A gripping exploration of modern greed as bestselling Australian author Fiona Lowe unpicks the moral quagmire of those who trade on the bonds of their closest friendships and family for money.
Izzy Harrington's fiance is a successful entrepreneur and everyone's friend, but today she's waiting for him to get home so she can tell him they're over. Except Brad never arrives.
Instead, three angry men knock on the door and insist on talking to Brad. When the police arrive asking difficult questions and demanding to see his passport, Izzy's packed suitcases suddenly take on a whole new meaning.
Brad's disappearance sends ripples through their small town and a furious mob camps on Izzy's lawn desperate to recover their losses. They have Izzy in their crosshairs, determined to make her pay for Brad's audacious con.
As the search intensifies, conflicting clues emerge. Clues that suggest no one really knew Brad - least of all Izzy ...
The Money Club
Izzy Harrington’s three matching suitcases sat by the front door, their air somewhat embarrassed. A tattered Qantas tag clung tenaciously to the handle of the medium-sized case as if to remind Izzy she was letting the side down—Louis Vuitton luggage was designed not only to fly but to be seen. None of the three cases had graced the cargo hold of a plane in months. They hadn’t even breached the cattle grid at the gate of Villefranche recently, let alone left the town limits of Glingilly, but today was the day.
The late afternoon sun streamed into the entrance hall, raising the temperature to that of a Pacific island, but instead of waving palm trees Izzy saw dust motes dancing. The waiting suitcases mocked her. Rather than holding a few bikinis, sarongs, linen dresses and strappy sandals, the zippers bulged from Izzy forcing half the contents of her wardrobe and tallboy into them. The rest of her clothes had been unceremoniously dumped into two-dollar-shop bags. Izzy imagined the cashmere jumpers flinching as they lay against the rough woven plastic.
She spun the large diamond ring on her finger. It was a looser fit than the day Brad had presented it to her, yet it had quadrupled in weight. She checked the time again. He was late. She’d expected him to walk through the double front doors over an hour ago. Should she load the suitcases into the car? She’d left them in the foyer as concrete proof she was leaving, and as an instant conversation starter for a topic that could no longer be avoided.
It won’t make it easier.
Izzy knew that. Despite months of unhappiness and her suggestion they seek couples counselling, Brad’s response continued to be one of two things: buy her something expensive, or sex. Once, something sparkly, a luxury holiday and mind-blowing sex had been enough—more than enough. Izzy knew that women envied her. Hell, her old self had envied her. So how had exhilaration and excitement turned into this hollow feeling that dogged her days and nights? The sparkling dream that had rolled out in front of them thirty months earlier—a golden road promising a future together of wondrous and endless possibilities—was now unrecognisable.
Even so, she wanted to limit the hurt. But was that possible when only one person wanted to walk away?
Her fingers pulled at the hair on the back of her head. She blew out a breath and contemplated a drink. She could have one gin and tonic and still safely make the two-hour drive to Geelong.
Yes! Have a drink, write a note and go.
But as tempting as it was to leave now, Izzy couldn’t do to Brad what her mother had done to her and her father. Izzy’s nine-year-old self had vowed she’d never take the coward’s way out and inflict that sort of pain on anyone. If Brad wanted an explanation as to why she was leaving, she’d give it to him. Perhaps this time he’d hear it.
She sighed. He’d probably only hear that her leaving today meant she wouldn’t be hosting Saturday’s Elite function.
A loud noise split the air and her body jerked before she realised the jangling sound was the landline. It rang so infrequently it always made her jump. Two years earlier, when they’d moved to Villefranche, she’d suggested they get rid of it.
‘It’s only scammers or charities. Everyone else uses our mobiles.’
‘The olds will use it,’ Brad had said. ‘Plus, you can’t depend on your mobile during fire season.’
Izzy, who’d been born and raised in Melbourne, had found this detail unsettling so the phone stayed. And Brad had been right—when it rang, if it wasn’t a scammer, it was his parents, his aunt or one of his many uncles.
She heard the machine click on. Brad, it’s Jack Essen …
For a brief moment Izzy considered picking up and telling Jack he’d hit the wrong number. But a call from Jack would only further delay Brad.
It’s about the club, Jack continued. Give us a call back as soon as you can, eh, mate? Ta.
