Season 2, Episode 16
‘Malik, whatever you’re doin’ these days is costin’ you a small fortune in punchin’ bags.’ Moonlake Gym’s owner surveyed the damage from Malik’s latest bout with one of his helpless old leather sacks; laying on its side on the floor torn from its harness, its textile innards spilling from its gaping wound. His name was Carl, but Malik’s crew had given him a nickname based on his round face, hooked nose, and tendency to appear in person only during the night.
‘Least of my worries, Owl,’ Malik grunted. ‘I got some savings.’ Without thinking, he aimed a savage kick at his fallen, inanimate adversary, imagining it to be someone quite specific whose agonies he longed to animate. ‘Can’t sleep.’ He shut his eyes and exhaled, rolling his head on his neck in a fruitless effort to release all the tension there. ‘’Sides, if I can be busting these open like this, your equipment was long overdue for replacing anyway.’
The fury of the night before grew on him like a rash, itching only more fiercely the harder he scratched. He thought of Danni. How it started, and how it ended. I just got something I’ve wanted for years. I should be sleeping like a cat in the sun with a big, dumb, satisfied grin on my face. Instead, it feels like I just found a spider carcass at the bottom of my scotch glass. She said she’s gonna make it up to me tomorrow night—Malik shook his head, remembering the time—no, tonight, but…there’s no way it can be that easy. Sterling almost sprang us last night. He told Hayden, no doubt, which is why he called Brennan. He’s on high alert. No, there’s no way I can imagine him letting Danni go anywhere outside of his surveillance between now and the engagement party. It can’t be worth the risk. We have a plan. We need to—
‘When you’re finished, I’ll clean up here,’ Owl’s voice cut through.
Malik came to himself, wondering how long he’d been zoning out mid-conversation, twitching like a robot with shorting circuits. He had just enough time to nod understanding when his phone rang, tensing his muscles even further. No good phone calls happen after 3AM. He picked up, dread settling in his gut as he read the caller ID: Omar.
‘Malik.’ Omar replied gruffly. ‘I don’t know where you are, but you should know the fire brigade is just finished putting out a fire on our front lawn. You should get home.’
In the light of dawn, Malik was ready for sleep. Instead, he was beholding grimly the extent of the damage to the front verge of his father’s house. Omar was still around, having decided to take the day off work to do what he could to clean up. From the street, it looked awful. The grass, which had admittedly got a little out of control in height lately while the Fadel family had been distracted with other concerns, was mostly gone, replaced with patches of black earth, dotted with the skeletons of dead black shrubs. A taller wattle and a gum tree at the extreme ends of the verge were singed at the base, with clear evidence the fire was beginning to spread to the canopies by the time the brigade arrived. Malik felt a strange nostalgic sense of relief, when he noticed the lilly pilly by the driveway was practically untouched.
It looked dramatic, but once past the shock of that, something occurred to Malik about the way it had been done. The fire was caught before it could catch in the gutters. There were still traces of accelerant on the bitumen in several places, showing a clear pattern of where the fires had been lit, right near the road. If the goal had been to set the house alight, I can think of plenty of places that would make more sense to set the fires than way out here, on the other side of a gravel path that even serves as a little fire break. I don’t feel like this is enough to match Hayden’s idea of retaliation for busting Danni and me. This is more like…
In a numb, sleep-deprived daze, Malik’s eyes settled on the letterbox near the driveway; a thick-walled box made of limestone relatively unscathed by the fire. He approached it and looked inside as though it were an entirely routine morning with no concerns more pressing than clearing out junk mail. It contained a single large, gaudy envelope with golden trim, addressed to him in a hand Malik could recall reading from time to time in his school days:
67 Kalbarri Crescent
Malik had already known, thanks to Danika, that he was on the invite list for the engagement party, but it did nothing to dull the sensation of butterflies in his gut and bile in his throat as he read his expensive-looking printed paper invite. Then he turned it over to look at the back, finding another message, this one written in the same serpentine script as on the envelope. There it is. This isn’t about retaliating or ruining. This is just a warning.
