Brigandeers: Chapter 5: Growth

 

I used to believe, as a kid, that when a girl lost her virginity she’d be changed, and there would be something about her that was visibly different.

Losing your virginity was a transformation of sorts. It was a big deal. A huge deal.

Before I lost my virginity, before any of my friends lost theirs, it was practically all we talked about. We all made up stories, we all lied to each other, my friends and I. We all pretended we’d lost it, every one of our “losing our virginity” stories bigger than the one before.

And we all knew we were liars, and we all knew everything we said was rubbish, but we told each other stories anyway.

Perhaps it was to hide the fear of actually having sex. Perhaps we were afraid. I don’t know.

When I finally did have sex, I thought that everyone would know, and I’d know inside too. Because I’d be different. From the cellular level on up, every single aspect of who I was would change, when that tiny little thing called virginity was lost.

I thought I’d feel different. I thought I’d be different.

I lost my virginity, in the front seat of my boyfriend’s car one night, when I was fifteen. It was unintentional and totally unplanned-for. It was also quick and unsexy and over before I really had a chance to grasp what was happening.

I wasn’t raped – I was a willing accomplice, you might say – but it happened before I was ready for it. And at the end of the evening my boyfriend drove me home, and kissed me goodnight, and that was that.

The next day I woke up, and I went to school, and he went to school too, and nothing was different. None of my friends noticed anything different about me. None of the teachers noticed anything different about me.

I think I’d expected a big neon sign hovering over my head screaming “THIS PERSON JUST LOST HER VIRGINITY!!!”

But the neon sign wasn’t there, and the screaming was a silent scream inside that nobody heard.

I was still the same person, I looked the same, sounded the same, was the same in every single way. My virginity was gone, but I was still me.

Killing a person is supposed to change you inside too. To utterly transform you.

That’s what you hear, what you read, what you’re told in countless movies over and over and over again: killing changes you.

You’re told a killer is someone different to the rest of us. They’re something different.

In form, in soul, in every respect.

They say that, when you kill a person, something inside you shifts, and warps, and you’ll never be the same again.

They say it warps your soul, and it is something that you can never come back from.

They say that, from the moment your victim’s heart ceases to beat, and their eyes become vacant and lifeless – they say from that point on your spirit is that of a murderer.

Forever onwards, for the rest of your existence, even beyond your own death.

They say there is nothing you can ever do to come back from killing. You’re cursed, it’s all over, there is no forgiveness or redemption. Not ever, no matter what you do to try to make things right again.

That’s what they say. That’s what I was told.

And that’s what I have always believed, even from when I was a child and Ani and I used to tell each other scary stories about murderers and zombies and ghouls on rainy nights when the rain and the thunder frightened us and kept us awake. I always believed it to be true.

I always believed it to be true. Except now.

Because now I’ve killed four men, and I don’t feel any different.

Nothing has changed inside me. Nothing at all. Just like when I lost my virginity, I don’t feel any different. I expected change, and no change happened. I was still me.

Does that make me a psychopath? I hope not, because I don’t want to be one. I’m a good person. I see myself as a good person.

Does that mean that maybe killing – murder – isn’t the huge crime we’ve always been taught that it is?

Does it mean that maybe murder is something you can come back from?

Is redemption easier than we’ve always been led to believe?

Or does it mean there is no redemption, and killing is something that just happens from time to time.

Maybe sometimes people just have to die. Maybe sometimes murder is necessary. Death is a fact of life, after all – we all have to die – and maybe murder is just another way to die.

Maybe that’s all there is to it.

Because, you know, it’s all very well for a person to say that they’d never kill, but have you ever noticed the people who say that are people who have never been in a life-threatening situation, when the lives that are being threatened are those of people they love.

I bet if they were, they’d change their line real quickly. Because – let’s be honest here – it’s easy to be moral when you’re comfortable and nobody is pointing a gun at you.

It’s easy to be moral when you’re not accountable for your morals. It’s easy to be judgmental when you’re not the one standing in the dock.

It’s easy to be moral when you’re comfortable, when life is easy, and when you’re not going to die yourself if you don’t force death on another.

It’s easy to be moral when you’re reading a book, or watching a movie, all comfortably distant from the action, tucked up in bed, or feet up in your favourite armchair.

