Chapter 1: A Tuesday Request
It seemed that for months now, the entire city of Melbourne had been covered in a blanket of fog and rain. Daylight was scarce, and with the increase of crime over the past few decades, those rays of sun had become fewer and far in between. It was one such a dreary Tuesday afternoon that Francesca Doyle found herself sitting behind her desk, dreaming of days when her life hadn’t been so filled with grey. The incompetence of the local police force combined with their weakness for large sums of cash had created her profession, sure, but how she wished it wasn’t so. Grunting softly, she got up from the dark leather chair she had been lounging in, and travelled the handful of steps it took her to get to the other end of the small office. A crystal flask, its neck shaped with gentle curves, called her name, caressing her senses. Lifting the cap off, she poured two fingers of bourbon into a thin-walled tumbler, adding half a splash for good measure. Just as she was about to down the drink, Allison Novak, her secretary barged into her office, immediately staring at the glass in her hands.
“For crying out loud, Franky; it’s not even five yet!” she chastised her boss, while bending over in a huff to pick up a piece of discarded typewriting ribbon from the floor. “That stuff’ll be the end of you someday, you know.” Franky rolled her eyes at the statement.
“If it does, it’ll be a nicer death than most people around here get,” she commented. “Let me have my pleasures, Allie, and I’ll let you have yours.” Allie huffed, but held her silence. Franky knew the girl liked to sneak in a cigarette break more often than she’d originally had allowed her to, but she did her work nicely and knew what it meant when things needed to stay confidential, so she let her get away with it.
“In any case, you’ve got a client waiting for you. Shall I send her in?” the blonde secretary asked once Franky had finally swallowed the bourbon. It burned nicely as it flowed down her throat, scorching the walls of her stomach.
“I thought I didn’t have any appointments scheduled today,” Franky objected.
“You don’t. She’s a walk-in. Between me and you, I think she barely even knows what she’s doing here. She’s quite nice looking, like she doesn’t visit this part of town often, hey?”
“Enough with the gossiping already, Novak. Send her in. It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do.” Franky sighed and leant against her desk, awaiting the arrival of this mystery woman.
Within a few moments, Franky could hear a scuffling outside of her office door, followed by a petite young woman entering with a nervous smile. Offering her her right hand, Franky greeted her: “Francesca Doyle, Private Investigator. How may I be of your service today, Miss…?” She guided the woman to take a seat in the chair opposite of her desk.
“Vera Bennett. Pardon, Westfall-Bennett.” Mrs Westfall-Bennett blushed furiously at the mistake. “I got married yesterday morning, so I’m still getting used to the surname, you see.” She was about to start rambling even more, Franky realised, so she put on her friendliest smile and commented: “Not to worry, Mrs Westfall-Bennett, and please, let me offer my congratulations.”
“Thank you,” the woman replied, after which she looked at Franky expectantly. Clearing her throat, Franky suggested: “The reason you’re here?”
“Right! Here’s my issue,” Vera began, reaching into her purse as she spoke. “My older sister has gone missing, and my family fears she may have gotten involved with, well…” She reduced her voice to a whisper. “...the Irish mob.”
“And you would like me to track her down?” Franky asked, urging her to tell her more. “Why haven’t you gone to the police?”
“Oh, we have, you see,” the woman replied, “but you know how they are. Unless you can hand them a nice bonus they’d rather spend their days patrolling the streets and writing out speeding tickets, instead of catching true criminals or fighting actual crime. And with the wedding and all, we just don’t have the funds to sponsor them right now.” She cast her eyes downward. Ah, now this explained many things, Franky realised. For one, it was a reason for a seemingly well-off woman to reach out to a female PI. Times may have been changing, but in many ways, she was often written off as incapable, meaning her rates were lower than her male competitors.
“Do you have any idea of where she may be, this sister of yours?” Franky asked, leaning forward to let her lower arms rest on the hardwood desk.
“I haven’t a clue, but I do have a photograph you may keep, if that would help?” Vera replied. “I’m not up to date on the whereabouts of criminals, I’m afraid.” The PI nodded in response, and reached over to accept the small photograph. It couldn’t have been much larger than a business card, but the moment she laid eyes on it, she couldn’t take her eyes off of it. Various shades of black and grey depicted a female portrait, with sharp lines and edges making up the facial features, but a definite warmth radiating from the eyes. Vera’s sister’s gaze was cast slightly upwards and her lips were parted.
“What’s...what’s her name?” Franky managed to stammer.
“Bridget Westfall. Will you find her?”
“As God is my witness, I will,” the PI replied, blinking once before pocketing the photo and escorting Miss Westfall-Bennett back out the door to go over the administrative parts of the process with Allie.
Not a minute later though, the blonde secretary burst through her door once more.
“You don’t believe in God,” she accused Franky.
“And you shouldn’t eavesdrop, Miss Novak!” the brunette countered.
“I don’t know, Franky; this feels like bad news. I can just feel it, like an omen,” Allie commented, laying a hand upon Franky’s arm.
“It’s just the weather getting to you. It’s just another job, and once it’s over, things will all be back to normal again, as they always are. I promise.”
