Shadow House Excerpt

A brief excerpt from Shadow House

Heather Todd’s life had never been easy, but when her sister died as a result of overcut cocaine, everything changed. Now she’s determined to take down Sydney’s notorious organized crime ring, vowing to ensure her sister didn’t die in vain.
Ex MI6 operative turned world sailor, Sam Autenburg is on a bender after his partner died, also as a result of overcut cocaine. When one night things go desperately wrong for Sam, Heather comes to his rescue.

Taunting and goading him, she eventually convinces him to take on her cause and infiltrate the organized crime syndicate responsible for her sister’s, and his partner’s, deaths. Going after the brutal gang will be no easy feat, and in order to stop them, Sam and Heather must put their own lives on the line.

Together in loss and driven by revenge, Sam and Heather hunt for justice, and in doing so, begin their own path to redemption.

The Morning After

Heather was sitting at her marble-topped breakfast bar, looking distractedly at the front page of the Telegraph and finishing her breakfast of muesli and oranges. She looked up and breathed in the rich aroma, could hear the sound of the coffee percolating on the stove. Brewing a pot of coffee was an unalterable part of her morning. She bought only her favourite blend, and made it precisely the way she liked. No matter where she had to be, or what she had to do, she never missed or rushed her morning coffee.

She had already showered, and was wrapped loosely in a white terry towel bathrobe. She’d barely slept since arriving home and getting Sam to bed. When he’d passed out for the last time, it had been two-thirty, and she’d been beyond sleep.

She folded the paper, got up and scraped the orange peels in the compost bin, rinsed the knife and plate, then poured coffee. She walked to the window-seat overlooking the backyard and veggie garden, pushed the window wide open, took a sip of coffee, and lit a Longbeach. Every day she told herself she didn’t need them; that smoking was a filthy habit, but nothing went with a cup of coffee quite like a ciggie.

She tipped her head back and closed her eyes, aligning her face squarely with the morning sun, feeling the heat warm her face and throat and chest. The slow warmth calmed her, and helped still her racing mind.

The sound of Sam’s sonorous breathing drifted through from the spare bedroom, and Heather wondered if she’d done the right thing to bring him to her home, to the only place that gave her respite from her other life.

I guess I owed him one for getting me off that lunatic’s yacht, and for not calling the cops.

Realising that he could wake at any time, and she was still in her bathrobe, she crushed out her cigarette and went through to her bedroom, quickly dressed in jeans and white t-shirt, then returned to her seat by the window, enjoying the warmth of the sun on the chilly mid-winter morning.

Heather had lived alone most of her life. She and Carol had shared a place a couple of times, but not for long. Her life had been too complicated. She’d bought the house in Mosman after Carol died. Now she’d paid off the mortgage and owned the house outright, she felt as if she’d achieved something. Owning her own home also gave her a sense of security, knowing she’d at least have somewhere to live when she grew old; if she ever did.

Buying the house had been a major ordeal, and she’d nearly given up on more than one occasion. With no visible income, no job, and no explanation of how she could afford the repayments, the banks laughed at her, despite her having two-thirds of the asking price as a deposit. Eventually a friend put her in touch with a Chinese broker who didn’t give a shit about all the red tape, and got her a ‘no-doc’ loan. The interest was one and a half percent above base, but she didn’t care, she could afford the extra and looked upon it as another hidden tax for the sex workers. The day she walked into her own house had been the best day of her life. She owned her own home. She walked into the empty house, locked the door, and sat in a corner on the carpeted floor and cried.

She’d never owned more than a few clothes until then; never owned a car and had lived in furnished apartments. Sure, she had some money in the bank, but numbers in an account didn’t feel like anything tangible to her other than a means to this. She valued her home for more than the bricks and mortar. It was a sanctuary, like her own health farm where she could just be. She’d never brought any clients back here, never would. Nobody from that side of her life knew she had the place. Sam was her first house guest.

When she heard the bedroom door opening, she went to the kitchen, poured a glass of juice, and set it on the table. Then took up her position by the window as Sam walked unsteadily into the room.

