Last Known Contact: A gripping, fast-paced suspense with a touch of romance
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This book has all the ingredients of a good thriller and you won’t be disappointed if you pick it up. Highly recommended.Barry Finlay
Author of the Marcie Kane Thriller Collection
Jack Bannerman is missing after failing to meet his son-in-law to go sailing. There's no evidence of foul play and no sign of a body. So where is Jack?
Ellie thought her father trusted her with his business empire but the discovery of a dark past challenges everything she believed. Her estranged husband was Jack's last known contact but denies seeing him that day and seizes the opportunity to take over as acting CEO as if nothing untoward has happened. The detective in charge throws Ellie's feelings of betrayal and loss into further turmoil because a long time ago, they loved each other. Now, she has to work with him to unravel the truth behind her father's disappearance.
Jack's trusted advisors are keeping secrets and Ellie's desperate search for answers puts her in the dangerous sights of a killer.
With a body found at sea and a storm closing in, Ellie has to trust someone with what she knows.
But will trusting the wrong person be her deadliest mistake?
A gripping page-turner from the author of The Stationmaster's Cottage and the Charlotte Dean Mysteries.
Release date: July 27, 2020
Publisher: Phillipa Nefri Clark
Print pages: 366
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Last Known Contact: A gripping, fast-paced suspense with a touch of romance
Phillipa Nefri Clark
WHERE IT ENDS
Ellie Connor burst out of rugged bushland onto a broad expanse of open ground. The gloom from the tail of the storm might protect her for a moment. That and the rain.
She skidded to a stop at the very edge of a cliff, catching a glimpse of wild waves a long way below. Doubled over, hands on her knees, she gulped salty air. Her legs shook from running but the adrenaline coursing through her had kept her moving. Adrenaline and self-preservation. She didn’t want to die. Be killed by him. Most of her blonde hair had escaped its ponytail and she pulled a strand from her dry mouth.
She reached for her backpack but there wasn’t time. It wasn’t safe to stop. Below and to her right was the river mouth, just visible in the near-dark.
Her head shot up.
“I’m here to help you.”
His voice drifted from the trees.
She ran along the side of the cliff, searching for the way down.
A narrow track opened up. Not the one she remembered walking with Gabi last visit, but it would do. She had to put distance between them.
The ground was mud and loose stones and Ellie’s feet slipped from under her. She cried out as she landed on her elbows and behind.
Tears sprung into her eyes and she rolled against the cliff wall to catch her breath.
Out to sea, a helicopter sped past, its blinking lights mesmerizing Ellie. If only her phone wasn’t smashed into a million pieces somewhere back in the bush, she would turn on its flashlight. Get their attention with her vague memory of Morse code.
But it passed by and the rain stopped. The wind dropped to almost nothing and the heavy smell of eucalypts and sea spray enveloped her.
Where was he?
Ellie pushed herself to her feet, wincing as she straightened. Blood trickled down her arms and she wiped it away, then cleaned her palms on her shorts. Her legs were filthy, and blood splattered. This time she was careful of her footing. One step at a time, a hand on the sheer rock face to her side.
At a sharp curve there was a shallow cave. Impossible to see how far back it went, or what might lurk within.
“Are you down there, Ellie?”
Ellie almost jumped into the cave entrance. His voice was closer. Surely, he would hear the hammering of her heart.
“You don’t need to run anymore. I’ve come to help. I can get you to Gabi. You came to see her, didn’t you?”
Don’t you dare say my mother’s name!
Ellie closed her eyes, arms wrapped around her body as bile rose in her throat. She’d fallen into his well-planned trap. Alone, so far from any town. Nobody to turn to, no help.
She opened her eyes and started as a beam of light barely missed her feet.
“Getting a bit over the games, you know. All I ever wanted was to make you happy.”
He was going to kill her, then find Gabi and do the same.
Her fingers and toes were freezing even though the humidity was rising again after the storm.
“Oh, there’s a blood trail. I’ll bring you a bandage, Ellie.”
Pebbles rolled down the path ahead of heavy footsteps. The flashlight waved from side to side.
“Ellie!” A different voice, echoing from the top of the cliff.
“I’m here. But he’s close by!” Almost sobbing in relief, she stepped onto the path.
