"The Widow Catcher is a fast-paced, suspenseful murder mystery. Blake excels at crafting well-timed reveals that keep readers engaged and intrigued. This murder mystery feels authentic and original. It’s set apart from its contemporaries by the unusual crimes and unlikely but determined heroine." The Booklife Prize
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THE WIDOW CATCHER
RETIRING TO THIS COASTAL TOWN COULD BE FATAL.
by Jonette Blake
Days before quitting her job, Delia Frost is invited to a book club meeting, run by a local celebrity. This seems like one last chance to do something exciting before she leaves town to travel around Australia with her husband.
But this isn’t a random invitation.
Delia has been carefully selected by a serial killer to play her part in the murders of elderly widows.
ONE WEEK AGO
The setting sun cast a shadow on the headstone. A cool wind blew down the mountain. Susan Johnson tugged at her long woollen coat thinking she would soon be trading this blustery weather for tropical bliss and poolside cocktails.
She placed a hand on the headstone to steady herself and leaned over to drop a bouquet of lilies on the gravesite. She regretted not being able to bend low to lovingly place the flowers in the slot provided, but if her seventy-six-year-old body tilted even a few degrees she would topple over. It was embarrassing having paramedics lift her off the floor.
“This is goodbye for now, love,” she told the ten-years-dead occupant. “Just for a little while. I won’t be visiting because I’m off on a holiday.” She smiled and nodded. “Yes, I know what you’re thinking. I never go anywhere by myself. But I’m not going alone.”
The snap of twigs pierced the frigid air. Her grip remained on the headstone for support. But she managed to twist her head to catch a glimpse of the noisemaker.
Someone was here.
“I won’t be long,” she told the man. “I was just telling Eric about our trip.”
The man stood with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his trouser pants. The sunlight framed his body, and she wanted to picture him as an angel, instead the image of angry plovers at the beach protecting their nests popped into mind. The sneaky way they flew towards you with the rising sun blinding you to their attack meant you heard the click of their beaks too late.
She pushed off this sense of trepidation and the chill that followed. It was just nerves. This trip was something new for her; it was bound to give her goose bumps.
She returned her attention to her late husband’s grave. “We’re in for a storm. You’d better batten down the hatches.” She laughed gently, then her features grew serious. “My new friend has promised to take me to North Queensland. Well, to the airport at least. That’s a big help. Once I’m on the plane I’ll be fine. Ah, Eric, I’m finally going to a place where the nights are warm and I wish you could be coming with me. I’ll be gone a few weeks.”
“Susan,” her visitor called out. “I’m ready when you are.”
“We’re off to the airport,” she told the gravestone.
The day had finally arrived when she was going on holiday. Without her friend’s support, she’d never have found the courage to say ‘book it’. He’d helped with booking the flights, hotels, and the tourist destination. He’d even created a week-long itinerary. She fumbled in her pocket for it but couldn’t find it.
Where have I put it?
Never mind. Her friend would have a copy.
She was finally going to see the Great Barrier Reef. It had been a cast-aside dream until her friend had searched on the website and found a tour operator with a glass-bottom boat who specialised in trips for people with mobility issues.
“Susan,” he called out again. “We don’t want to be late.”
“I’m almost done,” she replied, though the wind snatched away her words. Once, she’d had the strength in her lungs to be heard over an earthquake, but years of cigarette smoking had reduced her voice to an almost inaudible wheeze.
She spoke to the headstone again: “I know you think he’s only using me for my money, but he’s never asked for any. He’s not like that.” She patted the headstone. “I’ll bring you back a present.”
She hobbled over with the aid of her cane to join the man.
He lifted a bouquet of flowers from a shopping bag at his feet. “I brought something to show my respects,” he said, thrusting them at her.
Yellow roses were her favourite; they’d be wasted on Eric. Her late husband wouldn’t have known a rose from a weed.
The man smiled at her. “Will you place these on his grave for me?”
“I thought you said we were in a hurry.”
