by Samuel Bernard.
The radiating aroma of aging books and mahogany grazed my nostrils as I brushed past mountains of pre-loved novels on either side of the corridor. Wandering past those who are resting on nearby lounges, I was immediately taken with the smell that was now the overpowering scent of roasting coffee beans. This was one of my favourite places on Earth.
I reached the entrance to the café that adjoined the bookstore. As I opened the front door, it was like someone had just turned on a TV at full volume. The random chatter of strangers poured into my ears. Some in business attire, active wear, some clearly doing a walk of shame. I took my place at the very end of the long queue. I instantly noticed the half-dozen people lined up in front of me, staring at their phones. Some swiped up and down on social media, a few not-so-unashamedly scrolling to the left or right on Tinder and Bumble. I glanced around the room. What made this my favourite café, was that it felt like you were walking into a tropical rainforest. There was an abundance of indoor plants covering the walls, with fairy lights smattered throughout. It was the most relaxing and romantic place I had ever been. And that was where I met her; that was where I met Amelia.
‘They’re not real you know.’
A voice distracted me from my zombie-like daze. I looked down to the women standing in front of me in the queue. How did I respond? I glanced to her boobs with a confused look on my face.
‘No not those, you sleaze!’ She chuckled, and pointed to all the plants on the walls. ‘Those.’
I laughed. ‘Oh my god, you kinda caught me off guard there!’
‘Typical bloke,’ she grinned, and turned to face the front of the line again. ‘I hate fake plants, kinda like people.’
‘You hate all people or just fake ones?’ I said.
‘I haven’t decided yet.’
I smiled and shook my head. I caught a glimpse of her loyalty card as she handed it to the cashier; Amelia Kennedy. A gorgeous name. I took out my phone and googled her; perhaps we had some mutual friends on Facebook. Nothing.
As she turned to find a table to sit at, she caught my eye. I slid my phone into my pocket before she had a chance to see my screen. Her eyes were a breathtaking bright green. Her distinguished cheek bones slithered along a natural contour of her face, angling toward her luscious lips. Her blonde hair pulled back tight and upright into a ponytail. She had missed a spot of foundation on her forehead and had broken the edges of her lips with a rich red lipstick. The imperfections of her makeup signified she may have been in a rush getting ready for work this morning. Perhaps she was one of those in the café suffering from the ‘walk of shame’. No. She didn’t seem the type. Either way, I had to make a move before disappeared back into the rat race of the city streets.
‘So, I’m Reef.’
‘So, I’m Amelia,’ she replied as quick as a whip. She then looked up. ‘So Reef, what do you do? Family? Who do you live with? Cats or dogs?’
Barely a breath between each question; she got straight to the point. I loved that.
‘Lawyer. Dad was a surgeon, Mum a psychologist. Mum cheated on Dad. They’re now divorced. Dad was so angry at Mum that he gave me a chunk of her money while he still could. Now she doesn’t talk to either of us. I live alone. No cats or dogs, but I’m a dog person if that’s what you were asking. I wear Gucci underwear and my left testicle sits slightly higher than my right.’
The sip of coffee Amelia had just taken almost came back out. Success; it broke the ice. ‘How about you? I asked.
‘Well, mum and dad died in a car accident when I was fourteen. No siblings, or any other family for that matter. I’m a PhD student working out of UNSW. Also live alone. I love dogs. I don’t generally wear any undies when in public, and my boobs are perfect. Perhaps too good for your misshaped testicles.’ It was my turn to stop coffee from spilling from my mouth, as we both broke into laughter.
We spent the next forty minutes talking and drinking coffee. Butterflies dwelled in the pit of my stomach the entire time. We hugged goodbye and I handed her my business card.
‘Make sure you call me,’ I said.
Amelia shrugged as if to say, I might, and delivered the most adorable smirk. This one was different.
The doorbell rang throughout the apartment. That must be him. I gave the apartment a single glance to ensure it was fit for Grant’s arrival and answered the door.
‘Reef?’ he asked.
‘Yes, yes, come on in. I’ve just finished rearranging the furniture.’
‘The photographer should be here shortly. I thought we could go over a few things first and sign the contract.’
Grant would have been close to my age, ruggedly handsome, short stubble, and loaded biceps. He was recommended by Amelia, whose boss had used him many times.
‘Of course. Did we agree at 2% commission?’
The doorbell rang out once more. She must be early. I excused myself from Grant to the door, and was welcomed by the mother of all hugs.
‘You haven’t left my mind since last night!’ Amelia announced.
‘Likewise. Can you give me half-an-hour? My realtor just arrived to sign a few things and take some photographs for marketing.’
‘Of course, I’ll just make myself at home. Pretend I’m a millionaire’s wife living in a penthouse for a while.’
