Losing Your Head: Chapter One

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Chapter One

Why is it that every time you do something you hope no one will notice, you get found out? I once read that the probability of someone watching you is directly proportional to the stupidity of the action. I know this is true, because I screw up a lot and I have never, not once, gotten away with it. It has been that way since the day I was born (when I did a poo during my first ever bath, which my father kindly documented on film so that he may bring it out at dinner parties forevermore), and it will probably be that way until the day I die (likely of a heart attack while I’m having a bath in which I’ve once again done a poo). I know I can’t be the only person who gets embarrassed, but I seem to receive more than my fair share of public humiliation.

Just look at my time in high school. I did a lot of stupid things in the space of those six years. All were noticed. All were highly embarrassing. As early as my first school assembly the rest of the school learned my propensity for, as I like to call it, “bad luck” (others call it “stupidity” or “being bad at life”), when I was called upon to receive an award. The laughter started the second I stood up and began walking towards the stage. I ploughed on regardless, hoping against hope that there was some event entirely unrelated to me that was causing this hysteria. I made it up to the stage, peals of laughter ringing throughout the hall, and accepted the certificate. That was when the man presenting the award leaned forward and whispered, “Your skirt’s tucked in at the back.”

Right, I know what you’re thinking. OK, that’s mildly embarrassing, sure. It’s hardly next-level though. To be honest, I was expecting a little more.

Well, my friend, you will not be disappointed.

Realising that my bottom was on show to the entire school, I whipped around, trying to hide it. Unfortunately, however, my feet had become tangled in the microphone cord and I tripped right into the man presenting the award – also known as the school principal. We both flailed awkwardly for a time, but it was in vain – down we went, right over the edge of stage left, taking out a few members of the school band on our way down. Luckily, I came out relatively uninjured. The teacher I had landed on top of – one leg either side, straddling him – was less lucky. He tried to hold back the tears, but I saw them glistening in the corners of his eyes. He kind of took the brunt of the fall.

He transferred schools not long after.

From then on the other kids at school were always quick to ask whether my ‘boyfriend’ would be giving me another award at the next ‘arsembly’. I don’t even remember what the award was for. I just remember that I made sure I was at the bottom of the class in every subject for the rest of that year, out of fear that I may one day be called upon to receive another one of those dreaded certificates.

Even after I’d finished Year 12, if I bumped into someone down the street that knew me from Gerongate High (teachers included), I’d still get that same line. Honestly, it was getting a bit old. I mean, c’mon, I’d finished school two years ago. Why the hell would I be at arsembly?

There are many other occasions where I have found myself as the centre of attention through less-than-comfortable circumstances. Take my last job interview.

Things got off to a bad start for me when I was walking into the interview room and realised – would you believe – my skirt was tucked into my undies at the back, revealing them to the world. OH YES. AGAIN. Whilst I was attempting to untangle the clothing that was (or, rather, wasn’t) covering my backside, I was also trying to remain balanced in my brand-new stilettos. I had worn them in the hope of making a good first impression, although I hadn’t quite learned to walk in them yet. I was nearly to the chair when, wouldn’t you know it, one of the heels clean snapped off my shoe. I fell face first and whacked my head on the table on the way down. I hadn’t shut the door on my way in, so everyone got to admire me as I lay face down on the floor, unconscious, with my hand still resting on my arse, outlining my failed attempt at picking my skirt out of my crack.

And as though that wasn’t bad enough, the only pair of clean undies I could find that morning had been a G-string. Oh, no. I’m not joking.

The people at the office dialled 000, and were advised to leave the injured exactly as she was until the professionals got there, to prevent them from causing any further damage.

As I side note, I feel I should tell you that not all of my humiliations involve bums and/or poo. Just most of them.

For the record, I didn’t get the job. Not that I wanted it after what happened. Things would have been kind of awkward around the office, and I probably would have been a major Occupational Health And Safety risk. OK, I definitely would have been a risk. All in all, I wasn’t too surprised about not getting it. But I haven’t bought shoes from Payless since.

