Helpless: Chick Lit Crime Short Fiction By Eleanor Sharman
In Helpless by Eleanor Sharman, still traumatized years after discovering the body of someone she knows, Hannah comes face to face with Isabella, the murder suspect.
From a six-month solo backpacking trip through South and Central America and belly-dancing contracts in India and Japan, Eleanor’ Sharman’s unconventional and adventurous life has provided her with a wealth of inspiration for her writing. Her fiction and crime pieces draw on the full spectrum of social and personal experience to create authentic and original narratives.
I have the timing right this time. Not too late but definitely not too early. Nothing worse than that seemingly endless stretch between the doors opening and people walking through them. From the side door, I can’t see if there are any red spots on my paintings, not without my glasses, and I’d left them at home on purpose. Held together with a bulky bandage of sticky tape until I can come up with some extra cash. I might be a sixty-five-year-old woman but I like to think that I still have some style.
The usual crowd is here; those who follow Arts North on Facebook to rub shoulders with the provincial glitterati or fill up on free cheese and wine. Plus a few of the types I had hoped for, wearing expensive but deceptively plain outfits in dry-clean-only fabrics. Not the kind you’d normally see in the Community Centre Hall of an isolated coastal city like Townsville.
The usual crowd is here; those who follow Arts North on Facebook to rub shoulders with the provincial glitterati or fill up on free cheese and wine.
Long, beach-blonde ringlets stand out from the rest of the mob, whose hair, if they still have any, tends toward grey, over-dyed black or a kaleidoscope of neon colors. A similar sunny shade as my hair, back in the day. She looks slender and toned in her perfectly fitted short black dress and I don’t need to see her face to guess that she’s pretty young. Perhaps the gold-digger girlfriend of the much older man in the buttery-smooth leather jacket who keeps at least one part of his body glued to hers at all times.
Ringlets turns. Sure, the eyes sit deeper, the cheeks more hollow, but I can’t deny the similarity. Maybe a younger sister? Cousin? Has to be. Isabella must be fifty-five by now and this girl can’t be more than half that. Long gone from this country, from what I’d managed to squeeze out of the local policeman with tales of my terror and trauma. It was easy to get a fake passport in those days. Still, it’s enough to set me wobbling as I step back and close the door.
“Hey! There you are. Thought you’d chickened out for a while.” Malcolm, Council’s Community Arts Officer appears behind me on the pathway, grabs my arm and drags me in through the doorway. “You gotta meet this woman. She’s something else. Seriously interested in your stuff.”
He stops right in front of Ringlets. “Ophelia? This is Hannah.”
She beams and takes my hands. “Sweetie, I know we’re only Boat People…” she chuckles, and pauses for a moment so we know that we should join her, “but please, please can I have one of these gorgeous paintings? Or two?… Or three?” She clasps Leather Jacket’s arm and aims her smile-crinkled eyes at him. “Gordon Babe. How many can we fit on the boat?”
“Yacht, darling, it’s a yacht,” he growls, “at fifty feet you don’t call her a boat.” He looks up over his girlfriend’s head and passes his hollow laugh around the room like an automated sideshow clown.
Ringlets rolls her eyes and sends me a smirk. She’s exactly the same height – just like Isabella – and the eyes, the voice… it’s too much. I smile back but my head is spinning.
Her voice takes on a cracked, flinty edge. “We must talk more, I have so much to ask you…” She snatches my gaze and holds it so tightly I can’t breathe. “About your pieces.” And there it is. One perfectly manicured eyebrow. Imperceptibly but indisputably raised.
I manage to sneak out to the car, lock the doors and remind myself to breathe. It’s her, all right. With enough money, you can buy yourself any age you want, these days. What now? I can’t leave, it’s my exhibition opening. And what’s the point? She’ll find me anyway. The rise of an eyebrow and a vague resemblance won’t be enough to spur the local constabulary into action. I’m guessing she still has rich friends in low places and can keep doing whatever she wants. To me and anyone else.
All I can do is sit here in the dark, shrinking into my seat. Once again she’s reduced me. I recognize the tug of the black hole it took me so long to climb out of; the one I’ve never completely managed to leave behind. I couldn’t lay my anger at the feet of the person who deserved it so I turned it in on myself. Anywhere but there again.