Her hunter caught her in his spotlight. “Gotcha, baby.”
Ice clutched her stomach. Her feet wouldn’t move. There was a gun pointed at her.
Again, from the top of the path, “Run! Ellie, run for your life!”
The flashlight turned onto her face. “I wouldn’t do that, not if you ever want to see him alive again. Make a choice, Ellie.”
I need to get to Gabi.
Ellie ducked out of the light and slid her way around the sharp corner.
A shot rang out.
IS JACK BANNERMAN DEAD?
The image beneath the newspaper headline was as familiar to Ellie as her own reflection. The same photo of her father was on her desk at Bannerman Wealth Group.
In the middle of Tullamarine Airport International Arrivals, she stopped dead.
“How are you coping, Ellie?” The reporter holding the newspaper shoved it closer to Ellie’s face. “Do you have a comment?”
“Is that why you cut short your trip to London?”
“What? No. I didn’t.” Ellie grabbed the paper. As she’d exited customs all she had on her mind was a shower and a glass of Yarra Valley wine. Not…this.
Microphone in hand, another reporter pushed in front. “Teresa Scarcella from At Six Tonight. Ellie, what are your thoughts at this difficult time?”
“No comment. Ellie, say nothing.” A tall man in a sharp suit, with a buzz cut and muscles forced his way between the media and Ellie. “I’ve called for airport security so get out of our faces.”
“Mr Dekeles, as head of security for Bannerman Wealth Group, what do you know—”
Paul Dekeles rammed the trolley forward with one hand and media scattered. His other arm went around Ellie’s shoulders. The media formed a walking circle around them.
“Mr Dekeles! Please, a comment!”
“Can’t print the comment I’d make,” he muttered.
“Paul, is Dad…”
“Stop panicking. We’ll talk in the car.”
Ellie blinked back tears as they passed through the airport’s sliding glass doors to a warm Melbourne evening.
A limousine waited in the ‘no standing’ zone. The driver hurried to collect the trolley from Paul.
“Ellie! Just one more question!”
Paul stepped between the mob and Ellie and she threw herself into the back seat, pulling the door closed behind herself. The minute Paul moved, Teresa and her team were there, the camera hard up against the window.
The door on the other side opened. “Bloody vultures.” Paul slid next to her and they drew away from the curb.
Ellie scanned the newspaper. Words jumped out.
Where is Jack?
Iconic Melbourne entrepreneur feared murdered.
Did Dennis Connor kill him?
Lost at sea?
Who will take his place as CEO?
“Don’t believe the worst.” Paul opened a bottle of water and held it out. “Sensationalism.”
“But it says he’s missing. When did he go missing? Why didn’t anyone let me know?”
“You were already on the flight when we realised.”
“Realised? How long?”
“Two days ago. Well, that’s the last time he was seen.”
“Seen where, Paul? Did Sea Angel sink?” Ellie sipped water, forcing down a bitter taste. Her hands shook when she replaced the lid.
“The yacht is fine. And he’s simply disappeared into thin air. Or something.”
“I’ll call him.” She turned her phone on.
“Pointless. We’ve all left messages.”
“How could this happen?”
Ellie stared at him. “You’re head of security.”
“I’m not Jack’s bloody keeper.” Paul took the newspaper from Ellie and threw it onto the floor.
The traffic on the Tullamarine Freeway parted to give the limo room and Ellie checked her watch. Just after nine. Why hadn’t Dennis called her yet? Would her own husband not be the one to break such terrible news?
“We’re going to the house.” Paul said.
“Does Meredith know what happened?”
“She doesn’t know the time of day. Look, things will be upsetting. But it is best this way.”
“Not much to tell. Jack and Dennis planned to go sailing.”
“Jack didn’t show.”
“Then, where is he?”
Paul shrugged. “How was London?”
The limousine wound along streets in upmarket Canterbury, finally nosing through automatic gates between high stone walls.
Ellie climbed out and stretched to relieve the soreness in her legs from the long flight. Dennis’ Alfa Romeo was parked near the four-car garage. She checked her phone for the tenth time but still no message from Dad. Nor from Dennis.
Paul led the way up half a dozen steps and through the open front door into a spacious foyer. “In the sitting room.”
