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Miranda Jones

Book 4


Aftermath



B C Austen



Miranda Jones

Book 4

Aftermath

by B C Austen



Copyright 2017 B C Austen

Smashwords Edition



Smashwords License Statement
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each reader. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


Cover - Vector image attributed to artist

Teni/Shutterstock.com

Cover designed by the author.



I would love to hear your thoughts on the book, good or not so good.

I would be most appreciative if you could provide a review.




ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


Writing the Miranda Jones books has taken me on an interesting odyssey. I've learned to believe in myself and that you are never to old to learn. I set myself a challenge to publish a book after taking some writing classes. One book became two, then three, and now a fourth.


It wouldn't have been possible without all the following wonderful people at my side.


My beta readers have been invaluable. A personal thanks to Val, Laurel, Jo, and Pam, for providing new eyes to the manuscript and adding your queries and suggestions and advice, too numerous to mention. You have been a constant source of strength.


A special thanks to my many family members for their contributions. I would not have been able to get this far without your continued love. I encountered many trials along the way and at times they felt like enormous mountains, but were all nullified thanks to just being able to talk to someone. You all made it possible in your own unobtrusive way to getting the books published.


Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty One

Chapter Twenty Two

Chapter Twenty Three

EPILOGUE

About the Author

PROLOGUE


Miranda stood in the kitchen of Joel's apartment enjoying the latte she'd bought from the coffee truck outside in the street. Theo, the owner, had been parking in the vicinity twice a week, after finding an enclave of coffee loving customers, Miranda being amongst them. She'd got to know him quite well. He was an Afghan refugee with a large family, and had been in Australia for five years, doing really well with the coffee selling business. Miranda admired his ingenuity and that he was now a proud Aussie, and he made the best coffee by far.


Spread out before her were all the boxes holding their belongings, packed and sealed in readiness for the move back to her house. There wasn't that much left to take, as all her old linen and kitchenware was being replaced to match the new modern decor. Joel was intending to hire a small van to take care of transporting it over, although she wanted to take her most precious personal items in her own car. That was, if he got back in time from his latest police assignment.

Miranda was desperate to get back to normality, and that required the all important renovation. Lavender French, who was contracted to do the interior design when the Warthog was being rebuilt was the perfect person to be in charge of it. Miranda's instructions were to modernise, but not to lose the house's character.

She was meeting Lavender in the late afternoon to receive the keys. She'd found Lavender trustworthy and liked her style and was happy to let her get on with it. Wanting to be surprised at the handover Miranda had stayed away for the last few months and was now eager to see the end result.

But, before that she was to meet two old friends in the city, Mabel and Fran. She checked her watch and saw there was still ample time to get there.

Joel had been away for the past three days, a longer amount of time than was intended. Miranda was certain he wasn't being honest with her about his foray back to the force. She tried to be patient and understanding, but for how much longer, she wasn't sure.

Reflecting on the passing year, she had to smile when she felt she could finally put all the shattering events since Oliver's arrival behind her and move on. Friedrich Nietzsche's saying that "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" certainly attested to that. Oliver's presence had taken it's toll, but his hold on Miranda was finally over. His life ended as brutally as it had started, in an institution. He'd left his foot print on her soul, but she had conquered him and now a new, fresh era awaited. After her marriage to Joel fourteen months ago, her life was finally coming together.

Oliver's confession letter from the prison left Miranda perplexed. She'd read it a few more times since Peter had given it to her and she was left in no doubt as to the depth of his dark psychotic soul. He could never have been rehabilitated. He'd enjoyed his killing spree and even admitted to ending Lucy's life, merely because it suited his new purpose - moving to Australia and riding on Miranda's coat tails. When Miranda learned the extent to which Lucy was involved in their crimes she wondered if it was a case of kill or be killed. Did their mother teach her son to solve his dilemmas by killing people?

She still had trouble reconciling that Lucy was her natural mother, leaving her to wonder if she herself shared any of Lucy's bad genes. Of particular concern was whether there would ever come a time when a desperate situation would cause her to carry out punishments in the same way.

Oliver's death was investigated and it was concluded that he had instigated his own demise. After the discovery of his hidden cache of evidence in Clover's shed, he knew it was all over. He'd provoked inmates in the prison to inflict a dreadful beating on him, which ultimately led to his death. Adding to his misery was the realisation that Miranda had turned her back on him and the fact that he'd failed to kill Joel, left him with nothing to live for. He knew Peter didn't believe his story, that his heart wasn't in defending him at the trial.

He left his estate to Miranda and asked to be cremated and his ashes to be left in an undisclosed location. Peter and Father Brian were the only mourners.


Miranda's personal fortune, from the sale of the old orphanage and clever investments, was growing, but she was reluctant to use any of it. Oliver was part of that windfall, and to her it felt as though it was blood money. Initially she'd asked Peter to give Oliver's bequest to a charity. She felt she would inherit some of his guilt if she accepted it, but as time went on she softened her stance. She knew of some deserving non-profit organisations that would benefit from the money, and give her a sense of cleansing her soul.


Peter was still a huge problem for Miranda. From being in her thoughts constantly she now despised him. She'd been infatuated and somewhat obsessed by him since their first meeting, but she couldn't bring herself to let him know. When he chose to defend Oliver at his trial, she felt betrayed. That thin line between love and hate had been crossed. Her anger towards him gnawed at her, but despite that she couldn't get him out of her head.

The sight of seeing him in a passionate embrace with another woman festered in her brain. If not for that her entire future could have been completely different. That kiss had turned everything sour. It was the catalyst that sent her into the arms of Joel, which Peter was to forever regret, because he was secretly in love with her too.