What does she want with me? And that’s only the start of the long list of unanswered questions going back more than thirty-five years. They say you can’t go back in time but part of me is stuck there, in 1985. I’ve never been able to move on because I still can’t make sense of what actually happened. And why.
The shack itself has long since disappeared under the compost of leaves and debris and now provides a comfortable home for brilliant blue quandong seeds and vindictively sharp wait-a-while vines. But back then you’d normally find the timber floor swept clean and still fragrant from the newly sanded cypress pine. That’s why the smell hit me first that day.
Stale and rusty like my Grandfather’s old tool shed. The dark stains on the boards were curious but my brain automatically grasped at the most likely solution—paint thrown around in frustration after a failed attempt at transforming some ugly piece of furniture. But the strangely stiff figure curled across the old iron bed, face and hands tinted a pale purple-blue, turned my thoughts to mush.
The ocean brought a strange pong the day Isabella first infected my life. Sharp and acrid with a sickly aftertaste. It was the second day of the new year and I waited in anticipation for the new, better me to rise from the ashes of the blitzkrieg that was 1984.
Just algae, according to my friend Skye, an avid follower of David Attenborough re-runs on our one and only TV station that spent more time on ads than programs. I preferred to watch the stars from my front verandah and the wallabies popping in and out of the scrub. Or listen to fruit bats argue over the mangoes if I got sick of my mix-tapes.
Skye had liked the smell. “Ahh…the aroma of mid-summer. Mother Ocean at her most fecund.” She chuckled at my exasperated face.
To me, it smelt of rot. But Skye didn’t come around just to educate me on phytoplankton or exhibit her attempt at the latest New-Wave fashion craze. She had slathered her long brown fringe with sticky gel and molded it into a hump above her forehead, making her look much like one of her beloved cassowaries. She had news. Alexander, I assumed.
“Let me guess,” I said, “he’s come back because he’s finally realized that he’ll never be a famous actor/writer/musician and has decided to dedicate his life to elevating the downtrodden.”
“Well, actually, you’re not too far off.’” She chuckled then paused. “It’s true things haven’t been going well in Sydney, work-wise.”
Surprise, surprise. My ex had an ego far more tenacious than his grip on reality. ‘Just visualize it and it will manifest’ was his idea of real work. Skye started a slow, silent nod and bent down to fiddle with her sandal.
My stomach began to twist. “That’s not all, is it,” I said.
“No.” She finally looked up. “He’s brought someone with him.”
“Isabella. He’s helping her out.”
“Of course he is.”
Skye sniggered as I rolled my eyes. She had always been immune to his charms. The girl told her that the mafia boyfriend had become erratic and violent after a week-long binge on cocaine that he then accused her of stealing. That he was ‘completely psycho’ so she had just run out the door with nothing but the clothes on her back and a few dollars in her purse. Alexander had come across her huddled alone in the corner of the Greek Cafe on Oxford Street late one night, trying but failing to keep herself composed.
The day after this news I dropped into the St Vinnies Charity store at the old church hall to check if Agnes, one of the stalwart volunteers, had come across more reusable canvases. Coming in through the large back kitchen I noticed that the ladies were unusually animated as they sorted crochet coat hangers and ruffled valances. The loud buzz of their chatter dwindled as I clunked the door shut.
“Hannah. Your friend is back.”
I followed the direction of Agnes’ pointed chin toward the open servery hatch with a view down over the crowd of clothes racks and cluttered bookshelves. There they were—behind the hat and handbag stand. From the kitchen I could only see the back of the girl as she posed for him, an orange monstrosity bristling with stiff nylon ribbon perched on her head and little else. Short, like me, but unlike my roomy nineteen-fifties swimsuit, the old string bikini she wore looked so tiny it might have been made for a child. Long, dark wavy hair cascaded down her back and pooled in ringlets over the narrow cord that held the bra in place, making it look like she was topless.