I wasn’t comfortably distant from the action. These men were coming to kill people I love. They were coming to kill me. So I made a decision that their lives were worth less than ours, and I ended them.

I have no regrets. Call me a murderer, if you will, but I’m a murderer with a clear conscience. You can sit there in your comfortable chair now, reading this, and go right ahead.

Condemn me. Blame me. Say that I’m evil.

But if you’re ever in the position that I was in, maybe you’ll find yourself doing exactly what I did.

And maybe then you’ll think more kindly of me.

**********

The sun is shining low in the sky, red and gold through the open back doorway of the house, scattering dim light inside. it’s nearly the end of the day. I don’t know where the time has gone. I’m sure I’ve missed some hours, somewhere.

John and Nigel are back. Their hands are dirty, and I watch disinterestedly as, one after the other, they wash their hands with a bar of soap at the kitchen sink, scrubbing away at dirt and blood.

“The bikes are fine,” says John. “But I think we should take the agents’ car as well. It’s a nice big limo, and way too good to leave.”

“Won’t they come searching for us even harder if their vehicle is gone missing?” Janice says, dubiously.

John shakes his head. “Its virtually night time anyway now,” he says. “It’ll be dark within an hour. It’s a good time to move a car without us being seen. The airport 6:00 rush is about to start.”

He dries his hands on a tea towel that’s hanging on the handle to the oven. “There will be lots of cars on the road. Safety in numbers, and all that. I think we should chance it. All we have to do is get it back to the hangar. It’s not that far, and we’ll be going in the opposite direction to the traffic. The setting sun will work in our favour.”

“There’s another advantage to taking the car,” John adds. “We can strip it over the next day or so and get everything we want from it while lying low, then we can leave it behind when we head home in our own truck. It solves the problem of how to get Janice and Jacob out of here – we can’t carry all of us on the bikes – and it gets the vehicle off the road, which might buy us a little more time.”

“I’m not so sure about that last part,” says Nigel, butting in. “I suspect that, when the agents we’ve…er…disposed of don’t check in, the authorities will start from their last known whereabouts, which is here, and begin searching.”

“But it may give us some time. And it certainly enables us to strip the vehicle for anything useful.” Nigel chews his lip thoughtfully. “Actually, taking the car might give us another advantage,” he adds. “Once the authorities arrive here, if they can’t find the two men that Rose dragged down under the hedge, which is entirely possible, they may conclude they’ve got double agents on their hands, and start searching offshore for them, figuring they’ve left the country after committing double murder. It’s an obvious conclusion to reach, especially being this close to the airport, and it may take the heat off the search for us.”

He looks at me questioningly. “I hate to ask when it’s all still so…fresh, but just how far down under ground are the two agents under the hedge?” he asks me.

I chew my thumb nail, feeling awkward, wishing I could avoid the topic. Then I answer slowly, “They’re at least ten meters down. Under a one meter layer of bedrock that I moved aside then moved back into place. There’s no way they’ll be found without a massive excavation taking place.”

My voice is firm. “They’ll never be found, not unless someone is absolutely certain of where they are, and makes a huge effort to dig down deep in exactly the right place. No, they’ll never be found.”

I get up from my chair. “I don’t like the plan of taking the car,” I say. “But I can’t think of anything better.”

I raise an eyebrow hopefully at Janice. She holds her hands up, shrugging, as if to say, Don’t ask meI didn’t create this mess.

“Let’s get a move on then,” says John, picking up Janice’s carry bag for her. “I hope you’re ready to leave?” he asks her, and she nods. “We haven’t got a lot of time.”

The ride back to our base at the hangar is uneventful. I take the first of the dirt bikes, like I did when we headed out to Janice’s house earlier in the day, and John is riding the second bike, not too far behind me.

The agent car, which is a very nice deep blue Jaguar, deeply polished and glinting in the failing light of the evening, is being driven by Janice, with Nigel and Jacob as passengers. They all three of them look completely out of place in the flash limousine, and I’m glad that it has tinted windows. I hope nobody they drive past checks the passengers too carefully.

I’m insanely nervous, of course, mainly because if we get caught it is my butt on the line for murder, even though John and Nigel both assure me that if we ever get caught, they’d take the fall for me. That makes me feel a bit better, but I’m still jittery, as we leave the house and head back to our base of operations in a stolen car and two very visible dirt bikes.