‘I must say, Mr. Marshall, I was beginning to think you would never accept our offer.’ Hayden Archer, wearing dark designer shades and a white shirt unbuttoned roguishly at the top, welcomed Grayson on the steps of the Country Club’s main building in uptown Moonlake. Between living in Sydney, working at a prestigious grammar school, and being offered lodgings in the rather understatedly-named “guest house” on his uncle’s estate, Grayson did not often find himself in the presence of anything that felt too rich for his blood. The sheer scale of the Country Club, however; the buildings, the lawns, the purported wealth of its patrons, was near enough to slacken his firm jaw.
The main building looked like a Mediterranean villa dumped smack in the middle of lawns far outsizing what would be necessary to accommodate a modest golf course. Grayson vaguely wondered how astronomical the costs must be to keep a ridiculous building like that cool in a Moonlake summer, not to mention the water to keep all the grass so green. In light of his more recent contacts with the people and places of the wrong side of Main Street, it all felt unexpectedly unnatural and foreign to him. The colour of the lawns, like Hayden’s smile, looked painted on; it occurred to him that the richer you got for riches’ sake, the more everything looked just like this: shinier, brighter, faker.
Grayson plastered on a fake white grin of his own before answering. ‘Ah, no offence meant, of course, when I first got here I was just a little caught up with, you know, moving and getting my head around the workload at Lakeside Grammar to even think about trying to spare time for anything else.’
‘Well, let’s get you out of this heat.’ Hayden smoothly ushered Grayson inside, and Grayson’s body registered the shock of the air conditioning immediately. Unbelievable. A five metre ceiling and all these glass panels, and they’ve made it feel like a walk-in fridge when it’s 38 degrees outside. Hayden continued, ‘That is a shame, I do think you’d have found the facilities here just the tonic, what with everything going on.’ From a distant room somewhere Grayson could hear a couple of rough male voices laughing uproariously, as well as a few thuds and knocks as if large furniture were being moved. Hayden lowered his voice and removed his sunglasses catching Grayson’s eyes with a heavy-lidded simper that suggested he was struggling to hide his glee over something. ‘No hard feelings about Danni, right?’
‘Wouldn’t have worked out between us,’ Grayson responded with a quick, dismissive air, that he had been rehearsing ever since he had resolved to visit. A large, embossed sign in the corner of the main bar area suddenly caught his eye. ‘Pantheon?’
‘Oh, that.’ Hayden laughed easily. ‘We still need to get that one in place outside. We’ve decided to give the Club a fancy new name to go with the expansion. Quite a few of the structures and grounds here are new, you see. But never mind that….’ Hayden quickened his pace as he began to lead Grayson towards the sound of the voices he had heard earlier. ‘I’d like you to meet some people.’
After passing a couple of doors along the main hallway, Hayden let them in to where a couple of middle-aged men were already lounging on some pricey-looking leather chairs. Both pairs of eyebrows raised, and both sets of lips puckered into amused smirks as they caught sight of Grayson, who felt immediately intimidated for a reason he couldn’t quite pin down. Something about their expressions just looks…malicious, as though they’ve already made their minds up and don’t think much of me. There were a lot of unmarked boxes stacked around the room, but otherwise no real clue as to what they had been doing before Hayden burst in. ‘Craig, Mark, this is Grayson, hopefully our newest member.’
‘Uh…hi,’ Grayson managed.
Craig and Mark each shook his hand with a nod, continuing to grin and stare wordlessly.
‘I’ve got a few more things to get ready before more company arrives tonight,’ Hayden prattled, already half out the door, but then appeared to suddenly remember something. ‘Oh, sorry about this Grayse, awful bore I know but I must ask, what’s your relationship to Malik Fadel?’
Grayson had expected it might come up, but he still couldn’t help but stiffen at the implied accusation. Playing it as cool as he could, he replied, ‘Well…not friendly, to be honest.’ He stifled a laugh. ‘We had a punch up over my cousin at a party recently, actually. That sorta set the tone.’
‘Yes, I had heard about that.’ Hayden adopted an amused cadence. ‘One would expect that to be an end to the matter, no? Although, it does seem rather odd that you would then later choose to take your car to his shop for servicing not too long after. It’s not as though there isn’t a perfectly reputable mechanic uptown.’
The temperature in the room seemed to drop from fridge to freezer with all the eyes on him. Grayson thought fast. ‘So you heard about that, huh? Guess I’m gonna have to come clean.’