Jenn’s hand hovers over the keys, ready to kill the engine. The garage door rolls slowly skyward, and the kids unclip their seatbelts. The twins tumble out, dragging school bags and leaving a trail of after-school crumbs and socks. They’re settling in well at the new school. Kids are great like that. Adaptable. Jenn squints up at the bright winter sky, shamelessly missing London’s gloom.
‘Mum?’ Elly says. She’s at the open passenger-side window. ‘You coming?’
‘Yes, love, I’m fine. I just…’ What does she want to do? ‘I just want to listen to this.’ She looks up at her daughter.
Elly rolls her eyes.
‘Oh, Mum, you’re such a cliche. A middle-aged woman sitting in the driveway to finish her true crime podcast. I expected more.’
‘Give the middle-aged thing a rest. I’m only forty.’ Jenn smiles.
Elly puts her earbuds back in. ‘Dream on,’ she says.
Jenn can’t help but laugh. Trust Elly to keep her honest. She watches her beautiful daughter stroll through the garage and into the house, school bag draped over one shoulder. Gorgeous Elly, with her blonde hair and long legs. Fourteen. The same age as the subject of the podcast.
The presenter’s voice continues. Jenn knows that voice well. Retired journo, Bill Pratt had been her mentor, colleague, and a great friend for years. Bill describes the young girl as pretty, with thick blonde hair. Show Princess, two years running. In 1983, she vanished. Her boyfriend disappeared, too.
Jenn is a recent convert to podcasts. Dawn, her new assistant, sent the link, amazed a journalist of her experience wasn’t already an avid listener. I’m not that kind of journalist, she’d wanted to protest, but it was a lame excuse. At the time, she’d made a note to search for podcasts in her areas of interest. Cold cases weren’t a subject to which she was drawn. Jenn Harding was used to covering military coups and Taliban kidnappings, but Dawn had said it was the number one show in the country. Death of a Show Princess. Like Romeo and Juliet, a story of bad blood between two farming families, the Browns and the Taylors.
Brent was nice at first. Sweet. Always whispering his affection and buying her little things. After a few weeks, he bought her a fake ID and on a warm Saturday afternoon; he picked her up from a friend’s house so her mother wouldn’t know, and they drove out to the beach. Shannon had her first beer. She only drank two beers the whole afternoon, but she was so tired. They drove down to the far end of the beach where the mangroves were. He had a mattress in the back of his ute. He said he loved her, so she pretended it didn’t hurt.
He wasn’t always nice after that. He ignored her at school, but that was for her benefit, he said. Didn’t want to make all the other girls jealous.
Her parents watched her like a hawk. She stopped writing in her diary in case her mum read it. Correction: she stopped writing the truth in her diary.
The first time Shannon tried to break up with Brent, he put her in the back of the ute and drove fast along Taylor’s Road at night with the lights off. The second time, he stood outside her bedroom window in the dark with his rifle. The third time, he promised to kill her, then himself.
Brent’s brother Tony was nineteen. Everyone said poor old Tony missed out on the Taylor good looks. He took after the mother’s side, stocky and pale. Tony had left school at fifteen to help on the farm, but Brent had no intention of staying on the land. He was going to Sydney. The Cross was the place to be, he said to everyone. He wasn’t sure what he’d do there, but he was going.
Tony told Brent to just go, if he was going, and don’t come back. There was little love between those brothers.
In the next episode, Bill Pratt says, listeners will hear an interview with the girl’s heartbroken father. His gravelly voice comes on the speaker.
‘Killed her and took off. Cops never looked properly. Someone found her bag dumped on the side of the road out of town, but her guitar was in a shed on the Taylor’s property. I want to see justice served before I die. My wife,’ he says, and he pauses.
‘Take your time,’ Bill Pratt says to the old man.
Jenn’s hand goes to her throat.
She jumps and flips the key, and the engine dies, taking the podcast and that familiar voice with it.
‘Hey,’ Jenn says, but before her husband can respond, she says, ‘I have to do something. For work. It’s your night to cook, anyway.’
‘Sure,’ he says and lifts the bag of groceries for her to see. ‘Homemade pizza. You got a story?’
Jenn shrugs and starts the car. She presses the button to close the doors the kids left open. She thought the feature was an extravagance when they were looking at the car, but now she can see its value. She blows her husband a kiss and backs slowly out of the drive. The boys dash from the house to their father’s side, eager to see what’s in the shopping bag. Elly joins them, earbuds still in place.
‘I’ll try to be back before midnight,’ Jenn calls to her family.
Tony held his finger up to his lips to silence his brother’s silly girlfriend. He’d warned her so many times. Warned her away from his little brother. If her doting daddy could see her now; crying, huddled in the dirty old shed, clutching her guitar like her life depended on it.
