Arafura: Unfinished Business by Susan Lattwein by Susan Lattwein - Read Online

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Arafura - Susan Lattwein

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ONE

Chapter One

2012

Lips still tingling from the afternoon’s unexpected kiss, Kat realised she was being stalked.

It was late. A voice over the supermarket loudspeakers reminded the few remaining shoppers that closing time was ten minutes away. Under garish, fluorescent lighting, staff counted money at closed registers while others chatted as they went about their duties.

When his lanky figure appeared in her aisle for the third time, Kat was sure. Sizing up his slack-jawed profile, her radar marked him as early thirties and harmless. Empty handed, he seemed too aimless to be either a shopper or an employee. Kat took a deep breath and turned around. Can I help you? she asked.

Packets of stickers for school slid from under her arm to the floor. The man stooped to pick them up with spidery limbs. Katherine Howard? he asked, his voice an octave too high for his height.

Thanks. Kat accepted the stickers from his outstretched hand. Why do you want to know?

He blinked at her frank, no-nonsense expression, then smiled. Despite his age, his gums framed teeth like old piano keys. Kat ran through her mental list of school parents, and he wasn’t familiar. She kept her mouth in a straight line, just short of friendly, waiting for an answer to her question.

The man swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a cockatoo in a cage.

Adam. When will I stop reminding myself?

Fist to his mouth, the dude cleared his throat. What I’m wondering, is…er, can I buy you a drink sometime? His eyebrows rose, propped up with wasted hope.

Kat stepped backwards, flashing him a direct look that should have ended his futile quest.

I don’t know this man from Adam, she thought.

Shit, shit.

"I’ve never set eyes on you and you’re asking me for a drink?"

It’s not how it looks, he said quickly. "I’m a cop, I didn’t know how else to…er…ask you.

Another nervous cough. The name's Ernie. I’m sorry about your …er…boyfriend. Ernie was downcast, then smiled too soon. But that was months ago, and I was hoping to cheer you up. Your Jeep’s hard to miss. He repeated the cockatoo swallow, jerking his thumb in the direction of the car park.

"You’re a police officer?"

Yeeeppp. He stretched the word out. Hands in his pockets, Ernie rocked on his feet as if his occupation should impress her. A lot.

Kat’s composure was already frayed from her surprise embrace hours before. She felt edgy, over-caffeinated, and it had been like this since Adam had vanished, six months ago. Her students had also suffered from her frustration when she’d morphed from Mother Earth to Fishwife in the classroom, twice this term. But she’d always apologised—it wasn’t the kids’ fault.

The expectant grin of the man in front of her was irritating, and she was too tired for diplomacy. "I am not on the market, for this little piggy, she said, stabbing a finger at him, or anyone else."

Ernie was like the naughty boy in class, in hot water but unrepentant, when any attention was better than none. He scratched his scalp in a way that appeared far too satisfying. Er, sorry Kat. Bad call on my part. The teeth appeared again, he was surely a long term smoker. But at least I’m asking you off duty. Can I make it up to you over dinner?

Kat only managed to gape at him.

Dessert? Again the propped-up eyebrows.

Kat folded her arms and waited. Finally, the man’s face dropped. Ah, would you mind not mentioning this to Ben?

Ben was his boss and Kat’s brother-in-law, or as good as. It dawned on her that Ernie must have read Adam’s missing person file, so had access to her police statement and personal details.

Kat barely suppressed a shudder. I think you’d better go.

The gangly officer turned away, then took a step back. If you ever change your mind…

About what? she asked. Reporting you for stalking?

*

A moment later Kat scanned milk, tampons and stickers through the self-serve register. After checking her unwanted suitor had gone, she left the store, smiling at the young service attendant stationed at the entrance.

Outside, the balmy air pressed itself against Kat's skin, caressing yet demanding like a child. Besides late opening shops, she was also grateful for tropical nights that held the day’s heat. In contrast to the dazzle of the air-conditioned supermarket, the car park was warm, black velvet under a diamond-studded sky. Confused, she wondered why she’d left Whitey, her white Wrangler Jeep, in such a distant, gloomy corner of the car park. Then Kat remembered dropping some unwanted clothing in the charity bin nearby. Lily, her fashion-conscious step-sister and best friend had recently harassed Kat into organising her wardrobe.

Have you worn it in the last year? No? Then toss it, Lily had bossed. The bag of clothes had been rolling around in Whitey's boot for a week. As Kat approached her car, light reflecting off a scattering of shattered glass on the ground caught her attention.

Why didn't I notice treading on it earlier?

She looked up and regarded the broken car park light above, but didn’t react fast enough, even scream, before a figure rushed her from behind.