She often wondered how their lives would have evolved if Joel hadn't come along.

At their last meeting they had agreed to put their differences behind them. Peter had extended the hand of friendship and if Joel was prepared to put the past to rest then Miranda had to give it a chance. It was a new beginning for all three.


For Devon and Gail it was love at first sight and a bright future beckoned. Their relationship delighted Miranda, although it was clear from the outset that Gail was going to wear the pants. Devon needed someone strong-willed to push him along, and while it suited him to be elevated to the position of temporary manager at the Warthog, a change was coming that he wouldn't be able to cope with. Miranda and Joel are torn as to the future of the Warthog. They are planning to sell it, but how to tell Devon.


Miranda's decision to return to her old neighbourhood was a direct result of the blossoming friendship with her neighbour, Clover, but Miranda will soon discover that she isn't the sweet, demure, person she initially thought. Her elegant appearance is hiding a dark secret, and she wants to bring Miranda into her unconventional world. Both women have reached out to the other for female support, especially Miranda, who looks on Clover as a confidante. When Joel drops his bombshell, Miranda has an ally to fall back on.


Joel is also struggling since Oliver's presence had dominated their lives. The mundane hairdressing life that had been his comfort zone for years no longer stimulated him. His mind is made up to sell the Warthog and without consulting Miranda he begins to investigate other options. She will be the stumbling block and he will have to play his cards carefully if his plans are to come to fruition, because they don't include her.





Chapter One


Miranda found a parking spot on the fourth level of the multi-storey car park. The radio announcer declared that it was eleven minutes before the two o'clock news. She noted the time on the car's dashboard clock was eight minutes slower. She looked for the clock's adjust buttons and pressed them a few times. Nothing happened. She tried a few different sequences causing the hours and minutes to disappear from the panel altogether. She cursed and turned the engine off, berating herself for not asking Joel to fix it. It was annoying that she had to mentally work out the proper time in a new car that was less than six months old.

She'd made good time getting into the city, enabling her to stroll leisurely to the cafe, pausing to gaze at a few shop window displays along the way. The main shopping precinct was quiet but a sharp cold wind swirling around her ankles reminded her that the summer was still some weeks away. Dried leaves and other debris blew around forming little wind eddies on the footpaths. It had rained in the early hours of the morning, which wasn't unusual weather for Sydney, but at the moment the sun was high in the sky and the day promised good things.


She was a few minutes early for her rendezvous at the Urban Coffee Bean with her former work colleagues. The cafe was situated in the upper level of the old City Library. After it had been relocated the building was converted into an upmarket shopping mall.

Looking around inside she saw it was relatively empty. The lunch crowd had been and gone, so there would be no issue with finding a table for the three of them.

The cafe was touted as being among the most popular in the city, and there was something about the aromatic aroma of coffee beans being ground that made her feel heady. The anticipation of an oversized slice of cheesecake to go with a latte never failed to make her mouth water.

She hadn't seen Mabel and Fran since she'd left her job, which felt as though it had been a lifetime ago. She wondered what they were up to of late and if there was a particular reason for wanting to meet up. As they hadn't yet arrived Miranda browsed through the cakes on display and settled on the one she fancied.

A gentle tap on her shoulder interrupted her thoughts and on turning round she was met by a beaming Mabel, waiting to give her a hug.

'Hey, Miranda. Good to see you, old girl. You're looking fantastic.' She stepped back and looked Miranda up and down. 'How you've changed. You look so posh. You've completely shed that, you know, that dowdy look you used to have when you were working.'

Miranda laughed, knowing exactly what she meant.

'Hi, Mabel. It's great to see you again too. You are looking pretty good yourself, and you've got a new hairstyle. I like it.'

'Yea, thanks.'

'Where's Fran?'

'She'll be here. I was on the phone to her as I was coming and she's definitely on her way. She hasn't been well, but I know she won't want to talk about it. Just a heads up.'

'Really? What's wrong with her?'

Mabel glanced sideways towards the entrance. When she saw no sign of Fran she turned back to Miranda and quietly whispered, 'Cancer. Breast cancer. She just found out last week.'

'Oh shit. That's horrible. Poor Fran.'

Mabel's expression changed when she noticed Fran coming off the escalator, which was not far from the cafe. She gave Miranda a warning nudge and went off to select a table.

'Hey, you guys,' called Fran as she came in. Miranda smiled back and took a few steps towards her. The two women exchanged greetings and then walked over towards Mabel, who had found them a spot near the window.

'Hi, Fran,' said Mabel.

'Hi, Mabes. Isn't this like old times.'

The two women sat so they were facing Miranda. 'We've missed you at the office,' said Fran. 'So many new people have come and gone. We barely get to know them and then off they go somewhere else. Any chance you might come back?'

'None at all, sorry,' said Miranda abruptly, causing them to spontaneously laugh.

'Bummer, but I don't blame you,' said Fran. 'What's been going on with you, Miranda. Apart from that horrible Oliver business, I mean.'

'Oh, goodness me, where shall I start.'


The next two hours flew by in a flash and would have gone on longer except that Miranda had to leave.

'Sorry, ladies. I'll have to go shortly, but we must do this again. It's been lovely catching up. I'm meeting a good friend over at my house later today. She's been in charge of my renovations and it's all finished now. Handover is supposed to be at five o'clock.' Miranda glanced at her watch as she said it. 'And I'm pretty excited, to put it mildly.'

'Where's that husband of yours?' asked Mabel. 'You've barely mentioned him the entire time.'

