“What is going on Liza?”
“He’s a fraud Dad.”
“How do you know?”
“I was living with him.”
“WHAT? Liza, what on Earth are you talking about? Does anyone else know? Oh my God, I feel such a fool. Phillip, get me another of those pills. I have a migraine coming. I have to lie down.” Her mother’s tinny voice escalates and then vanishes with her into a darkened room.
“I’ll just get something for your mother, and then I want an explanation.”
“I’m going to call the Police first. They might be able to catch him.”
“NO Liza. We will talk to Stan first after I have the facts.”
“But, he’s going to get away with it again.”
“Liza, I don’t think you understand the full implications of all of this. There is also our reputation to consider.”
Liza fumes as she waits for her father to return. They didn’t care if everyone thought Pa was a fraud, or if Liza had been dumped and hurt, but when it was their reputation, hold everything! Too bad. She was an adult. Liza dials the local police station and quietly lets the Sergeant know that she has seen Jack back in town, the car he is driving and his mobile number, conveniently located on the sign pegged into the ground outside the townhouse.
The Sergeant arrives as her father interrogates her and she patiently, explains the Air BnB ruse. He draws out his police issue pad and asks if her father would like to pursue the inquiry. Her father raises his eyebrows at Liza. “At this stage, I am not sure of the implications of our involvement with Mr Collins, I will need to discuss it with our solicitor Stan Wallis. We will be in touch if we wish to pursue the matter. Thank you for being so prompt.”
Her father follows the Sergeant to the footpath, looks briefly around and then heaves the For Sale sign from the grass. Liza hears it clatter against the house as he re-enters. “Liza, everyone would have seen them pull up. You know what this town is like. They will all be talking! Don’t you ever think of anyone other than yourself?” He rakes a hand through his thick hair. “Liza, I make my money on trust. Can you imagine how this looks? If I have been taken for a ride, how will anyone trust me with their money?”
“Trust! Trust? How about how can I trust you and Mum, to actually check out Pa’s mining claim? Seems to me, all you and Mum want is the money, so you can pay for your fancy house in the city!” Liza grabs her keys, stomps down the hallway and slams the door shut.
Two months have passed since she has spoken to her parents. They’ve tried, but Liza can’t bring herself to answer the metallic trill. She has fobbed them off with “frantic Uni study.” The only person she has regular chats with is the ghost of Pa as she pokes around the cottage, desperately trying to finish her “barely adequate” Science degree. Instead, a string of texts advised her of the army of Hi-Vis as they install plumbing and Wi-Fi, then dropped a metal shipping container down near the creek. Metal stakes were rammed into the ground and a boring machine trundled up to the flat and dug a well into the Earth, its metal teeth biting and clashing against stone, then left a mullock heap out back. Men and women with screens, laptops, clipboards and hardhats, poked and prodded the heap and the hole, disappeared into their metal box and then came back and filled the hole in until they started again.
Her weekly shopping expeditions are a revelation as Mrs Thompson tells her about the mining company and their inquiries. “Seems like your Pa might have really been onto something.” She nods and taps her finger to her nose. The hipster barista is more forthcoming.
“Hey, triple-shot, right?” He smiles at Liza as he passes takeaways to two clean Hi-Viz boys, flicking through their phones. Liza nods and collapses into a seat near the counter, her grocery bags crumpling beneath her. She needs the coffee. She wishes she had actually paid attention in first year rather than coasting and copying. Now, it was like welding foreign objects to produce a Frankensignment that passed.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Hi-Vis one says. Liza smiles. Man, hipster barista’s coffee must be good today. Her mouth salivates.
“Fantastic. Haven’t seen a deposit like it in a long time.” Hi-Viz two replies and Liza’s mouth goes dry.
“That Stoltz guy must be sweating!”
“Yeah, from what I hear, they had the old bloke in their pocket. Then they got greedy!”
“More fool them. Don’t reckon head office will let this one go. Nor that moon face Wallis!” Hi-Viz one chuckles.
“There you go. One extra-hot triple-shot, for an extra-hot lady.”
“Oh God, I’m not sweating that much am I?” Liza replies, her eyes rolling at the banter.
“Glowing. Ladies Glow!” Liza smiles. This has been going on for weeks and she still does not know his name.