I remained glued to the scene like a kangaroo hypnotized by headlights and waited for the impact to hit. All sorts of scenarios about bumping into him again in our tiny beach-side town had run through my head. I always came out the better and him the worst, of course. I hadn’t thought to prepare for this one. Alexander looked good. He carried a calm glow and a confident swagger. His strawberry blonde hair had grown and fell partway over the side of his face, giving him a slightly wild look. I saw his grin widen as he stepped closer, reached around and grabbed her round tanned bottom. The blow finally arrived. It knocked me back into a pile of overstuffed cardboard boxes in the corner and pressed me into a small ball.
His hands. He thought himself a good actor but they always gave him away. Six months earlier, I had watched them tap a relaxed rhythm on the worn arms of my club lounge chair. Where I always sit. He knew that. The rest of him perched forward in a tight coil, wrinkles of torment painted on his forehead. Oh, the agony of being held back from his unfulfilled destiny. All these people trying to block his creative expression.
“I’m not stopping you,” I’d told him. “But if you go, then you’re gone, as far as I’m concerned. Don’t expect me to wait for you this time.”
“Sure,” he’d replied as he unwound his body, leaned back and slowly stretched his arms across the back of the chair. “Of course.” But his hands gripped the fabric so fiercely it almost tore. His clutch on Isabella’s backside now just as savage.
The next morning rose grey and wild, trees crashing about in the salt-water wind. It sounded like the back lattice had come loose again and I headed towards the laundry to check the damage. There it was again – coming from the back door. No one came to the back door. They knew I needed my privacy. That’s why I won’t have the phone connected. Something large and dark filled the foggy window, quivered in the next gust and blew back to reveal a face and dark, damp hair. My mind fought the resemblance. It couldn’t be. She wouldn’t. Then a hand reached out and cleared the glass and her eyes found mine before I could retreat.
She talked about her feet – how small they were – how small mine were. I peered down at her silver stilettos pointed like a rocket and smirked at the image of her teetering down the dirt road, trying to fend off the squalls. Did I mind? Just until she can get hold of another pair? I left her dripping in the kitchen while I found my spare thongs – the ones I kept for the garden.
She stared at them as if they might jump up and wrap themselves around her neck. I wished they would. “Haven’t you got-”
“-No. What about St Vinnies?” I asked.
Her eyebrows wrinkled and she shook her head. “None that fit.”
Really? Said my face.
“Xander would have come but…”
“But he didn’t think you would… you know…” Her eyes wandered toward the photos on the fridge. Me and Skye. Me and Skye’s dog Banjo. Banjo with Alexander’s hand on his collar. When Isabella faced me again she had softened her face and composed a smug smile on her lips.
“Skye said you were nice.”
“You do know that me and Alexander…”
“Yeah, well that was years ago.”
“Six months, you mean.”
“You don’t still…” I caught a movement in one eyebrow. Only a fraction and only for a second. Yet it was the first sign of authentic emotion to cross her face.
“No. I can’t stand him,” I said. That’s what I’d been telling myself, anyway.
“He’s changed, you know.”
“Oh yeah? And how long have you known him?”
“Oh, you know, a while.”
I watched her disappear down the road and drifted from room to room but her presence and her last words persisted. ‘A while. How long is a while ? My home—the one place I could avoid her—was now tainted, desecrated. I couldn’t be there. I drove to Skye’s place but she just didn’t get it.
“Sounds like Bella was just trying to be friendly,” she’d said and told me to go to the beach. “It always sorts you out.”
Scrambling down from the headland, I discovered that the king tide and the storm had joined forces to lay waste to the cove, leaving only ramshackle sand cliffs with tree roots dangling in mid-air like tentacles. Unfamiliar sharp rocks littered the shore and garrisoned my favorite swimming spot. Another gust blew in, battered my ears and doused my face with salty spray. I didn’t know how I was supposed to find peace of mind there. Everything looked just as grey and torn as I felt. I just knew I couldn’t go home. Not like this.
I had vowed I would never succumb to petty bitterness and jealousy. But even in an ugly plastic poncho, Isabella made me feel ponderous and bland and I hated her for it. And I hated the abomination she had made me become. Like the girl you’d see in the pub car-park late at night as she screamed profanities at her cheating boyfriend one minute and sniveling in apology the next. I had fantasized about how I would get my revenge once he came crawling back, but now I had to face the truth. Neither was going to happen.