The last thing Kat felt was being grabbed roughly, followed by a sharp and painful jab to her thigh.

*

Chapter Two

It wasn’t until the next morning that Kat’s absence was noticed.

The day before, she and Lily had attended their Sunday afternoon dance class. As usual, Kat was in the darkened back row, farthest from the instructors. The classes had been a wonderful way to de-stress, and she enjoyed losing herself in the music and dancing. It was Kat's therapy.

It was here the sequence of events leading to the unexpected kiss had begun. Well into the swing of the third song, Lily cavorted next to Kat as if she was being paid a lot of money to make moves like that. The far door opened to admit a latecomer, but Kat was focusing on a tricky new step. Out of her peripheral vision, she noticed he was male, and not many guys were brave enough to dance with a crowd of women. A cursory glance showed shorts and a black sports singlet, but on a quick second take, Kat was surprised to recognise her ex-fiancé, Lucas. His hair was no longer cropped since he’d left the military, and it suited him. Although Lucas struck her as handsome, she still couldn’t help comparing.

Kat raised her hand to help Lucas locate her in the crowd.

"Now RUN!" the instructor yelled above the beat. Pretend it’s a fantastic shoe sale!

Lucas made his way over to Kat, dodging a woman lunging toward him like an enraged elephant seal whose pups were in danger.

The music was loud, so there was no point trying to talk. Kat smiled at Lucas as he tried to copy the instructors on stage. It surprised her that he’d accepted Lily’s dare and made an appearance. But it also distracted her, and she began to fumble her steps.

It doesn't matter, not after dancing with Adam, she reminded herself. Although only months ago, being with Adam felt like another lifetime.

The next song began its primal rhythm.

Okay, I need two male volunteers! the instructor called out. Of course, there were only two males in the class.

Lily gave Kat a look of perverse relish as she nodded in Lucas's direction.

"Puhl-lease?" the instructor implored, pursing her lips and striking a helpless-female pose, one foot tapping to the music. I can’t do this by myself!

Perhaps for no other motive than to impress Kat, Lucas allowed himself to be dragged onto the stage. The remaining male participant leapt up with a broad grin, flexing his arm muscles to a faint whoop from the audience. Her mission accomplished, the instructor abandoned her cute persona, raising her arms in victory. Now for some eye candy, girls!

A woman at the front of the assembled dancers ran on the spot with busy elbows, waiting for the song to begin. This particular dance routine involved macho posturing, stomping and gangster moves. On stage, Lucas did his best behind the instructor. Even for a first timer he had trouble co-ordinating his hands and feet; and Kat knew Lucas was in performance hell by the flat line of his smile.

Kat had emphatically refused the instructors' invitations to dance on stage when she first began classes. Now they left her alone.

Thank God.

Lucas reminds me of Frankenstein on crack, Lily said in Kat’s ear, her eyes glued to the stage. Prancing behind Lucas, the instructor gyrated to the insistent beat, thrusting her hips in comic sexual innuendo. One over-excited dancer near the front made enthusiastic sounds that didn't bear repeating.

Lucas turned around, suspecting something was happening at his expense. The instructor stopped, turning to the men on stage with a wicked grin. "Okay! This is where you… she announced above the thumping beat, her arm extended like a ringmaster, …take your shirts off!"

But there were no takers. Even Lucas's stage-companion refused, good-naturedly shaking his sweat-soaked head.

No? The instructor slumped her shoulders. "One day someone is going to take their shirt off for me! she wailed, waving them off the stage. Give these guys a clap! Not the clap, just with your hands. Oh my God, that still sounds bad, ha ha!"

During the drink break, Lily gave Lucas a wave.

Did you bring water? Kat asked Lucas.

Ah, no. I didn’t expect it to be this energetic, he said with a lopsided smile.

Kat pointed out the drinking fountain. As he wandered off, Lily strolled over to her step-sister, wiping sweat from her forehead with a towel. To the outside world, they referred to each other as sisters. It was easier than explaining.

Oh my lordy, Lily said, smirking. Tell Twinkle-toes not to give up his day job.

Not everyone’s a dance star like you. Kat found herself defending Lucas.

Lily bumped hips with her. Or you, when you’re in the mood.

*

Twenty minutes later, Lucas accompanied Kat on her walk home. Still in her runners, Kat’s lithe figure was all legs, flowing into compact black shorts encasing the smooth curves of her bottom and hips. Kat hadn't given her appearance much thought; unlike Lucas, who suggested they detour past the boats moored at Cullen Bay.