“Where do you suppose you’ll start looking for her, huh? It’s not like you can go around ringing the doorbells of Irish mobsters.” Grinning, Franky replied: “I figure the Wentworth Club may be the way to go tonight.” Allie immediately swatted her arm.
“You just want to go there because you hope Will Jackson will be performing there, don’t you?” she asked. Franky had always been a big fan of Jackson’s music, preferring his voice over many of the other contracted performers at the nightclub. Rubbing her arm in feigned injury, Franky answered truthfully: “Maybe, but I’ve also heard the concentration of Micks has been rising there lately, if the word of Linda Miles is to be trusted.” Allie shook her head.
“That gambler can be trusted about as far as you could throw her!”
“Maybe, but for now, it’s my only lead. Now, if you’ll leave me be, I need to rest. I’m going to be working tonight.” Franky relaxed back into her chair and let her feet rest upon her desk. Rolling her eyes and with a huffed: “I’m not cleaning that,” Allie walked back out.
“And close the door!”
As the night approached, Franky sent Allie home to her flatmate, Bea. Those two seemed to have a slight semblance of happiness in all the dread, though Allie had mentioned that Bea’s teenage daughter Debbie had been hanging out with opioid dealers recently. It was a shame, Franky thought, but it seemed to be the way things went these days. People either drank, smoked, sought highs, or all of the above. She flicked off the lights and walked out of the office, locking the door behind her. Her tiny box of a bureau was located above a grocer’s, with an alleyway leading to the door in the back of the building. The minimarket was run by a mixed-race couple, who were just as ostracised by the Melbourne population as she was, if not worse, but it meant that they didn’t have any issues with a woman running her agency above them. She knocked on the door as she walked past the storefront, waving at Doreen behind the counter. The woman was entertaining their young son and waved back, while her husband Nash approached Franky. The door swung open and the grocer reached to kiss Franky’s cheek.
“How’s business?” the private investigator asked, leaning against a nearby lamp post. Nash sighed.
“It’s been better, but it’s also been worse, you know?” he replied. Nodding his head towards his wife and baby Josh, he added: “It’s a good thing she can still provide food for him for now; I’ll put it that way.” Franky nodded in understanding. This was not a wealthy neighbourhood at all, and most were struggling to provide for their families.
“If you ever need help,” she offered, “you know where to find me.” Nash nodded.
“Thanks, Franky.” She knew the grocer would never actually ask her for assistance in any way; he was too proud of a man, but she wanted to have made the offer anyway. They had this exact same conversation at the end of every single day, and things never changed. Maybe it was just the way it was supposed to be. Nash continued: “Any new assignments?”
“Surprisingly, yes,” Franky replied. “Can’t tell you much about it, but I’m looking for a girl.”
“A girl?” Doreen asked, having approached them, Josh on her hip. Smiling, the investigator reached out to ruffle his hair, earning her bright giggles. The baby boy was young enough to be completely unaware of the struggles of his parents and brought joy to those surrounding him. For now, anyway, Franky guessed.
“Supposedly the Micks are involved, but I need to see that to believe it first. None of my cases are usually this high-profile, but you know that by now.” Most of her clients were people wanting to know whether their spouses were unfaithful, or whether their sons were involved in less-than-legal activities, or whether their daughters weren’t seeing gentlemen visitors instead of their girlfriends. Mrs Westfall-Bennett’s request had been an unusual one, but maybe that was what intrigued her so.
“Isn’t Doyle an Irish name?” Doreen asked, smirking.
“Yeah, but I was in the CMP, so it’s never helped me much with those connections,” Franky replied. Doreen nodded knowingly. The PI wasn’t completely sure, but she thought the woman had labelled herself as part of the Stolen Generations once.
“So how will you find this girl then?” the Aboriginal woman asked.
“I’m heading towards the Wentworth tonight; hopefully, I’ll find some leads there. If anything, I’ll get a nice evening out of it,” Franky joked. She shoved her hands in her coat pockets. The ongoing bad weather was blasting a harsh chill through the city. She really should’ve brought a scarf, she mused.
“That’s not exactly the safest of nightclubs,” Doreen stated, concern dripping from her voice.
“True, but they’ve got the best music in town.” That comment earned her a tap to the head.
“Just be careful, okay? We love having you above us,” the other woman spoke as she handed her a metal tin. “I made you some dinner, on the house.” Franky smiled.
Two hours later, Franky pulled up to the Wentworth Club. A bright sign depicted its logo - larger-than-life letters stating the name, with a softer glow illuminating the building. Large posters announced the singers and bands performing the next couple of weeks. She got out of her car and locked the doors. This neighbourhood was miles away from the one she’d just left. People were rich, and even seemed somewhat happy most of the time. Still, the ones who visited the clubs at these hours were either illicit or oblivious. She was still trying to figure out which of those two she belonged to.
