Ten Years From Now.
A town with no murder,
Gets a murder.
I was glad to be living in the future. Of course, I mean, it was present day to me when all of this began, but to you reading at home now it will be the future -- ten years from when you are currently reading this book.
A lot happens between then and now and some of it is too much of a spoiler to reveal -- and anyway, the government has banned us from talking about all the crazy stuff that happens between when you are reading this and the time of me currently writing it. It would make your head explode, and this is a murder mystery, not a science fiction novel.
But I was glad it was the future. Because once upon a time Tree Valley had been a coal mining town with a large power plant that made the town constantly smell like a forty foot high dog had done a poop in the center of town.
Now there’s a beach in the center of town. A fake one, of course. But it’s somewhere for the people to gather. Us simple townsfolk. The beach had a waterfall at one end which didn’t make a lot of sense if you thought about it too hard, but it was pretty to look at. We all, as humans, like to look at water, don’t we? Even if it has a nasty habit of killing us if we get to close to it.
But not many people die in Tree Valley now that it has reached near-utopia status.
But some do, of course. That is what this story is about.
We will be a utopia one day.
As long as nothing else goes tragically wrong.
Anyway. I was living in the not-too-distant future from you, and the town, Tree Valley had undergone the process that a lot of small towns in Australia had undergone during The Upgrade to transform the nation. No more drug crime, no more drug problems, no more giant dog doo-doo smell...just the beach and the flower gardens and the rows of identical looking houses now that all the original buildings had been demolished and the new housing estates, with their perfect rows of houses, white and straight as teeth, were built.
I didn’t live in one of the teeth houses. I lived in a cottage, in the one sole surviving building from the Old Tree Valley, which once went by another name which we are no longer allowed to speak or write. Some people wouldn’t even come visit me because they said the cottage was haunted.
That suited me just fine.
I only had two friends. One was May (a woman, not the month), and the other was my leather jacket. That’s all you really need, isn’t it? One human friend and one trusty piece of clothing you can rely on to get you through any situation.
And I was in a situation that I needed to get through. I’d lost my voice. And my income. I didn’t want to lose my haunted cottage as well -- and I definitely didn’t want to put my vintage leather jacket up on eBay to make the mortgage payments. You can’t very well sell your best friend, can you?
Even near-perfect-utopias need an unemployment office. And Tree Valley’s unemployment office -- sorry employment office -- Gun Employment was situated two blocks back from the beach, a punishment for being a blight on the town.
I’d been assigned a burly looking man with a beard as thick and black as a pirate which made him look ten years older than he probably was. He told me his name was Rocco and that he was my case manager. I normally liked people to stay off my case, not hop on it.
“What are you good at?” Rocco asked as he sat beside me in a cubicle. He was “building my resume”. It was hard to look at him and not see the bushy black beard and the tattoos. He had piercing blue eyes but they were overshadowed, playing second fiddle to the unfortunate beard. Isn’t that just tragic?
“Or, rather, what is it you actually do?”
I tapped my nails on the desk. “I’m a singer.” It was hard to even say the words. Physically painful, I mean. Emotionally I was pretty sure I was fine.
Rocco frowned. “Not a lot of singing jobs in Tree Valley.” He said it as though he knew only too well.
“You’re telling me.”
Even if there were, I couldn’t do them. I just wasn’t ready to let go of the title. “I’m a singer.” I wasn’t ready to say, “I was a singer.”
Okay so maybe I wasn’t quite as emotionally stable as I thought I was.
Rocco clicked a few things and scratched his beard. He really would have made a very good pirate. I was surprised that he worked at Gun Employment -- he looked like he should be on an oil rig, not in an office.
Where did I look like I was supposed to be? I was pretty sure it wasn’t Gun Employment. I was supposed to be performing in an arena somewhere, to tens of thousands of weeping fans....fans who were weeping at the beauty of my voice.
But I was the one weeping. Inwardly, of course. Silently. To myself at night. And in the morning. And in the afternoon.