'I know. I still have lots to tell you, but when things settle down I'll invite you both round for dinner. Will you come?'

'Love to. Bring it on, Miranda.'

Giving each of them a hug Miranda hurried off. She was glad Mabel had forewarned her about Fran. Her washed out appearance and that she seemed thinner would have been a concern. Not that much thinner as to be gaunt, but it was noticeable. Her whole look seemed different from how she remembered her.


Miranda drove into her street and slowed as she approached her house. Lavender's distinctive pale blue metallic, four wheel drive car, was parked out the front. She put her foot on the brakes and gently pulled in. At first glance she wondered if she'd come to the right place. The house she was looking at through the windscreen was nothing like the old one.

Lavender, who was standing on the front verandah, had left the double garage door open for her to drive straight in. After she'd parked Miranda grabbed her handbag and hurried out to greet her.

'My god. What have you done with the place? It's so beautiful. You've made such a huge change, but you haven't taken away it's originality. How did you manage that? Everyone in the street will be envious.'

Lavender laughed. It was music to her ears.

'I didn't need to do all that much, really. Your house was so well built and laid out that it wasn't hard to make it shine, plus I enjoyed the work. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do it.'

Miranda took a few steps backwards to take it all in. The old 1940's style home that had lost it's spark was new again. The bullnose verandah, the battered corrugated iron roof, the rustic red bricks were all revamped and totally transformed. Before her was a stunning modern home, covered in an off-white rendered exterior which made it look so much grander than before. The timber boards on the veranda had been sanded back and been given a matt finish, while still retaining it's existing colour. The wrought iron and wood balustrade surrounding it looked so much better than the old one and it all blended in nicely with the smoked glass side panels on the wooden front door.

'Watch this,' said Lavender holding out a remote control clicker. 'This isn't just for the garage door. All the outside lighting has been programmed to come on with the click of a button.' As if by magic the house took on a new vista with the brightness of the downlights including the garden bollards. Miranda was amazed at the prettiness of it.

'This is why I wanted you to see it in the early evening. Come inside, there's more.' Lavender inserted the keys in the front door and they went in.

'Gosh, it's simply gorgeous.' Miranda did a slow three sixty degree turn to look around.

'I love how you've matched and blended everything together. The colours we chose look even better in the flesh, so to speak. Where on earth did you find all these amazing pieces of artwork, and furniture, and… and everything. I'm just speechless.'

'Thank you, but you've only seen a tiny bit yet,' said Lavender as she pointed out some of the features to Miranda.

'How come you're here by yourself? I thought Joel would have been here too.'

'He will be. I told him not to be late. I'm getting fed up with all this out of hours work he's been doing lately. He's been away for nearly three days now. Not happy.' Miranda feigned an annoyed look.

She followed Lavender up the stairs to inspect the finished work up there, and as with the lower floor, it was just as nice. The bedrooms were all in similar subtle colours and again she'd somehow emphasised the hues with contrasting shades in the curtains, vases and the cushions. Each item was positioned as if in a display house. Miranda secretly hoped she could keep the appearance up, as housekeeping wasn't amongst her favourite tasks.

'You are a treasure, Lavender. You've brought it together so cleverly. I can't praise you enough.'

'Thank you. I'm glad you like it.'

'You didn't disappoint us when you fitted out the Warthog and you certainly haven't disappointed me here. I hope I can keep it looking the same once day to day living happens. Will I need a housekeeper?'

'I don't think it'll be too hard, Miranda. You have so much more storage now. Everything can just get shoved away if you have to deal with unexpected visitors.'

'You've done an excellent job of getting rid of all the bad karma. I know I can confidently move back in now, without thinking about Oliver walking around everywhere. I think we should christen the place with a glass of champers. Can you stay for a bit?'

Lavender checked the time on her phone, and agreed to have a quick one.

'Yes, I think I can spare about fifteen minutes. I told Frankie I was handing over today. She wouldn't be very happy with me if I just gave you the keys and ran off.'

As they came down the stairs, the lights of Joel's Merc swung into the driveway and he pulled up sharply behind Miranda's car. Hearing the familiar sound of his squeaking brakes Miranda took out three glasses from the drinks fridge and lined them up on the bar.

'He should take that car to the mechanic. One day those brakes will fail and he'll be sorry. New house, old car, and he refuses to trade it for a newer model.'

The front door opened and Joel entered wide eyed, scanning the new living area. He smiled as he took it all in.

'Hi, Lavender. It's first class,' he said, shaking her hand.

'Just in time, Joel. We're having a quick toast to celebrate Lavender's work.'

'The outside is unbelievable, and this room looks fabulous,' said Joel. He went from room to room for a quick look throughout. He came back to Miranda and gave her a quick hug and a meaningful grin.

She handed each of them a glass of bubbly and declared a toast to their new home. 'To us, and this brilliant renovation. And a big thanks, Lavender. Cheers.'

Standing together, looking around, they sipped their drinks and talked about the project until Lavender insisted she'd better leave. She'd noticed that in the entire time he'd been home Joel hadn't taken his arm away from Miranda.

'G'night, you two. Let me know if you have any teething problems with anything and we'll get it sorted.' She put the keys on the table, and collected her bag and scarf before she made for the front door.

'By the way, I've left you one of my little signature good luck charms, or rather it's more of a little protection charm. I won't say where I put it, but you'll find it when you least expect to.'

Miranda looked at her curiously as she walked her to the door.

'It's one of my little quirks.'

'I'll keep my eye out for it. G'nite, Lavender and thanks again.'

