Forgotten

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Neven Carr lives in what she terms is an author’s haven; a quaint fishing village on the east coast of Queensland, Australia, called Toogoom. Her former years as a Primary School teacher provided her with many life experiences, some treasured, some not so treasured, but ones she continually draws upon when writing her novels. Neven Carr now devotes her time to her three passions, her family, reading and of course, writing.

Forgotten is her debut novel in the Araneya Mystery Series.


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Every family holds a
secret.

How far would yours go
to keep it?

Twenty-eight year old schoolteacher, Claudia Cabriati, has
no memory of her life before the age of eight. This is not something she
thought unusual, until a strangely familiar woman possessing knowledge of that
life, is shot and killed in the grounds of
Claudia’s home.

Another brutal murder follows, along with the heartbreaking
revelation of an unimaginable family conspiracy. Claudia crumbles into a world
driven by fear and the irrational need to run and hide.

Why were people suddenly dying around her? Were any of her
family, particularly her much-beloved Papa, involved in their deaths? More
importantly, would her life be next?

With her trust challenged by those she loves, Claudia turns
to the mysterious and enigmatic Saul Reardon. Together they embark on a
dangerous journey in search of answers.

But is the past sometimes better left buried?

Set amongst the natural beauty of Australia’s eastern
coastline and its richly forested hinterland, Forgotten is a fast-paced mystery
thriller that explores the controversial nature of family love and protection, loyalty and self-preservation.

 

 


Chapter One

Claudia

August
12, 2009

DEATH HAS A flavor of its own.

I know; I had smelt it before.

I
smelt it now.

Coming from inside my apartment.

I hesitantly teetered on the threshold
clutching two large grocery bags, a forest printed handbag and a wad of junk
mail, wondering if my sense of smell was mistaken. I leaned into the void next
to the partly opened door, felt the groceries lean in with me, felt my ponytail
brush my cheek. All appeared quiet except for my heart’s rapid knock and the
faint clatter of keys still swinging from the front door.

I took another whiff. Still there. I shot up
straight and swore. What did that mean exactly? That a dead body was in my
home?

I almost laughed; the thought was seriously
ridiculous. What would a dead body be doing in the modest home of a pair of
hardworking twenty-somethings on a late Tuesday afternoon? This time I did
laugh but I couldn’t ignore the edginess in it.

So why the smell? Several explanations
crossed my mind, unemptied garbage, a blocked drain, a keeled over rodent. Add
to it a small apartment with poor ventilation and… bingo! Relief spread through
me. I liked those alternatives; they were probable, rational. I scolded myself
for imagining the worst.

Somewhere my memory tuned in and I heard my Eighth
grade English teacher, Sister Iglesias, champion my thinking. “Claudia
Cabriati,” she said, “you have a febrile imagination that’ll either make you
loads of money or get you into loads of trouble.” I recalled taking her comment
as a compliment, until I looked up the word febrile.
It meant delirious. I didn’t think her analysis of me was very godly.

Back to the present.

The present saw me sadly still hugging the
doorjamb, still reluctant to take that step forward. The ridiculous now
bordered on the downright insane.

Honestly,
Claudia, Simon’s been away for just a week and you’re already freaking out like
some trapped butcherbird in your classroom. Do something before there are
witnesses to your craziness.

The horrifying thought of an ogling, gaping
audience spurred me onward. I hooked my head around the door unsure what I
expected to see. The place was in near darkness. But to switch on the light
meant going inside. Again, that didn’t particularly press my happy buttons. I
blinked repeatedly, waited for my pupils to adjust to the dark, felt my
overstretched neck crick under the pressure. When shapes began to take form,
all I could see was the shadowed foyer wall and the taunting light switch centered
several feet in.

I groaned, and silently cursed the architect
of these units. Still balancing at the threshold, I bit my lip and counted the
footsteps to the light switch. Maybe five… six max.

Perhaps, I should just go in. I mean what’s
the worst that can happen? A dozen pictures of worst drowned my sorry head and riveted me back to the spot.

Perhaps if I just gave the door an extra
nudge, I could see more. But see what exactly? I ignored the question and
instead lifted my right foot, pressed the wedged heel of my shoe against the
peeling timber and shoved hard.