Like I said, you can’t screw up and expect not to be noticed. It just doesn’t work that way. Even if you think no one sees at the time, sooner or later things are going to start to unravel and everyone is going to find out what you’ve done. That is life and, like it or not, that’s just how things go.

Sometimes it can be a good thing. Like when someone commits a crime. A murder, for instance. Obviously, it’s not great news for the person who did it, but someone’s bound to see something. There will be some evidence, some hint, no matter how hard you try to hide it. Of course, somebody has got to figure out what those clues mean, and that doesn’t always happen. Which is how people get away with things.

That’s what I’ve learned about crime. At least, that is what I learned from my first case. (Did I just say ‘my first case’? Cringe. It sounds like a Fisher Price toy.) It isn’t like I’m a professional or anything. I really only did it to prove that I could and I’ll admit that I made a few mistakes, but, hey, how else are you supposed to learn? So, anyway, my first “case” – the murder of old Frank McKenzie.

*   *   *

Gerongate wasn’t an exceptionally large place. I mean, it was a city, but with only 300 000 people, well, it wasn’t exactly New York. Even by Australian standards, it was fairly small. It was big enough, though, that you could never know everyone like you could in a country town. You’d get people who seemed to know everyone, but that was just because they always did the same thing and never saw anyone new. I guess I noticed this during the time I spent working at Gregory’s Groceries (George Street, Gerongate – just so you can avoid it).

Every customer had a regular shopping day and time, so by the end of the first month I knew everyone’s name. Two months and I knew all about everyone’s immediate family. Three and I could name everyone in their extended family as well. Four months and they started to let me in on the latest gossip. Five months and my job really pissed me off.

On the rare occasion that we got a new customer, it was normally just one of the regular’s kids who’d grown up and left home. That was fine, but if someone entirely new came in – watch out. The amount of foul looks they received was enough to certify that they would never return. The way people reacted to newcomers, you’d think that they were criminals. Then again, in the parts of Gerongate that I’d been in, change pretty much was a crime.

So I was about to do something illegal.

I guess this is about time for the boring introduction – don’t worry, I’ll keep it short. My name is Charlie Davies. I’m nineteen, and I have sometimes-curly, sometimes-straight blonde hair (it still hasn’t decided on its true identity), and dysfunctional blue eyes (read: I have to wear glasses). Being roughly 5ft 3, most fully-grown humans are taller than me. Some people think I have anger-management issues. I disagree with this. I disagree with most things.

If you want a concise assessment of my general personality, you could just look at the sum of notes written in my file by the high-school counsellor over the course of my two-year stint having sessions. It was part of the anger-management program that the head of the P.E. stuck me on after I attempted to assault a guy two years up from me with a hockey stick. Not that it was my fault. He had it coming. Anyway, the counsellor didn’t have much to say about me when I took a sneak-peek at the folder while he was out getting coffee one time. All he had written was “snide, jaded – would not date”.

Ta-dah, my psychological profile when I was fourteen. Yes, fourteen, and I was already bored with the world. (And also apparently not worthy of the attentions of a paedophile, which is somehow both comforting and offensive.) I haven’t changed much since then, except that I’m slightly taller.

I glanced down at the clock display on the checkout computer. Ten to five. Ten minutes and then my shift was over. I’d been a checkout chick at Gregory’s Groceries for four years now. Four years of employment at a supermarket that barely passed health regulations. Oh, joy. You’d think that after working somewhere for that long you would at least have a bit of cash saved up. Only in my dreams.

I cast my gaze around the supermarket. Not that you could really call it that, being that there was nothing exceptionally ‘super’ about it. Super sized rats emerging at night, maybe. Perhaps you could say that the owner had superpowers in his ability to sweet talk health inspectors. It amazed me that they didn’t close Gregory’s the moment they entered and were confronted by the cat-sized cockroaches guarding the front door.

I stood there surveying my surroundings, trying to spot the owner-slash-founder-slash-manager of this gem of a store, Mr Gregory himself. Strangely enough, the man’s real name was, in fact, Jeremy Martin. Apparently there had been a misunderstanding when the sign was printed and he was too cheap to get it redone, so the store remains “Gregory’s” to this day.