‘Don’t move,’ he rasped, hot breath in her ear. He threw the smelly old tarpaulin over her and her guitar and prodded it a few times to make it look as though it hadn’t just been flung over the very thing he didn’t want anyone to see. He ran from the shed and back in a few moments later, prodded at the tarpaulin, and bolted out again.
‘No sign of her here,’ he called to persons unseen.
The traffic is heavy, heading south. The podcast continues. Jenn could be just another commuter driving home to a new-build on a large allotment. A fat, full moon appears bathing the landscape in an eerie glow. The traffic thins. The new subdivisions give way now to occasional oases of light from farmhouses. Jenn’s stomach growls. Everyone she loves most in the world is two hours behind her, watching television and eating homemade pizza. Ice cream for dessert. Elly calls it a Dad Combo.
A new-looking, spot-lit tourist sign announces the local attractions. They vary from vineyards to motorcycle racing. Jenn is impressed. The idea of living so far from the city has never appealed to her, but if there are so many new houses out here, there must be something good about it.
Her eyes were itchy and sore from the dust and mould, and her temples thumped from all the crying. She peeled the horrible old tarp away from the wall a tiny bit. He’d warned her about moving, said he’d be back, but it was dark outside. She had to bolt. Everyone would be looking for her. Her fingers were aching from clutching her guitar and tears welled in her eyes as she lay it on the floor. There was no way she could take it with her.
She was wearing her favourite top, red and black checks with shell covered clip buttons. The money was rolled up in the right pocket, fake ID in the left. She was fifteen, well she would be next month, and everyone said she looked heaps older. That was why Brent was interested in her. He was eighteen and all the girls were in love with him, but he’d chased her, Shannon Brown. Her mum had begged her to stay away from him. Everyone says there was always bad blood between the families, but it’s not true. It started with her and Brent. Their mums were friends once.
A few miles from her goal, Jenn stops for fuel and grabs a surprisingly fresh sandwich from the cabinet. She eats in the car. Wallet open on her lap, she flips through photos of her kids, ticket stubs, her Oyster Card. Behind the photo of Elly, she finds the battered square of cardboard.
She’d listened to the rest of the podcast, all six episodes. There’s no happy ending. She’d sobbed through the episode with the elderly dad. He said his wife had gone to her grave never knowing what had happened to her daughter.
In episode three, they talked about the body. The finding of the body had piqued Bill Pratt’s interest in the first place. Jenn had worked with Bill Pratt in war zones. A big-hearted man, Jenn could imagine him feeling sympathy for the new owner of the run-down property. DNA proved it was Brent Taylor. Brent’s brother, Tony, still runs the Taylor farm. The surviving Taylor is something of a recluse, but he’d been helpful with their enquiries. The police are quick to point this out.
At the end of that episode, Bill interviews the woman who’d found the body. The new owner of the building was an ex-Olympian who’d moved out there after an illness and a crushing marriage break-up.
The Taylor’s Emporium building was boarded up for years, abandoned long before Brent Taylor’s grandmother went to the nursing home. Bill describes the building and its overgrown backyard as having a touch of the otherworldly. Built in 1899, he says he can see why someone would buy it; Art Nouveau meets country Australia.
The ex-Olympian had been working by herself for weeks, clearing lantana, passionfruit vines, and thousands of old bottles. She’s a great interviewee. She was a commentator after retiring from swimming, knows how to phrase a sentence. She found the body in an old car on a Saturday morning. Like something out of a horror movie, the ex-Olympian says. She was glad her little girl was at a sleepover. The coroner found Brent had gassed himself accidentally, trying to keep warm. A tragic mistake. He had plans, his brother said. Big plans.
The Taylor boy was bashing on the front door of the Brown’s farmhouse. The younger one, Brent. The Elvis Presley look-alike. Eighteen, not really a boy anymore. He should know better. Mr. and Mrs. Brown had both warned him to stay away from Shannon. Mrs. Brown had begged. Mr. Brown had threatened. At night, her husband would pace and say over and over, ‘If Shannon goes off with the Taylor boy, she’s dead to me.’
Huddled in the pantry, Mrs. Brown was willing the police to arrive. She wasn’t the religious type, but she was praying again. She’d been doing a lot of it since the Taylor boy started sniffing around. She’d started off asking God, politely, if he could give Shannon the sense to stay away. Mrs. Brown might as well have asked for wings to fly for all the good that did.
Now she asked God to make Brent go away. She prayed for safety for Shannon wherever she was. She asked God to make the cops arrive before her husband because God himself couldn’t keep him from shooting the boy.