Off the main living area, the sitting room was dimly lit by a few lamps casting shadows onto cluttered, cheap knick-knacks lining the mantelpiece and sideboards.
Meredith Bannerman slumped on one of two leather sofas, a half empty glass of brandy dangling from her fingers. The ornaments were hers, which Ellie knew Jack couldn’t stand. He liked things of quality. There were moments Ellie wasn’t proud of when she’d wondered why Jack married Meredith, given his standards.
His back to the room, Dennis Connor stared out through the French doors. He didn’t bother turning to acknowledge the arrival of his wife, although their eyes met in the glass reflection. Ellie crossed to Meredith and kissed her offered cheek. She wrinkled her nose at the stench of alcohol emanating from her stepmother’s skin.
“About time you got here.” Meredith sucked in more brandy.
Ellie addressed Dennis. “Where is he?”
“God knows.” Dennis turned around. “Or not.”
“Ignore Dennis. He’s licking his wounds. From being interrogated.” Meredith said.
“Who interrogated you? Why?”
Meredith began pouring another glass of brandy from a decanter on the side table, her hands shaky. “Nobody cares about the ones left behind.”
“For goodness sake, would someone please tell me what happened?”
“Perhaps I can shed some light.” Campbell Boyd, sixties, grey-haired, suited, stepped out of a dark corner.
Relief poured into Ellie and she threw her arms around her father’s oldest friend. “What are you doing here?”
“Don’t be stupid, Ellie.” Dennis wandered to the sofa and took the decanter from Meredith before she spilled the contents.
Campbell frowned at Dennis.
“Come and sit. Clearly you don’t know everything.”
“I just got off a plane, Campbell. And it was a reporter who told me Dad is missing.” Ellie sank onto the other sofa. “A reporter, Dennis. Not my husband.”
“Not your husband.” Meredith mimicked. “Oh, sweetie, such true words!”
I’ve come home to a mad house.
“The police are interested in Jack’s disappearance. After they spoke to Dennis—”
“Effectively, he was Jack’s last known contact.”
“I wasn’t the last to see him.” Dennis collected a brandy balloon from a sideboard.
“Were you arrested?”
“Of course, he wasn’t. One needs a backbone to commit murder.” Meredith declared, as if it was something to aspire to.
“Murder?” Ellie barely heard her own voice.
Dennis grinned at Meredith. “As she drinks herself into oblivion once again.”
“Well, at least I have the courage to carry out such a deed.”
“The only courage you have comes from a bottle.” Dennis sat next to Meredith. “Silly bitch.” There was no malice in his words and they exchanged a look which Ellie didn’t understand.
“Campbell—is Dad dead? Please tell me.”
“Well, it was all a bit of a mess and-.”
“For God’s sake. I’ll tell you what happened.”
All eyes turned to Dennis.
“It was two days ago. Jack was stressed after the board meeting, so asked me to go sailing. Take a breather from important decisions at work. I was on time. He never showed up. I left a couple of voicemails and figured he got busy, so went sailing alone.”
“Did you check the other boats?” Meredith said. “Perhaps he found a little sea nymph to shack up with?”
“Have another drink, Meredith.” Ellie snapped.
Campbell cleared his throat. “When he came back to shore, Dennis tried Jack’s phone again, and the house. Then called the office.”
“He wasn’t there. I swear to it, baby.” Dennis stared at Ellie, his grey eyes cold behind small round glasses. “I swear it.”
Ellie turned away. “Campbell, would you come with me to the police station? To wherever the investigation is based?”
“I’ll take you.” Paul spoke from the doorway.
“For God’s sake.” Dennis reached across Meredith for the decanter and trickled brandy into his own glass.
“Leave it until tomorrow. There’s nothing to be done so late.” Campbell picked up a briefcase. “I’ll collect you in the morning.”
“I’ll get you home.” Paul said. He came to Ellie, offering his hand. She glanced up at him, then to Dennis.
“I’ve moved out of the apartment.” He didn’t even look up.
Ignoring Paul’s hand, Ellie pushed herself to her feet. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Meredith directed a drunken smile at Ellie. How could she smile when her husband was missing? When nobody knew where he was?
“Getting ready for our inevitable divorce. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” Dennis held his glass up like a toast. “Welcome home, baby.”