Jeremy wasn’t hard to spot, even amongst the large crowd of Wednesday shoppers. (I think it must have been pension day or something. Or maybe everyone came shopping after bingo.) It may have been more difficult to spot Jeremy, were his wife not with him. Mrs Jeremy Martin was a nice woman with what most people considered to be a respectable husband. She had married Jeremy at age 18 and had been regretting it ever since. OK, so that’s just speculation on my part, but if I’d somehow ended up married to a ferret like Jeremy, I would definitely be regretting it. And judging by the way Lea was screaming at him now, I was pretty damn sure she was rethinking it as well.

I didn’t really know Jeremy that well as a person. I just knew him as a boss, and he was a crap one of those. He never paid me enough. Wait, I tell a lie – occasionally he did. When I scrubbed the real use-by dates off produce and stamped on new ones after hours, he gave me a lot of cash. I would never have done anything illegal if he hadn’t. Well, I wouldn’t have done anything illegal for him if he hadn’t.

I gathered up my belongings and, standing, took a deep breath before making my way back through the crowd towards the angry Lea and her ferret. As I got closer I was able to make out some bits of the torrent of abuse Lea was hurling at Jeremy.

“Just tell me where the hell you were on Monday night, Jeremy. I want the truth. And don’t try and spin me that line about you helping your sister. Just admit what you were doing, you creep!” She let out a stream of descriptive words about her husband. Some people may have said that they were vulgar, but not me. Every single one of those words suited Jeremy down to the ground.

“I just want to know where you were!”

“Darling, I’ve told you over and over again, I was with Karen. My sister. Now, you need to calm down and – ”

“DON’T TELL ME TO CALM DOWN, YOU ARSEHOLE! IT’S YOUR OWN BLOODY FAULT!”

Ah, the joys of married life. I wondered where Jeremy had been. I had no idea of course; he was probably with his sister, like he said. A plan was forming in my head. Well, it was my last day…

What have I got to lose? I asked myself. I might as well go out with a bang.

I strutted over to Jeremy, pretending not to notice his irate wife, or at least pretending not to care. I gave Jeremy a kiss on the cheek (which was kind of gross, but it was for a good cause).

“Hi Jeremy,” I said, just loud enough for Lea to hear. “Dinner was great on Monday night. We’ll have to do that again some time.”

“THAT’S IT! I’M GETTING A DIVORCE!” Lea screamed. And on that note, she left. I thought she did it in a very dignified fashion, considering how angry she’d been a moment before. She just walked out as though nothing had happened. Mission accomplished. Almost. I’d ruined Jeremy’s life and reputation. I’d saved Lea. She was only 22 and beautiful. She’d have no trouble finding a better husband – not that she could get one much worse. I was hoping now that she had a bit of experience behind her she’d pick better second time round.

Now for the next thing on my list. I turned to Jeremy, whose face was red and contorted with rage.

“Charlie – Davies –” he spat at me. “You – are –”

“Suspended?” I suggested.

“Yes! Two weeks.”

I snorted. “Oh, dear, how can I live without my pay for two weeks? Oh wait, I’ve lived without it for the four years I’ve worked here, so I guess I can manage. Oh, by the way, I’m quitting.”

“By company rules you’re required to give – ”

“A two week notice? Yes, I know. This is it. At the end of my suspension, I’m not coming back. Have a nice divorce, Jeremy.”

I was amazed that by the time I’d reached the street I still hadn’t screwed up. So amazed, in fact, that I was checking behind myself as I walked along to make sure my skirt wasn’t tucked into my undies (my classic party trick). When I turned my head back around to look forwards, a brick wall ran straight into my face and broke the bridge on my glasses. Oh well. No day is perfect.

I walked all the way back to my parents’ house, holding my specs together with one hand. I didn’t have a car or a house of my own, so I walked to work and lived with my parents. I know, I know. What a grown-up.

My parents’ house was your average Gerongate abode. There was nothing all that special about it. It was a two storey, three bedroom home, designed in the 70s. As it had slowly moved on through the decades, much of the interior/exterior had (luckily) been updated. However, there was still evidence of the original decorating to be found in the lounge room, where you practically had to wade through the cream-coloured shag pile carpet in order to reach the couch.