“Okay, so I need to fill out your details here...Tell employers about yourself. A few bullet points.”
Bullet points. Was that why it was called Gun Employment?
“Details,” I mused. “Okay. Scorpio sun, Virgo moon.”
“I don’t think employees care about your star sign.”
They should care about things like that: they might actually find employees suitable for the job. I wondered what star sign Rocco was...definitely not a water sign like me. Water signs always care about the zodiac; we respect it. He was probably an Aries. Like 3/4 of my ex-boyfriends...
I’ve learned to stay away from Aries. Not a good match, fire with water.
“So what are you actually good at?” Rocco asked, dragging me back into the air-conditioned prison of Gun Employment.
“Solving mysteries,” I said, staring at him. “I’ve got a real knack. I notice things other people don’t.”
He blinked a few times. “And do you have your P.I’s license?”
I shook my head. “Do you need one to be an amateur detective?” Frowning, I added, “I’m pretty sure you don’t. You just have to be good at sticking your nose in where it’s not wanted.”
He smiled, unsure of whether I was joking or not.
“Not a lot of amateur detective jobs in Tree Valley either.” This one he sounded less certain about.
No jobs for a singer, no jobs for a detective. Oh well, no great loss, it wasn’t as though I was qualified for either anyway.
“I need to go out for a smoke,” I said.
It didn’t take long for a fan to appear along the sidewalk. They are far rarer these days, but they do occasionally pop up.
This one was a young roundish woman with red hair, a bright poker dot dress that hurt my eyes, and thick rimmed glasses. I pulled my own shades over my eyes.
“Are you Lana Pink?”
I groaned. Why hadn’t I changed my name? It had been twelve years since my appearance on X Factor, but I was still getting recognized. I was Tree Valley’s most famous resident -- which isn’t saying much, of course.
“No,” I said and lit another cigarette.
The police station sat across the road, also banished a few blocks away from the beach. A near-perfect utopia isn’t supposed to have crime, you see, and the station was an unpleasant reminder that the occasional break-in and piece of graffiti vandalism still took place. Another building I tried to avoid. Not because I was scared of cops. I’d had my fair share of trouble with the law in the past, but that was all behind me. My record cleared when I turned eighteen and I had no intention of going back into the system.
No. It was just one cop, in particular, I had a problem with.
“There he is,” I murmured, shaking my head as grey smoke billowed out in front of me. Great. It just had to be him, didn’t it, it just had to be Louis. It was as though my presence on the street had dragged him out.
I slunk back against the bright blue wall of Gun Employment hoping he wouldn’t spot me. No one wants to run into their ex while they are down the front of the fun-employment office, do they? I couldn’t deal with either his fake sympathy or his real glee. It would be one of the two. Anything resembling genuine empathy wasn’t possible for a sociopath.
Louis had his phone pressed up to his ear, pacing backwards and forwards like he had worms, scratching his head like he had lice. He’d aged a lot in the three years since we’d split. And not in a good way. I’ve never understood the common belief that men age better than women. As long as we keep up basic maintenance after the age of seventeen, women pretty much just go on looking....the same. Men lose their hair and expand. Louis hadn’t expanded but his brown hair was thinning. I smiled to myself a little and lit my third cigarette.
A second detective joined Louis on the street and then a third and then a forth. I puffed out smoke and raised my eyebrows.
Something was going on.
We didn’t even have four detectives in Tree Valley. They’d been called in from some place else.
For just a second the wind picked up the sound of Louis’ voice and lifted it over to me in a whisper.
“This can’t get out.” Those were the words he said.
I narrowed my eyes and stared at the scrum of detectives, huddled too close now for me to hear them, their words trapped, while thunder broke out like popping candy overhead. The breeze had been a warning and the storm was here.
As lightning shattered the street the scrum looked up and Louis’s eyes locked with mine.
He crossed the road and strode towards me with determination as thick drops of water began to fall from the sky.