I swallowed.

The sluggish creak of unoiled hinges wailed.
An unexpected but very distinct thud caused the door to recoil. I gasped and
immediately stepped off the doorsill. Worse still, the smell was back, stronger
now. And it didn’t resemble any garbage, blocked drains or dead mice.

The first knots strangled my stomach, my
breathing slid to an almost standstill and I felt cold shivers burn my skin.

And all I could hear was silence, sharp
crackling white noise. Overridden by the subliminal echo of two words.

Move
away.

I obeyed, quickly back stepping until one
heel smacked into the skirting board of the corridor wall. There I leaned back,
used the wall to regain some stability of my own. All the while, I kept my eyes
pinned to the door. It was still swinging, slower now. Eventually it creaked to
a full standstill. All was quiet.

Was I merely overreacting? It certainly
wouldn’t have been the first time.

It’s what fear did to me.

Muddied my head, dulled my rationality and
confused me so that I didn’t know what to believe. And I hated that.

I carefully bent to one side and dumped my
load. Plastic bags whooshed, cans clattered, folded paper splattered as they
all came to rest in one muddled, mounded heap.

The muscles in my arms felt instant release,
but as I straightened, I realized the true burden of weight hadn’t left me. It
dragged down my shoulders, hunched my back and dropped my chin to my chest.

I scanned my surroundings. Large black and
white carpet squares, some with exposed threads, checkered the sparsely lit
hallway. To my immediate right, two neighboring doors faced each other. A quick
glance at my watch told me neither occupant would be home. To my left, stood a
bronze elevator door guarded by a plastic green palm in a black ceramic pot.

All of a sudden, I felt as small and alone
as the palm.

What
to do?

Perhaps phone someone. Like the police? And
say what? I think I smell dead people? I imagined their conversations over
coffee and donuts and winced.

Maybe a trusted friend? And have them
loyally travel through Sydney’s peak hour to attend to my febrile imagination? I shook my head.

Always
trust your instincts, Carino
.

I immediately recognized my Papa’s voice,
echoing his favorite mantra thick with his rich, Italian accent. Many times, I
engaged in this mental banter with him. It often provided me with much-needed
comfort, the occasional practical answers, even affirmations to some of my more
zany ideas.

I’m
trying to, Papa,
but I
don’t think my instincts are playing fair today
.

I had an idea. I dropped to one knee and
started ferreting through the grocery bags. Shoving aside several fresh
ingredients for my world-renowned lasagne, I finally found what I was looking for.
A packet of lollies, pink musk sticks to be exact. And they had to be pink; any
other color was an insult to their authenticity.

I ripped, I grabbed and I chewed quite
furiously. Like the drug they were, well for me anyway, every glorious mouthful
reduced my rising anxieties, loosened the tightened knots in my stomach and
cleared my head, if only slightly. I sucked in the bliss. And like any true
addict, wolfed down three more sticks before returning the rolled up packet to
one of the bags. Feeling a little calmer, I again concentrated on what to do.
And soon decided to wait for someone to come.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long. The
rumbling grind of the elevator slamming to a stop shattered the quiet. I
immediately fluffed up my fringe, hitched up the straps of my lime green dress
and my shoulders along with them. I smoothed out any wrinkles but found them
more stubborn.

The bronze doors opened with a rickety swoosh.
I prayed for someone friendly to step through them. He did. Shamus from the
apartment four doors away, wearing clothes as loud and as busy as Central
Railway Station at rush hour. A vivid red and green paisley shirt, sloppy, neon
purple pants and a yellow speckled beret hooked over one bent eyebrow made me
semi-grin.

And I sensed the first sweet tang of hope.

With his thumbs fixed in alternate pockets,
Shamus crossed the checkerboard. “Hey, pretty lady, whatcha doing out here?”

His melodic Irish accent instantly warmed
me.

“Am I glad to see you,” I said. “I need your
help.” I nodded towards the unmoving door.

Shamus studied it, studied me, and then
repeated the process. “Think you’ve been broken into,” he said, adjusting his
beret further back. “Think someone’s in there?”