~###~

It was a strange moment for Miranda to finally realise she was free of all the encumbrances the house held over her. Gone was the old fashioned way her parents had it and gone was the shadow of Oliver. It was comfortable, but different, and it still retained her history. She felt good about that, as though she was truly back home.

It was nearly a year since the day Oliver was arrested and taken away. His death in the prison was shocking, and his nasty parting letter was a distant memory for Miranda. She felt no sympathy for him and she tried not to dwell too much on that period of her life that he'd occupied. She was thankful she'd come out of it relatively unscathed. She still had Joel and he had very little remaining side effects from the stroke. He'd never mentioned it again once Oliver's case had been closed. A recent follow-up visit to his doctor had given him the all clear of any medical or mental impediments.


Joel took her hand and together they went through the house, checking Lavender's work in detail.

The newer, fresher smells of the renovation materials hung thick in the air, especially in the top level. Miranda went to the full length sliding doors of their bedroom, which led out onto a small balcony. She pulled them ajar to allow some fresh air to blow through. Immediately the curtains billowed out exposing the exterior views of the grounds.

Miranda looked at Joel for a reaction. 'Fabulous, isn't it,' she said. He nodded his approval.

'I didn't think it was possible to get it looking so good. I'm so glad to be rid of all those old sheds. It'll be even better when all those new plants get bigger.'

Turning round to face him Miranda drew herself up close to kiss him. She wrapped her arms around his neck. 'I've missed you so much, even though it was only a few days. Don't do this to me again. I hate it when you go off on these secret police jobs.'

He kissed her back. He knew it wouldn't take long for her to start complaining so he pulled her closer, holding her tight enough that he could feel her entire body against his.

'Shush, let's enjoy all this. You can tell me off tomorrow.'

'Don't think for a moment that I won't.'

He'd been anxious for Lavender to go as he hadn't enjoyed the latest undercover case. He needed some small measure of reassurance from Miranda that all was well in their world.

Jakob was calling on him more often, needing some of his insight when they were investigating the bikies. He knew he was getting too involved and was questioning himself on whether he should keep doing it or pull out. Despite trying to fight it, his subconscious was leading him towards it, even without Miranda's approval.

He missed her nearness, her smell and especially her eagerness for him. They'd rarely spent time apart since their marriage, and this separation had been a testing time.

Jakob had promised that after the Oliver business he wouldn't call on him anymore, but they always seemed shorthanded, and it was unfortunate that this latest case had stretched out to three days. Jakob considered Joel a natural on jobs like the one he'd just been on and although he had promised it would be the last one, it was becoming clear to Joel that the likelihood was that there would be more.

He wondered if he should discuss it with Miranda tonight, but decided not to, as the handing over of the house was a special occasion. She was on cloud nine, and this new job revelation called for her undivided attention.

'Well, husband. I suppose we should start unpacking.'

'Why? I don't think we need to spoil this night with such mundane things. I have another cunning plan, and nothing about unpacking comes into it.'

Miranda laughed.

He kissed her again, more ardently, and Miranda responded enthusiastically, but then she put her index finger to his mouth.

'Can you give me a minute? A quick minute, I promise. I want to go back down and recheck the exits again, doors and windows, especially seeing as we've just been handed the keys. I'd hate for an unexpected intruder to interrupt us, and besides, I want to see where Anastasia is.'

'Shall I come with you?'

'No, I just want to put some food in her bowl while I'm there.'

'Don't be long then. I'll have a quick shower in the meantime.'

Miranda went downstairs and double checked that all the locks were in place. She left the laundry for last and opened the store cupboard, looking for the cat's food bowl. She placed a couple of handfuls of cat biscuits in it and put it on the floor.

She checked outside the front entry door to see if Anastasia was there. There was no sign of her. As she was scanning the garden shrubs Miranda instinctively looked across the street to Clover's house. The lights of a passing car momentarily illuminated Clover as she stood near her front door. When she turned to go back inside Miranda thought she saw a worried expression on her face. It had been some time since they'd been in touch. She made a mental note to pop in and visit her as soon as she could.

While the renovations had been going on she had seen little of her. Tomorrow would be soon enough to renew their acquaintance. For now, she didn't want to dwell on it, having matters of her own to deal with. Matters of a serious romantic nature that involved her man upstairs.

Anastasia appeared from under one of the small hedge plants. She ran along the path and darted between Miranda's legs in her haste to get inside. She made a beeline for her food platter in the laundry. Miranda watched her for a few minutes and then went back upstairs.


Joel had just stepped out of the shower and was reaching for the towel when she returned.

'Hmm, look at you. Nice,' she whispered. Miranda ran her eyes over his wet, naked body, which he didn't mind flaunting. She took the towel from him and was about to start drying him down, but he took it back and wrapped it round his lower half.

'Come here,' he said huskily. He started kissing her, walking her gently backwards into the bedroom. She enjoyed the stirrings of passion spreading through her body. As they approached Joel's side of the bed, he stopped and made her wait as he turned aside and pulled the covers back.

'What are you doing?' asked Miranda.

He pushed the pillows up against the headboard and propped himself up against them, still wearing the towel.

'I'm getting organised.'

'What for?' She felt her eyebrows furrow slightly.

'You'll see. Take your shoes off.'

She didn't answer, just sat on the end of the bed and kicked them off.

'And your shirt, next.'

Miranda sighed, and started undoing the buttons.'

'Not too quickly,' he added, with just a hint of a grin on his face.

She continued, allowing an exaggerated ten seconds between each of the four buttons. 'Is this slow enough for you?'