I had once pointed out the lack of taste in that rug to my mother. She just told me that if I didn’t like it I could move out. She had never changed that carpet, so I guess she was hoping I’d go for the ‘leave’ option. She’d probably call in the decorators the second I was gone. I was sure she hated it just as much as me; she probably just kept it as an incentive. Mumsie’s quite cunning like that.

I entered our house through the front door and walked through to the back. I was heading for the kitchen to see if I could scab some food off my mother. She’d probably be cooking something, since I hadn’t seen her in the garden when I came in. If she wasn’t gardening, chances were she was making food. Now, despite the kind of mental images this may provoke (“Oh, thy mother art such a lovely housewife”), that’s not quite accurate. I am aware of what her hobbies make her sound like, but you need to take into account that another of her favourite pastimes is driving her bad-arse Nissan with the massive bull-bar out into the country and “sight-seeing” (read: drag racing) with her best friend, Violet McKenzie (who drives a Prado). She thinks we don’t know she races, but it’s pretty obvious – who goes for a country drive with their best friend in separate cars?

I stood in the doorway of the kitchen getting high on the smell of biscuits cooking. Mmm. She was putting a second round of mixture on the trays ready to go in the oven when the first lot came out. Mum had her back to me but she must have heard me come in because before I even spoke she said, “No, there will not be any mixture left over, you won’t get it if there is and you can’t lick the bowl. You can eat one of the biscuits when they come out the oven, like a nice, civilised, grown up would do. And –” she turned to face me. “Jeez, what happened to your face? It’s hideous!”

I can always rely on Mum for a confidence boost.

“Well, the wall wasn’t watching where it was going…” I trailed off.

“Get some ice on it or something, for goodness’ sake! It’s all bruised and swollen. Where does it hurt?”

Well, I was guessing it was probably hurting where it was bruised and swollen, but I told her where anyway.

“Just up the middle of my face.” She passed me a bag of frozen peas to put over it.

“So, apart from your ‘run-in’ with the wall,” at this point she began to laugh hysterically at her own joke, “How was your day?”

“Great!” There was no sarcasm in this statement, and my mother cut her eyes to me suspiciously.

“Drugs?”

“No, I – ”

“You found a wallet full of money on your way home and you’re keeping it?”

“No, I – ”

“Oh, well. Better luck next time.”

“I’ve got big news. It’s the reason I’m happy.”

“You’ve finally got a boyfriend and he’s asked you to move in with him! Isn’t that wonderful? Quick, let’s go upstairs and I’ll help you pack. Who is he? When do I get to meet him? How old is he? Not that I care too much if he’s gonna get you out of my house.”

“MUM! That’s not it. I don’t have a boyfriend.” She looked a bit put out at this. “But I did quit my job today.”

“Really?”

“Yes…” She was concerned. I could see it on her face.

“Where are you going to work now?”

I paused. I hadn’t really thought about that. In fact, I’d totally overlooked it.

“Umm…” I began. “Umm…”

“Yes?”

Oops. Forgot about that bit. That whole getting-another-job thing. I wasn’t really qualified to do anything. At all. Maybe I could get unemployment benefits. It probably payed better than my last job.

“I don’t actually know. I don’t s’pose you’ve heard of any jobs available?” I hoped she had. I’d do anything. It couldn’t be any worse than working at Gregory’s. I was desperate. “Anything?”

“I’ve heard there’s an opening at Coles.”

Well, maybe not anything.

The next morning I stumbled out of bed far too early. Somehow I managed to make it to the bathroom with my eyes still shut. When I finally opened them and caught sight of myself in the mirror I nearly screamed, thinking there was a monster in the room, but when I put on my glasses (which I’d taped together last night) I realised it was just my own purply-blue face in the reflection. The bruise hadn’t gotten a lot better over night. If anything, it was worse. I had a quick shower (only half an hour – quick for me), avoided looking at myself in the mirror, dressed in semi-professional clothes, and headed down to the kitchen for breakfast. After that I planned to spend the rest of the day job-seeking. I settled on a glass of orange juice (which I spilt) and a piece of toast (which I burned) with jam (which kind of made up for the other two mistakes), and then I sat down and grabbed the newspaper to study while I ate. I meant to look for jobs vacant in the Classifieds, but the heading on the front page caught my eye. This was the hottest piece of gossip going around Gerongate yesterday. I’d heard about it from everyone I talked to. Well, nearly everyone – Jeremy and I hadn’t had a chance to discuss it for obvious reasons. I’d been far too busy destroying his marriage for that. But everyone else had mentioned it. So when I saw the headline I just couldn’t resist.