Sam looked around the unfamiliar room as he sat at the small dining table. His hand was shaking badly as he tried to force himself to swallow some of the juice this woman had laid out for him. This woman whose house he’d awoken in, and whose face was vaguely familiar, but whom he couldn’t put a name or place to. He wondered if he’d picked her up in a bar.

He looked again at the woman sitting in a window seat, the morning sun lighting her dark hair and pale face. He took a little juice and thought he was going to throw up, but the feeling passed and he put the glass down, thanking her again.

She seemed to sense his confusion. ‘You passed out in the alley beside the club, beside Ronnie’s, so I brought you back here.’

‘Sorry. Sorry to have put you to so much trouble,’ he mumbled with obvious confusion and embarrassment. He continued to look at her, trying to remember where he’d seen her before.

‘I didn’t steal from that Canadian fucker. I might be an escort, but I’m not a thief,’ Heather said, still not looking at him.

Sam placed the glass on the table and squinted directly at her for a few more seconds, his addled mind trying to put the pieces together. Then, slowly, the memory came to him.

It’s is the woman who shouted for help from the dead Canadian’s yacht. What was his name, Stevens, Stimson, Stanley?
He looked back at Heather and the memory of that early morning incident came back to him. A woman crying out for help from the Canadian yacht; the Canadian is accusing her of stealing. Two days later he was found dead in a Kings Cross brothel.
Sam pushed the juice away and said, ‘I didn’t think you had. I didn’t make any judgement. It was a ruckus I had to quieten down. I didn’t know you, or him.’

‘Yes, well I just wanted to tell you. Lots of people think if you work like I do, then you’re a thief and Christ knows what else.’

His head was pounding. He fought to make sense of what this odd and angry woman was trying to say. ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t recall your name.’

She said nothing for a long time, then as he was about to speak again, she said, ‘Heather. And yes, it’s my real name.’

‘I’m Sam,’ he said, not sure what else to say, or whether he should thank her and leave. For all he knew, she might be a nutcase that abducts drunks, drugs their orange juice, and then cuts them into small pieces in the cellar.

‘I know. You told me last night.’ Her manner was cold, bordering on formal.

‘I did?’ he said, as he tried to recall what had happened to him the previous night. ‘What else did I say?’ He tried to muster a grin, but it came out as if he was going to be sick, which was a strong possibility. Her face gave nothing away, not about last night, not about why he was here, or if she was pissed off or sympathetic.

‘So,’ he ventured tentatively, ‘did I pick you up last night?’

She turned and looked at him, and for the briefest instant, a wide grin split her rigid face, before she once more regained her inscrutability. ‘I picked you up; off the ground in the alley beside Ronnie’s. You passed out trying to light a cigarette.’

‘Oh shit.’ His voice was heavy with regret and shame.

‘Sure as shit you did.’

‘Why didn’t you leave me there? Or put me in a cab home?’

He had taken another mouthful of the juice and was feeling sick again. He wondered if he’d vomited here last night, and that was why she was pissed with him. Or perhaps she was one of the eternally pissed off, who spend their entire lives angry and growling at everyone around them.

‘Is that your way of saying, ‘Hey, thanks, Heather, that was kind of you’?’ She spoke without looking at him, and then reached for her cigarettes, shaking one out of the pack and lighting up with a deep, angry suck.

‘I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful, Heather, and I do thank you. I am grateful for you doing that. But …’

‘But fucking what. Look, I’ve seen you at Ronnie’s a few times now, getting lit up like there’s no tomorrow. Spilling whiskey and feeling sorry for yourself. I also know there are some lowlife arseholes who hang around those clubs ready to roll anyone who has had a few too many. And, I figured I owed you one for not being too much of a prick when that Canadian fucker flipped out on me. You didn’t immediately assume I was guilty and take his side when he said I was a hooker, and you didn’t call the cops either. I owed you one and I always pay back.’

‘Alright. Okay,’ he said, holding up a shaky hand in a mixture of agreement and defence.

Shit! This might be a real good time to get the fuck out of here.

