and a plot that involves a trade in bringing Thai girls into Australia illegally. There is an interesting device which gives Mrs Hardegan "a voice" that reveals her role in her neighbours' disappearance.I'm not sure I understand what the title means and Young has to resort to a heightened level of coincidences to bring the plot strands together. Nevertheless TAKE OUT provided a satisfying read.
Fremantle Press have just released the third DSS Stevie Hooper book by WA based writer Felicity Young, TAKE OUT, following on from HARUM SCARUM and AN EASEFUL DEATH.Starting off with a prologue that is obviously telegraphing something awful in the future of Mai, a young Asian girl, the action moves to Perth. Stevie is working in the Sex Crimes unit, but it's in her capacity as friend that she steps into the strangely deserted Pavel house that morning. The house is luxurious, big, beautiful, yet it's contents are sparse, scruffy, untidy. The remains of an unfinished meal are on the table, and in one of the back rooms, a young child has been deserted - alive, but strangely it seems he has been fed and looked after until only recently. For days after his parents have both just vanished.The only reason the baby is discovered in time is because Stevie knows Skye - a young visiting nurse, who has been alerted to something wrong at the Pavel house by one of their neighbours. Unfortunately that elderly neighbour has had a severe stroke affecting her speech patterns, which makes them garbled and nonsensical. A simple disappearance isn't really a case for a DSS in the Sex Crimes squad, and the local police are keen to move her out of the way when they show up, but Stevie's not one that's easily distracted and there are things at this crime scene that don't quite add up. Mind you, Stevie would do well to leave it alone, especially as she and partner Monty are up to their elbows in house renovations, and he's about to undergo major heart surgery.When the investigation into the father's background quickly reveals a very sinister connection to human trafficking and sexual enslavement Stevie's concern is vindicated and despite worrying about Monty, their house, her daughter, Skye, and her own safety, finds herself ultimately on the trail of a shadowy Madam and her son.The subject matter of TAKE OUT is sleazy and unpleasant, but it is handled carefully. The sexual exploitation of young people (in this case female) is difficult to comprehend and TAKE OUT makes it that more difficult by letting the reader get to really know one of the (now) women - Mai. Along with Mai's story, and the disappearance of the Pavel husband and wife, there are a number of other lesser, but connected threads, and there is a sprinkling of personal stories - triumphs and sadness as well. TAKE OUT has a busy plot, but the focus remains on a number of aspects of enforced prostitution, making the novel possibly quite challenging for some readers. There is a very strong concentration on the victims of the sexual exploitation - working on making them human, real people that can be sympathised with. Combine that with Stevie, her work colleagues, her personal life and the increasing complications in both and it does mean that the villains of the piece are little more than bit players for quite a bit of the book. The perpetrators, whilst eventually identified, remain shadowy, almost strangely incidental and there's little if no explanation of the inexplicable attempted - which may intrigue some readers and frustrate others. TAKE OUT does, however, balance the personal angst and professional responsibilities of Stevie a lot better than in the earlier novels, and the complexity of the plot is handled well, believably and with sensitivity. TAKE OUT really does take on a difficult subject with sensitivity and insight, making the victims a point of focus, delivering a realistic (and therefore not all neatly wrapped up and sealed off) resolution. For added measure, there's a bit of a kick in the tail at the end of the book as well. For this reader at least, that alone went miles towards demonstrating why some things remain utterly inexplicable.