“I said we don’t want to be late. We have time to say our goodbyes.”
She glanced back at the gravesite. There was a lot of uneven lawn between here and there. Her cane had sunk into the dirt already and almost tripped her over a dozen times.
“You should take them yourself,” she told the man.
“Susan, I feel downright scandalous taking his wife to the airport for the first real holiday of her life. I can’t go over there and rub this in his face. Even in death, a person has dignity. My mother used to tell me that all the time. She was a nurse at a hospital in Sydney. Saw people dying every day. A lot of elderly people, too. The stories she told me of comfort she gave them in their final years has made me the compassionate man I am today.”
Susan knew a snow job when she heard one. She was old, arthritic, deaf in one ear, probably riddled with emphysema, but she was not stupid. Still, a sense of gratitude swept over her. She would have been locked inside the aged-care facility forever if her young friend had not convinced her to do something adventurous with the remaining years of her life.
“All right,” she said. “And then we’re off to the airport.” She gripped her cane in one hand and the yellow roses in the other and set off across the uneven lawn.
“Be sure to inhale the perfume before you place them on the grave,” the man called out. “I asked the florist to select the most delectable bunch.”
Susan stopped and pulled the bouquet closer to her face to take in the scent. This bunch was strong. Probably perfumed. Everything was perfumed these days: soap, washing powder, toilet paper, tissues. As if the big companies could convince the population that life smelled like roses, therefore it must be roses.
She took a deep breath. This was a strange scent. Stronger than most. Not rosy at all. More like yellow jonquils. They had a stink that could cause nostril hairs to fall out.
She coughed on the odour. Her cough turned into a fit, one that fifty years of smoking ensured would bring a crushing pain to her chest.
Then her head began to swim. Her vision blurred. Her chest should have gulped for air. Instead it felt like it was sealing itself shut, jam-jar tight.
She twisted and tried to run toward the man who was still dappled in hues of orange and pink as the sun set behind him. She called out for help but her voice was lost. She couldn’t move.
The cool wind raced along her body like a knife, except this wasn’t the wind. This was an invisible chill attacking her veins.
Her limbs grew weak. She lost her grip on her cane. A stroke? A heart attack? Years of being warned about the impact of smoking did not lessen the shock that it was actually happening. Unable to support herself, she fell to the ground.
“Help,” she called out, though her voice was barely above a whisper.
The sun was setting faster now. Her visitor was now a dark, ominous shadow. A shadow that wasn’t rushing to help her. He should have grabbed his phone and called for medical help. He should have raced over to her and administered first aid. He should have done something. Instead, he stood at the edge of the cemetery with his hands thrust in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels.
“Help,” she spluttered in between chest-breaking coughs. She couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. The man still did not make any movement to help her.
At last, he walked towards her and knelt down to stare into her face. His stare was vacant, expressionless, and when he tilted his head and frowned, she realised it wasn’t a vacant stare, but one of curiosity.
As if he’d never seen someone die before. He reached for his hand. He reached out for her. His hand moved to the left toward the flowers. She noticed he wore gloves. Had he been wearing them earlier?
The bouquet of flowers were pushed closer to her face. The pungent stench had lessened, as if her senses had adapted to the stink. More likely they were numbed by something else. Chemicals.
Now she recognised the scent. It was...
Sharp pain shot throughout her body. Her muscles contorted. Her vision blurred. She saw his shadow fade away.
And then everything went dark.
A rusty anchor sat in the walkway outside Salty Dog’s restaurant. Each summer, to a backdrop of either blue sky or storm clouds, hundreds of tourists snapped photos of themselves and the anchor. Of those hundreds, at least five offered money to dig it up and take it home. The people in Batemans Cove were as protective of the anchor as they were of its other landmarks. The hundred-year-old pepper trees on the foreshore of the river. The Anchor Inn, built in the thirties. The blue wagons with pinstriped wheels that sold ice cream and coffee in summer. At least three separate citizen-run historic societies fiercely guarded the town’s heritage against commercial evolution, as if moving the anchor or cutting the trees might uproot them from the past and set their town sailing into the unknown.