Thankfully, nothing happens, nobody notices us, the drive is uneventful, and within half an hour we’re back safely within our hangar base, just as the sun sets.

Immediately we’ve shut the hangar doors behind us and get off the bikes, and Nigel and our new companions are out of the car, Nigel sets about stripping the radio and other electronics out of the stolen vehicle, while John begins making us all dinner. He’s not bad at camp food, but I’m really missing the better food of The Arms – we get spoiled living in a pub sometimes. Still, we’re out in the field, we have to take what we get.

I radio my sister Ani at the first opportunity, to tell her we’re all safe. She’s on the radio this evening, because Marika is upstairs in the pub working a late party booking.

I fill Ani in on everything that has happened. IT’s not easy talking about the men I’ve killed, but I’m surprisingly blunt and matter-of-fact about everything. I sound cold and hard even to my own ears, as I explain what happened, why and how.

I ask her to take notes so she can tell Marika what’s going on. She’s stunned, and concerned for all of us, especially me. I re-assure her that I’m fine, just a bit shaken, and she insists that we “deal with it” when we get back. I have no idea whether she’ll actually take notes for Marika, but I’m guessing probably not. Ani is great at some things, but following instructions and dealing with paperwork aren’t among her strong points.

She asks when we’ll be back, and I reply that we’ll almost certainly be stuck in the hangar for a few days. “Four to five days!” says John, overhearing the conversation between us, while he busily stirs a camp kettle over a hexi stove. I’m pretty happy about that – the last thing I need is Ani giving me grief. Being stuck here for that long will give her time to cool down.

We end up staying in the hangar for four days. It isn’t a pleasant experience, and I’m very glad I was well stocked for snacks. The other laughed at me when I packed them, but now they’re jealous as they see me chomping down on chocolate bars, popcorn, chips and lollies. We have plenty of foods in the form of our ration packs, of course, but they suck and are barely enough to keep you sane. A girl needs chocolate and chips, and my snacks are a life saver.

Nigel makes overtures of swapping all sorts of junk he owns for some lollies, but not a chance. This stuff is mine. Then I weaken and give him the black jelly babies. I don’t like the black ones anyway, but he is thankful.

It doesn’t take long before the disappearance of four agents becomes top national news, Ani and Marika inform us, keeping us up to date with life outside the hangar.

The whole area around us starts being scoured by the authorities, trying to find their missing agents and figure out what went on. We don’t need outside news to figure that out – we can hear the cars, the helicopters, the sirens.

Day after day, night after night, we hear all the vehicles going past in the distance and helicopters whizzing overhead – far more than you’d expect for normal airport traffic. Marika tells us we need to stay absolutely still, and not stick a nose out of the hangar. She really doesn’t need to tell us that! At present nobody has a clue we’re here, and we don’t want that to change. If anyone checks out this hangar, we’re toast.

It turns out that taking the agent’s car with us was an excellent idea – we can easily tune in to their communications and find out exactly what they’re doing, and where they’re up to in the investigation.

It’s not just from Marika that we learn it’s not at all safe for us to step foot outside our refuge: the case is being discussed on all the police bands, and on the agent bands as well. We’re trapped for now, stuck here until the furore dies down.

They find the bodies of the two men I despatched in the kitchen pretty much right away. Nigel and John hadn’t buried them deeply anyway – they’d just dumped them outside, in very shallow graves, not much more than half a metre below the surface, and they hadn’t made much of an effort to hide the bodies beyond that. The only reason they did as much as that was for fear that, when I came out of my shocked state, seeing the bodies of the men might send me off spiraling again.

Also, the bodies were in several pieces, putting it bluntly, and things were pretty messy. Apparently they’d buried the two of them not too far from the remnants of the back door, just around the rear corner of the house, so it was not difficult for them to be found.

The other two men I’d hung with the hedge are unable to be located by the search. I’m not surprised – I’d taken them deep, deep into the earth, many meters down, buried under bedrock, and although they might technically be able to find the bodies with earth movers, it is very unlikely, simply because it would be unfathomable for them to imagine someone burying a body that deep, that quickly. It looks like I’ve left the authorities with a real unsolved mystery, as I hoped.

This is excellent from my point of view, because if I ever get caught, I’ll be charged with two murders, not four. Maybe it won’t make that much difference. The authorities aren’t known for their generosity of spirit when it comes to dealing out what they define as justice. Especially when its regarding the death of one of their own. But if there’s a chance it will help me out, I’m all for it.