As if she’d read his thoughts she said, ‘Your clothes are in the washer. They’ll be another twenty minutes.’ He didn’t want to ask, or know why they needed washing, so he let the question pass and concentrated on the nausea.

‘Help yourself to a shower,’ she said, still not looking at him. It was more of an order than an invitation.

He rose unsteadily, thanked her, and made his way to the bathroom. He noticed the house had been tastefully furnished, not expensively, but was nicely put together. The small bathroom was clean and orderly. There were fresh towels on a rack, a clean bath mat, face cloths folded by the towels, and spare bars of soap next to those. He locked the door, slipped off his bathrobe and took a long shower, letting the cool water blast his face, trying to drive away the feeling of imminent death.

When Heather heard the shower running she relaxed a little, wondering why she’d been such a bitch.

He actually seems like a nice guy. Why can’t I ease up on him? Because I’m frightened, that’s why. Frightened of what’s going on in my head right now; frightened of saying too much and getting fucked-up.

She knew she was being needlessly aggressive. She’d made the decision to bring him back here. She also recognised that she behaved that way any time she felt threatened or out of her depth. Sam was no threat that morning, but she was way out of her depth in what she was thinking of saying and doing.

The shower had revived him a little, but he was still feeling shaky. What he needed was some strong coffee, but he didn’t want to ask this strange and annoyed woman.

No, stuff that. Get dressed, thank her again, and then get the fuck out of here before you end up in a pie. What an unusual woman. She swears like a trooper yet keeps her home so clean and organised. Maybe she has a housemate. Or maybe she’s wealthy enough to have a maid. Some of these high-end escorts make a poultice.

Sam figured by the time he’d thanked her again his clothes would be ready, and he could scoot out of there and into the nearest cafe where he could get a big mug of coffee and a greasy breakfast. At the moment he didn’t even know what suburb he was in.

He shrugged on the bathrobe that had been beside his bed when he woke. And that raised a thought.

She must have undressed me last night. Did we have sex? And what else did I do and say? Christ all blood mighty, Autenburg.

He checked for his clothes in the room he’d woken in and noticed the decor and fit out was quite feminine. He also noticed Heather had placed a new toothbrush on the bedside table while he’d been in the shower; beside the toothbrush were his wallet, phone, and keys. He was grateful for the toothbrush and returned to the bathroom to scrub away the flavour of the previous night’s mayhem. Curiosity got the better of him, and whilst the water was running he slid open the mirrored door of the bathroom cabinet. No sign of a male presence, no prescription drugs, only the usual spare toiletries and air freshener.

Feeling and smelling better, Sam walked back into the kitchen wondering where this was leading. He looked at Heather who was still sitting in the window seat.

‘Thanks for the toothbrush, that was thoughtful of you.’ He sat back in the same chair at the table, searching for things to say. ‘It’s a nice house, Heather. Where is it?’

‘Where’s what?’ she snapped.

‘Sorry, I mean what suburb is it in? I don’t remember much at all about last night. Not beyond midnight anyway.’ He hung his head and ran a hand across the stubble on his chin, not for effect but out of genuine embarrassment. It had no effect on Heather; she’d seen all that male guilt a thousand different ways.

‘Mosman.’ She paused as if not sure whether to continue, before finally saying, ‘The place was a bit of a dump when I bought it, so I’ve been chipping away when time and money allows.’

She looked pensive then asked, ‘Would you like some coffee, Sam?’ Then with the slightest shadow of a smile, she added, ‘You look as if you need one.’

Her tone had changed. She no longer sounded pissed off and her face held that faint memory of a smile. The hard straight line of her mouth now had a gentle upward curve to the corners, as did her eyes. Sam noticed for the first time she was quite an attractive woman, with full lips and clear grey/blue eyes.

‘I’d kill for a coffee. Thanks, I’d love one.’ Again, he tried unsuccessfully to return her smile.

‘How do you like it?’ she asked, as she walked over to the kitchen. Passing close to him, she laid a pack of cigarettes and a red Bic lighter on the table, then slid an ashtray across beside them. He looked at the cigarettes and felt sick again, and wondered for the tenth time what he’d been drinking.