Seconds hadn’t passed and Amelia jumped onto the couch. She grasped at the whiskey bottle on the coffee table and poured herself a glass.
I just laughed. ‘Don’t mind her. We just met, not sure I’ll keep her just yet,’ I quipped to Grant. He gave an awkward smile like I had offended him. ‘So where do I sign?’
The candles flickered and illuminated Amelia’s soft supple face as she wiped her mouth with a napkin, careful not to smudge her lipstick.
‘To you!’ I raised my glass of wine.
Amelia raised her own glass. ‘To our anniversary,’ she replied.
From the day we met, our relationship was copied and pasted from a Hollywood film starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, minus all the drama.
‘So, am I crashing at yours tonight?’ I said with a cheeky expression.
‘Ha! No way! I’ve got your place just the way I like it,’ Amelia said, taking another sip of wine.
‘We’ve been dating a year and you still haven’t let me see it. Deep down I’m worried you’re a psycho killer who’s planning to kill me in my sleep.’
‘Me? You’re the one that told me you have weird testicles after three seconds of meeting. Besides, you live in a multi-million-dollar, harbour-view penthouse. Why would you want to visit my small townhouse on the outskirts? I’m a poor PhD student, remember? My place doesn’t even have Wi-Fi.’
I nodded along with her as I took another sip of wine.
‘On that note,’ she said slowly, ‘Is there any word from Grant on how the sale is going?’
‘He wants to start open homes again. Thinks the market has shifted down and wants me to lower the price. Anyway, that’s not the most important thing on the agenda tonight!’ I gestured to the waiter, who then arrived with two glasses of sparkling champagne. ‘Tonight, we are celebrating.’
I hopped up off my chair, knelt at the side of the table, and asked her those four magical words. She leapt off her seat and almost took the entire table with her. This was the happiest I had ever seen her. The entire night was filled with smiles, laughter, and champagne.
As we left the restaurant, Amelia had seven voicemail messages. It was her friend. She had been in a huge fight with her boyfriend and it was over. I suggested that she sees to her and catch an Uber to my apartment afterwards. She gave me a peck on my cheek and disappeared to the taxi queue.
The dull light peaked through the corner of the window and settled next to my eyes on the pillow. I awoke and slid my arms to Amelia’s side of the bed. She wasn’t there. I instantly became far more awake. As I rushed to collect my phone from the buffet bench near my front door, I heard footsteps approach.
I opened the door in anticipation of seeing her. It was Joe. I had known him for years. He was tall and muscular; most cops in town were. We worked a bunch of cases together in the past. It didn’t occur to me at first why he might be at my front door so early in the morning. We only ever met in my office or his. Nothing about this felt right. My forehead was on fire. My heart felt like it was being weighed down like a ton of bricks .
‘Mate, it’s Amelia,’ he said. ‘The cab she was in last night was hit by a drunk driver. They were pushed off the road and into a river. The cabbie is in a serious, but stable condition. He doesn’t remember anything from the accident.’
I didn’t register much of what he said after that. I collapsed at the welcome mat. The one she bought me on our fifth date, when she couldn’t believe I never owned a welcome mat. I was numb in that moment; completely and utterly numb.
My shrink suggested I write letters. I didn’t need to send them, she said, but it was a very therapeutic method of dealing with grief. Saying all the things that were left unsaid. There were oceans of things unsaid. So I wrote them, and I sent them. They would eventually just find their way into a bin somewhere. At first, I sent one a week, but then it became daily. That was of course, until they began returning to me.
I flipped through the pile of envelopes. Return to sender. Return to sender. Return to sender. What the fuck was going on? They weren’t from the post office. It wasn’t a stamp. Someone had scribbled it on the front. Scrawled might be a better description for it. No one lived there. She didn’t have any family returning these. Why would someone take the time to return these letters unopened?
That smell no longer had the same effect on me. The roasted coffee bean that once was a source of joy and memories from the morning we met, now reminded me of nothing but loss, grief, and hurt. I sipped at it as Joe explained that Amelia’s friend came forward.
‘The one that had broken up with her boyfriend and moved to Melbourne. Linnel was her name. Told the cop interviewing her that Amelia was living with you for a year, and you were engaged.’
‘Fuck mate, that’s news to me,’ I responded, confused. ‘She slept over most nights, sure. But she wasn’t living with me. She had her own place.’
‘Did you ever glance her licence? The address on there was for here. I guess she got all of her bills electronically, so no mail was coming?’
He paused and took another sip. This one was going to hurt. I could feel he was building to something. My heart pounded like a snare-drum in my chest.