A blistering wind roared down from the surrounding Clyde mountain and up the river to the front door of Salty Dog’s. At least nobody would be offering money for the anchor in this weather. The town was safe for another night.
As I opened the car door, my grip on the handle was as fixed as the anchor. I couldn’t explain my apprehension, but it owned me. My mother used to say that someone walked over our graves whenever we got a chill or a sense of foreboding. Unlikely, I would reply, considering I’m not dead. Teenage logic failed me now. My skin crawled with unexplainable and chilly trepidation.
“We’re late,” Richard said from the driver’s seat, snapping me out of my fugue.
“Only by fifteen minutes,” I replied.
Richard shuffled in the seat to face me. “Delia, if they wanted us here at seven fifteen, they’d have said seven fifteen.”
Never marry a know-it-all.
“Richard.” My growly tone came from years of practice, first as a wife, then as a mother, and now as an exhausted bank teller of fifty-three who’d been on her feet all day.
“You don’t have to come,” I told him. “It’s just a work dinner.”
“Your work farewell dinner.”
A car horn tooted. Saved by the bell, or in my case the impatient driver of a silver Mercedes.
“I’ll go park round the corner,” Richard said. “Do you want me to come in or not?”
“Of course I want you to come.”
What else could I say? No, go home and make yourself something to eat, and whatever you do, don’t text me every half hour to ask when I’m coming home? Don’t call me to pick up something on the way home. Don’t leave a mess of crumbs on the kitchen bench because you ate toast for dinner.
But I never said these things. Only in a hidden chamber in my mind did I find the courage to tell people what I really thought.
I got out and stood on the sidewalk to watch Richard drive around the corner to park somewhere on the street. As the brake lights came on, it sent off the mental equivalent of a post-in on the fridge that the dent in the rear bumper still wasn’t fixed. I had better call my sister, Madison, before Richard began the next chapter of Delia’s irresponsible sister. Sometimes I defended her—she was forty-eight-years-old, five years younger than me, but would forever be my kid sister. But sometimes I didn’t defend her because I believed him.
I stared out into the dark night sky waiting for Richard to appear, wondering what life would like if he was no longer in my life? I’d gotten a glimpse of life without Richard three months ago when he’d suffered a heart attack. It had plunged a knife into my heart and shattered our beautiful, safe world. Our two children—Tristan and Georgia—had been mortified to learn of their father’s mortality, as if all their illusions of Santa Claus were shattered once again.
If his heart attack had shaken us, it had set Richard into a frenzy where he wanted to snatch time like it was a petal in the wind. He had insisted the kids get out of the house and spread their wings, before it’s too late, the gut-wrenching words he’d shouted to them as the ambulance had whisked him away.
A month later, Richard had purchased each of our children an airline ticket to anywhere in the world. Georgia had chosen Finland. Tristan chose Africa. I put my hand up for Europe, but a stroke of fate chose our holiday destination for us when Richard’s uncle had gifted him an early inheritance: a forty-foot motorhome. Less than twelve months old. It had a kitchen, television, bathroom, double bed, cabinets. All the conveniences of a modern home except none of the conveniences of a modern home.
Richard loved the gift from his uncle. It had put a smile on his face that I jealously wished to take credit for. I hadn’t seen him smile for a long while. Even before the heart attack.
Of course, he wanted us to use the motorhome. Not just for trips here and there. Not just for weekends, or to use as a spare bedroom when family visited during the holidays. He wanted us to travel around Australia for twelve months in this home that was like a home but was not.
He was happy. How could I tell him that I didn’t want to go? How could I snatch away a dream that belonged to the person who had stood on the precipice of death and returned clutching a permission slip to do everything today because there might not be a tomorrow?
And so I said nothing.