“I don’t know. Just doesn’t feel right.” I
didn’t want to scare the poor man with any crazy, dead body thoughts. Not yet,
anyway. “And the light switch is….”

“Too far inside, like my own place. I’ll go
check it out.”

I grabbed Shamus’ arm. “Don’t go in though.”

Shamus looked at me with a quizzical
expression. I guess he had every right to. As if reading my mind, he reached
into his back pocket and pulled out his mobile. The cover was psychedelic,
bright enough to emit its own lighting. With a few presses, Shamus shone a
brighter one directly into my eyes. I blinked.

He threw me a cheeky wink, swung on his
zebra-striped boots and casually wandered to the door. He tapped it open with
his free hand, propelled his phone inward with the other. The golden glow from
his phone haloed him and leaked into the corridor where I was uneasily waiting.
Then it disappeared along with Shamus.

And for the first time, I remembered the
lock.

Something alien churned my insides.

A few seconds passed and Shamus returned. I noticed
wrinkles creasing the corner of his eyes. “Shit, Claudia,” he said in a
disturbingly offbeat tone, “what happened?”

What
happened?

Snapshots ravaged my head. Snapshots of
scattered cushions, smashed furnishings, my well-loved book collection tossed
about… a possible dead body or two.

My knees buckled. I skidded down the wall
and landed with a blunt thud. I heard the unmistakable pounding of running
feet, felt strong hands grip my shoulders.

“I was just kidding.” Shamus’ very
apologetic voice.

Kidding?
He was just kidding? One doesn’t kid with someone like me. Even the good Sister
Iglesias would attest to that.

He helped me to my feet, my legs still shaky
and balancing on four-inch heels. “Thought I’d just mess with you. No idea you
were that worried.”

Of course, he wouldn’t. He didn’t know me;
at least not that well.

He
didn’t know my past.

What about the smell, I wanted to ask? But
my voice was still stuck deep in my throat. I managed a small nod instead.

Several furrows creased Shamus’ normally smooth
brow as I wobbled free of his grip. “What’s really going on here?” he said.

I heaved a heavy sigh. How do I answer that
with a few simple words? How do I explain the irrational need to leave my
loving family, the beautiful township I grew up in, in the hope that by doing
so, by moving interstate my absurd anxieties may actually disappear?

I recalled Papa’s saddened voice. Sydney, Carino. So far from the people who
love you.

I
know,
I said, but
you can always visit.

And he did, quite often, sometimes with
Mama, sometimes not.

Sometimes just to surprise me.

“Trust me, Shamus. There’s something not
right,” I repeated in a brittle voice. “And… I think there’s someone dead in
there.” I gritted my teeth to the point they hurt, screwed my face tight and
waited for the expected belly laughs to roll out.

They didn’t.

I tweaked open one eyelid. A pair of wide
non-humorous eyes stared back. In fact, a decent dose of shock and disbelief
seemed to darken them. He cast a swift glance towards the apartment then back at
me. “You’re shitting me.”

I shook my head.

“H… how do you know?”

How
do I know?

I moved in, smelled the aromatic scent of
Shamus’ cologne, a pleasant change to the previous invasion of my nostrils,
heard his shallow breaths. “Because,” I whispered, “it leaves its distinctive
stench on everything it touches. Particularly in one’s memories. And I remember.”

Shamus blinked repeatedly. His mouth dropped
open. And the sudden paling of his skin made him appear unwell. He glanced at
the door again, began furiously rubbing his hand across his mouth. Beads of
sweat bubbled above his top lip. “When’s Simon due home?”

I thought of my Simon working away at
another journalistic assignment. Only a week earlier, I had convinced him that
I’d be fine while he was gone, that he needed to stop worrying about me.

Yet
here I was.

“Not until the weekend.” That was a
disturbing five more days away.

Shamus took a moment. “Okay. Stay here, I’ll
be back.”

“Like the Terminator?” I laughed nervously.

He stared at me.

Crazy?

I possibly was. Crazy with fear.

Always
the fear.

Without another word, Shamus strode down the
corridor and disappeared around the bend.

I was alone again.

Me and the palm.

***

I wrapped my arms around my body, tried to
rub away the freshening goose bumps. Shamus would be back soon and this whole
absurd mess sorted.