Ellie wouldn’t let Paul or the driver help with the luggage. Her apartment came with a twenty-four-hour concierge service and the young man on duty whisked her bags away.
“I should check the apartment with you.”
“For what, Paul? If Dad happens to be there, I’ll call.” She’d had enough. The lack of answers, Dennis’ announcement, Meredith’s innuendo. Paul’s protective fussing.
Inside her apartment, door locked, she leaned back against it and closed her eyes. The quiet and darkness drained some of the tension away, soothing raw emotions and calming the jumble of thoughts. Ellie slipped out of her shoes and sighed as the tiles cooled her feet.
When she opened her eyes, she frowned to see all the curtains were drawn, blocking out the stunning view to the Yarra River on one side, and all the way to Port Phillip Bay on another. She never closed them. Dennis must have, or…
“Dad?” It was a rasp, so dry was her throat. Nobody answered.
Ellie peered into the fridge. It was empty, apart from two unopened bottles of French champagne and half a bottle of white wine. The latter she took out. She didn’t like champagne and never kept it here, so what had Dennis been doing? Four weeks away in London. Just one month and everything had changed.
Their king-sized bed was stripped bare. She sat on the end and poured wine into the glass she’d collected on the way. The door to the walk-in robe was open. Dennis hadn’t quite moved out. There were some shoes, suits, and a bag tucked in the corner.
She grimaced at the stale taste of the wine. Probably the same bottle she’d opened the night before leaving for London. They’d argued. Disagreed was a better description, not the full-on fights from her childhood, with Dad and Gabi yelling at each other from across a room and doors slamming until she’d hide in the library, losing herself amongst the books her parents collected.
No, she and Dennis were always civil. She’d asked him one last time to consider marriage counselling. Try to find a comfortable middle ground, at least. He couldn’t see why. To Dennis, keeping things to himself was second nature and sharing was something women did. “I’m not one of your girlfriends. That’s what you all do, isn’t it, complain to each other about your husbands?”
He’d obviously decided leaving a marriage was better than working on it. As bad as the wine was, Ellie finished the first glass and poured another. In the hallway between main and guest rooms she stopped to stare at photos on the wall. She lifted a hand and touched the smiling face of a handsome young man with long hair and a surfboard.
“Daddy’s missing. How do I tell you, Michael?”
She opened the door to the guest room. This was as she’d left it, bed made up and fresh towels folded on the end, ready for guests.
Too tired to do more than strip off her clothes, Ellie climbed into bed. She hugged her body until sleep dragged her into a world of bad dreams.
“You don’t look as though you slept at all, child.”
Campbell and Ellie sat at one side of a table in an interview room in the police station. The room was cold, and she shivered. “I’m alright, I promise. I’ll be better when we find Dad.”
“I wanted to warn you last night…about the detective looking after this.”
The door opened and they both looked up as an immaculately dressed man entered. He sat on the opposite side of the table, shook Campbell’s hand, and only then made eye contact with Ellie.
She took in his three-day growth and collar-length black hair with dismay. Those dark, dark eyes of his were unreadable.
Her hands slipped under the table to grip each other.
His lips tightened for an instant before he glanced at Campbell. “Thanks for coming in.”
“Have you found him?” Ellie forced the words out.
“We have yet to establish this is a genuine missing person case.”
She pushed her chair back. “Then we are wasting our time here.”
Campbell placed his hand on her arm for a second. “Ellie, wait on. You wanted to speak to the police.”
“But, this won’t work…” She bit her lip. Dad was all that mattered. Ellie glared at Ben as she settled back in her seat.
He appeared unfazed by her reaction to seeing him. “When was your last contact with your father?”
“I am under suspicion? What are you doing to find him? All I know is from second-hand information and newspaper sensationalism.”
Campbell leaned forward. “Detective Rossi, we’ve had no contact with Jack for three days. A man like him doesn’t just disappear. He doesn’t miss appointments and is never late. Never.”
“No history of going off on his own? A short break with someone?”
“Someone who? His own wife doesn’t know where he is. And Dad wasn’t that kind of man.”
Not the kind you think. Not a man who doesn’t care. Not a bad…father.
“Last time I saw Dad, we met at his house, in the library. I was leaving for London a few hours later and we had some last-minute papers to go over.”