The wind whisked by, and it seemed to get a grip on my despondency and tore it away just in time for me to see Richard come around the corner. He began skipping down the path.
Good lord, he’s going to dance. And he’ll probably sing.
The singing was worse. He could do that anywhere, sitting down at the table, on the toilet, all the way around Australia for twelve months.
Go away, sour mood. A glass of wine often helped. Used to.
The chilly breeze slapped into me, forcing me to acknowledge that I was covering up the seriousness of his heart attack with my annoyance at the motorhome trip. His heart attack had terrified me in a way I’d never expected. All of my early whimsical desires to travel Europe, and then retire to a cottage by the beach with wild birds dropping in for a feed, had been shredded into confetti. A crushing weight had settled on me.
I was terrified of dying, and just as terrified of living because Richard had pushed my babies—they were twenty-four and twenty-two but would forever be my babies—to the other side of the world. I needed to be the fixed point on a GPS so my babies could find their way home.
“Richard, behave,” I said, a smile tugging at my lips. His antics worked to pull me out of a sour mood. “You’ll slip and put your back out.”
“Too late.” He smiled and feigned an injured back which forced my heartbeat to quicken: Not again.
He wrapped his arms around himself, and said, “It’s breezy out here. You could have gone in. I’m not going to get into trouble between the car and the restaurant. Though I did see a sign on the art supplies store that they’re holding painting lessons. I could learn to paint.”
I could tell from his expression that I was giving him my famous Delia stare.
“I’m kidding,” Richard said. “I wouldn’t know one end of a paint brush from the other.”
“Why would I go in without you?”
Richard laughed. “To order us some drinks. I assume your work is paying for them.”
My mood dropped as fast as that anchor in the parking lot must have dropped to the bottom of the ocean. Richard was on doctor’s orders to take things easy. But nothing anyone said could convince him otherwise. To make matters worse, I was supposed to be the supportive wife and cheer him on.
A blast of icy air hit me and I hurried into the restaurant ahead of Richard. A young woman greeted us at the front and pointed to our groups’ table at the back. From the corner of my eye I saw his neck twist to get a view of the line at the bar. Free drinks and a husband with a purpose: bad combination.
I grabbed his hand and dragged him toward the table. Metres away, I suddenly stopped and tugged at his arm, dragging him off to the side, concealed behind a potted palm.
I lowered my voice. “Richard, please don’t tell anyone about the trip.”
He matched my conspiratorial tone. “Why not?”
“I haven’t told them.”
His brow furrowed. “Haven’t told them about the trip, or you haven’t told them that you’re quitting?”
Richard raised his eyebrows, giving me a look of disapproval. “Delia, we’re leaving as soon as the motorhome is packed. We’ve planned this trip for months. I thought this is your farewell dinner.”
I nibbled at my lower lip. “Actually...”
“What? This isn’t your farewell dinner?”
“With the holidays and everyone being on leave, it got so busy at the bank that I haven’t had the chance to break the news. Pritpal has been on leave and only got back this week. She’s been in her office all day on the phone. To be honest, I think there’s a rumour circulating that we’re closing. And if we’re closing, then I’ll be made redundant. That’s better than quitting.”
I could see his mind ticking over. With the rent from our home and a redundancy payout, we could possibly live stress free for six months. How he planned to live stress free for the other six months was the reason I woke up in the middle of the night, plagued with images of us picking berries in the hinterlands or farming crocodiles in the far north.
Richard glanced over at the table. “If this isn’t your farewell dinner, then why are we here?”
Relief coursed through me, as if I’d dodged a bullet. I shrugged. “I honestly have no idea.”
Prism Bank wasn’t renowned for splurging free dinners on their staff. At best, we got to take home the stationary.
Richard frowned as if he too knew this. “Okay, so we don’t say anything yet until we know more. But the minute we find out this meal is their way of avoiding paying wage increases, then we tell them.”
I gripped his arm. “If I tell them about this trip, they might fire me now.”
“So we’ll start our trip earlier.”