I felt useless. It was crippling me, this
fear born from unexplainable roots. I rubbed my arms just a little harder. The
sound reminded me of sandpaper against soft wood.

From the clammy air surrounding me, I heard
Papa again.

Remember
Nonna,
he said.

Nonna?

Just the mere thought of my grandmother took
me back to a time when I was ten, back to….

Old,
chunky photo frames haphazardly crowd the marble mantelpiece, some oversized,
some so tiny I can barely make out the faces. But I know they are photos of
family, of blood.

It
is the Cabriati way.

A
smiling toddler dressed in a perfectly pressed sailor outfit and clutching onto
a green, toy battleship is my favorite – Papa seated on Nonna’s lap. Not far
from the mantelpiece stands a faded floral settee. Nonna’s precious patchwork
quilt lies crumpled over it. Unlike the settee, the quilt shimmers with a
rainbow full of striking hues. I recall Nona stitching it; I recall it wrapping
me many times into its caring, exquisite warmth.

Papa
bends on one knee, looks down on me; his large, sturdy hands press into my
small, fragile shoulders. I feel frighten but not of Papa.

“Tell
me what you just said,” he whispers. Even at that age, I know urgency when I
hear it.

“Someone
is dead,” I repeat.

His
hands tighten; they almost hurt. “Why do you think that?” There are lines on
his face, not ones I recognize.

“I
just know,” I answer honestly. “I know the smell.”

Papa’s
gasp is loud. He draws in his breath before saying more. “Claudia, tell me what
you remember.” Papa’s eyes look dark, almost black. It scares me because I know
he is frightened too.

“I
don’t remember.”

“Are
you absolutely certain?”

I
nod my head quite vigorously. The unfriendly lines on his face vanish. A wide,
gentle smile takes their place. His strong arms squeeze me, almost too firmly
but I don’t complain. I then feel his soft breath tickle my ear and I hear him
whisper….

“Claudia, I’m back.”

I instantly snapped to the present and
turned to Shamus. He was armed with an iron golf club, a shaky-looking bike
helmet that covered most of his face, except for his broad eyes, and a crooked
grin. His flatmate, Clinton, lumbered alongside him.

Built like a healthy Spanish bull, Clinton
appeared ready to charge at anything resembling red. Clothed in once-white
coveralls and heavy-duty boots – both dotted with various splashes of color –
he marched to the door, stood stiffly with his back to it and crossed his arms.
A strong odor of paint followed him.

I wanted to laugh.

But another memory flooded back.

Papa
is beating his chest with woven fists, wailing as if in pain. He crumples to
the floor like a roll of discarded paper just outside my Nonna’s sewing room.
“Mama,” he cries out repeatedly, “not yet, Mama… nooo….”

My
own mother immediately runs to him, gently cradles him, soothes him with
comforting words. And she stares at me with glaring eyes. “You knew,” she
whispers. “You knew Nonna was dead.”

I instantly
cower amongst the large leafy parlor palm that decorates the entrance. “I didn’t,
Mama,” I say truthfully. Tears well in my eyes.

She
grunts a few Italian curses and ignores me.

Remember
Nonna
.

And in doing so, it reminded me that the
past is inevitably the expert. And that same past now crowded in on me.

Another icy shiver chilled my veins.

Shamus noticed, curved a friendly arm around
my shoulders. “You okay?”

Not really. But I nodded, anyway.

“Clinton and I are going to check out your
place,” Shamus added. “You can stay here if you want.”

I didn’t want; I needed to know. And the old
saying – safety in numbers – eased my fear somewhat and stubbornly encouraged
me on.

Shamus strode to the apartment. He pushed
open the door and confidently stepped in. Clinton, having never been in my
apartment before, trailed behind him. I followed last.

The swift burst of fluorescent lighting made
my eyelids flicker. Shamus tilted his nose slightly upwards and sniffed the
air. “I don’t smell anything,” he said.

I wanted to say, that’s because you hadn’t smelled it before, but didn’t.

Crazy had its limits.

“I smell something,” Clinton said.

I should’ve felt shock. Not simply because
Clinton backed me up, but because he usually responded with grunts, not actual words.