“You met at his house, rather than the office?”
“We both have desks in the library. Why did you question Dennis?”
“As the last known contact, your husband was able to provide useful information. Gave me a starting point. Your father’s disappearance is unusual.”
“We were meant to meet at eleven today. To talk about my London business trip.”
“On the yacht.”
Ben stood. “Here’s my card. If you hear anything, think of anything, call.” He held out a business card and their fingertips touched. Ellie almost dropped the card, but now Campbell was shaking his hand and without another glance, Ben left.
“Are you okay?” Campbell was on his feet. “I thought it was him. And you’d never speak that way to a stranger.”
No. I wouldn’t be like that with a stranger.
A few minutes before eleven, Ellie stepped onto Sea Angel, a sleek—if older—yacht. She glanced at her watch. He should be here, striding down the pier with his broad grin, or already on board with a limited-edition blue gin on ice. Just to take the edge off.
“Dad, are you here?”
She knew her breath was wasted, but still ran downstairs. It was the same as always. Water, beer, and wine in the fridge. A few frozen meals for emergencies. Beds in the two cabins made and clean towels in the tiny bathroom. Everything ready for a quick sail or overnight trip.
The yacht rocked gently beneath her feet as she made her way up, longing for the sun on her face. London in winter might be beautiful, but Melbourne summer was her favourite time of the year. Dad’s as well. She sank onto one of the plump seats at the stern.
This place was private, quiet, yet only moments from the city. Tucked away at the bottom of a dead-end road, even the locals left the pier alone. Large signs warning against trespass probably helped, but Ellie couldn’t remember this being anything other than a peaceful retreat.
Without Dad, what would she do? They’d been close forever and Gabi leaving so long ago brought them closer. If only he’d appear from below…her eyes turned to the steps and then she saw it.
Under the furthest seat was a pen. She got onto her knees and reached for it. Dad’s pen, the one she’d had designed and made for him for his sixtieth birthday. It was always in his hand or pocket.
Footsteps approached and she panicked, slipping the pen into her handbag. If the media had found her, they mustn’t see this. She grabbed her sunglasses and pushed them on.
“Mrs Connor.” Ben Rossi stood, hands in pockets, on the pier. His black sunglasses masked his eyes.
Ellie’s heart pounded and the words snapped out. “Why are you here?”
“Eleven o’clock at the yacht. I hoped Jack might appear.”
There was a sympathy in his tone that cut through her anger and as tears prickled the back of her eyes, she was thankful for her sunglasses.
“Me too.” She climbed onto the pier. “But he hasn’t, so I’m going to do my best to find him.”
“Keep a list of who you contact and the responses. It might help.”
“So, you’ve decided he is missing.”
“He’s obviously missing. I’m investigating the possibility of foul play.”
“Why would anyone hurt him?”
Not willing to talk to Ben, Ellie stalked away from the yacht, past a couple of other boats and across a dirt track to the carpark. At her car, she dug in her bag for keys.
“What if Dennis only gave you part of the story.”
With a small jump, Ellie glanced around. She’d not heard him follow her and he stood staring back down the pier, arms crossed and legs apart.
“Dennis said he’d waited for Dad, who never showed. Instead of looking for him, he went sailing alone.”
“But, did he?”
“I don’t understand.” Ellie joined Ben.
“Jack Bannerman doesn’t miss appointments and is never late. Perhaps he was here at the arranged time. Perhaps they did sail out, a long way out.”
“Something happened. Jack fell overboard. Might have been helped over.”
“Are you crazy?” Ellie dragged her sunglasses off. “Dennis and Dad are family. Dad isn’t dead and
Dennis is not a killer. How could you say such a thing?”
“Is there a reason Dennis would want Jack gone?”
“Gone? Or dead? Neither, for your information. I told you, they were family as well as business colleagues.”
“And families are the most likely to kill their own.”
“Oh, for god sake.” She swung away.
“Is Dennis divorcing you?”
Ellie dropped her keys. Ben scooped them up, playing with them in one hand as he removed his sunglasses with the other. If it was compassion in his eyes, she didn’t want it.
“My keys, please.” She held out her hand.
“You deserve better.”
“My keys, detective.”
With a shrug, he dropped them into her palm.
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