The four days we spend in the hangar are nervous ones. Jacob gets sick of being in an enclosed space very quickly, and all I can say is, thank goodness for the game consoles that Nigel happened to have in the back of the truck, or we’d have gone crazy.

As it is, Jacob finds it hard going, but the geek games keep him out of mischief most of the time. Within two days he’s mastered most of the games we have on deck, and by the third game we’re so sick of him challenging us all for online “duels” that some of us, me included, are wishing we’d left another, smaller, body at the house with those of the four agents.

I’m only half-joking.

As for me, during the days stuck in the hangar I read. I read a lot. There’s not much else to do.

I also get to know Janice. She’s not a bad sort, but very quiet, and a bit of a full blown hippie. She’s into astrology, crystals, reiki, homeopathy, tarot, and yes, she really believes there are fairies at the bottom of peoples’ gardens. When I’m not reading my own books, I’m being an unwilling guinea pig for her to practice her mystical powers on.

Within a few hours she’s picked me as a Pisces born in the year of the Dragon, both of which are completely wrong, but I let her think she’s right because it’s such fun to lead her on.

Oh, and according to my Tarot reading I’m going to enjoy a new relationship with a tall redheaded man. Which is obviously wrong, as there’s no way Nigel and I are ever getting together, and John is shortish and blond.

I get the impression that she doesn’t really want to be here with us, and who can blame her? She also seems dubious about her Powers, which I find kind of unbelievable. I mean, considering all the other shit she believes in I’d have thought super powers would be a shoe in.

But Nigel is in no doubt at all about Janice, and keeps looking at her when she’s not noticing, with an odd, greedy gleam in his eye like he’s discovered some amazing protege. There’s no way we can do any testing on her while we’re on the run and being hunted down, in case we get noticed. Testing is going to have to wait. I just know he’ll be itching to take her out in the field the moment he gets half a chance, to find out what exactly she is and what she’s capable of.

I have to admit, despite all the hippie crap, I’m kind of interested too.

Janice and I get on okay, but it isn’t the same as having Ani here, or even Marika. It’s not just the overpowering smell of incense that seems to waft around her that does my brain in. It’s the fact that Janice is about ten years older than I am, and it feels like it. She feels more like a mother than a friend (or a sidekick, which is what I’d like ideally – after all, isn’t every superhero meant to have a sidekick?), and I really notice the age difference in the way she looks at me. Especially when I’m goofing off, which is quite a lot over these few days when we’re all getting cabin fever and going crazy. She gets this awwww, isn’t the little kid cute look, and it irks me.

Yeah, I like to muck about, but I don’t like it when other people point out my childishness. Screw that.

I feel nervous the entire time we’re in the hangar. Apart from the fact that I can’t sleep much because of the rats (they’re everywhere, in spite of us removing that dead lamb and John clearing the place out), I’m stressed every time we hear a vehicle drive anywhere near close to us.

We keep a watch on the whole time, taking it in shifts of six hours apiece, and I really loathe it whenever it is my turn to keep a look out. Especially at night. It means none of us ever feel truly rested, and we’re all at one other’s throats the whole time, because we’re so tired.

While we’re stuck in the hangar, Marika and Ani – and even Cam from time to time – fill us in on what is happening outside, over the radio.

As time goes by, the search for us gradually drops away, and after four days of us being stuck in here, the group of us plus Janice decided things have settled enough for us to risk moving.

It helps that a couple of members of the Royal family are in town, so the authorities have better things to do than search for us – they’ve got to manage crowd control, and generally suck up to the blue bloods at various photo opportunities.

Janice would have like to stop by her house and get some more things for Jacob, but despite the royal distractions, there’s no way in hell that can happen – her home is off-bounds, probably forever. We don’t dare show our noses anywhere near what is now a major crime scene.

Again and again, as we begin to debate how we’re going to get out of here and back to the flat in Dunedin without getting noticed, I’m reminded how this is all my fault. I’m reminded how it is because I killed those guys that we’ve been stuck here, hiding out in a stinky old hangar, waiting until it is safe to return home.

I’m reminded how its my fault that Janice and Jacob had to leave their home, and my fault that they can’t go back. I know the others keep saying I had no choice, and trying to make me feel better, but I somehow can’t help suspecting that maybe I did.

