A brush with death
A cat hissed menacingly as Hal Spear pushed open the creaky gate and made his way down the vine-covered path that led to a secluded mountain bungalow.
It was a cold Wednesday morning and Hal was here to meet his newest client, the celebrated painter Fernando DeBreeze. This wasn’t the sort of call-out Hal had been expecting. Fernando had become a recluse when his marriage to soap star Mimi Martin ended in a bitter divorce over a decade ago.
Ever since then, the prize-winning artist had fallen off the radar entirely. So Hal was caught off guard when Fernando wanted to know if the PI would camp out at his home for a few nights to check that no-one was trying to break in.
“I’ve seen someone prowling around of an evening,” he told Hal. “And before you ask, I haven’t touched the funny stuff since I was a student.”
He’d called Hal on the Sunday and begged him to come straight over when his plane touched down the following Thursday.
“I’m sure I can survive till then,” Fernando had laughed nervously.
Hal wondered if being out in the mountains all alone had played tricks on poor Fernando’s mind. Looking around the overrun garden now, he felt like he was in the jungle.
Just as he was about to knock on the front door, a voice called out.
“This is private property!” said a burly man in khaki clothing.
The man remained suspicious even when Hal explained that he was invited here by Fernando himself.
“I find that hard to believe,” he said. “Fernando always says, ‘Bruce, you’re the only one I trust’. He lets me use his place as a base for my bird-watching and, in return, I bring him his daily bagels – he’ll only eat bagels for breakfast. Likes ’em fresh from that local organic bakery.”
After some small talk about lorikeets, Hal managed to talk Bruce around. He was quick to pull out a camera from his satchel and show Hal some photos of his sightings.
At that moment, their small talk was broken by the sound of someone trampling down the driveway.
“Yoo hoo!” a woman called out before she rounded the bend and stopped in her tracks at the sight of Hal and Bruce.
“What are you doing here, Mimi?” Bruce demanded. “I thought Fernando told you to stay away!”
The woman rolled her eyes at Bruce and pushed ahead, moving towards the door.
Hal’s jaw dropped. Surely this couldn’t be THE Mimi Martin? The blonde actress looked like she’d aged at least 20 years since Hal last saw her on the TV.
“Are you a journalist?” she asked Hal. “If so, I’ve got a scoop for you.”
Deciding to play along, Hal watched Mimi’s eyes light up as she told him how Fernando had finally given in to her constant letters and calls, and agreed to paint her picture.
“He only started painting last week but then I had to leave on Friday to shoot an ad for ugg boots,” she said. “I got back yesterday afternoon and I must have called him 20 times.”
“Have you considered that maybe he didn’t want to talk to you?” Bruce asked, his arms crossed.
A dismissive Mimi ignored his comment. “I know you think you’re the only one with a key to Fernando’s place, Bruce,” she said, scrabbling through her handbag and producing a small silver key of her own. “But you’d be wrong.”
Mimi moved past Hal and opened the front door.
Her scream was so high-pitched it even startled the birds, which flew off through the trees in shock.
Hal saw Fernando lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of his own blood.
“Dead as mutton,” Hal said.
He walked around the small kitchen table, which had little on it except for a festering cup of tea and a moldy bagel.
Hal looked at the frozen expression on Fernando’s face and sighed at the waste of it all. At least he knew exactly who had killed him.
Who killed Fernando?