“Oh, you’re good! No wonder it’s so busy in here these days. I’m Liza by the way.”
“Nice to meet you Liza, I’m Gabe. And yes, we have been getting busy. The mines are getting more buzzed by the day. Good for business. All sorts of meetings, catering you know. Whatever they are doing, must be getting mighty close. And lucky for me, the boss says if the mine thing happens it won’t just be a summer job for me. Might be able to stay around.”
Liza presses submit. Last assignment ever. It’s December and every brain cell hurts. Her phone clangs its Dad chime, and Liza sighs. She has no excuse now.
“Oh. Liza. I wasn’t expecting you to pick up. I was going to leave a message.”
“It’s OK. I just submitted my assignment. I’m finished.”
“That’s great Liza! Even more reasons to celebrate. Why don’t we get together this week for early Christmas drinks?”
“Umm sure. What else are we celebrating?”
“Stan has received an offer from the mines.”
“Really? What is it?”
“It’s not quite what the Uni was offering, but it will work out well for all of us. Seven tomorrow evening at the house.”
Liza stares at the phone as the circle turns red. Not a question, an instruction.
The townhouse door is dwarfed by a silver tinsel wreath woven with red baubles. Liza pushes it gently to the side trying to locate the doorbell and then gives up realising her mother’s decorating will not permit Christmas to be ignored. She knocks on the glass of the door and bends to remove her farm boots before stepping onto the pristine silver and red doormat.
“Liza, how lovely to see you!” Liza’s mother is bedecked in a silver blouse, Merano glass flashes red from each ear.
“Mum. Yes. I finally finished. Can get back to the real world again.”
“Congratulations. Liza. That must be such a relief. It’s just great for us all to have the time to get together again. So much has happened in the last few months. We have so much to catch up on. What would you like to drink? I assume you are staying the night, so we can pop a bottle of champagne.”
“Ah, not sure just yet. I didn’t really think of it. I have to get started on actually cleaning up the place.”
“Oh, Liza. It’s Christmas, and there is plenty of time now. Come, sit down. Phillip pop that bottle and we can explain.”
Liza follows her mother dutifully to the sitting room. The smoky glass of a coffee table is dwarfed by a wooden platter, festooned with camembert, prosciutto, figs, stuffed olives and delicate silver serving forks. Champagne flutes stand like soldiers to the side, awaiting their Sergeant’s instruction.
Liza takes a glass from her mother’s cherry red fingertips and waits while her father gently eases the cork from a bottle, waits for a gentle curl of effervescence to follow then pours sparkling wine.
“You were so very right Liza to insist on having that mining company reassess the lease and let us know about that scoundrel Jack Collins. Stan Wallis has seen to him. You can rest assured he will never be bothering any of us ever again.”
“Did you find him?”
“No. We didn’t have to deal with him. Stan did it all. We will get every cent back, with interest.” Her mother takes a sip from her glass, returns it to the table and touches the edge of her lipstick to ensure it remains steadfast. “Phillip, why don’t you tell Liza the other good news.”
“Of course.” Liza’s father places his glass on the table, leaves the room and returns with a thick wad of paper and his reading glasses. “As you know the mining company has been doing tests on the property. It seems that your grandfather was partially right. The land has a small but viable magnesium deposit. It had leached into the water of the spring. Magnesium IS known to have health-yielding properties, just perhaps not the elixir of life your grandfather thought,” he chuckles. Liza’s mother rolls her eyes at Liza. Liza lifts her glass to her lips and sips.
“They have offered to buy the property, including the mining lease and the data, and our townhouse for a sum that will allow us to make good on the mortgage and buy you a lovely flat in the city.”
Liza sips again and wrinkles her brow.
“Oh, have you told the University?”
“Oh no, best they are kept out of this. Stan says they might try to challenge it – something about the old contract.”
“What if they offer more?” Liza’s father laughs.
“Stan says we’ll never get a deal like this again.” Liza carefully sips at her glass.
“Have you signed the contract already?”
