Claire McNab

Wombat Strategy

The first book in the Kylie Kendall series, 2004


'G'day. I’m Kylie Kendall.' I thrust out my hand. 'And I reckon you’re Ariana Creeling.'

The woman seated behind the broad, black desk had pale blond hair, pulled back from her still, cool face. I immediately wished I had eyes like hers-icy blue. Mine are boring brown.

She repeated, 'Kylie Kendall?' as if I’d unexpectedly popped out of a hole in the ground and she had no idea what to do with me. Then she got up and came round to shake my hand with a fast, hard pressure. 'I’m Ariana Creeling. Again, may I say how sorry I am about your father.'

I’d spoken to her once before, on the phone when she’d rung from Los Angeles two months ago to say my dad had suddenly died. I’d been shell-shocked by the news, but still could remember how I liked her American voice. Now that we were face-to-face, her accent didn’t seem quite so strong.

She was older than me, almost as tall, and she needed to put on some weight. Of course, black’s slimming, like my mum always tells me, so the fact Ariana Creeling was wearing black from head to foot-black top, black pants, black high-heeled boots-probably made her look thinner than she really was.

I looked down at myself. Quite a contrast. No one’s ever called me skinny, plus I hadn’t had time to change from the plane, so I was in jeans and a T-shirt, both a bit grubby. What I wouldn’t have given for a hot shower, after twelve hours in a Qantas jet. 'I’ve come straight here from the airport,' I said.

'You flew from Australia today? You must be tired.' She didn’t sound too concerned, but at least she added, 'Would you like coffee?'

'Tea? Tea would be great. Black, two sugars.'

Ariana picked up the phone and pressed a button. 'Melodie?'

I had a fair suspicion she wasn’t going to get a reply. 'Hope I’m not dobbing someone in,' I said, 'but there was no one at the front desk. The sign said Melodie, but Melodie wasn’t there. Waited around for a bit, then shoved my suitcase behind the chair and came looking for you.'

'I imagine she’s off on one of her many auditions.' Ariana didn’t sound too chuffed about it. 'Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be back in a moment.'

Too restless to sit, I slung my shoulder bag onto a chair, shoved my hands into the pockets of my jeans, and began to stalk around the office. Diffuse light poured in through a skylight, emphasizing the room’s white-walled starkness. There was a black desk, its surface bare of anything but a telephone and an onyx desk set. A plain, high-backed chair sat behind it. The filing cabinets were black too. Near the window were two black leather lounge chairs separated by a white marble coffee table. The floor was dark polished wood with a couple of rugs with geometric designs in earth colors. There were a few framed photos on the wall behind the desk, mainly groups of LAPD cops in uniform. It wasn’t difficult to pick out Ariana, as she’d scarcely changed from the hard-faced, narrow- eyed cop she’d been when the shots were taken.

She came back with two steaming mugs. 'Coasters,' she said, indicating with a jerk of her head a pile of them sitting on top of the filing cabinets.

'Right! Coasters.' I grabbed two, and was heading for the comfort of the lounge chairs when I noticed she was on her way to her seat behind the desk. So that was how it was going to be. I reversed direction, plunking one coaster on her side and one on mine.

I looked suspiciously at the mug she set down in front of me. A teabag was floating in it, and the smell wasn’t what I’d expected. 'Is this tea?'


I inspected the little tag on the string. BlissMoments, it said. Jeez…

Waving me to a chair-a spindly thing with a tall back and a sort of black leather sling for a seat-she said, 'I’m very surprised to see you here, Ms. Kendall. I had no idea you were visiting the States. If I’d known, I’d have arranged for someone to meet you at the airport.'

'Call me Kylie. Everybody does. Sorry to lob in on you like this, but I didn’t know I was coming until the other day. Sudden impulse, know what I mean?'

This one looked like she’d never had a sudden impulse in her life, but then again, I’d only just met her, so it wasn’t fair to judge.

'You’re here on vacation?' she asked.

'Business, really.' She raised one eyebrow just a fraction, so I added with my best mischievous grin, 'To be straight-up with you, I’m here to collect my inheritance.'

Crikey, that got a reaction. 'Pardon me?' When this sheila frowned, it was like a light went out in her face. 'Your visit isn’t necessary,' she snapped. 'My attorney has been in touch with your…' She waved a hand around, searching for the word. I noticed she was wearing a heavy gold signet ring.

'Solicitor,' I said helpfully. 'That’s what they’re called in Oz. Bluey Bates. He’s the best solicitor in Wollegudgerie. Not hard to be, since he’s the only one.' She didn’t crack a smile at that, so I went on, 'Bit of a bush-lawyer, but Bluey’s got his head screwed on right. He told me you want to buy the fifty-one percent of Kendall and Creeling my dad left me.'

I hadn’t believed it when the Los Angeles lawyers had got in touch and said Dad’s will gave me a controlling share of his private-eye business, a chunk of money, plus some old car he’d restored.

Ariana’s eyes were like twin blue lasers. 'I have forty-nine percent, as you know. I need to consolidate in order to run the company effectively. I believe my offer’s a fair one. However I am willing to negotiate-'

She broke off as the phone on the desk shrilled. Excusing herself, she picked up the receiver. 'Melodie? Oh- Lonnie. Melodie’s not back yet?' She listened, then said, 'He’s here already?' She checked her watch, a neat gold number. 'Give me a couple of minutes, then show him in.'

I got up, clutching the mug of pretend-tea. 'You’ll want me to make myself scarce, then?'

'If you don’t mind. I have an appointment with a client. We can continue our conversation later, but I do want you to think over my offer. As I said, it’s negotiable.'

'Fact is,' I said, 'I’m thinking about staying in LA. I was born in the States, and got a Yank passport, so no worries about working.'


'I know I’ll have to do some pretty tough training, but I’ve never been afraid of hard work. And I’ve done the self-defense course the Wollegudgerie Police Club put on.'

'The Wollegudgerie Police Club?'

I ignored the hint of incredulous amusement in her voice. 'Too right,' I said. 'And I’m not skiting, but I wasn’t too bad, if you can believe it. Tossed the captain of ‘Gudge’s footy team over my shoulder, no trouble.'

Ariana didn’t look the slightest impressed, so I went on, 'I’m not a total no-hoper, you know. For one thing, I’m a crack shot with a rifle and fair enough with a shotgun. Never fired a handgun, though, as you can’t get them in Oz the way you can here.'

She was tense as a coiled spring behind her desk. 'Why are you telling me this?'

'I’m deadset keen. You won’t be sorry.'

Her jaw absolutely dropped. 'Oh, no, you’re not…'

'Yeah,' I said, 'I’m thinking of becoming a private eye. Like, how hard can it be?'

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