'Maybe.' She could tell he was doing his best to keep his reactions under control, but his broadening smile was giving it away.

'And? What does sir want removed next?'

'Mmm, let's have your jeans off this time.'

Miranda stood up, drew down the zip slowly and then undid the stud. Rolling her hips around she wiggled them to the floor and threw them aside. Now just clothed in her bra and panties, she strutted a few steps towards him with her hands on her hips.

'What now? What does sir wish for now? If he's going to torment me, he may not get anything at all.' She challenged him with her arrogance.

He started to laugh and was on his feet in a flash. His arms encircled her, kissing her shoulders.

'Sir will remove the rest himself, my lady.'

He pulled her down on the bed beside him, his towel falling off.

'You crazy lady. I've missed you so much,' he whispered, brushing her hair aside, then ran his lips lightly along her neck. As he pulled her bra straps down he paused to see her reaction. He needn't have bothered. She looked at him with a half smile and slightly raised eyebrows, puzzled as to why he had stopped.

'What's the matter?' she asked.

'Nothing really. I suppose there was a moment where I just wanted to watch your face as you're getting aroused.'

'Idiot,' she said.They both started laughing. 'We've been apart for three long days, anything extra is mere time wasting if you ask me. So stop dawdling, ok?'

'I know, but I don't want to rush this. I want to enjoy you and enjoy our first night here.'

'Well, I just want to get on with it. We've got the rest of our lives to do all the 'enjoy' stuff, so stop teasing me.'

'That's the best part.'

He ran his finger around her neck and lips causing her skin to become ticklish and oversensitive, all the while planting soft kisses on her upper body. She threw a playful punch at him. 'You're so mean, Joel.'

Miranda held her breath as long as she could until the sensation was too much, and she cursed at him. 'Joel, stop it. You're driving me craz….' More kisses stopped her protests.

'Don't you start making a habit of going away. Tell that so and so Jakob to shove his job and organise his department better so that he doesn't need to call you out.'

They were momentarily interrupted when the phone started ringing. 'Who on earth is that? The phone's been disconnected since the renovations started.'

'Maybe it's already connected up again. Let it ring,' said Joel. 'We're not home.'


Some time later, Miranda looked at Joel, lying on his back, his eyes closed and his body, bathed in sweat. She lay on her side with her head on his outstretched arm, waiting for his breathing to settle. As her own body started cooling, she reached for her shirt and began buttoning it up again.

'Leave it open,' he said hoarsely, pulling her onto his chest. He started kissing her again, on her lips, her shoulders, chest.

'I've missed you something terrible, Miranda. And you are right, I can't let that blasted Jakob talk me into anymore overnight jobs. He needs to give those to the single guys. It's been damn torture not having you beside me at night. At any time for that matter. Catching sleep in the back of a van isn't my cup of tea. I think I'm too old for that.'

She blew softly around his lips. He raised his head to kiss her, but she pulled away. She traced her finger around his lips, causing them to twitch and forcing a smile.


Later, the night air started to get colder. Miranda pulled the crumpled sheet over them. The moonlight streamed through the french doors, then gradually it started to fade away as the cloud cover spread across the sky. She nestled close to Joel's body to warm herself as more cold air enveloped them.

'Joel, are you asleep already? You're making some odd snoring noises.'

'No, I'm not. Why?'

'I feel like talking. Do you really like the refit that Lavender did?'

'I do,' he said. 'I'll have a better look tomorrow though, when I'm rested up.'

He turned sideways, closed his eyes and appeared to doze off. Miranda rolled over to her own side, sat up and started to remove her crumpled shirt. The negligee she usually kept under her pillow had fallen on the floor, as had her jeans.

'Don't put anything on, I'll keep you warm,' said Joel, drowsily.

'I thought you'd gone to sleep. I can't put anything past you, can I, old eagle eyes.'

'Nope.'





Chapter Two


It was around four o'clock in the morning when Miranda woke with a start.

Anastasia was sitting on her naked chest, kneading her, while uttering some throaty meows.

Miranda rubbed her itching nose as she stirred, the fine hair from the moulting cat had irritated her. She moved Anastasia to the middle of the bed so she could get up to go to the toilet, but the cat jumped onto the floor when she realised Miranda was on the move and ran ahead towards the door to wait.

Miranda pulled the bed covers aside and put her feet on the mat. Her hand automatically searched for the night light, but with the first rays of the sun already finding their way into the upper floor area, her eyes soon became accustomed to the minor room changes resulting from the renovation. Her movements disturbed Joel, causing him to quiver, but he rolled over and groaned. He muttered something undistinguishable and went back to sleep. She slipped her feet into the scuffs beside the bed where she'd discarded them.

Anastasia returned and brushed against her ankles, letting Miranda know where she was. 'C'mon, puss. I'm glad you got me up, but I need the toilet before I do anything else. I could use a drink too.'

After she'd relieved herself, she followed the cat downstairs. Anastasia headed towards the sliding doors and waited, obviously wanting to get outside. Miranda unlocked them, noting how dark it still was under the patio. The fresh crisp morning air was colder than normal and Anastasia was now in no hurry to go out and leave the warmth of the house. She sat beside Miranda's feet for a few seconds longer and then put one paw out, but her next move startled Miranda as she hissed and arched her back. The fur on her neck stood up and she jumped as she went past one of the patio chairs, finally slinking away into the garden.

'For heaven's sake, you silly cat. What's the matter with you?' said Miranda as she watched her.

A groan startled Miranda, drawing her attention to the patio chair. Someone was lying on it, shivering.