“We can’t afford to leave any earlier.”
“Sure we can. I’m already knocking back renters for our house.”
I don’t want to rent out the house. I don’t want to go on this trip. I want my life exactly the way it was before this heart attack. I want my children at home.
I wanted to say all this, but Delia Frost never made a fuss. It said so on my employment records. It made me a model employee at the bank. I could calm any situation by biting down on anything that worried me. Other people had their super powers, and I had mine: denial.
“Richard, please don’t breathe a word about the motorhome or our trip or that you want me to quit. I know you’re an impatient person, but the timing is not ideal right now.”
“Impatient? We’ve waited three months for this. You sound like you don’t want to go.”
“It’s not that, it’s just that none of them are the motorhome type. They’ll be bored.”
His demeanour slumped. “Great. What am I supposed to talk to them about? There goes my entire repertoire.”
I laughed at his pouting face in spite of my frustration.
I felt someone’s gaze on us, and I turned to find Andrew Nelson, the insurance manager, and his wife Poppy, had stepped up to the foyer. Andrew was the silver Mercedes driver. I recalled when he had bought the car to work to show it off to us. He’d won it in a lottery. He was the luckiest person I knew: This car wasn’t the only luxury item he’d won in a lottery.
Andrew followed behind his wife, who wore her disapproval of life in general like a badge of honour. I had no idea how he had ended up with her. Andrew was kind, sweet, charming, the kind of man who the old ladies in town adored. He was an extremely attractive young man, in his mid-thirties, and when he winked at me as he trailed behind his wife, my insides warmed.
Okay, so it wasn’t only little old ladies who were charmed by our insurance salesperson.
We headed toward the table. From the worried look on everyone’s faces, I could tell they were equally confused about our presence here.
Andrew and Poppy positioned themselves near Pritpal Patel, the bank manager, and her husband. In the middle of the table was the manager from a neighbouring branch who covered Pritpal when she went on leave. He was with a woman I assumed was his wife. Seated beside them was a casual employee who floated between bank branches up and down the coast.
I nodded at each of them. They nodded back. If our faces were computers, they were currently in ‘sleep’ mode while our cheeks and jaws took a break from smiling: Yes, it is a beautiful day. Can I help you? The grandkids are coming down for the weekend, how lovely. Who’s next? Is that a new haircut? Good morning. Yes, it is a beautiful day. Oh, the grandkids are coming down for the weekend...
There were two empty seats at the far end next to the youngest members of our branch, Jason Franks and Sandra Hill. Neither had brought a partner with them. As far as I knew, they were both single at the moment.
Richard and I took the empty seats: it didn’t skip my tired mind that Richard chose the empty seat next to Sandra. She was twenty-two, had long dark hair, wide blue eyes, and wore too much lipstick. She did her job. Period. Her job. If it wasn’t on the job description, she skirted the task. And yet she had dreams of becoming a bank manager.
I sat next to Jason. Also twenty-two, Jason had lived his whole life in Batemans Cove, and unlike many other young people in the region, he had no desire to leave. Most of our elderly customers had personally known Jason’s parents—now both deceased due to a tragic car accident—and he was their somewhat adopted grandchild.
These two were real sweeties who reminded me of my children. Or perhaps it was the other way round. Perhaps they reminded me of my children so I had projected the image of sweet kids onto them.
Sandra leaned in close and whispered to me. “Hey, Delia, did you hear about Susan Johnson’s funeral? It’s this week.”
“I didn’t know she was dead.”
Sandra nodded. “Newspaper said she died a week ago. She was found dead at the gravesite of her husband. Died of a heart attack. Guess the cigarettes finally killed her.”
“Dead? That’s awful. She was a nice lady.”
Sandra shrugged. “Not to me, she wasn’t. But she was your customer, I thought you should know.”
“Thanks. I wonder why it took the paper a week to report it. They’re usually quick to write up the obituaries.”
“Dunno. Maybe she didn’t have anyone to write one.”