Maybe a chance – a choice – was there and I just didn’t take it. I just didn’t see it.

Maybe all this was actually avoidable, and if I’d made different decisions those men would all still be alive.

Then again, maybe no matter what I did it all would have played out the same. After all, when four men with four weapons held to the ready turn up at a family home, you have to assume that, no matter what, someone was going to get hurt.

Maybe I’m just glad it wasn’t any of us.

On the fifth day, Marika informs us that the search has died down enough for us to risk leaving the hangar and heading back into Dunedin. Plus, the Royals are doing a walkabout in Mosgiel, on a baby kissing spree for the public to delight over. It’s exactly the kind of diversion we need. It’s not soon enough. I’ve seen enough of the interior of this aircraft hangar to last me forever.

I’ve also seen quite enough of rats.

We’re leaving the stolen Jaguar in the hangar, covered over by a pile of old netting and tarpaulins. It has been completely stripped of everything useful – John and Nigel have taken out the radios, the antennas, the GPS, and even removed the four tyres plus the spare which, John claims, he’ll be able to on-sell for a small profit elsewhere. That’s John for you – he’s the King of scavengers, and he knows how to make a fast buck on anything and everything he finds.

All communications equipment and hi tech gear, including some walkie-talkies and handheld dyson transmitters, plus an assortment of bugging tools and toys, is gone from the vehicle.

John has also grabbed an excellent toolkit he found in the boot, and Nigel is very pleased with his own handiwork – he’s mounted the comms system from the Jaguar into our truck, and assures me that now we’ll be able to keep track of absolutely anything the authorities do via their very own systems, while we’re on the move. It’s a real win.

We put Jacob in charge of the job of hiding the gutted car inside the hangar. He does it gleefully, thoroughly enjoying the chance to do something physical after being stuck doing little more than gaming for nearly five days straight.

He gets dusty and dirty and smelly and covered in cobwebs, but by the time he is done, the car is completely hidden, a mound of rubbish in the far corner of the hangar. Hopefully it will be months before it is discovered. Assuming we make a clean getaway, that is.

I’m still not so sure we’ll succeed. Maybe it’s just me being paranoid though, as all I’ve done the last few days is imagine what will happen to me if we’re caught. Sometimes I wish my imagination weren’t as good as it is. John says I’m overthinking the situation, which won’t do any good, and he’s right, but I can’t seem to stop thinking of the worst.

We pack everything into the truck, barely managing to squeeze it all in. Once again I’m thankful for the size of our truck, and for the generosity of the size of the vehicles sold from Army Surplus. The Army never did go for size small when it comes to vehicles!

Even so, once all our gear is in and the two dirt bikes loaded on the back, it is very, very friendly inside with the two extra passengers.

We’re pretty certain that while Nigel, John and myself are still unknown to the authorities, Janice and Jacob are probably on a suspect list by now. It was their home at which four agents disappeared after all, and they’ve not been seen at all since then. The police aren’t that bright, but that’s suspicious to even the dumbest of the dumb.

Upon asking Ani and Marika, they confirm that they have heard Janice and Jacob mentioned by name and described on the waves, and that, yes, they’re both fugitives wanted for questioning.

I don’t even want to think about how horrible a “questioning” might be for a five year old boy like Jacob – I’m simply glad that we have them both safe with us, for now.

We seat Janice in the middle of the back seat of the truck, with Nigel on one side and me on the other, and put Jacob in the front seat next to John. By breaking Janice and her son up visually, we hope that anyone spotting us or pulling us over won’t be automatically inclined to see them as that same wanted mother and son pairing that is all over the news.

It’s amazing how often people don’t see what is right in front of them. To further the confusion, we tie a pink hair tie of mine in Jacob’s hair, and put him in one of his mother’s floral shirts, belted to look like a dress. Now Jacob is a little girl to any casual observer. He protests, but we ignore him. He’s young enough that we might just get away with this simple subterfuge.

“Remember to call him Rosie!” I say to Janice, and she laughs. Jacob scowls.

Early in the morning on that fifth day, we’re all ready to go, sitting in the truck, Jacob in his “dress”, engine on, waiting. John slowly winches the hangar doors open, before jumping back into the driver’s seat and driving the truck on through.

