Sydney’s deadly Razorhurst neighborhood, 1932. Gloriana Nelson and Mr. Davidson, two ruthless mob bosses, have reached a fragile peace—one maintained by “razor men.” Kelpie, orphaned and homeless, is blessed (and cursed) with the ability to see Razorhurst’s many ghosts. They tell her secrets the living can’t know about the cracks already forming in the mobs’ truce.
Then Kelpie meets Dymphna Campbell, a legendary beauty and prized moll of Gloriana Nelson. She’s earned the nickname “Angel of Death” because none of her beaus has ever survived knowing her. Unbeknownst to Kelpie, Dymphna can see ghosts, too, and she knows that Gloriana’s hold is crumbling one henchman at a time. As loyalties shift and betrayal threatens the two girls at every turn, Dymphna is determined not only to survive, but to rise to the top with Kelpie at her side.
The notoriously bloody history of a mob-run Sydney, Australia neighborhood is fertile ground for Justine Larbalestier’s Razorhurst, a historical thriller with a paranormal twist—available now from Soho Press.
Kelpie was hungry.
She slipped through the gap, crept past the pile of bricks that was the dunny leaning against the fence. Smelled like the nightsoil men had missed this one. She threaded her way past a broken curved-backed chair and a rusting bicycle without seat or handlebars or wheels. Weeds growing high between paving stones brushed the backs of her calves.
Kelpie tried the back door, not putting it past Tommy to make her enter through a window when she didn’t have to.
She stood on her toes to look through the window. The dirty curtain brushed across her nose. An empty bedroom. Narrow unmade bed in the corner. A pile of clothes on top of suitcases and a side table covered with old newspapers, an overfull ashtray, and empty bottles. One was filled with desiccated brown flowers. Kelpie wondered at a razor man having flowers, even dead ones, and then hauled herself over the sill.
Outside she could hear the clip clop of horse and cart, the clatter of a truck down Foveaux Street, further away raised voices. The house creaked, settling in the wind. The place smelled damp and dank and dusty. She heard no movement inside the house.
Kelpie peered out the open door. The carpet along the corridor was so worn the floorboards peeked through. Near the front door empty hooks protruded from the wall. On an afternoon, they’d hold hats and coats. Behind her the back door’s bolt was thick and heavy.
As Kelpie crept along, a board groaned. She stilled. Listened hard.
Her skin tightened, as if her body heard something her ears didn’t. Kelpie could slip out the way she came. Go to Paddy’s Markets. There was sometimes fallen fruit and vegetables, provided she wasn’t run off before she could lay hands on any of it.
These apples were closer.
Kelpie went up on her toes, making herself lighter. She’d spent so long among ghosts she’d become almost as quiet.
Something smelled worse than damp. The closer she moved to the kitchen, the worse the smell grew.
The first door on her left was closed, but the second was open.
It wasn’t a kitchen. Tommy’d lied.
It was another bedroom.
A lady in a fancy blue suit with matching hat was leaning over a dead man on the bed. Her hands were shaking. She held a card. She handed it to Kelpie.
“Mr. Davidson did it,” she said. “See?”
Kelpie didn’t look at the card between her fingers. She could feel it there, but she was staring at the red splashes on the walls, on the mirror of the wardrobe, across the two paintings. At the blood sliding down in thin rivulets. Her nostrils flared at the smell from the dead man, and she wished she could close them.
She did not see or smell apples.
She had to run. This was trouble. This would bring police, Welfare.
Her feet would not move.
“That’s Mr. Davidson’s handwriting,” the woman said, as if handwriting mattered while a manlay dead. Newly dead.
Kelpie knew who Mr. Davidson was: the boss of all the crime in the Hills and beyond, him and Gloriana Nelson. She ruled where he didn’t and vice versa. They did not like each other.
The man’s face was all cut up, his throat slashed open. Kelpie saw something white in the midst of all the red. The bones of his neck?
Kelpie couldn’t help touching her own throat.
Blood had soaked into the top of his trousers, his jacket, his shirt, the pillows under his head, the sheets. There was blood across the ashtray and magazines and books and empty glass on the bedside table. On the coats hanging from the hooks on the wall. Blood dripped from the dead man’s shoes hanging over the edge of the not-big-enough bed.
Kelpie wondered how his blood had hit the wall behind him. She tried not to imagine his body spinning.
She’d seen dead bodies before. But not like this. She needed to get away. Fast.
Why wasn’t she moving?
“Davidson did this,” the woman said. Her voice caught on his name. “Do you understand? Look at the card.”
His eyes were as open as his throat, staring up at the ceiling as if that’s where his killer was. Kelpie looked up.
The ceiling sagged, the plaster rose in the centre mostly gone, damp brown stains spreading out from where the rose had been, but no killer. No blood either. The splashes didn’t reach that high.
One of his hands lay palm up on the bed, scored with deep cuts. The other hung over the edge.
“Can’t you read?” the woman asked. Her voice was as posh as her clothes.
Kelpie blushed and looked at the card. There was blood on it, and neat handwriting:
For you, Dymph
That was when Kelpie knew who the woman was: Dymphna Campbell. She was famous in the Hills. Most beautiful woman any of them had ever seen.