We took a few more steps until the foyer ended
and the living area began. Shamus flicked on another light.

I gasped and instantly clapped my hand over
my mouth. The entire area was as immaculate and as orderly as a Saturday open
home display causing me to wonder if I was even in the right place.

“Is your mother visiting?” Shamus sidled up
to me with an amused expression.

I ignored him and moved forward. Something
greater than fear wanted to examine this madness further. The kitchen sink was
conspicuously shy of the dishes left there that morning. The outdated burnt
orange bench tops, the stainless steel surfaces of the oven, the similarly
surfaced fridge, all glistened.

The cream-colored ceramic floor tiles were
so clear I could practically see my reflection. Cushions stood like soldiers on
the faux leather lounge, plump and perfect. Magazines lay in straightened
piles, as did the newspapers. CDs rested in their allotted slots on the black stand.
Scores of my students’ essays sat neatly arranged on the glass dining table,
the table also a victim, smudge free and dustproof.

In its center, a glass vase filled with
long, olive stems. Their tips snipped of floral life. Creepy now took on an
entirely new meaning.

I spotted the tea towels next. The sight of
them religiously folded and hanging in perfect formation made my belly do backflips.

Troubling pictures of uniformed cans, alphabetized
herb jars and parceled packets stopped me from opening the pantry doors. I
grabbed Shamus’ hand, noticed his smooth, soft skin. “This isn’t right,” I
said. “We have to get out of here.”

I dragged him past the newly polished twin
wooden elephants – I had no idea that Simon’s obsession could look that good – past
Nonna’s ancient silver platter of hand me downs, looking very silvery, very
un-ancient and a large, second hand ceramic pot, disappointingly seeming no
different.

Clinton’s thundering footsteps trailed behind.
Before we reached the exit, Shamus stopped, gripped my arm and made me stand
rigidly still. Beside me, an octagonal mirror eerily sparkled. I lowered my
gaze to avoid looking in it.

“Why do we have to leave?” Shamus whispered.

“Our place is never this clean except in the
school holidays,” I explained. Well, not even then. Teacher plus travelling investigative
journalist – who has time to clean? And cash for a cleaner? Not at our budding
career stage.

Shamus shrugged his shoulders. “So? A friend
helped you out.”

I scoured my list of friends. Of course, any
one of them would, but only if they thought I needed the help.

I didn’t. And it still didn’t explain the
smell.

Shamus took a few steps forward, stopped,
then turned to face the hallway leading to the bedroom. Clinton and I tailed
him. The hallway was naturally unlit but it drew enough energy from the living
room light. Unwelcomed shadows danced along a mishmash of photo frames and
artificial pot plants. The screeching silence pierced my eardrums.

“I think I can smell it now.” Shamus’ voice
was strangely quivery. “Someone’s shit themselves.”

I hoped not, but I was also glad he finally recognized
an out of place smell. The fact that it was more a bodily excretion was
comforting. Always better than the dead person alternative.

“I’m going to check out the rest of the
place,” Shamus said, as he centered his club before him. Clinton loyally followed.
I wasn’t as brave.

In the entire commotion, I had completely
forgotten about the object behind the door. I hurried back to the foyer. Once
there, I skidded to a standstill. Hoisted upright against the wall was a
medium-sized, piece of luggage. A silver handle stuck out from its top, a
white, plastic nametag angled just enough to catch the foyer light.

I didn’t need to read the name. The luggage
tag was enough. Vividly blue with the inscription Not just another black bag stared back at me. A birthday present
from me to him. My fingers began knotting fiercely. Why was he here? A surprise?
And if so, where was he?

I shot a glance in the direction of the
bedroom. It was noiseless, no scurrying footsteps, no excited voices shouting
as one would expect with a surprise.

No nothing.

Just that damn, bloody smell.

But
then, that would mean….

Blood rushed to my head; its pounding rhythm
hammered against my eardrums.

Oh
my god, Papa… no.

Carino….

Something strong and fast clenched my chest
and squeezed. I doubled over, searched frantically for air. A sharp, blistering
pain speared me when that air didn’t come. I gasped, breathed out, gasped,
breathed out. But all I felt was a dulling faintness and the rising bile burn
my chest. I automatically leaned into the side of the foyer wall.