I get out again, once we’re through the hangar doors, shutting and locking them behind us. There’s no sense in our hideout being discovered any earlier than it needs to be. Hopefully it will be several months before the authorities figure out where we were holed up, and by then the trail will be cold.

Better yet, I hope our hideout is eventually discovered by someone who has no love for the authorities – someone in need of a windfall – someone who sees the agent car as a free gift, and who passes it on through the thriving Dunedin black market in stolen cars before the shit hits the fan and any connection to the four agents can ever be established.

The drive back to Dunedin is the longest, most stressful drive I’ve ever done. It takes less than an hour in reality, but the whole way back into town I’m on edge, absolutely certain we’ll be caught, captured, and it will be the end of us.

At one point, just outside East Taieri, we’re slowed by a police blockade and John is breathalysed, and I remember with a shock that it is race weekend as well as being the weekend of the royal visit – as well as royal watchers, the roads will be full of people heading in to the racecourse to watch the horses for Melbourne Cup.

A double diversion, both completely unplanned by us. We’ve been incredibly lucky with our timing.

The murder of four agents will be the last thing on these cops’ minds right now. All they’regoing to be interested in is booking people for drinking, jaywalking and speeding five kilometers over the speed limit. They just want a quick commission from their speed cameras and booze busts, and to then head home at the end of the day with money in their pockets for their higher ups. The last thing they want is to catch people who are real criminals, like us.

I’m amazed how quickly I’ve lost track of the days. I realize that we left Dunedin last Thursday, it’s Monday – race day – already, and we’ve been five days on this short field trip that wasn’t meant to take more than one night at most.

We’re all tense as John counts slowly as directed into the alcohol meter the police officer holds in front of him, and I try to smile innocently, as I’m sitting right behind John, in full view of the policewoman. It comes across as more of a grimace. Then John is given the all-clear and he is waved on. Everyone in the truck breathes a collective sigh of relief.

We arrive back at The Bastard Arms just as the rush of work traffic is beginning for the day. John drives the truck down the side alley of The Arms, then down the ramp to the car park behind the hotel, to the rear of the main bar, to one of several private car spaces which are set aside for the owner of the establishment.

The owner is Bill of course, not us, but as Bill is a bit of an absentee landlord, we use the parks and he’s never complained as he’s never here to see it.

Minutes later, John has parked the truck, and Nigel is shepherding an exhausted Janice and Jacob inside via the cellar door access. I unload the truck as quickly as possible with John.

It always amazes me how fast unpacking is as opposed to packing, and we have the whole truck clear within 10 minutes. The dirt bikes are off and unloaded and safely back in their parking space, and John is rolling the tyres we stole from the Jaguar away into an empty corner park, where he piles them up before covering them over with a tarpaulin and a few odds and ends of junk.

I know John well, and what I know of him tells me that the tyres will be gone within a couple of days if not sooner, sold for ready cash through one of his black market connections in the city.

I’m not sure whether I love that about him or loathe it. Probably a bit of both.

Once we’re done putting everything away, and the truck is all emptied, John and I enter The Bastard Arms and make our way downstairs to the flat, to find Janice and Jacob sitting in the main kitchen area with Marika.

Ani is there too, sitting quietly on the sofa with Cam, their lips glued to each other, making horrible suction sounds. I try not to feel nauseous, and go to the kitchen sink to make myself a cup of tea, then I come to sit down at the kitchen table with John, who pulls up seats for both of us.

“It’s about time something went right,” Marika is saying. I wonder what the conversation is about that we’ve walked in on. She has a shocked expression on her face, and some sixth sense gives me the impression that nothing she’s talking about has anything to do with the mess we’ve created over the last few days out near the airport.

“What’s going on?” I ask, curious.

Janice points to the table. Next to a plate of home made cupcakes that I’m guessing Ani has made, there’s an unfolded letter, sitting on an envelope that has been opened neatly with Marika’s letter opener. I don’t have to read who it was addressed to to know that the letter was for Marika, and it was she that opened it. Anyone else in the house would have ripped a letter open messily and, besides, she’s the only one of us who actually even owns a letter opener.

“Bill is dead,” says Marika. “I got a letter from his lawyer. Died yesterday morning. Heart attack.”

“Bill – your grandfather?” She nods slowly. “Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry to hear that.” I don’t really know what else to say. I’m not good at condolences.