He swallowed hard. ‘Strong with one sugar and a little milk thanks.’

As Heather busied herself with the coffee maker, Sam looked around the room, trying to get a clue to what makes this woman tick. The walls were freshly painted a neutral beige colour. In the corner there was a look-like-teak entertainment unit housing a top end hi-fi complete with turntable. Below the Hi-Fi, there were a couple of hundred old twelve-inch LPs, all neatly arranged in racks. Framed photographs covered the wall in the dining area; family, Sam assumed. Some clearly of Heather when she was younger with parents and what looked like a sibling. Set into the wall facing him were a pair of French doors leading out to a small brick patio, on which stood a circular wrought iron table and two chairs. To the side there was a barbeque hidden under a vinyl cover. Pots of herbs lined the paved area. The whole place looked cared for but not lived in.

Heather placed the mug of coffee on the table and went back to the window seat, wriggled into the cushions and lit a cigarette.

‘Is that your parents in the photograph?’ Sam asked, trying to find something to say other than ‘how’s work?’. The picture showed a white haired couple standing hand in hand. Heather stood behind them, a hand placed on the shoulder of each.

‘Yes. It was taken at their home in Gosport.’

‘Is Gosport where you grew up?’

‘As much as anywhere. Dad moved around with work quite a bit, but I guess Gosport was sort of home.’

‘They look happy. You all do.’

‘They were. They were in love from the age of fourteen to the day dad died. Mum went not long after him.’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stir unhappy memories.’

‘The memories aren’t sad. They had a great love for fifty years. Nothing sad in that. None of us live forever.’ She spoke without looking at Sam or the picture, and continued staring out of the window towards the poplar trees lining the boundary at the end of the yard, as if expecting somebody to appear.

Heather felt a strange emotion she couldn’t define. Talking this way with a stranger felt safe, she was anonymous, and chances are they’d never meet again. Yet still she couldn’t talk openly. Her voice portrayed no sadness, her body language gave away nothing of her feelings, or how her heart hung heavy in her chest now they were all gone. Even though she’d not seen her parents or Carol often, they’d been there when she needed to feel part of something normal. She had family if she wanted. Now, as she approached her fortieth birthday, she’d never felt so alone.

Sam’s voice pulled her out of her reverie, ‘And the next one, is that your sister you’re with?’

‘That’s Carol, she … she’s seventeen there.’

There was so much Heather wanted to say, so many questions to ask him, but she’d no idea where to start. She’d been up much of the night rehearsing. Forming the questions in her mind but her intentions had all come to zip.

I can’t do it. I need to get to know him a bit first. Maybe it was drunken rambling, mouthing off as so many pissed males do. Like that Canadian fucker did.

Inside, in her gut, that silent voice which prompts and guides was saying that this was a time to act. Sod the consequences, and fuck the danger and risk. But instead of speaking out she swallowed her words, pulled herself back into the moment, and said, ‘I think your clothes should be dry now.’ She got up and left him to finish his coffee alone with his own thoughts and hangover.

When Heather returned to the lounge and told him his clothes were ready, Sam walked through to the bedroom, dressed and pushed his wallet into his pocket. He picked up his phone and keys and went back into the kitchen.

‘I better get moving and not take up any more of your time. Thanks again, Heather, I’ll try and stay out of trouble from now on.’

‘Sure, no problem. Do you want to call a cab?’ she asked, as she walked to the door with him.

‘I think I’ll walk for a while. Try and walk some of the alcohol out of my system,’ he said grinning sheepishly at her.

‘See you round…’ her words lingering as if there was more she wanted to say, but then fell silent as she looked at the ground.

‘Thanks for everything, Heather.’ His mouth formed a crooked smile, and then he turned and walked out onto the footpath, groaning inwardly as the sunlight stabbed his eyes. When he closed the gate behind him, he saw she was still standing there, but then hurried inside once he noticed her.

‘Funny girl,’ he said under his breath, ‘kind of cute, though.’

He made a mental note of the house. He didn’t know the street, but he did recognise the high street at the end of it. Something told him he might be back.

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