“Not yet. Technically, Stan says you need to sign it also because it involves the lease which is currently in place. In a fortnight, that won’t be necessary, but WE thought we would be fair and make sure you were consulted and included. WE don’t want any bad feelings in THIS family!” Her father is standing, his glass raised at his pumped-out chest, a Cheshire grin on his face, while her mother leans against the cream sofa, a glass hovering on an outstretched hand.
“Um, I think I need to think about it. Maybe I might go see Mr Gray. Can I take the contract to show him?” Liza’s mother frowns.
“Oh, Liza. Surely you don’t think smalltown Gray will understand this? Stan says this is an excellent deal, and we have to act now. You will be getting everything you said you always wanted. A flat in the city. If I had been GIVEN that at your age, I would have been SO grateful.”
Liza tightens her hand on the stem of the glass hoping to dissipate the tightness at her jaw. “Pa trusted him – that’s good enough for me. I think if I’m going to sign something, I should get some advice.”
“Oh of course, of course. Stan will be in town tomorrow and he can run you through it.”
“Maybe. If I have a chat with Mr Gray, then I can talk to Stan the next day. If it’s all OK, I’m sure it can be signed off at the end of the week and we can celebrate at Christmas.”
Liza’s mother’s face creases into a frown and her lips pucker. The glass is placed delicately on the table and she picks up an olive, then coughs and splutters, her long fingers signalling to her husband to follow her to the kitchen.
In the kitchen, she can hear the hiss of her mother’s whisper and her father’s low rumbling reassurance. Liza sips at the champagne. One glass will be enough, and she will not be staying. She reaches across the table and turns the page of the thick document, noticing the parties to the agreement, including Stan Wallis. She has a lot of reading to do tonight. She hears the door to the kitchen close, and her mother’s stilettos stab the shag of the soft pile of the carpet.
“Liza, you’re father and I think you are being a little OVER the top. ” Her mother stops and rolls her eyes, “ but, we can see after your experience with that scoundrel Jack you would be scared so, by all means, have Gray look over it.”
“But Liza,” her father interrupts, “this deal is commercial-in-confidence.” He says slowly “Do you know what that means?” He doesn’t wait. “It means you cannot tell anyone or show anyone anything of the deal is off. NOT the university. Do you understand?”
“Thank you,” Liza nods with a meek smile and slides the document into her handbag. “This is such a lovely spread, Mum. All my favourites.” She slices a thick wedge of camembert, smears it over Lavash and adds a dollop of quince jelly. “I think I’ll just get stuck into this instead of dinner.”
Her father smiles as her mother beams, then gulps from her champagne glass signalling for her husband to refill it.
He refills his own and then raises his glass. “To new beginnings.” Liza raises her half-full glass watching little bubbles rise and burst as the flutes tintinnabulate.
“Ah, Miss Griffith. It is lovely to see you again. How can I help you?” Mr Gray leans across his desk, the thin wires of his spectacles swinging in his hand.
“Thanks for fitting me in. I hope I’m not being a pain, but Mum and Dad have organised this deal with the mining company, and it seems a bit odd to me. I wanted to ask you some questions before I signed it.”
“Odd in what way?”
“Well, I’m not positive, and I don’t know anything about the house bit, but the mining lease seems to be selling for one million, but they keep two hundred and fifty thousand for costs of investigation, Stan Wallis gets one hundred thousand for fees, and the rest is paid to some company for consultants costs plus there is some royalty thing?”
The elderly solicitor rocks back on his chair and folds his hands over his stomach. “Do you mind if I keep this for an hour or so and look over it? Do you have somewhere to go?” He checks his watch. “The cafe does an excellent lunch and coffee these days. Could you come back at two?” Liza nods.
“Hey Liza, the usual?”
“Yeah and I’m staying for lunch. Got a bit over an hour to waste. What do you recommend?”
“Ah, excellent. Zucchini Fritters are amazing.” Liza nods, staring lazily at the menu board as she waits for the coffee. She can hardly focus. After four hours of reading the agreement last night, she was sure she had instilled the plot of a B-grade movie into it and given up, only to wake with her hands over the open pages in the lounge chair and a very stiff neck. The coffee arrives scalding hot, with small heart-shaped chocolate on the saucer. “For my favourite customer.”
“Jeez, Gabe,” she smiles. “Well, you’re my favourite barista, so we’re even.”