'Oh my god. What do you want?' she asked, inching backwards, just in case she needed to run inside. Seconds later Miranda realised it was her neighbour, Clover, curled up in the foetal position as though she was trying to get warm. Her hair was dishevelled and in the dull light her face and hands looked a terrible grey colour.

Nervously, Miranda felt her face with the back of her hand, wondering if she was conscious. As she did, the overhead light automatically came on and she could see better. Clover's skin was cold, but a quick check of her pulse revealed a strong heartbeat. She patted her on the cheek, hoping for some reaction. Her eyelids fluttered.

'Clover?' The response was a jerk of her arms.

'Clover, are you ok? Can you hear me? It's Miranda.'

Clover blinked and tried to focus. She slowly sat up and tried to clear her throat with a few coughs.

'You're not going to be sick are you?'

'No, I'm ok,' said Clover, in a quiet raspy voice. 'Where am I?'

A sudden rush of cold air reminded Miranda she was only partially dressed. Coming outside with only her g-string undies on and a small shawl around her shoulders wasn't going to keep her warm. She hurried into the laundry and found the old dressing gown she'd thrown on the floor the previous evening. It smelled stale and was destined for the next load of washing, but she was more concerned with the state Clover was in.

She hurried back out, in time to find the older woman trying to stand up. She looked poorly and unsteady.

'Clover, stay where you are. Wait, and I'll help you inside. What are you doing here? You look terrible.' Miranda offered her hand to her. The last thing she wanted was for her to have a nasty fall.

Clover took Miranda's outstretched hand.

'Your hand is freezing cold, Clover. I imagine the rest of you isn't much better.'

'I don't know how I got here, Miranda. I remember having a bad dream and walking on the road outside. That's all.'

'Come inside and get yourself on the sofa, and I'll make us a cup of tea. Do you feel you could keep it down?'

'Yes, I think so.' Clover's breathing was uneven and her steps unsteady as Miranda helped her inside.

'Shall I call your doctor to come and check you over? You don't seem quite right?'

'Good heavens, no. I've probably just had one of my silly turns. I'll be ok in a couple of hours.'

'Well, let's make you comfortable inside the house and I'll get this tea made, ok?'

Clover's grip of her arm relaxed somewhat as Miranda led her into the sitting room and sat her down on the sofa. She found a cushion and arranged it behind her back and neck, then spread herself out along the full length of the sofa. A decorative rug draped over the armrest drew Miranda's attention and she handed it to her.

'Here, this'll help to warm you up.'

After she was satisfied that Clover had settled, Miranda filled the kettle and pressed the button to start the water boiling. Then she hurried upstairs to the bedroom.

'Who are you talking to?' Joel asked, as Miranda opened her closet door to look for some clothes.

'It's Clover, from across the road. I've just found her curled up on one of the patio chairs outside, freezing cold. She looks as though something terrible has happened. I just came up to tell you not to come down without your clothes on. Poor love doesn't need another shock. She might just go and have a serious conniption on me.'

'I'm not that bad without clothes am I?' he asked, with a pained expression.

Miranda laughed. 'Not to me you aren't, but I can't speak for her.'

'Cheeky bitch.'

'Cheeky bitch? That's not nice,' she said, sitting on the bed beside him. As he started closing his eyes again, Miranda put her cold hand under the blankets, sliding it down his midriff.

'Oww, that's not fair,' he uttered out loud. 'That's cruel.'

Miranda leapt out of his reach as he tried to grab her. 'Too slow, husband.'

'Are you coming back to bed?'

'Not yet. I'm putting some clothes on, we have a guest downstairs if your recall. One doesn't welcome people undressed. Anyway, don't get up yet. I'm making a cuppa for her and me, and then I'll try and get her sorted. Do you want one?'

Joel laughed. 'If you're asking if I want a cuppa, then no thanks. I'm going back to sleep if I can. Those last three days have caught up with me.'

'Not to mention last night, you greedy sod,' said Miranda with a wry smile, kicking her scuffs off.

As she knelt down to get her sheepskin boots from under the bed, she just missed being hit with the pillow Joel threw at her.

Miranda put some pyjama's on and put the dressing gown back on over them. She hurried back down just as the kettle started whistling.

A quick peep into the sitting room revealed that Clover had fallen asleep. Her breathing was now regular and even, which eased Miranda's mind. She found one of the new blankets in the linen cupboard and gently covered Clover with it, replacing the decorative throw. She stirred momentarily, but then she settled down. It was a relief for Miranda to see some colour back in her face.

What's happened, Clover? Why did you come here at such a crazy hour of the night? Or were you hiding from something? I'll have to get to the bottom of this, and maybe I should watch out for you a bit more.


She'd had some irregular contact with Clover during the period of the renovations, but nothing had alerted her to any sign of trouble that might have been brewing. Clover always seemed to have everything under control, but perhaps it was all a front.

Miranda turned the light out and went outside to check the patio to see if Clover had bought anything with her. Apart from a cardigan and a scarf that were lying on the floor the only other thing was a pair of black, well worn house shoes.

She gathered up the clothing and found a necklace underneath. Miranda picked it up and examined it due to its unusual configuration. It was a small pentagram shaped pendant threaded with woven twine which had several knots down each side. Miranda figured it must be a family keepsake.

She put it into the pocket of the cardigan and then draped it over the back of a kitchen chair. She placed the shoes on the seat of the same chair. Apart from a few strange whimpers from Clover, the house was silent, although some settling noises coming from the ceiling were to be expected following the renovations. Extensive work had taken place in that area when the attic had been relined and made into a designated storage area.