“Don’t be sorry,” she says. “He was a right asshole. A smug,self-opinionated prick. I loathed him. Everyone hated him.”

“Oh,” I say again, adding lamely, “Oh. Okay then. Not sorry.”

There’s silence for a bit, as we all digest this latest news. Bill is Marika’s grandfather, although she’s never seen him much since he headed up north to Auckland a few years ago for business purposes.

He owns The Bastard Arms, and a whole lot of property in Dunedin besides that.

Filthy rich. Marika always said that he cared far more about his money than he did about her, or anyone else. But Marika always expected that he’d leave the hotel to her Dad, who ran off and left her and her mum alone years ago.

She doesn’t even know where her dad is. She has the vague suspicion he might be over in Aussie, but that’s about all she knows, which isn’t much.

“Does the letter say anything else?” asks Ani, curiously. She’s asking what we all want to know. Which is, What happens to The Bastard? Are we about to be all kicked out? Do we need to find somewhere else to live? Are we homeless now?

“He’s left The Bastard Arms to me,” says Marika quietly. She exhales slowly, as if relieved of a huge weight. “To me and mum, actually. Not just The Bastard. Forty seven other properties in and around Dunedin. Total value is unknown right now, according to the lawyer, but it’s in the hundreds of millions.”

“Phew!” says Nigel, starting to grin like an idiot. “We always wanted a millionaire benefactor. I guess we have one now.”

“I thought stuff like that happened to other people. Not to anyone I actually know,” says Janice excitedly. “I really must draw up your astrological chart!”

“It’ll take a while for all the paperwork to be signed across,” says Marika. “A few months at least. But once it’s done, I’ll own everything. Dad doesn’t get anything. I don’t know why. He must have pissed off Bill somehow, in some way I don’t know about.”

She picks the letter up, and runs her fingers along the folds, her brow furrowed. “I’m kind of surprised. You know, I always thought he would…I always thought Dad would get everything, and I’d get nothing. I never expected this. Bill hated me. He hated all women, actually. I don’t understand it.”

“I guess old Bill had a change of heart,” says Ani. “So you own The Bastard like, as from right now?”

“I guess so,” says Marika. “Yes, I’m pretty sure of it.”

“Well…in that case,” says Ani thoughtfully. “In that case…I’m buggered if I’m going to share a room with Rose for a single minute longer than I bloody well have to!”

“Gee thanks, sis,” I say snarkily. “I love you too. Is that all you can think about?”

“If you own The Bastard,” says John. “That changes everything. We’re not broke any more. No more fricking cup noodles! That is, assuming you still want to hang out with your loser friends and not go cavorting off with the caviar set up the street at the casino.”

Marika throws a cupcake at him. It hits him squarely on the forehead then bounces off on to the table. Not skipping a beat, he picks it up, dusts it off, and takes a bite.

“Be honest, Rose,” says Ani, ignoring my snark, John’s remarks, and the cupcake attack. “It’s cramped down here in this grotty old cellar. I hate sharing with you. You hate sharing with me. We need our own space.” I say nothing. “And John and Nigel are together too.”

“Oh I never knew that,” says Janice, her eyebrows rising in surprise.

“Not together together,” says Nigel awkwardly.

“Oh fuck no,” says John, choking on his cake and looking at Nigel with obvious distaste. I try not to spit up in my cup at the unwanted visuals that are forming in my disgusting mind.

“Just sharing a room,” adds Nigel. “That’s it. Absolutely platonic. It’s not the nicest. John snores. A lot.”

“No I don’t,” says John. “You fricking snore. You snore more. You and that enormous nose of yours. You sound like Darth Vader.”

“Darth Vader is cool,” says Nigel.

“Not when he fucking snores,” says John. “There’s a reason he’s single.”

“He’s not single. He married Padme.”

“Yeah, and look what happened to her!”

“Oh for fucks sake!” says Marika wearily. “Look: there are going to be more of us now Janice is here. There’s not a lot we can do about that. But at least once the paperwork comes through we can shift Janice and Jacob off to one of the properties I now apparently own.”

“What about upstairs?” says Ani suddenly, coming up for air again from her boyfriend’s face again, with a sound like a plunger cleaning a blocked sink.

Marika frowns. “What do you mean?”

