Dusty Dexter PI is a continuous novel by Jan Richards. You can read a new installment each weekday in your local paper, or catch up on the week's happenings online each Saturday.
Episode 1: Dead body on the beach
Dumped. How embarrassing.
I hold my breath as the wave pounds me into the sand, flips me over, sucks me back up, then throws me down again.
No idea which way is up.
While I'm being tossed around I make contact with a limb that's not mine - flesh slides across my stomach, smacks against my chin.
The churning eases, I find the sand, push off, struggle to the surface, gulp air, adjust togs.
Now the wave's passed, I see that extra limb belongs to a dead body, it floats in the water beside me. Well, he looks dead - fully dressed, bum up, head down, legs dangle.
I roll him over. Yeah, dead.
His face is bloated, bug eyes bulge out of the sockets, swollen tongue pokes through distorted lips. And what looks like a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.
Another wave rises up, ready to crash on top of us. I grab him, take a deep breath, try to pull him down with me, but the force of the water pulls him away.
When I come up, he's body surfing towards the shore.
I've never seen a dead body before, and it's not good, but I don't want to lose him, this could be the opportunity I've been looking for.
I catch a smaller wave, pull up beside him. I want to get him to shore, put my arm around his shoulders, end up with a handful of soggy flesh. My stomach flips, I swallow, peer at where his shoulder used to be. Shark, by the looks, but I'm more interested in the gunshot wound.
I pull him through the white water of a couple more waves, both hands gripped around his leg. It's tough going. I dig my feet into the sand, drag him behind me, step by step, until I get him to the beach. Water washes around him.
I stare at what remains of his left shoulder - sinews like overcooked fettuccine hang loose. The pale water-logged body threatens to burst out of his Ralph Lauren polo shirt.
Then I recognise him.
The bilious yellow shirt he was wearing Friday night. The heavy gold chain that normally peeks through the fur on his chest, a tourniquet, strangling him, or it would be if he was still breathing.
That's when it hits me, this is not all good.
You don't know me, I'm Dusty Dexter, private investigator.
I'm not a real PI, not yet, but I will be when I get around to the study.
Meanwhile, I work as a decoy for Red - she's an ex-cop with a PI business. I do her fidelity checks; chat up married men, boyfriends, fiancés, see if they'll cheat. I had a 100% success rating, until last Friday night, until Manny.
It hadn't made me happy.
And now he's dead, shot dead, which doesn't look good for either of us.
Episode 2: Not good for business
THE tide's on the way in, and as each wave washes over him, Manny sinks deeper into the sand.
I try to work with the water, pull him further up the beach, but he's too heavy.
I give up, leave him lying on the side where his shoulder should be, eyes open, staring up at the surf club as if he wants one last beer.
Soon I'm not alone. Early morning swimmers, walkers, joggers join me, gawp.
A dead body on the beach isn't what's expected, and by the looks on their faces it's not a pleasant surprise.
After all, this is Mooloolaba, family holiday destination. It's all sun, surf, sand and double-scoop sundaes.
Beneath the clear blue surface, and behind the colourful facades, man-eaters prowl, but that's not in the brochures.
The beach cleaner, in his fluorescent yellow jacket, looks at Manny like he's a giant piece of litter messing up the sand the council tractor just finished sifting into straight white lines. He prods him with his long tongs.
Reckon if he could he'd transfer him to his sack, dump him into the closest rubbish bin.
Now what? As I decide on my next move the crowd grows, someone speaks.
"Looks like a shark got 'im.";
"Never saw a shark with a gun.";
"Maybe the shark got him after he got shot.";
"Beach is netted, musta been outside the nets.";
"Anyone got a phone?";
"Betta call the cops.";
Someone pulls out a mobile, hits triple 0. "Police."; A pause. "Dead body on the beach... Mooloolaba... Yeah, he's dead."; He looks around. "In front of the surf club. Righto."; He snaps the phone closed with a look of authority, announces to the assembled crowd: "Cops said don't touch anything.";
Bit late for that.
"Can I borrow the phone?"; Mr Authority doesn't want to lose control, but I want to stake my claim to Manny's body, the investigation. "Got a mate who's an investigator.";
I call Red.