As she was about to go back upstairs Miranda noticed that Anastasia was waiting outside the sliding doors, hoping to be let back inside. As soon as she opened the door the cat ran inside and went straight to the sofa and jumped on a clear spot where Clover was lying. It was obvious the two still had a connection of sorts. Anastasia made herself at home, licking her paws as she got ready to settle down.

It was still dark and cold outside and, as Clover looked to be sleeping soundly, Miranda went back up to her bedroom and climbed into bed beside Joel. She slipped her arm around his waist and pulled herself up against him. He didn't stir this time, despite her cold hands.

~###~

The sound of a toilet flushing downstairs woke Miranda and she instantly remembered Clover's visit during the night. She'd slept lightly since going back to bed and had been dreaming, but the details were sketchy, except for seeing a shadowy figure standing by Clover's front door.

She checked the time on her mobile phone and saw it was seven twenty. She cursed, realising she should have been out of bed already. She had a busy morning coming up. First of all the unpacking, then food shopping with Joel.

As she attempted to remove her arm from under his body he grabbed hold of her hand. 'Where are you going?'

'Downstairs. Clover is down there sleeping on the sofa. I want to see if she's ok.'

'Clover? The neighbour from over the road? What's going on?'

'Don't you remember? I found her outside…'

'Oh, is she still here?'

'Yes, so don't come down unless you get dressed.'

He reluctantly let go of her, and rolled over. He wasn't ready to get up yet.

Miranda wondered when he would tell her what he'd been doing for the past three days. She'd reluctantly come to terms with the fact that he seemed to have gone back into undercover police work. The fact he was unable to tell her what these activities were she could accept, but she was afraid that the day would come when he would find himself in serious trouble, and she couldn't bear for anything bad to happen to him.

She didn't want to get out of the bed, but she had to get Clover sorted. Sweet adorable Clover, who seemed to be involved in some kind of weird conflict that had caused her to go wandering around the neighbourhood during the night. At least that was something she should be able to get to the bottom of.

She hurried down the staircase, sliding her hand down the beautiful oak banister Lavender had imported from Scotland, purely as a reminder of a pivotal part of her life's journey. Despite the disastrous ending of her relationship with Oliver, she was still connected to that part of the world. It was part of her history now.

Clover was already up and standing at the front window, looking across the street to her own house. She looked stooped and old, not the spirited, invigorated woman Miranda remembered.

'Hey, Clover. Good morning,' said Miranda. She hoped her upbeat tone would dispel Clover's melancholy mood.

She turned at the sound of Miranda's voice and retreated from the window. She looked self-conscious.

'Good morning, Miranda.'

'You're looking much better than you did a few hours ago. I should have put you in the spare bedroom, but you fell asleep on the couch almost straight away. Did you manage to get a decent sleep?'

'Yes, I did, and thanks for last night. I'm sorry for the bother I caused.'

'Don't beat yourself up about it. Why didn't you ring the doorbell?'

'I was hoping not to disturb you. I meant to just stay there for a short while. I don't know what came over me, but I think I'm going to have to sell my home. For a few weeks now disturbing things have been happening to me, which makes me think I've been invaded by some sort of bad spirit. I don't know how I'm going to find my sanity again.'

'Let's have a coffee to start the day and I insist you tell me about this bad spirit that's troubling you. I won't hear of you selling your home. We're your friends and we'll look after you. Are you ok with that?'

Clover's body language made it quite clear she didn't want to be a burden to anyone.

'Besides, where will you go. Do you have any other family?'

Clover's face clouded over and she looked uncomfortable. Miranda waited for her to reply. Pausing for a few moments Clover came to the chair and moved her shoes off the seat, slipping her feet into them. With her hand on her cardigan she looked at Miranda with heavily lidded, lack lustre eyes.

'No, there isn't anyone else. I should go. I've invaded your beautiful new home, for which I apologise, but I should be getting back over to my place. My cats will be hungry.'

'Well, let me walk you there and make sure everything is ok. Will you do that, Clover?'

Clover nodded.

'Give me two minutes to put some proper clothes on and I'll be back. C'mon, you may as well have that coffee while you wait. Have a seat. The water has boiled and it won't take long to be ready.'

Not waiting for a reply Miranda pulled out one of her dainty peach coloured cup and saucer sets, and made the coffee. She placed it on the table. 'Drink it up, Clover. I've put it in one of my special posh cups just for you.'

Clover sat on the chair and said "thanks" in a barely detectable whisper. She rubbed her eyes while Miranda hurried up the stairs. Joel was sitting on the edge of the bed half dressed.

'What's the rush?' he asked.

'I'm going over to Clover's house with her, just to make sure everything is alright. I'll try not to stay there too long. Something weird is going on with her.'

'Are we still going shopping later?'

'Yes, unless you want to go hungry.'

She threw on a pair of three quarter length jeans and the short sleeve top she'd worn the day before. She ran her fingers through her hair and secured it with a butterfly clip.

Joel's mobile started ringing just as she was about to leave the room.

'Shit, it's Jakob,' he said as he checked it on the bedside table. He picked it up and put it to his ear. 'Yea, mate…?' He waived for Miranda to go. She put her sandals on and went.

Clover was waiting outside on the front verandah when she came down. She seemed eager to leave.

The morning sun glistened through the suburban street trees. The neighbourhood was still quiet at this early hour, except for a couple of bored, lonely crows that were calling to each other in the treetops. It seemed as if they knew something had happened and were gossiping. Miranda picked up a few stray pieces of someone's discarded fast food wrappers that had blown towards her. They waited for a car to pass and then crossed the street.