Beeps followed, then silence. The walls of the cavernous entrance hall closed in on Izzy. She needed fresh air.
Pulling open the double doors, she ran down the sandstone steps and onto the circular drive, the gravel crunching under the soles of her quilted sneakers. The glare of the low afternoon sun collided with the fire-red glow of the turning maples as Izzy squinted down the long tree-lined drive, willing Brad’s car to loom from the ripple of haze. She listened with unusual keenness, hearing the rustle of falling leaves, the harsh but mournful calls of the crows, the desperate bleat of a lamb. But as much as she willed it, the low throb of a diesel engine was absent.
Where was he?
Had he told her he was meeting someone? Going somewhere? Had she been so consumed by her own plans to pack up her life that she’d missed hearing his arrangements for the day over breakfast?
Izzy pulled her phone out of her pocket—no missed calls. No voicemail and no messages. Should she text him? But asking What time will you be home? just so she could leave him before it got dark seemed callous.
She couldn’t predict how Brad would react to the news. Once, she would have bet on him turning on a charm offensive, but there’d been times recently when he’d been so distracted and distant she was convinced he’d left her despite being physically present. Other times, he almost suffocated her with attention.
That’s a brave decision.
She flinched. She’d overheard Brad using that phrase on the phone with his clients many times before hanging up and saying, ‘Iz, why do people fear the thing they want the most?’
Izzy’s thoughts swerved away from the question as Thor, their Jack Russell, raced up to her, his brown eyes filled with the excited anticipation of a walk. Her heart tore in a different way from the pain it was experiencing leaving Brad, but taking the dog would be an act of war she wanted to avoid.
Thor was only one of two joint possessions—the other being an apartment on the Sunshine Coast that Izzy had never set foot inside. When she’d suggested they spend a few weeks in Noosa, Brad had replied, ‘Babe, it’s an investment not a holiday house.’
She’d glanced around the ostentatious Villefranche. ‘We live in an investment property so why not holiday in one?’ she’d asked.
Brad had laughed and kissed her. ‘Because we deserve somewhere far more exotic than Noosa.’
Perhaps that was when Izzy should have told him she yearned for a night away from luxury—to stay in a beach shack with sand on the floor, and sea breezes blowing through the cracks between the boards. But he probably wouldn’t have believed her.
Thor barked, bringing Izzy’s attention back to the here and now. ‘Is it Brad?’ she asked the dog, peering down the drive.
The shape of the vehicle’s lights and grille told her it wasn’t and she stepped back as the sports car pulled to a stop on the circular drive. She immediately recognised the driver—Mike Essen. He was a good friend of Brad’s father and, unlike some of the men she’d met via the club, he was polite and kept his hands to himself.
Mike levered himself out of the low car. ‘Hello, Isobel. Brad about, is he?’
She shook her head. She was wondering why he was using her formal name when she remembered Jack Essen’s unexpected call on the landline.
Why was Mike here?
Although the Elite members came to Villefranche to socialise—parties that often appeared to be networking and unofficial business meetings—Brad never took anyone into his office, refusing to conduct formal business inside their home. Instead he met people at their house or in a private space at the Glingilly Social Club.
Izzy caught a bouncing Thor by the collar seconds before he jumped and landed muddy paws on Mike’s chinos. ‘Did you and Jack have an appointment with Brad?’
Mike grimaced. ‘I want one.’
Brad had been complaining about Mike for weeks. ‘I know he’s Dad’s best mate, but he’s driving me nuts.’ However, Brad’s skill in business was making everyone feel as if they were his most important consideration in that moment. If Mike was still here when Brad got home, he’d usher the older man inside and that was the last thing Izzy needed.
‘I’m sorry you’ve come all the way out here to be disappointed,’ she said. ‘Brad’s been flat out since he got back from Ireland. I’ll get him to call you.’
The tightly spoken words whipped Izzy and she stared at him.
‘I’ll wait if you don’t mind,’ he added. The usually genial man had vanished under a coat of implacability.
‘Actually, I do mind. This is our home.’
‘Fine. I’ll wait in the car.’ Mike walked back towards it.
‘That’s not the point,’ she called after him. ‘I’d like you to leave.’
Thor suddenly barked and she and Mike turned to see the dog tearing off down the long drive. Mike immediately followed.