Ani shrugs. “There’s plenty of room upstairs. Half of the rooms are lying empty. Bill never rented them out. He couldn’t be bothered. This IS a hotel, remember? We haz roomz!”

Marika stares at her, as if she’s gone crazy. “Do you have any idea how long it is since anyone’s even been up there? I have no idea how revolting it might be upstairs. I don’t remember the rooms ever being rented out, not even, not even when I was tiny. There’ll be dust a foot deep up there, and probably vermin.”

“There could be dead bodies up there,” says Jacob, speaking up. “It could be haunted!”

“It’s not haunted,” says Marika patiently. “There’s no such thing as haunted. But it will be dirty. And there will probably be mice. Or rats. Or both.”

“No problem for Ani,” I can’t help saying, with a grin. “She’ll feel right at home.”

Ani throws a cushion at me, then looks around at us. “Really? You really think its such a crazy idea? I don’t.”

“Think about it,” she continues. “We can either spread ourselves around the city, making it harder to communicate and keep in touch, or we can at least be all in one place, in one building, where we can establish a proper base and have everything to hand. Plus all the beer we need to drink. Which for some of us – ” she says, eyeballing me, “- is a lot. There’s two whole floors in this place, full of rooms, ready to be kitted out, because Bill couldn’t ever be bothered renting them out and dealing with the aggro of tenants. I reckon if Janice and Jacob took a room up there, and they were quiet about it, nobody would even notice they were there. The perfect hideout. probably the safest place in town. I can’t imagine anywhere better.”

“She’s got a point,” says Cam, stroking Ani’s hair. I try not to throw up.

“You would say that!” I say to Cam, annoyed. “Look – it’s not like I hate the idea. It’s not a bad one. And it’s not exactly lovely down here, sharing a room with you, Ani…and more than occasionally, the both of you.”

I look at the pair of them – but not too closely – hands all over each other. It’s pretty nauseating. Especially when I’m not getting any. “It’s not like I get off listening to the pair of you. It’s a bit foul, to be honest. But I’m nervous about us all staying in one place, in one building. If we go down here – if we get caught – we all go down. Maybe we should spread out across a few buildings. To be safer.”

“Doesn’t your mother use the upstairs to store stock?” asks Nigel. “I thought those rooms were full of supplies for the bar.”

“No,” says Marika, shaking her head. “Mum can’t be bothered going up and down the stairs all the time. She says it’s too hard on her knees. All the stock is just out in the back room, behind the bar. It’s easier to lock, and she doesn’t have to deal with moving kegs up and down. The rooms are empty, as far as I know. But they won’t be in a good state. Nobody has rented them out for years, not since Bill went up north and stopped giving a shit about this place. If he ever did.”

“What about your mum, though?” I say. “Even if we do move Janice and Jacob up there, Carol is sure to notice. She’s not stupid. She doesn’t know them from a bar of soap, but she might start asking questions if a new woman who is pregnant turns up with her child and starts hanging out with us all, yet we’ve never even mentioned her until now. I would.”

“Carol is actually pretty thick,” says Nigel, bluntly. “Not the brightest bulb in the box, that one. But she’d probably notice someone living in the hotel eventually. And then she’d start asking questions. Awkward questions maybe. Maybe she’d remember all the stuff on television about a woman and a kid being wanted in relation to four missing agents. And then the shit would hit the fan. For all of us, not just Janice.”

Marika ignores him. “You’re so kind, Nigel. You truly belong with us at The Bastard Arms. And yes, Mum would notice,” she says. “Of course she would. But maybe I can do a work-around. If I tell her Janice is an exchange student, from China, here to learn English for a few months, that will keep Mum away.”

“But I don’t speak Chinese,” says Janice, confused.

I facepalm.

“That’s okay,” says Marika. “Neither does my mum. But she’s as racist as anything. She sees someone who looks even vaguely Chinese, she won’t want anything to do with them. I’ll tell her I’m collecting the rent from you, and I’ll fiddle the books somehow so it looks like the cash is getting dumped into the register along with everything else. Mums good with the figures, despite not being particularly clever, but I’m sure I can work it all in.”

I sigh. I’m feeling more nervous than ever, and am absolutely certain we’re going to get into trouble. But it seems I’m outvoted. For now. Dammit.

“So…the upstairs rooms?” asks Janice.

“The upstairs rooms,” confirms Marika.

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