The weathered wood of the boardwalk was springy under their feet, and aluminium masts and rigging clinked softly. In the distance live music and happy chatter spilled from restaurants and cafes wedged along the marina.

The air hung hot and syrupy, but an intermittent ocean breeze cooled the perspiration on Kat’s face and neck. Apart from the occasional complaint, Kat embraced rather than resisted Darwin’s untamed weather. She enjoyed the drama of the lightning bolts and tsunami-like clouds of the build-up; the storms and tumultuous downpours, the flash flooding that cut up roads in the wet season. The ever present clinging, second skin of humidity drove some visitors to Darwin crazy, but Kat had grown up with it.

I’m surprised you accepted Lily’s dare, she told Lucas.

Muscles I didn’t know I had will be aching tomorrow, he replied, rolling his shoulders.

How’s work? she asked, moving to a safer subject.

Lucas had resigned from his peace-keeping career in the military and reinvented himself as a government consultant for the Top End oil and gas industry.

I’ve been keeping myself busy. There’s a lot of confidence in resources exploration just now, so increasing interest in joint ventures. Lucas considered her, tilting his head. Can I ask you something? He stopped walking, his hands first in, then out of his pockets—finally by his side. There’s no pressure, only if you’re keen.

Keen? For what?

I booked us the last two places in the Sailing Club’s salsa classes, on Thursday nights.

I don’t know, Lucas, Kat said, tracing the wood of the boardwalk with her shoe. Her ex-fiancé’s question involved more than the dance class, and she remembered his comment about her dancing the year before - You’re such a klutz, pumpkin.

Away from the restaurants, the marina hung still and sluggish in the thick afternoon heat.

I’m not a very good dancer, Lucas admitted, chivalrous now. He raked damp, sandy-blonde hair away from his forehead, and his expression brightened. But I’ll have a go. We might even have some fun.

Kat met his eyes. We’re not engaged any more, Lucas. I’m sorry.…. She resumed her outlines on the jetty with the other foot. After years of waiting for Lucas to make a commitment, she suspected he now wanted it more than ever. Kat’s expectations had changed, and she knew they couldn’t pick up and continue as before. Too many layers of the onion and all that.

It’s just dancing. Tell you what—I won’t cancel yet, in case you change your mind, Lucas said. We don’t have to pay until classes start.

Sorry, but I won’t change my mind. Kat felt hard-hearted but forced herself to stop there, and not begin to blab just to soften her refusal. To her surprise, Lucas shrugged and let it go. Relieved, Kat stared at the large circle of sweat on his singlet. Where’s your donkey T-shirt? she asked.

Somewhere. Forgotten about it. Why?

Now it was Kat’s turn to shrug. It was…interesting.

*

They arrived at Paspaley Place in Larrakeyah. From here Kat’s townhouse and Sam, her adoptive father’s apartment were only minutes from each other. It was also just a short drive to where Lily and her partner Ben lived.

Kat loved the townhouse she’d purchased after moving out of Lucas’s place. The mini garden oasis offered an open feel which she loved. It was a cool outside area for Biscuit, her dog, who preferred to lounge in Kat’s classroom most school days anyway.

It had all happened so quickly in the end. With Lily and Sam’s help, Kat had transferred her belongings to their bungalow, when the search for Adam’s body was still underway, when there was still hope. She’d needed something to keep her occupied, to feel in control of at least one thing. Kat said it was crazy, moving out of one man’s house when you were grieving over the disappearance of another. But, as Sam said, it was no one’s business but hers.

When Adam suddenly vanished from her life, Kat was grateful she could barnacle herself to Lily's lounge for a few weeks. The sudden loss of someone she’d had such a strong connection with resurfaced deep, old scars of abandonment. Kat had lost her parents to a drunk driver in a car crash as a young girl and she still lived with the odd nightmare, all these years later.

Although Sam had offered for her to stay with him, in fact—demanded—she couldn’t bear to. There were too many reminders of things she’d done with Adam; things she’d willingly shave years off her life to do again.

Being by herself had taken some getting used to after living with Lucas for so long, even though he’d often been away with the military. To Kat’s surprise, she and Lucas were still on amicable terms, although she hadn’t encouraged any contact. They’d gone twilight sailing once, and had been out to dinner with mutual friends a few times. But she’d refused her ex-fiancé’s invitations to dine at their old Parap house after moving out. There were too many reminders there too.

*

Earth to Kat….

Kat and Lucas were still where she turned off to walk the short distance to Sam’s. Lucas was searching her eyes and she fended him off with a small, closed smile.

Kat, I miss you in my life. Not like this. Lucas made a long face, indicating the physical gap between them with the wave of a hand. Being friends isn’t enough. Not after what we had.