Shit! Izzy’s mind raced. Did she run past Mike to get to Brad first? She was thirty years younger and much fitter so she could easily beat him. And then what? Tell Brad to say no to a meeting with Mike? That she needed to talk to him about something important? But Brad would never slight a client even if they were difficult. Perhaps the best plan was to go back inside and move the suitcases out of the entrance before they tripped up two men.
She was about to turn back when she realised there were three vehicles pulling up and none were Brad’s SUV. But it wasn’t Alan Lumsden’s Tesla or Oscar D’Angelo’s Ferrari that surprised her—it was the Ford Ranger with distinctive blue and white checks. Why were the police here?
Her mind instantly raced to disaster scenarios—Brad’s Merc crumpled against another vehicle. His lifeless body slumped on the airbag.
You won’t have to tell him it’s over.
Stomach acid washed to the back of her throat. Shut up! He’s not dead. He drives the safest car on the market.
An image of the new cardiac defibrillator they’d recently donated to the region’s emergency helicopter filled her mind, along with an unconscious Brad connected to life support and being airlifted to a Melbourne hospital. Her breathing kicked up.
You can’t leave him now.
Am I his next of kin?
The thought momentarily stalled her catastrophising. Was she? He was hers, because her father was dead and her mother was who the hell knew where, whereas Brad spoke to his parents most days and they only lived five kilometres away.
Izzy automatically reached for her phone to check for a message from Brad’s mother, Judy. Nothing.
She suddenly remembered Brad’s parents had left early that morning for a health retreat in northern New South Wales. Brad had been ticked off because they were missing Saturday’s Elite function. The timing was odd—Bevan and Judy rarely missed an Elite or a Fortune function—and it was an unusual holiday choice. Izzy couldn’t picture Brad’s parents giving up their evening glass of wine or three, or Bevan doing yoga and eating vegan food. Would their phones even work up there?
Desperately fighting the urge to hyperventilate, Izzy was vaguely aware that the three men now stood beside the police car.
She blinked, trying to bring the officers into focus. She immediately recognised Brooke Riglioni, who she’d got to know on the Irish festival committee after Brad had asked her to join in his place.
‘I’m happy to be the major sponsor,’ he’d told her, ‘but I don’t have time for the meetings. Besides, it’s a good way for you to get involved in Glingilly.’
So Izzy had dressed to cover her shyness and forced herself to attend. Brad had been right—it felt good to be involved in something outside of the business and she and Brooke always shared some laughs.
‘Isobel,’ Brooke was saying, ‘this is Detective Mitchell from Warrnambool.’ She indicated the man next to her who was dressed in chinos and a polar fleece.
Izzy blinked as the word ‘detective’ penetrated her panic. ‘Is Brad injured?’
‘He should be,’ Alan muttered.
‘She says he’s not here,’ Mike said in a disbelieving tone.
‘Where is he then?’ Oscar demanded.
Izzy barely heard them and kept her gaze on Brooke. ‘Has Brad been in a car accident or—’ she gulped, ‘—worse?’
Brooke shook her head and gave Izzy’s arm a reassuring pat. ‘No, it’s nothing like that.’
Relief shuddered out of her. She might be leaving Brad but she didn’t wish him injured or dead. With her panic receding, her chaotic thoughts reassembled into something closer to order. If Brad wasn’t injured, why were the police here?
‘Is it the speeding fine?’ Izzy asked. ‘Because I’ve got it in my calendar to pay next Tuesday, which is a day before—’
‘It’s not the speeding fine,’ Brooke said firmly. ‘May we come inside for a chat?’
Izzy had no reason to deny the request, yet she heard her father saying, ‘Don’t invite trouble in.’ She shook it off. Just because the police were here didn’t mean trouble.
Really? And when was the last time they dropped in for a chat?
Izzy gave the unhelpful thought the metaphorical bird. Brooke had visited a couple of weeks ago to talk about the festival and to give her the direct debit details for the committee’s bank account.
‘Is this about the sponsorship money? Brad said he’s transferred it—’
‘I bet he did,’ Mike said.
Izzy whirled around to face him. ‘I don’t know what your problem is today, Mr Essen, but I’ve already asked you to leave. This time I’m telling you.’
The three men stood shoulder to shoulder and folded their arms.