She already knows. Red still lives by the police radio, sleeps with it on the bedside table.
"You won't believe who it is.";
I wait for her to guess, she refuses to play.
I keep watch over Manny, wait for Red, the cops. People leave, others arrive, look, move on.
He's not a pretty sight. The middle-aged businessman's paunch has expanded to a spectacular girth, white hairy belly exposed.
The cops pull up, then Red. She strides down the beach, five foot nothing and less than 50 kilos, but she has attitude, and a gun. She also has an Elvis Presley haircut - slicked-back sides, coiffed top, in fire engine red.
She walks around Manny, sinks to her haunches, hovers over him peers at the hole in his forehead, the shoulder.
Then she stands, looks up at me from under her eyebrows, lips thin. "Come with me.";
Red doesn't like it when clients wind up dead; not good for business.
Episode 3: Keeping bad company
RED sits me down at one of the surfboard-shaped tables near the kids' playground.
I'm out to defend my 100% record, and snag my first case as a PI.
"Told you there had to be more to Manny. He must have been into something nasty.";
She ignores me, pulls out a small spiral notebook.
"Who was Manny talking to at the bar on Friday night?";
She's questioning me like I'm responsible. I have to get on side, be part of the investigation. Cooperation, that should help. "Pete Smart.";
"Suspected drug courier.";
How was I to know? "Was Manny into drugs?";
"Not that we know of.";
Red still acts like a cop, still would be if it wasn't for the incident.
"Never heard of him. What's he do?";
She gives me a look.
It was a decoy job, he wasn't the target.
She taps the spirals of the notepad against the table top. "And?";
I think, hard. "Thommo. Don't know his real name. Lives on his boat.";
"Harry Thompson. Also a suspected drug courier, and cohort of Smart's. Manny was keeping bad company. What were they talking about?";
Hadn't listened, sat with my double Ds popping out of the sequined top, waiting for my opportunity.
Red stares at the water, talks.
"Cops been watching Thommo. Water police pulled him up off the coast a few weeks ago. If he had any drugs he got rid of them before they got to him.";
The spiral clicks on the table, punctuates her speech.
"Fully clothed."; Tap. "Shot in the head."; Tap. "Thrown into the water, shark takes a bite."; Tap. "By the look of him he's been in the water at least a day. Why was he out on the water? Who was he with? And why did they shoot him?";
She looks at me. I've got nothing.
"What happened when you put the hard word on him?";
"Said he wanted another beer, then, all of a sudden, they left. Maybe they were putting together a drug deal.";
I like it. There has to be a pretty good reason for any man to knock back the Dusty Dexter charm. "So what do we do now?";
"We? Nothing. I follow up some leads.";
"But I found him."; I've got a right.
"Drug dealers are not nice people."; She stands, adjusts the gun belt. "It's Sunday, go to church.";
I watch her stride off. No way. I'm studying for my PI licence, well, I intend to. This is my big opportunity, my chance to show what I can do.
Besides, I've got my 100% success rating to think of, I need to prove Manny was up to something, something big.
If Red's going to follow up leads, I'm going to follow up leads.
I think back to Friday night. Manny, Thommo and Smart were having a casual chat over a beer.
Thommo. He lives on his boat, just down the Spit, should be easy to find.
Episode 4: He's all cop, and he's hot
I STAND under the showers on the beachfront, watch sun glint off glass and chrome of high-rise apartments on the esplanade.
As the ambos lift Manny onto a stretcher, carry him up the beach, I rinse off sand and salt, towel dry, then pull a tiny tank top over the racing bikini, step into short shorts. I shove goggles and swimming cap into my backpack.
The cops have created a crime scene, of sorts. A few strands of tape around stakes mark the sand where I laid Manny to rest.
Around it, holidaymakers have set up bright umbrellas and sun igloos, planted deck chairs in the sand. A man in board shorts runs across the sand into the water, one child under each arm, excited squeals. Sun-cream slicked bodies lounge on towels.
In an hour you won't get a park near the beachfront, and the surf between the lifesavers flags with be a full of pasty pudgy bodies bouncing in the shallows.
Tourists, the price you pay for living in paradise.
A plain-clothes sergeant, tall, broad shoulders, tight butt, talks to onlookers, takes notes.