“Didn’t you have to be somewhere at two?” Liza checks her watch. Had she had a microsleep? Somehow an hour and a half passed as Gabe weaved fragments of chat into her zucchini fritters, banana cake and pot of peppermint tea.
“Oh, God. Quick, how much do I owe you?”
Gabe pulls out a post-it note and writes a number on it, then sticks it to the table. A phone number, she looks up, puzzled and he winks and walks away.
“Wait!” But he has disappeared and she’s late. She carefully folds the note and slides it into her phone case before racing out the door.
Liza is breathless as she arrives. “So sorry Mrs Small, I got held up.” She is flushed and Mrs Small smiles.
“Mr Gray has no other appointments. That’s fine. Go straight through.”
“Miss Griffith. I trust you had a nice lunch.”
“Yes, thank you. So sorry I’m late!”
“Perfectly fine. In fact, it has allowed me to run a few other checks and make some phone calls.”
“You were right to have someone else have a look at it. It is unusual for a solicitor to be named in a contract. I also checked the company that has been mentioned. The company is jointly owned by Stan Wallis and a Jack Collins, who I believe you also know?”
Liza’s face is white, her tongue dry, words are forming, but her flustered tongue cannot seem to propel them from her mouth.
“I cannot act without your instruction, but I would like to discuss this with your parents, if you are agreeable.” Liza nods. “You look like you might need a strong cup of tea.” Liza nods again. “Mrs Small, can you please get Miss Griffiths a cup of black tea, lots of sugar, while I call the Griffiths?
The older woman appears with steaming tea on a saucer and ushers Liza to a small meeting room and then returns with her own. “Hope you don’t mind me joining you dear, not sure what happened in there, but you look as though your Pa had risen from the dead.”
Liza takes a long sip, the heat and sugar reviving her. Risen from the dead indeed. Jack Friggin Collins!
The phone buzzes in reception and Mrs Small rises, with her half-drunk mug of tea and a roll of her eyes. Her head pops back around the corner within seconds. “It was him.” She nods towards the solicitor’s office “That was quick, says he can see you now.”
“Miss Griffith. I’ve spoken to your father, who I understand is as shocked as you were. He was going to seek other advice. I also took the liberty of suggesting to him, he might like to discuss the possibility of a counteroffer with the University. They have been contacting me for some time now wishing to discuss this with your family and I had referred them to Mr Wallis, as instructed by your father earlier. I trust this is also acceptable to you.” Liza nods. “Well, it seems that that is all that can be done for now. I’ll be in touch as soon as I hear anything”.
Liza wanders from the solicitor’s office towards her car, her eyes dazed and her head fuzzy. Way too much coffee, tea, and information, and too little sleep. She opens the car door and leans her head against the steering wheel and closes her eyes.
“Tap, tap, tap. Hello? Tap, tap, tap. Liza?” Liza stirs at the sound of her name. “Tap, tap, tap. Are you OK?” Liza blinks and stirs out the window at Gabe. He motions to roll down the window. “Are you OK? I know I gave you my number, but seriously I could have waited for a phone call,” he jokes, his eyes betraying his concern.
Liza checks her watch. It’s after four. She has been asleep over her steering wheel for at least an hour. She checks her phone. Ten missed messages from her father. “Oh, God. Yes. Sorry. Oh, I’m so sorry. No not you. I’ll call you!” She starts the car and drives away, leaving Gabe staring after her, his hands raised in a hopeful wave.
Liza swerves into the driveway of the townhouse and slams the car door behind her. The door opens before she can bang on the glass pane.
“Liza. We were so worried. Where were you?” Her mother exclaims as she dashes past into the living room where her father is shouting into a phone. Her father sees her and signals for her to sit down. Her mother follows and sits beside her, her hand rubbing Liza’s shaking forearms.
“Thank you, Professor. Yes, I am sure we would be happy to discuss that. I will call Mr Gray and let him know that he can set up a meeting with all parties.” Her father places his phone on the table and reaches down to rub her shoulder.
“Liza. Thank God! We were so worried. Those bastards. I can’t believe it. Apparently, they’ve been playing us all. I managed to have a chat with the mining guys, they didn’t know a thing about it either. Had never seen our contract. They want to chat directly also.”
“Pa was right then?”