‘We’re not leaving until we’ve talked to Brad,’ Oscar said.
Izzy swung back to the police. ‘I didn’t invite them so that’s trespassing, right? Please tell them to leave.’
‘Gentlemen,’ Brooke said, ‘did any of you receive an invitation to visit today?’
‘You know why we’re here,’ Alan said. ‘We’re not leaving until we have answers.’
‘Once you made it a police matter it’s out of your hands and in ours,’ Brooke said firmly. ‘You need to let us do our jobs.’
A police matter? Izzy’s gut cramped. What the hell was a police matter?
‘We’ll wait just outside the gate,’ Oscar said.
‘If you create a traffic hazard I’ll have to charge you,’ Brooke said drily.
Mike sighed. ‘Let’s go to the club. You never know, he might just show and have a reasonable explanation.’
‘He bloody well better.’ Alan trudged towards the Tesla.
The roar of engines scattered the magpies and the cars departed.
Izzy’s relief was so great that when the detective said, ‘Ms Harrington, shall we?’ and indicated the front doors, she walked inside without thinking.
Detective Mitchell closed the doors behind them and the bang echoed around the cavernous entrance hall. He immediately spotted the suitcases and his brows rose. ‘Going somewhere, Ms. Harrington?’
She didn’t want to tell Mitchell or Brooke she was leaving Brad before she’d told him and returned the engagement ring. ‘Just visiting a friend in Geelong.’
Mitchell’s gaze settled on the two-dollar bags. ‘Looks like you’re moving in with your friend.’
Izzy laughed and thought fast. ‘I’ve had a wardrobe clean-out. Whatever she doesn’t want can go to the op shop.’
‘Is Brad in Geelong?’ Brooke asked.
‘No,’ Izzy said.
‘Where is he then?’ Mitchell asked.
‘I don’t know,’ she said honestly. ‘I expected him home an hour ago.’
‘I think you know where he is.’ The detective pointed to the suitcases. ‘And you’re going to join him.’
‘Do you know if Brad took his passport with him?’ Mitchell asked.
Izzy stared at him, not following his train of thought. ‘Why would he do that? He only arrived home yesterday.’
‘Can we see your passport?’ Brooke asked.
What the hell was going on? Did she have to show them? Was not showing them worse? Izzy’s head spun, giving her nothing, so she fished the little blue book out of the document satchel in her backpack.
‘So you are on your way to the airport.’ Brooke’s words rode a sigh.
‘You take your passport with you when you visit friends in Geelong, do you?’ the detective asked.
‘What? Wait! No!’ Sweat dampened Izzy’s palms and pooled under her arms. ‘This isn’t—’
‘You’re not going to Geelong, are you?’ Mitchell said. ‘You’re flying out to meet Brad in a tax haven or somewhere we don’t share an extradition treaty.’
Izzy stiffened—she really didn’t like the detective and she refused to be pushed around. She straightened her shoulders and tried to anchor herself. ‘I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about. He’ll be home soon and when he arrives I expect an apology.’
‘You’ll be waiting a long time for that, sunshine,’ the detective said.
Brooke traded an enigmatic look with him before returning her gaze to Izzy. ‘I understand you want to protect Brad, but he’s the focus of a police investigation.’
Was this a joke? How could Brad possibly be the focus of a police investigation? But the serious expression on Brooke’s face underpinned her words—this was real.
Suddenly, the marble floor beneath Izzy’s feet tilted and she sat hard on the bottom step of the stone staircase. The cold chilled her adrenaline-fuelled body, racing shivers across her skin.
‘Am I part of that focus too?’ she asked.
‘You’re a person of interest,’ Brooke said. ‘We can come back with a warrant to search the house or you can make it easy on yourself and tell us where Brad is.’
This isn’t happening. Ordinary people didn’t find themselves being disbelieved by a local police officer they considered a friend. Yet Izzy was circled by the surreal sensation of starring in a television police drama.
Pressing her palms against the stone step, she registered its cold hardness. It was real. This situation was all very real. Panic surged, pounding blood against her temples, and she tried desperately to sort through the horrifying information.
Brad was the focus of a police investigation. She was a person of interest! None of it made any sense, but a lack of logic didn’t stop icicles of dread forming in her veins.
Where the hell was Brad?
And more immediately, what the hell situation had he left her in?