A fierce howl rose and I poured it out over the waves until I reached a state of blissful emptiness. Too soon I became aware of my cracked and stinging throat and with it, a surge of tears. I dropped onto the sand with my face open to the ragged sky and imagined my monster unravelling as I pushed out each bitter sob. Bit by bit, it leached out and dissolved into the wind.
Skye turned up the next afternoon and we hung out in the shade of the veranda, cramped by awkwardness. The few words she had to offer were unnaturally polite and cautious. I couldn’t stand it.
“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry about yesterday. I just-”
“- No, no. I’m sorry. I should have listened.” She released a loud sigh. “I went to the shack. Afterwards. To talk to Alexander—to tell him to leave you alone.”
“Oh. I didn’t expect you to…”
“Isabella wasn’t there and he got extremely narky. I’ve never seen him like that. I think he’s on something. Speed, maybe.”
“Horrible stuff,” I said. “Sydney’s full of it, apparently.” And Isabella, too, probably, I thought.
“He said to F-off and that if he sees my face there again, he’ll be tempted to make it recognizable.”
She screwed up her nose and nodded.
Banjo shattered my next thought with an outburst of barking and took off down the road. Skye followed to call him back.
“Bella! Hi!” I heard.
Here we go.
I couldn’t catch Isabella’s reply but Sky’s next words rang clear. “What the? No!”
Isabella continued to mumble but raised her voice just as she came into view. “You weren’t home so I thought you must be here.” Her hands were weighed down with plastic supermarket bags.
“Give me some of those,” Skye reached for the bags. “You’d have thought St Vinnies could have given you something better.”
Isabella stopped at the bottom of the steps and looked me in the eye. A shiny, red pumpkin-shaped swelling rose from her cheek below a speckled graze on her forehead. “Hi, Hannah.”
I struggled not to stare. “Um, hi.”
She took a breath. “Is it okay if I…”
“Yes, of course,” my reply swift.
Halfway up the steps one of Isabella’s bags burst open and a faded toiletry bag dropped with a clunk on the timber. She scooped it up. “Oops! There goes the camera.”
Skye sent her a sharp look.
Isabella returned it. “A present from Xander, before he got sick of me.” She gave a sharp laugh.
“Sit down, I’ll make you a cup of tea.” Skye grabbed my arm and pulled me into the kitchen. “Be nice to her. Whatever’s going on, there’s no excuse for what he’s done to her.”
“Don’t worry, I’m over being cheesed off. It’s not good for my art.”
“I’m glad. Us women have got to stick together.”
She was right. We should. Skye had been through a pretty hard time with her step-family on the farm, from the little she’d told me, and her mother never stood up for her. One time she’d alluded to more traumatic experiences but refused to go into detail, insisting that the past was irrelevant to the present. Whatever gets you through the night, I’d thought at the time.
Skye switched on the kettle. “He’s kicked her out as well.”
“So what happens now? She going back to Sydney?”
“She can stay at your place.”
“Bob won’t let me. He made that clear when I took the room.”
“Sounds like she won’t have much choice, then.”
Skye narrowed her eyes and busied herself with tea bags, cups, sugar, and milk while I kept pretending that I didn’t know what she really wanted.
Back outside, Isabella jumped up. “Look,” she said, “I’m sorry for just rocking up yesterday— out of the blue like that. Xander insisted you’d be fine with it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I mumbled.
“No. I shouldn’t have listened to him.”
“Well, at least you’re away from him now.”
The levee broke. Isabella curled forward, hands over face, while her chest heaved and tears escaped through her fingers.
“It’s okay, it’s okay…” Skye wrapped herself around Isabella as the sobbing bubbled over. “We’ll look after you, won’t we Hann,” she said, locking her eyes with mine.
Seemed like I didn’t have a choice.
A blast of sun woke me instead of the usual morning cacophony from the garden. I discovered why when the muteness followed me and my pounding head to the kitchen. I pulled the pieces of sticky Aquablock putty from my ears and hair. That’s right—Isabella woke me up sometime in the early hours with the radio blasting. I started to remember the rest of the evening with the girls. Madonna and AC/DC tapes and bottles of Green Ginger Wine magically appearing from one of Isabella’s shopping bags. Bad singing. Manic laughter. Screaming. Sobbing.