Kat reached to pluck a flower from the frangipani tree above her. She breathed in its glorious, nostalgic scent, giving herself time to think.

There had been many clues of doom in their relationship, signs they should have paid more attention to. Somehow they’d skipped the seductive, romantic stage and slid straight into an unquestioned complacency. Still, Lucas deserved a longer explanation than she’d offered, ending their engagement over a surprise, rushed lunch in Townsville all those months ago.

Then again, Lucas hadn’t raised the subject of their break-up in the last months, had never asked her to elaborate. Which was typical. It would never work, just like it hadn't with Adam.

Adam.

Some sleepless nights, Kat allowed herself to question if Adam had drowned. She couldn’t bear imagining the scenario for more than a second, his head submerging to the will of a vengeful sea in a cyclone. With rising panic, she hoped he hadn’t suffered for too long. But her panic wasn’t all selfless, just for for Adam. There’d been no goodbye, no explanation, just like her parents.

After a build-up of agonising desire and guilt, what had Kat ended up with? One night of lovemaking worth selling your soul for, a cryptic note, and more grief than—well—who wants one more moment of grief in their lives than necessary?

Adam always told her he was trouble, that she should marry Lucas, her dependable fiancé of five years. He didn’t have to go and prove it.

Kat and Adam’s magnetic attraction to each other had undone Kat, turning her inside out; forcing her to realise Lucas wasn't the one she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Although she hadn’t known Adam for long, she knew enough. And she found his strange knack of occasionally tuning into her thoughts alluring rather than annoying.

It was obvious that Adam’s post-traumatic stress unhinged him. Whether the side effects of his trauma were a temporary or permanent affliction, who knew? He’d been unreliable, moody, jumpy, a psychological mystery to her; but his behaviour made more sense after she learnt of his kidnapping and torture during a black operations mission overseas.

There were also loose ends about his fight with Thomas Williams, the man discovered dead on the beach last year. Had he really been one of Adam’s kidnappers? Why would Adam vanish, after she knew, yes, she knew they’d both found their soul mate? The unanswered questions and the lack of closure eroded Kat’s patience and tolerance.

Why, why, why?

There was so much she hadn't known about Adam. In self-preservation, Kat tried to put the whole Adam saga in a leaden box, deep inside herself. All in all, the strategy had been successful. Kat got on with life.

I was lucky to have found love like that, she convinced herself.

*

The warm evening coaxed the heady fragrance from the frangipani tree above her. Kat gave a small shiver and twirled the flower in her fingers, watching as Lucas stared out to sea. He’d always been there for her, but now she realised as a companion, an anchor. It was no longer enough, or fair to him. As she composed words in her mind about just remaining friends, Lucas leant forward and kissed her.

It wasn’t exactly a pyrotechnic kiss, but contact with his body brought back good times and comfortable memories. Lucas wrapped his arms around Kat and pulled her closer. They were both sticky with sweat, but it was Darwin, after all, and she was familiar with his solid frame, the taste and smell of him.

Kat relaxed. Dropping the flower, she slowly began to respond.

The initial familiarity of kissing him had thrown her, but as seconds passed, she forced herself to change mental gears and step away. She turned to go, shaking her head in apology.

Please don't do that again, Lucas. I can’t.

*

Chapter Three

Five minutes after disappointing Lucas, Kat arrived at Sam’s apartment. The door opened to reveal Kat’s adoptive father dripping wet from a shower, a towel tucked around a waist struggling to remain just that.

I was on my way home, she grinned, kicking off her runners and tossing aside her gym bag to admire the expansive view in front of her. Early this evening, the sea and sky were interchangeable blues. A few kilometres behind Sam’s apartment lay the central hub of Darwin. Kat’s home city possessed an unpretentious heart, reminding her of a gauche, adolescent girl, yet one who could stick up for herself. The sisters had attended a small primary school along with Filipino, Asian, Italian, Greek and Aboriginal classmates—and mixtures thereof. Her adoptive father and sister had Irish, Malay and Indigenous ancestry; Lily could even add Italian from her mother's side. Sam proudly called himself a mongrel, or ‘person of mixed or indeterminate breed’ in polite company. He maintained that the more varied people’s genetic pool, the better the world’s prospects for peace.

Almost didn’t hear the doorbell. Sam pointed to the table on the verandah. I ordered your favourite take-away, how did you know?

ESP, she said, then sighed.

ESP is over-rated.

Kat gave Sam a peck on the cheek and he grinned. Tall and youthful for his age, Sam's optimism never failed to rub off on her. Look at you, she said. "All showered and