Entering the venue, she handed her coat to the woman manning the cloakroom. As she walked further into the club, piano music flowing through the air, the smell of cigarettes and alcohol hit her in the face. Ah, she was home. Upper-middle-class men and their wives were seated at small round tables, talking and laughing. She took a seat near the back of the room, which gave her a good view of the attendees, as well as the stage. A blonde woman was singing soft tones she didn’t recognise. It wasn’t Will Jackson, but it wasn’t bad either. One glance at the sign next to the stage told her the singer in question was Karen Proctor, a name she'd heard Allie talk about somewhere before. Ms Proctor was a patron of women of all social standings, much to the annoyance of the men in charge, but because she sang a good tune, she got away with it. At the same time, she was also known to have a terrible temper, and though it couldn't be proven, there were a handful of rumours connecting her to the recent fires at gentlemen's clubs throughout the city. Franky chuckled at the thought. She didn't mind a little bit of poetic justice every now and again.
As a waitress served her the scotch she had ordered, Franky cocked her head to the side, softly murmuring: “Could you tell me something, sweetheart?” The young girl shot her a bright smile, probably hoping to get a nice tip out of whatever Franky wanted, and replied: “Depends on what you want to know.” The investigator retrieved the photo from her pocket and held it out for the waitress to see.
“Do you know this woman?”
“I don’t just know her, ma’am. She’s right over there,” the girl stated, nodding her head towards the entryway. A group of men and women in double-breasted Italian-cut suits had just walked in. Right in the centre of the men she could see the back of a woman, golden blonde hair in victory rolls resting on her shoulders, a soft navy gown doing very little to hide slight curves. Franky felt like she needed to actively remind herself to breathe. The woman spun around to hand her cream-coloured fur wrap to one of the men, and sky blue eyes connected with green. Franky nearly choked on her mouthful of scotch but managed to nod her head towards Ms Westfall in acknowledgement of her presence. The woman smiled back, before being led to the opposite end of the room by one of the men in suits, the rest following quickly. If Franky hadn’t known any better, they would’ve looked like any other high-class group to her, but the signs were there: this was the Irish mob, and if she wasn’t mistaken, she recognised the woman leading the pack: Joan Ferguson. A chill ran through her veins at the idea of having to get involved in the woman’s business, but she was going to have to anyway - she had a job to do. She had made a promise to Mrs Westfall-Bennett, and she wasn’t about to break it. She’d seen scarier things in her life...she figured.
During the next hour, she kept trying to make eye contact with Ms Westfall, but Ferguson kept her close by and on a very short leash. She’d even considered sending a round of drinks their way, but that meant she would have to come up with a good excuse to do so other than: ‘I’m trying to contact the beautiful woman you’re obviously very protective of,’ and she wasn’t feeling very inspirational nor creative tonight. Suddenly, she saw Ms Westfall get up, seemingly headed towards the washrooms. This was her chance. She slapped some cash onto the table for the waitress’ help and followed her at a short distance. As Ms Westfall went around the corner, two pairs of hands grabbed Franky’s shoulders all of a sudden and dragged her off. Before she knew it, she was being pushed up against a wall of what seemed to be the backstage area.
“What do you want?” she managed to splutter, sounding less intimidating than she had hoped she would. She had a pistol concealed on her body, but there was no way she’d be able to reach it like this, and she wasn’t exactly the best at hand-to-hand combat. The man and woman keeping her in place smirked, and the woman reached back and slapped her face, hard. Franky’s cheek burned with the impact. Something hit her in the stomach, and she doubled over in pain, the only thing keeping her upright being the man’s grip on her shoulders. Just as the woman grabbed a handful of her hair, pulling the tightly-pinned locks out of place, a low voice sternly announced: “Fletcher, Murphy - Enough.” While Ferguson stepped closer to them, the muscle lowered Franky until her feet touched the floor again. The tall woman approached Franky until her face was mere centimetres from the investigator’s.
“I trust you will stay away from my property, hm?”
“I didn’t know you owned girls now, Ferguson,” Franky spat back with a smirk. She could feel blood gather in her mouth. Her lip must’ve caught on her teeth when the woman hit her.
“Don’t try me,” Ferguson replied, and with a snap of her fingers, the trio left Franky backstage.
“Well, fuck,” Franky sighed.
Thank you for reading this chapter! I'd love to hear your thoughts!
* CMP: Child Migrant Programme - An estimated 150,000 British children were sent to overseas colonies and countries in the British Commonwealth such as Australia. This practice was in effect from the beginning of the nineteenth century until 1967. Many of these children were sent to orphanages, foster homes and religious institutions, where they were used as a free source of labour and many were severely abused and neglected. These children were classified as orphans although most were not. In the period after World War II the policy was referred to as the "Child Migrant Programme". The prime consideration was money as it was cheaper to care for children in Commonwealth countries than it was in the United Kingdom. At least 10,000 children, some as young as 3, were shipped to Australia after the war, most to join the ranks of the "Forgotten Australians", the term given for those who experienced care in foster homes and institutions in the 20th century.
* Stolen Generations: Among these Forgotten Australians were members of the "Stolen Generations", the children of Australian Aborigines, forcibly removed from their homes and raised in white institutions. In 2008 Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd apologised to the approximately 500,000 "forgotten Australians" and in 2010 British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a similar apology to those who were victimised by the Child Migrants Programme.