‘Look, her will states that all of her estate is going to some distant cousin of hers.’ He looked down, searching for his next sentence. ‘Her cousin claimed that her estate is entitled to half of yours. You were de facto, engaged, had joint bank accounts. The lawyers are coming after your apartment, your money, your cars, the lot.’
I fell back into my couch. ‘Boy, isn’t this the ultimate kick in the nuts.’ I sat motionless for a moment, before I composed myself and looked at Joe. ‘And what about all the return to senders? Did you find out about that?’
‘I’m not sure mate. It’s probably this cousin dropping into her place every now and then, and sorting through her things. Maybe her friend? I hate telling you all of this, and you’re a lawyer. I’m sure you can look after all of this, right? Work it out?’
The long pause hung in the air like foul cigarette smoke. Thick, black, and hellishly bad for you.
‘I hope so…’
I turned left into Amelia’s street. No wonder she didn’t want me over here. This was the shitholes of all shitholes. Her so called ‘house’ was almost being consumed by two others. A narrow driveway squeezing between the neighbouring homes on either side, eventually opening to a small concreted area in front of her house. I was immediately confronted with two unmarked police cars and a half-dozen men in suits standing at the front door. I opened the car door and two of the men approached me.
‘Hey officers, I’m trying to find information on the woman who used to live here,’ I said. ‘Amelia Kennedy was her name.’
‘Well, we would like to talk with you as well then,’ one of the men answered. ‘She is wanted on fraud charges and just skipped out on us. Any idea where she might have gone?’
‘Oh sorry, I must have the wrong address. The woman I knew died a few months ago in a car accident. Is this 48 Sentinal Place?’
‘Absolutely. No one here called Amelia though.’ The undercover officer handed me his card and told me to call him if there is any information I thought they could use. I smiled, got back in the car and dialled Joe.
‘Hey mate. I’m at her place and the cops are here. Any idea what the fuck is going on?’
‘I’ve just had word about that bust. I think Amelia was shacked up with some bad people, mate. Maybe that’s why she was living in your back pocket.’
My palms were clammy, my shirt showed sweaty pits. I felt a thickness in my throat that I couldn’t dislodge. Nothing felt right.
‘I need to see this through, Joe. Find out what you can and let me know. The woman they are chasing would surely have information about her and what she was caught up in.’
I pulled out onto the street and parked down the road. It wasn’t two minutes before Joe called back.
‘My desk mate just got a possible alternate address on that woman. He’s about to radio the boys on the ground. It’s 21 Skuas Court. If you move fast you could beat them there.’
As soon as he said the address, the engine was on and I was halfway down the street.
My knees were weak, head firmly cast downward. With every step towards the front landing at 21 Skuas Court, I gained more courage. It was as if I was being urged forward, pushed beyond my own limits. I was scared, but my life had been torn in two.
I reached the door, a handsome mahogany door. The scent took me back to the day we met, through the bookstore into the café. She was beautiful. Like no one I had ever met. How did I get here? How could I know so little of this woman whom I’d been seeing for a year, and asked to marry?
I was eventually standing face-to-face with the door-knocker and didn’t hesitate for a moment. I heard footsteps from within. They got closer with every breath I took. My heart pounded in my chest so hard that I thought I could lose consciousness. Quite possibly the most nervous I had ever been in my life. The doorknob rolled around in slow motion. Time stood still as the door retreated inward and revealed a face. It was Grant.
Before I managed to spit out two words, Amelia revealed herself in a hallway. She was caught out in mid-sentence when our eyes locked.
‘Babe, who is…’
The dinner plate she was holding came crashing down. I felt the pulse of adrenaline run through my veins. I saw red. This piece of shit standing in the doorway played me, but that’s nothing on Amelia. She knew what my mum did to my dad. She knew the pain and the hurt I had been through. The deception. I wanted to kill her in that moment.
Amelia took off for the backdoor while Grant stood firm. I was the only thing standing between him and his freedom. He had clearly done this before. His fist connected with my jaw before I could see it coming.
I looked up from the flat of my back to see Grant say with incredible composure, ‘You should have taken the hint Reef. Return to sender means you should have left it well alone!’
He reached for the back of his trousers and revealed a gun. As I looked down the barrel of the gun, I genuinely believed it would be the last thing I saw. The sweat swelled at the tip of my forehead and my vision blurred.
I closed my eyes and heard two bullets ring out in quick succession. Nothing. When I opened my eyes, Grant was lying in a fast-filling pool of blood, wounds in each shoulder. It was an incredible feeling to hear him scream in pain.
Joe crept across the driveway, gun steadfast, and began to read Grant’s rights. As he finished, he looked across at me with Grant’s wrists pinned to his lower back.
‘Amelia slipped out. But don’t worry mate, we’ll get her. We’ll get her.’