I wander down, determined to get into this investigation. Bugger Red.
"It was me pulled him up on the beach. I'm Dusty Dexter.";
I put my hand out.
He shakes, reluctant. "Senior Sergeant Stern.";
So this is Red's cop buddy, Stern. He and Red go way back, and he's hot.
"Why'd you leave the scene?"; He's all cop.
"Had a chat with Red.";
"Why's she interested?";
"He was a client.";
He gives me an inquiring eyebrow.
"Wife thought he was cheating.";
Raises both eyebrows, rolls the eyes. "Where was he when you found him?";
"Caught a wave, he was in it."; No need to tell him I got dumped.
"Grabbed him by the leg, pulled him up onto the beach.";
Wonder about withholding information about Thommo and Smart, but I don't want to tell him about the failed decoy job. Red and I are going to figure out what happened.
I breathe deep, impress him with my assets. "See you 'round then.";
I need a plan, grab a sticky cinnamon scroll and a latte from the bakery, climb behind the wheel of my red VW Cabriolet, slide open the roof.
Where to start? As I go over my options I peer at the beach through the casuarinas. A nippers training session, small bodies in Speedos, lifesavers caps tied under their chins, stand at the edge of the water.
At the command they race into the ocean, legs stride over waves, surf rescue craft pulled behind them. Waist high in the water they jump onto the boards, lie on their stomachs, paddle, legs kick the air.
A few make it over the crest of a wave, the rest get dumped, boards and all.
An hour ago I was out there on my morning training swim, now, I'm part of a murder investigation.
Episode 5: Let's take a ride...
THE gear from the decoy job on Friday night's still in my handbag - capsicum spray and a taser.
The self-defence equipment came from Red. She says I need it in case anything goes wrong, but I'm not to mention her name if anyone asks where I got it.
I spy the digital recorder, the decoy's best friend, find Friday night's conversation, play it while I devour the cinnamon scroll.
Talk about boats, Manny's boat. Thommo and Smart ask questions.
"How big are the donks?";
"Two Volvo engines, 775 horsepower.";
"Bet she moves.";
"Out race just about anythin'.";
"Where you keep 'er?";
"What's she called?";
"The Dog House.";
"Don't suppose she's fuelled up?";
"Got 'er filled up this arvo. Weather forecast's good, no swell, takin' the wife out for a spin. Million dollar boat and she won't go out when the swell's more'n half a metre.";
"Prefers to sit at the marina - drink champagne with the girls, cruise the canals, wave like the bloody queen.";
There's some stuff I can't hear, then they're back with more beers.
"Reckon we should take her out tonight, Manny, give her a trial run. Check she's all in good workin' order.";
"Bloody middle of the night.";
"Nice and still, like you said, not much swell.";
"Sneak out, give 'er a bit of a run.";
Manny wasn't buying.
"So where do you keep the key, Man?";
Keys jangle. I saw him pull them out of his pocket, thought he was leaving and it was time to do my thing.
I placed my hand on his thigh, squeezed: "You leaving, Manny? Maybe you could give me a lift - duck into my place for a quick drink on the way home.";
"Not goin' anywhere. Drinkin' more beer.";
There are loud static noises. I remember grabbing my wallet from the handbag, heading to the bar for another drink.
I haven't heard the next part of the conversation.
"Got a little job we need your boat for, Manny.";
"What sort of job?";
"Just a quick trip out into the bay and back.";
"I said bugger off. Not goin' anywhere tonight.";
"Let's put it this way, Manny. We're taking your boat, and you're coming with us."; Smart's voice, he wasn't joking.
There's a pause, then Manny. "You betta tell me what's goin' on.";
"We'll do that on the boat.";
That's the end.
When I returned with my drink they'd gone. I wasn't happy. My 100% success rate was history, and Janet, a woman who hasn't had a date in a year, spent the rest of the night reminding me about it.
I'm going to the marina. If these guys were doing drug deals maybe that's why they wanted Manny, and his boat.
First up, I'll check out The Dog House, then find Thommo.
Should call Red, give her the new info.
This is my case, and I'm going to crack it.
Next week ... Dusty follows the clues to Manny's boat, and finds another body.