The Fourth Season is the fourth book in KYD contributor Dorothy Johnston’s Sandra Mahoney mystery quartet. It deals with the topical issue of who is going to win the battle for control over the seas surrounding Australia. The quartet has just been released as an ebook series by Wakefield Press. This extract is from the beginning of the novel. Katya and Peter are Sandra’s children.
Laila Fanshaw’s death was first reported on the late evening news, though her name wasn’t included in any of the initial reports. Katya had been asleep for hours. Peter should have been in bed as well, but he had a swag of maths homework, and, though he was tired and irritable, he’d insisted on waiting for Ivan to come home and explain a problem to him. Ivan was my partner, Peter’s step-father and Katya’s natural one; and that night I had no idea where he was. He’d left the house straight after dinner and he wasn’t answering his phone. Peter had given up and was cleaning his teeth when Ivan walked in and went straight to the television.
As soon as the newsreader began to speak, the room contracted to a tinny box, ridiculously bright. The camera panned around Lake Burley Griffin. The reporter’s face glowed white, while police lights flashed behind him. As with all reports of violence at night, the scene, busy yet curiously static, took its atmosphere from dreams. The journalist stood in front of blue and white tape cordoning off a section of lake shore, where, he speculated, the assault may have taken place. The pulsating lights, the intensity of his face and body movements, made him seem closer to the water than he was.
A young woman had been found floating in it shortly before nine. Probably she would not have been found till morning, except that a middle-aged couple walking their dog had been alerted when the dog, a black Labrador, took off into the water and wouldn’t come back. When he did, he was dragging a corpse by the arm.
The reporter repeated these few facts, since he had little more to tell his audience – nothing that would identify the victim, only that she was young, and had been wearing a red waistcoat.
Ivan was standing close to the TV, absolutely still.
Peter came up behind him and I caught my son’s expression, the glint of fear that came as much from Ivan’s failure to react as what filled the screen.
The presenter moved on to another item while Ivan brushed past us and went to the phone.
I heard the words, ‘I’m coming over,’ before he grabbed a set of car keys and was gone again.
Peter’s face was closed and blank. I wanted to put my arms around him, but knew that, if I tried, he would push me away.
What does it mean to be told too little? What does this particular lack mean to an adolescent boy, or to his mother, who happens to be a person endeavouring to make her living by collecting information? It was an endeavour that, for years up until that moment, had sustained, if only just, both my life and that of my children – sustained in a thousand practical, easily overlooked ways. While I tried to think of something to say to Peter, and worried about where Ivan had been, and where he was going now, I knew I was facing a moment that severed before and after with the sharpest of knives. Like all such extraordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people, I initially rejected what it meant.
Peter shook his head, his lips pressed tight together. When I tried to speak, he growled a wordless protest and disappeared into his room.
I realized that my hands were still shaking as I turned a light on in the office I shared with Ivan, and sat down at my desk. I pressed my hands out flat out in front of me, staring at the tendons and raised veins as though they must belong to someone else, seeing them clearly, yet in a distant, dissociated way.
How dare Ivan march in and then leave again like that, without saying a word to me or to Peter?
I stood up and pulled the curtains, taking some small comfort from the softness underneath my fingers, recalling – a memory excised from domestic time, where it belonged – how behind the curtains had been my daughter’s favourite hiding place. Katya’s small feet, perfectly straight and close together, had always given her away. She hadn’t seemed to realize that they were perfectly visible underneath the curtain.
Peter, when he’d played hide and seek as a small child, had needed to be found within minutes of secreting himself. The tension of remaining hidden was too much for him, so he coughed and gave the game away. Katya, right from when she was a toddler, had been able to sustain the suspense for much longer. Once, when we’d all been playing hide and seek, and I was ‘he’, and Peter’s dog Fred was still alive, between Fred and myself we’d found the two males in the family immediately. But Katya, who could not have been more than two and a half, had stayed hidden, not behind the curtain this time, until I began to worry that she’d gone outside. I finally found her in the laundry cupboard, crouched behind the vacuum cleaner. As I switched the light on, calling out with relief, bending to hug my daughter, she turned up to me a face that expressed both the fear she’d overcome, and triumph.