“I still can’t believe you’re a cop,” I said, shaking my head.
“Detective,” he corrected me.
“Should I congratulate you on your promotion?”
“You shouldn’t be out here eavesdropping, Lana.” His face was grim and twisted. It was the same look he’d had on his face when I’d broken up with him after I’d made the Big Discovery and thrown the engagement ring back in his face. I’d never really wanted it anyway. At the time he’d told me to ‘get out of his town’. I’d told him that I hadn’t realized the town belonged to him. Now he had that same look on his face. Get the hell out of my town.
I shrugged. “What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going to ask you to move along. You aren’t supposed to be loitering. Or smoking on the street.”
I shrugged again and took another puff.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he said, his voice softening a little. It was almost touching, his concern. Except it totally wasn’t.
“It’s what gives me my smoky voice,” I said, puffing smoke in his face. It’s also what gives me my throat nodules.
“What does it matter now, anyway?” I asked, stamping on the butt with the heel of my boot. “I’ll never be back on the stage again.”
After a heavy sigh and a shake of his head like a disappointed parent, Louis disappeared into the now heavy rain and climbed into his BMW, the other four detectives following him in a convoy of silver cars as rain came down like bullets on the tops of their roofs.
I just knew I had to follow them. Call it my Scorpio intuition, I don’t know. Before I even knew that I knew, I just knew that something had changed in Tree Valley that day, that an event had occurred that caused a split in the timeline, and the old Utopian Tree Valley was back in one direction, and we were following the path of the new, crazy timeline.
“Sorry,” I said to Rocco, pulling on my leather jacket. “We’ll have to finish this resume stuff some other time.”
“Your benefits will be cut off...” Rocco said. “Lana you can’t just leave in the middle of your appointment...”
“I’ll survive,” I said. I always had before. I still had my royalty cheques coming in every month from the one single I had released.
I didn’t have a car which made following a trail of them a little difficult. But Tree Valley was so small; with the teeth-like housing estates so close together, there wasn’t far for the cars to travel. I followed them east in the direction they’d been headed, pulling my leather jacket around me tighter for protection from the heavy rain, wondering what kind of damage the moisture was going to do to my best friend.
“Lana?” A voice called out.
It was my human friend, May. “You’re soaking wet!” She stopped her car besides the curb and wound the window down further. She was wearing a red skirt-suit which meant she was probably due back at the office any second.
“Nice haircut,” I said.
She’d always had conservative hair, but now it was in an even more severe, blunt bob than it had been before. She kind of looked like Posh Spice circa 1997. “Thank you,” she said flatly. “Are you getting in the car or not? I’m on my lunch break.”
I shook my head in protest but my resolve didn’t last long. The warm comfort of her car was too much to resist -- I could feel the warmth from the heater from the sidewalk -- and I climbed in like a grateful dog that had been caught in the rain, finally given refuge. “Hurry up,” I said.
May threw me an exasperated look. “Where am I supposed to be hurrying to?”
“East,” I said.
She cast me a wary look. “Your house is west.”
“I’m not going to my house. Quick, May.” I fastened my seatbelt. “There’s something going on. With Louis.”
She shook her head and pulled back onto the street as we headed towards the beach in the center of town. “This is where they’ll be,” I said softly, trying to see through the thick rain. I saw May’s foot do a little dance with the accelerator and she finally pressed down on it in spite of herself and in spite of her voice saying the words, “I should be taking you home. This is only going to end up in trouble.”
How right she was. We came across Louis and his gang only feet from the water, hovering over a body on the pale, almost white sand.
“Lana, wait!” May called out, trying to drag me back into the car, but I was already out before the engine had even stopped. I tore down the shore to where they were standing, my boots tripping in the wet sand.
“LANA GET AWAY!” Louis came towards me with his hand up like a traffic controller saying STOP.
But it was too late for that. I’d already seen the object on the sand taking up the attention of the other three cops.
A dead body. Oozing blood.
The blood was pink.