I guessed that Isabella would be comatose in the studio until the afternoon, at least. The living room was a mess and most of the lounge seat cushions had drifted onto the floor. Squeezing them back into place, I caught a tiny glint of something iridescent and milky peeking out from under the back of the seat. Something that looked like it had slipped from a pocket or bag. Just where Isabella had been sitting. My hand slid under the upholstery and felt rows of smooth pearls. I reached in further and touched cool metal and satiny stone.
‘My retirement’ Alexander had joked when he first showed me the Art Nouveau jewelery his late aunt had left him. A lozenge of deep purple-blue opal with flashes of green and fiery red, set on each side by intricate gold shells and bands of saltwater pearls. I told him he’d better keep it at the bank. ‘Nuh,’ he’d replied. ‘I like looking at it too much.’
Outraged by my discovery, I wrenched open the door to the darkened studio, releasing a thick fug of paint fumes and fumbled for the light switch. My eyes flickered around the unrecognizable space and ploughed downwards. The shelf teetered in limbo, one side balanced precariously against the edge of the table, now swiped clear. Brushes in pungent turpentine and murky water had flown across the empty spare bed and rained down on a mess of lace bras and underpants, makeup and perfume. My finished canvasses and full drawing pads had been attacked, sprayed with tanning oil and the remains scattered across the floor. On top of these scraps lay worms of colour from my paint tubes, split and oozing from the weight of some unknown boot.
On shaking legs, I followed a trail of ripped shopping bags to the open door of the cavernous old wardrobe. Inside still hung my old coats and the growing collection of vintage clothes in need of refit and repair. Nothing else, thank god. As I turned, the mirror on the inside of the door flashed my image along with some curious splodges on the glass. Scribbled across my reflection were the words HELP, over and over, in my best quality Citrine paint.
Too frantic to change out of the long singlet top I’d slept in, I sped to Skye’s unit, fueled by a rush of adrenaline and the sinking chill of shame. I hadn’t taken Isabella’s situation seriously. The Mafia story? Straight from The Godfather, I’d thought. No answer when I called out and banged on the sliding glass front door. No response from out the back either. I hadn’t had time to come up with a Plan B. Police? Where would I start? Where might it end? No.
What would Skye say? What would she do? I imagined her, propped cross-legged on my saggy veranda couch taking a puff of a roll-your-own and it came to me. This is all Alexander’s fault. It’s time he took responsibility. I don’t remember much about the drive to his place, except overtaking everyone on the highway and how the sight of his car parked at the start of the goat track reignited my outrage and set me marching up to his shack with unusual stamina.
I stumbled back down even faster, after discovering Alexander’s lifeless body on the bed and the curdle of blood against his chest. I managed to get the car into gear and make it to a phone box outside the nearest petrol station. A glossy red Porsche had parked a little further on than me, looking very out of place among the fields of cattle and sugar cane. Even more unexpected was the rear view of a woman in a sharp white jacket who appeared from the toilets and headed straight toward it. A long dark ponytail ended in ringlets and bounced against her back from the quick mincing footsteps of a woman in high heels and a hurry. Isabella. She disappeared into the car – already revving to go – before I could wrangle open my door.
The sound of someone banging on my car window jerks me back to 2022 and sets off another burst of adrenaline. Outside in the Community Centre car-park, wrapped in the last wisps of daylight, stands the re-invented Isabella.
She leans forward. “I have something for you.”
I start the car and clunk it into gear.
“No!” She shouts. “Wait a minute.”
I keep my hand on the gear stick and my foot on the clutch.
“I want to sort this out.” She sounds sincere. “Please.”
Taking a deep breath, I switch off the car and crack open the window. Isabella produces a photo and posts it onto my lap. From an old 35mm SLR camera, by the look of the soft, grainy image of two young women, side-on. Skye, squished up against Isabella, planting a big smoochy kiss straight on her lips and sending a sparkly wink to the camera.