Clover slowed down once they arrived at her gate. She stared at her house, almost as though she expected someone to be there.

Miranda placed the rubbish in Clover's bin as they went past it. Then she saw that the front door was wide open.

'Clover, did you leave your front door open like that?'

'It looks as though I must have. I was terrified when I left.'

'You should have called the police.'

'They would have told me not to waste their time if I'd said it was an evil spirit. Will you go inside first?' Clover had her arms crossed over her chest.

'Do you think there is someone inside?' Miranda wished now she'd made Joel come with them.

'No. I, er…,' Clover started to speak, but was struggling to utter any words. Instead she nervously cleared her throat.

'Are you sure it wasn't just a nightmare?'

'No, it wasn't.'

Once they were on the verandah a familiar buzzing sound greeted them. Miranda peered inside and then gingerly entered the house. As she made her way to the kitchen, she had a quick look in the rooms, noting that it was the television set making the sound. No other noises or movement was evident.

She called out. 'It's all clear. Are you coming in?'

Clover hesitated, then followed, her eyes nervously darting left and right. She stopped and looked in the lounge room. Spying the remote on the floor by the settee, she picked it up and turned the television off. What appeared to be a bread board laying on the floor beside the couch drew her attention and she hurriedly stuffed it under a cushion.

'I'll go and check your other rooms for anything suspicious before we do much else,' said Miranda. 'Do you want to come with me? Or better still, why don't you put your kettle on to boil and make us both another coffee. It'll give you something to do and I could certainly polish off a fresh one.'

Miranda went looking through the rest of the house. The upstairs area was all neat and tidy, with everything in it's place. Clover's bedroom window was open causing the curtains to gently billow in and out. She closed it and went back down.

Clover was leaning with her back against the bench frowning, her mind seemed elsewhere.

Beside her, the sink still contained dishes soaking in cold greasy water. On the stove, a frypan containing burnt meat played host to a lonely fly buzzing over it. It looked to have already dined on it.

A quick glance through the kitchen suggested to Miranda that whatever had scared Clover came early in the night. But she was curious as to what else had occurred that made her leave the safety of her house and make her way to Miranda's in the early hours of the morning.

Miranda did a quick tidy up while she waited for Clover to say something. She emptied the frying pan into the bin and cleared a cup containing dried coffee dregs off the table. She started up the kettle as Clover was still in a state.

'Clover, are you alright? This lower section of the house seems quite messy. That's not like you. What the hell happened here last night.'

The front door suddenly slammed shut and Clover gave a startled cry. Soon after the sound of crashing glass came from the lounge room. Both women looked at each other in shock. Was it the wind whipping up outside or was it something else?

'I tell you, Miranda. Something crazy is going on here.'

Miranda looked to see what had crashed in the lounge. Her skin prickled around her shoulders after what Clover had said. It was difficult to ignore the tension but she concentrated on hiding her qualms. From the corner of her eye she saw that Clover was covering her face and cowering. Seconds later the electricity blacked out. The partially boiled kettle promptly stopped.

The two women exchanged glances again. 'Best we don't start to panic, Clover. I'm sure it's just an electrical short. The wind outside is to blame for this. Where is your meter box? I'll go out and check it.'

'Outside, on the front verandah.'

Miranda opened the small electrical compartment and flicked all the switches, not sure which was the offending one. Once she'd put them all back to the "On" position, the power came back.

'Clover, your house is old and I think you should get an electrician to come and check it over.'

Miranda peered into the lounge room to see what had crashed.

'A photo frame has fallen from your mantlepiece, nothing serious.' she called out to her.

'There is something bad in this house, Miranda and I don't care what you say, it's true.'

As she went back into the kitchen to join Clover a feeling of calmness seemed to come back into the house, but it was short lived. For whatever reason, the television had started up again and then seconds later, several loud popping noises rang out and it went dead. A strong caustic smell followed.

'See what I mean, Clover? Now your television seems to have shorted. Have you got insurance for it?'

Clover's disastrous night was still affecting her. Miranda's explanation hadn't convinced her and they had to get to the bottom of whatever had happened the previous night. It had spooked her badly and Miranda knew Clover would be in strife if it wasn't dealt with.

'I'm worried about you, Clover, and I want you to sit down. I'll take another look around and check everything thoroughly.'

This time Miranda inspected each room in detail. She made sure all the switches on appliances worked and that all the overhead lights were working. She checked all the windows and doors in case someone may have broken in. After satisfying herself there was nothing amiss she returned to the kitchen and restarted the kettle.

'I think everything is fine now except for the television in the lounge. It seems to have blown a fuse. I think it's carked it.'

'But I turned it off when we first got here. Don't you remember?'

'I do, but it must have been the power surge from when I flicked the mains switch. How about we go shopping later in the week and get you a new one. It'll cheer you up, I'm sure.'

Clover nodded. 'Yes. Thanks, Miranda.'

When the boiling kettle turned itself off Clover snapped out of her reverie. She got two coffee mugs out of the cupboard, but she seemed to have difficulty concentrating on the task.

'I'm glad you are back now, Miranda. While you've been away I've been living with this crazy stuff and I'm so sick of it. Lately it's happening more often. I'm convinced I have a bad spirit or a poltergeist living in the house. I don't know what to do anymore.'

'How can that be, Clover? You're just a sweet old girl who minds her own business. Things like that don't happen to people like you.'

Clover shook her head. 'I'm not what you think, Miranda. Let me finish making these drinks and I'll tell you the whole sordid story.'


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