It’s
just my imagination. Papa, please… let it just be my imagination. Sister… Sister…
whatever her name, would tell you so.

You
know it’s not.

Burning, hot tears scorched the corners of
my eyes, as did the mounting bitterness in my throat.

No,
Papa, no… don’t do this to me.

I
didn’t do this, Carino.

And then his message hit me.

I
had done this to myself.

Oh my god, no, please no. My world began
rapidly evaporating into hazy white dots and rising light-headedness. It
tempted me with promises of somewhere more illusionary, somewhere where guilt
didn’t devour my soul. I only had to take the next step. So easy.

But
I couldn’t.

Searching deep for a strength well buried, I
placed my shaky hands on the solid foyer wall.

Carino,
don’t do this to yourself; don’t do it to me.

I
have to, Papa. I have to be sure.

As if in a predestined trance, I slowly but
carefully mapped my sweaty palms across the wall until I reached a corner. I
took a huge breath and swerved around it.

I first spotted Clinton scrabbling along the
floor. He stopped, gripped his bulging midriff and vomited. Still bent, he
lifted his head and glanced at me. His eyes were glassy, filled with obvious
dread: his body seemed withered and small. He sluggishly straightened himself
just enough to scuttle past me and leave.

I felt my own stomach fluids not far away.

Oh
my god, Papa, this is really happening.

Yes,
Carino, it is.

An extra round of chills rippled my skin.

I saw Shamus next, crouched on the floor
only feet away from the bedroom; the golf club lay at his feet. I staggered
towards him and unsteadily dropped to my haunches. My right hand remained glued
to the wall. “Shamus,” I murmured.

No answer.

I grabbed his shoulder with my free hand,
gave him a partial shake. He looked up, but I barely recognized him. His
normally readable face was blank, his skin a ghastly grey, his lips bloodless
and still.

I placed a shaky palm on his cheek; he
barely responded. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, sensing a genuine urge to hug
him. It was pointless, though; he was too lost. I uncurled to a semi-stance and
set my sights for the bedroom.

My feet were like lead, slow, heavy, painful
to land… slow… heavy… painful. My heart felt the same. Dragging one beat at a time.
Until I arrived at the bedroom entrance.

The smell was pungent.

Papa.

Carino,
I love you.

I
love you too.

I then swung around and entered.

That’s when I saw him. Stretched out along
the bed. Motionless, yet so peaceful. Any prior thoughts of the ‘petal-less’
stems in the living area quickly vanished.

Here
they were.

Scores of crimson red petals carpeted him
like a protective blanket. Agony ripped my insides, guilt riddled my blood and
a driving urge to scream this injustice to the world rose in me. How could this
happen to someone so beautiful, so gentle, so loving? I crumbled to the floor,
let out a wail and yelled at all those unforgivable wrongs.

Cold had no meaning now. Neither did fear. Strange,
I thought. There’s an unequivocal solace in finally knowing the answers. No
more guessing… no more what ifs, no more buts and ‘perhapses’. And all I sensed was this incredible necessity to
be with him.

I gripped onto the doorjamb, used it to lift
my body. Once semi-balanced, I stumbled to the bed and dumped both of my hands
onto the white, thick quilt.

Tears were now torrents, falling wildly.
Tears for him. Every last drop. Love filled my heart; the overflowed memories
of his unconditional protection swarmed the marrow of my bones.

And it hurt so badly.

I slipped to his side, tenderly brushed
several of the offending petals off his forehead. Something viscous glued them
to my fingers. I wiped my hand onto the quilt. White quickly became red.

Blood.

One look at him, at the purpled-red hole
that dirtied the center of his forehead, at the congealed stream of fluid down
one side of his head, hardening parts of his soft, dark hair, confirmed it.

Subconsciously, I knew what had caused the
wound.

Consciously, I didn’t want to believe it.

“I’m here,” I said. I lifted his unusually
flaccid arm and wrapped it around me. “It’s now my turn to look after you.”

Death has a flavor of its own.

I know; I had smelt it before.

I smelt it now.

But this time was different.

This time was from someone I cherished.

My Simon.

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