Jenn balls up the sandwich wrapper and sips her coffee. She phones Bill, says she’s in the area. He’s surprised to hear from her, of course. It’s nearly eight on a Friday night and she’s miles from home. They make a bit of small talk. Bill asks how they’re settling in? He asks about the kids.
‘Bill, I want to talk to you about the podcast.’
He gives her the address.
‘I’ll lock up the hounds,’ he says, and she’s not completely certain he’s joking.
Jenn buys a bottle of Margaret River red from the drive-through bottle shop at the turnoff. Bill likes wine and expensive things, so the bottle ticks both boxes. She heads back to the highway snaking between the blackness of cane fields at night. On the right, brooding mountains, and on the left, the distant sea and tourist towns.
Bill’s driveway, marked by a bright blue letterbox, is just off the exit for Beach Road. The drive is long. She shudders over three cattle grates. The house is stone, with deep verandahs. Towering gum trees surround the place, but none too close for fear of falling branches and fires. Bill Pratt is known for his attention to detail.
Shannon ran along the route she’d practiced and hid behind the bus stop to wait. She’d left her bag there earlier so no one would know she was going. She couldn’t wait to be free, but did she really have to leave everything behind?
The battered old ute pulled up, and she slipped inside. Her treasured green Country Road bag left behind was a decoy. They drove in silence for a while and when she started crying, her mother handed her a clean handkerchief. The square of checked fabric only made her cry harder. It was her dad’s, and it reminded her of everything she had to say goodbye to.
‘You’ll be okay,’ her mum said. ‘You know where to go. They’ll look after you.’
Shannon sobbed. The thought that she could never go home again was too much to think about.
‘Make sure everyone knows Tony helped me.’ He was kind in his own way and got her out when no one else could.
‘He had his reasons, you know.’ Her mum’s face was like thunder. ‘Go to sleep.’
Shannon rolled up her jumper and tucked it under her head. She didn’t want to go to sleep. She wanted to talk to her mum. Once they got to the bus station, she would have to say goodbye. Melbourne seemed like another planet, but it was the only way. If she stayed any longer, she’d start to show.
Two dogs trot onto the verandah and stare at Jenn’s car in a not-so-friendly way. So that was a joke about locking up the hounds. They are joined by a pair of kangaroo joeys and Bill in a knitted jumper and beard.
‘I know you’re writing the great Australian novel, Bill, but you’re channeling Hemingway.’
Bill laughs and welcomes her in. The joeys bound after him wherever he goes, including the kitchen to fetch wine glasses.
‘They’re rescues. They think I’m their mummy.’ He opens the wine to let it breathe and gives Jenn a glass of water.
‘The podcast. I’ve just binged it on the drive here,’ she says, looking him in the eye.
He smiles. ‘You didn’t come all this way to tell me that. You’ve got a whiff of something bigger here, haven’t you? I know that look.’ He’s standing in the kitchen, scratching one of the joeys on the head. The dogs settle on beds near the fireplace.
She laughs. He sits opposite and puts the wine glasses on the table.
‘What’s the ending, Bill? Of the podcast? What happens when a woman goes missing and no one looks for her?’
Bill shakes his head.
‘This is happening all over the world to women and girls, and I know it’s happening here. For some women.’ She stops to take a breath. ‘And girls.’ Jenn takes a sip of her water.
She starts again. ‘For some women and girls, a pregnancy is the worst thing they can do. It’s not like we impregnate ourselves, but where I grew up, there were parents who would rather their daughter die than get knocked up.’
Bill is quiet. What can he say?
‘I want people to know the truth, Bill.’
‘You want to join me? Make a podcast looking at these kinds of investigations? Seems like a phone call or an email could have sufficed.’ He pours the wine, then smiles. ‘Not that I mind the visit.’
Jenn reaches for her wineglass. ‘I’ve got an idea for the ending.’
He raises his eyebrows.
‘Interview me. We can talk about a young girl who escaped from an abusive boyfriend. Her first boyfriend. She was sent away by her mum to have a baby. Told to never, ever, return. The baby was small, a boy. She didn’t even get to hold him before the nurse took him away.’ She’s whispering now and looking at the floor.
He’s a smart man, but confusion crosses his face for a moment. The joeys bounce towards the front door, and he goes to open it for them and buy himself some thinking time. He returns to his seat, and she slides a small, battered piece of cardboard along the table. He picks it up. It’s Jenn’s old driver’s license.
‘I’ve loved being Jenn Harding, but it’s a fake. My real name is Shannon Brown.’
Death of a Show Princess received a Highly Commended in the 2021 Scarlet Stiletto Awards.