I flinch. Skye seemed to avoid me after I found Alexander’s body and left town soon after. Started a women’s shelter down in Melbourne from what I heard. Now I realize that I had already lost my friend before everything fell apart. My loathing for the woman in front of me reached new heights.
“What the hell?” I don’t know where to start. “What do you want from me?”
Isabella remains mute.
My grip tightens on the photo as I hold it up. “I don’t want to see this!”
“I think you should. It was hers.”
“The camera. One of her presents. It never worked after landing on your front steps but the film was OK.”
The police had been very interested in the heavy toiletry bag Isabella had dropped on my front steps. It turned out that Alexander hadn’t owned a camera at the time– he’d hocked it to help fund his Sydney move. They decided that it must have been the pistol that shot him.
She drops another through the gap. “This was hers, too.”
Skye, her fringe flopped over one eye, the other rolled upwards. Her arm angled sharply in a stiff salute and at the end of it, pressed against her temple, a dull grey-black gun. I’m speechless.
“A Browning 9-mm,” she says, “her father snuck it back from Vietnam. It’s the one he used when he… you know.”
She mimes shooting herself in the head.
My first reaction, strangely enough, is hurt that Skye had never shared any of this with me.
“I didn’t take her seriously when she said she’d do anything for me,” said Isabella. “I knew she was crazy, but I didn’t think she was that crazy.”
I bristled. You can talk, I thought.
“At first, she wanted to go after Lorenzo.”
“The guy from Sydney. He was so boring. I just needed a break.”
My brain clunks and whirrs as I struggle to process this information but my emotions have stalled.
“But then Sky kept turning up and then they both started acting all jealous and narky. I needed to pretend that he’d hit me so I could stay with you till I sorted things in Sydney.”
“So, he didn’t actually kick you out.”
“No – he did. When I told him I preferred sleeping with Skye.”
“Why would you do that?”
She shrugged. “Then I lost it. Pushed him down the stairs. But he took me with him. You don’t know what you’re doing when you’re trying to beat a coke habit.” She pauses. “But I didn’t get a chance to tell Skye that bit before it was too late.”
Her nod is unconvincing.
“So who wrecked my place? My artwork? That was an extremely shit thing to do, you know.”
‘Yeah, I’m sorry we had to do that. I felt pretty bad about it.”
We? “What the..?” I try to push open the car door but her weight holds it closed. She might be skinny but she was strong—far stronger than me.
“No – listen. Please.”
“Sky came back to your place in the early hours and told me what she’d done. We had to make it look like there had been a struggle. Otherwise, I’d be blamed.”
“Well, she mustn’t have cared too much. She did nothing to stop the police from coming after you.”
“Yeah, well. That’s always the way, isn’t it?”
“But …” I gather the photos and hold them up. “Why didn’t you just give these to the police?”
“Why do you think? One look at my file. Drug charges. Prostitution. ‘Participating in a Criminal Organization.‘ I never had a chance.”
I shrugged. It was all karma as far as I was concerned.
“But you do,” she said.
“Have a chance. To set things right. They’ll believe you.”
“Why should I?”
“Because you loved him. He deserves the truth.”
“Oh yeah? Pfft. Well, it can’t help him now.”
“But you can help yourself.” She pushed her weight off the car, pulled out her phone and started tapping on the screen. “How much do you want?”
I shake my head.
“Looks like you might need it.” She points her head in the direction of the hall and chuckles.
I sit in rigid silence and hope that she’ll go away if I ignore her long enough.
“Think about it.”
Isabella disappears into the dark and I stare at the photo of Skye with her father’s pistol. The stony, comic expression just makes her look all the more vulnerable. If this was a crime show, this would be the point where my sense of right and wrong would win out against my personal loyalties and I would share all this with the police. If I was an honest person. Or just take the money if I wasn’t. But Skye? Does she really deserve this? And the women’s shelter – the media would have a field day.
I swing open the door, grab my shoulder bag and a bottle from the backseat and peer around the badly-lit space between the car park and the bushes. Pieces of ripped photo flutter to the ground with the grace of leaves and their colors mingle as my turpentine washes them clean. I pull out the lighter, hold it in my hand for a minute and drop it back in my bag. No need for any more fires. We’d all been burnt enough already.
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