OLD MCKENZIE HAS THREE FARMS, $2 BILLION, NO HEAD…

(What a touchingly sincere title. So sensitive I could barely stand it.) I discovered that Francis McKenzie had been found dead on Tuesday morning, when his (headless) body was discovered by a couple of kids. They must have been awful burdens on society to get a Karma trip like that.

The decapitation wasn’t what had killed him, luckily – it looked like he had been shot to death first. Phew. It would suck to be murdered, but if I had a choice between dying of bullets or having my head hacked off, it wouldn’t take long for me to decide.

I read further down the article and found out that Frank had left everything he owned (which was quite a substantial amount, what with him being a billionaire and all) to one person – his nephew, James McKenzie.

I knew James McKenzie. Everyone did. He was two grades above me in school, and he was the most popular guy there. He was also my mother’s best friend’s youngest child. After he completed Year 12 he’d gotten straight into police academy. He must’ve done OK there because a year later he was working as a cop at a Gerongate Station.

Personally, I didn’t really like James McKenzie. I’d always thought that he had an over-inflated sense of his own importance. I suppose that wasn’t really his fault if you saw the way people acted around him. Not me, of course. I’d been friends with him when we were little because of our mothers, but he changed. (I know, I know – “He’s not the same person as he was when he was four!” Whatever.) We still had to see each other a lot while we were growing up (much to our disgust) but since it generally ended in tears/swearing/violence, we tried to keep our contact to a minimum. I’d hardly seen him since his mother kicked him out, even less since we finished school, and that was fine by me.

Everything James ever had was a present from his Uncle Frank. Frank had no wife or kids and was a bit of a cranky old fart, to tell the truth. He didn’t like many people, but he and his nephew James got on like a house on fire. When James was kicked out of his parent’s house (age 16), Frank had taken him in and made him continue on with school. When James had decided to become a cop, Frank had payed his fees, and given James a house (free of rent) as a graduation gift. And it wasn’t like this was just some shack in a side alley. We are talking a few million dollars’ worth of mansion. I’d never actually been inside, but I’d driven past and it was massive.

Some people have all the luck.

But now Frank was dead, and everyone was accusing James. It was understandable that they thought it was him. I mean, he had motive (a couple of billion motives, if you catch my drift), and the only person who could give him an alibi had left for South America on Tuesday afternoon, hadn’t been questioned, and was currently unable to be contacted. And James had means. Frank had been shot with a pistol, and in Gerongate – and the rest of Australia, as far as I knew – only cops were legally allowed to carry pistols. If James had used a registered gun then it was only a matter of time before he was caught. Of course, being a cop, he probably came into contact with plenty of unregistered guns, too…

Poor little James. Means, motive and, right now, no alibi. Everyone thought he was a murderer, and his perfect reputation was in tatters. Boo-hoo. Now don’t get the wrong idea – it wasn’t like I was enjoying this. Well, maybe I was. It was just nice for once that I wasn’t the one being publicly humiliated.

It was sad about Frank, though. What a gross thing for someone to do. And everyone thought his nephew had done it – at least, nearly everyone. I thought McKenzie was a moron, but I still didn’t think he was a killer. I just wasn’t sure he had it in him.

When I finished reading the article I flipped over to the ‘Jobs Vacant’ section. Not much there. Coles needed new checkout workers. McDonalds was looking for young people to sell their ‘food’. Same old, same old. I checked the date on the paper. It was yesterday’s. Hmm. So the jobs in the paper weren’t looking incredibly promising. Google didn’t throw up much either.

There was only one thing for it.

I shuddered at the mere thought.

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