Claire McNab

Kookaburra Gambit

The second book in the Kylie Kendall series, 2005


'G'day.' The lanky bloke in the Akubra hat and khaki shirt and pants pumped my hand up and down. 'I reckon you're Kylie Kendall. Your cousin, Brucie, said to look you up. Said you've aced private-eyeing and are deadset the only one to help us with our little prob.'

The second bloke, absolutely identical to the first, nodded. 'Yeah,' he said.

Behind the desk, Melodie, Kendall & Creeling's receptionist- when she wasn't off auditioning-flashed a dazzling smile. 'You're Aussies, aren't you? And twins!'

'Blood oath!' said the first one, obviously taken with Melodie's wide green eyes, blond hair, and perfect teeth. 'I'm Alf Hartnidge, and this handsome brute's my brother, Chicka.'

Blushing, Chicka bobbed his head.

'Nice little place you've got here,' said Alf, looking around the reception area. The floor was red tiles, and there were a couple of hefty earthenware pots, each containing a large cactus bristling with spikes. I'd done a bit of sprucing up around the building-the little fountain in the courtyard now sprouted recycled water enthusiastically, instead of its former depressed dribbling-but I hadn't got to reception yet.

'What do you think of the cacti?' I asked.

Myself, I'd never been fond of such plants. They strike me as rather passive-aggressive, squatting in their pots with their spikes to the ready. To be fair, I had to admit it wasn't their fault they didn't appeal to me, and they did fit in with the pseudo-Spanish style of the building.

Tilting their heads at the exact same angle, Alf and Chicka regarded the contents of the earthenware pots. As they were identical twins, I expected them to look pretty much alike, but it was disconcerting to hear the same voice and see matching body language from two separate people.

Chicka put an exploratory finger out to touch one of the spikes.

'They're sharp,' warned Melodie.

Challenged, Chicka tested this advice. 'Ow,' he said, sucking his finger. He glared at the cactus.

'I like 'em,' said Alf. 'Cactuses are survivors'-he tapped himself on the chest-'like the Hartnidges.' His expression darkened. 'Which brings me to why we're here. Brucie said you were the one to see.'

'My cousin recommended me?' I'd been sworn enemies with Brucie, my astringent Aunt Millie's only son, practically from birth. I hadn't seen him for years, and perhaps he'd changed in his loathing for me. I thought it unlikely.

'Brucie did,' said Alf in a positive tone. 'Spoke highly of you. Told us you'd lobbed over to L.A. to become a private eye. And we need one of those, quick smart. Some lowlife scum is setting us up.'

I'd inherited fifty-one percent of my dad's PI company, Kendall & Creeling, but I'd only been a trainee private eye for a few weeks. 'It's a bit early in my career to take on a case,' I pointed out.

Alf looked stricken. 'Fair go, Kylie. You've got to help us. It's opals, you see. And you'd know all about them, coming from Wollegudgerie.' He took off his hat, revealing thick brown hair that seemed to have been hacked with a pair of blunt scissors.

Turning the hat in his hands, he went on, 'Ask Chicka. We're up the proverbial creek without a paddle, if you don't help us.'

'Yeah,' said Chicka. 'Up shit creek.' He shot an agonized look at Melodic 'Sorry, love. Excuse my French.'

His apology got a tinkle of laughter from Melodie-she'd been practicing this laugh for an upcoming audition until everyone in the office had been driven mad. 'You're real funny,' she said to him.

He ducked his head. 'Thanks.'

Ariana Creeling, my business partner in Kendall & Creeling Investigative Services, chose this moment to come through the front door. She was her usual cool self, dressed entirely in black and with her sleek blond hair pulled back from her face.

'Good morning,' she said briskly, and went on by, her high-heeled boots making exclamations down the tiled hall.

Alf looked after her, his lips set in a silent whistle. 'Strewth,' he finally said, 'did you get those eyes?'

I knew what he meant. They had the same effect on me. Ariana had blue eyes of laser-like intensity. In my more poetic moments, I thought of them as glowing with blue fire. Of course, I kept these moments strictly to myself.

'My partner,' I said. 'Ariana Creeling.'

'True?' Alf grinned, then his smile faded. 'Pity she's a Yank. She wouldn't know anything about opals, would she?'

'Or kookaburras,' said Chicka.

I was rapidly getting out of my depth. 'Perhaps you'd better come along to my office.'

'I've shut Julia Roberts in there,' said Melodie. 'She's been annoying Lonnie.'

'She does it on purpose,' I said, irritated. 'She knows he's allergic.'

Alf and Chicka looked at each other. 'Julia Roberts is in your office?' They spoke in unison.

I repressed a smile. 'She is. Come and meet her.'

Chicka picked up what looked like a large hiking backpack and slung it over his shoulder. The two of them followed me down the hall.

My office door was like the others in the building, studded with fat brass buttons. 'Spanish look,' I said, opening it and ushering them in. Ensconced on one of the chairs, Julia Roberts yawned and stretched, then sat up to regard the intruders with her patented blank stare.

'It's a cat,' said Alf, his disappointment plain.

'She really belongs to Melodie, but since Melodie's temporarily staying in an apartment building that doesn't take pets, Jules stays here with me.'

'You live here?' asked Chicka, winning Julia Roberts's grudging approval by gently stroking her tawny back with appropriate reverence.

'This building used to be a house before it was converted to offices. There's a guest bedroom at the back.'

Bob Verritt put his angular head through the door. 'Hi,' he said. 'I heard Kylie had company.'

Like Ariana, Bob was a licensed private investigator, and I was, in effect, his apprentice. To become a licensed private eye I had to do two thousand hours of supervised work in the field each year for three years. Six thousand in all. It was a quelling thought, considering I had only accumulated a few hundred so far.

'Come in, Bob,' I said. 'Meet Alf and Chicka Hartnidge.' Although I still had no idea what had brought the twins to Kendall & Creeling, I added, 'They've got a problem we might be able to help them with.'

They all did the ceremonial shaking-hands bit, Bob hiding rather well his surprise at two identical blokes wearing identical clothes, down to their brown pull-on ankle boots.

The Aussies were tall, but Bob was taller. He had rounded shoulders and was so thin his clothes-he favored navy blue suits-hung on him loosely, looking as though any strong breeze would make them flap like dark blue flags. Bob wasn't the slightest bit handsome, but his face reflected the outstandingly pleasant person he was. He had straight, no-particular-color hair; a strong, hooked nose; and a crooked smile.

'What's the story?' Bob asked.

Alf jerked his head in his brother's direction. 'Chicka will show you.'

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