Kelpie had never seen her this close. She was prettier, shinier, cleaner than Kelpie had imagined. The cold didn’t seem to affect her: Dymphna’s eyes weren’t red or running. Her blue suit was matched by her hat, by the small bag jutting out of her pocket, by the shoes on her feet. The silver watch on her wrist sparkled in the moonlight spilling through the window. Her hair was almost the same colour.
Kelpie half disbelieved Dymphna Campbell was real.
She didn’t have a drop of blood on her.
There was blood everywhere.
“The card was on top of Jimmy. A warning for me.”
Kelpie could hear Dymphna breathing. Dymphna worked for Glory Nelson. But the card was from Mr. Davidson. This was worse than trouble.
“I thought he’d last longer,” Dymphna said, her voice shaky, looking down at the body, one hand covering her nose. “Now what? Shit.” She glanced at the card in Kelpie’s hand, breathed in, and straightened, stepping away from the bed. “Kelpie, isn’t it?” Dymphna asked, as if they’d been introduced on the street, as if there wasn’t a dead man in the room.
Kelpie nodded without meeting her eyes, surprised Dymphna knew her name. She lowered her head, saw drops of blood by her feet. Everyone in the Hills called Dymphna Campbell the Angel of Death. All her boyfriends died. Not one had been with her longer than a few months.
“Snowy told me,” Dymphna said. “I saw him give you peanuts.”
“My Snowy?” Kelpie asked. Why wasn’t she running?
Snowy was one of Mr. Davidson’s men. Why would he be talking to Dymphna, Glory’s best girl? Their people were not friendly with one another.
A jarring thud made them both look away from the dead man. “Shit,” Dymphna said, grabbing Kelpie’s hand and pulling her from the room. Kelpie’s feet finally cooperated.
The thumping came from the front door. Dymphna dragged her along the corridor, dropping Kelpie’s hand to pull at the bolt on the back door. It didn’t budge. She pulled harder, her knuckles going white.
The banging grew louder.
“In here,” Kelpie whispered. She shut the bedroom door behind them as wood splintered at the front of the house. The room looked different from this angle. The dead flowers cast a shadow the shape of a twisted hand.
The house shook.
“Christ,” Dymphna breathed. “Sounds like they’ve ripped the door off. Not the cops. It can’t be the cops.”
Kelpie swallowed. Cops. Cops meant Welfare. She pulled Dymphna towards the window, scrambling onto the sill and over, silent as she could.
Behind her Dymphna hitched her skirt up and slung a leg over, ducking her head.
A ghost appeared beside her. A big bloke with a scar on his cheek. Kelpie didn’t startle. She’d expected there to be ghosts. Most houses had at least one.
“There’s worse things than cops, Dymphna love,” the ghost said. He tried to pat her shoulder. His hand went straight through. He stared at it. “Why does my skin look wrong?”
As if she’d heard, Dymphna whispered, “Though Davidson’s men are as bad as coppers.”
Kelpie didn’t think so. Mostly the hard men left her alone. Coppers though…
Dymphna dropped to the backyard, breaking a flowerpot. They both froze, crouched low beneath the sill. Kelpie crept to the gap in the fence, hoping Dymphna realised the noise from inside drowned out their pot shattering.
“Dymphna,” the ghost began.
Kelpie slid through the gap into Belmore Lane.
Dymphna turned sideways, fit one leg through, sucked her belly in, and pushed with both hands. She didn’t shift. But the wood groaned.
The ghost tried to pull one of the boards from the fence. When his hands went straight through, he bellowed.
“Here,” Dymphna said. “Take my hat.”
Kelpie took the small, blue-veiled thing that wouldn’t keep rain or sun out of your eyes. It looked like something you could eat.
“Her arse is too big,” Tommy said. “She’s gunna break the fence.”
He was leaning against the warehouse opposite, not grinning now, laughing. “Good apples, eh?” He slapped his thigh. “That was a corker. Don’t think I’ve ever done better. Heard the coppers coming, didn’t I? I seen her watching you, see? Plenty of times. Reckoned it might be fun to see what’d happen.”
Kelpie ignored his stupid blather. If he weren’t already dead, she’d do for him herself. Not another word to the rat-featured little bastard, she vowed.
Tommy grinned widely. “Looker, ain’t she? I never seen a chromo look as good as her. Most of them hard-faced sluts’d make a rat look good. She almost glows.”
The other ghost shot Tommy a poisonous look and tried to help Dymphna. Kelpie was sure now that he was the dead man—what had Dymphna called him? He didn’t know he was dead yet.
“Hard to imagine her killing anyone,” Tommy said, though he was doing just that. “She’s too pretty.”
Kelpie wasn’t going to correct him. Whoever killed that bloke would be covered in blood. Not shiny clean like Dymphna Campbell. Kelpie put the hat down, grabbed Dymphna’s hands, and pulled, both feet braced against the kerb. Fabric tore.
“Harder,” Dymphna said. “Don’t worry about the skirt.”
“Don’t hurt her!” the ghost cried. “Leave the fat cow!” Tommy yelled. “Save yourself!” He laughed harder. “Pity you ain’t invisible, like us. Stupid breathers.”
Kelpie heard metal on metal. Louder even than Tommy’s maniac laugh. The bolt on the back door. She strained so hard tendons stood out along her arms, so hard it felt like her eyes would pop.
Dymphna ripped through the fence, knocking Kelpie over. Kelpie scrambled out from under her and onto her feet. Dymphna grabbed Kelpie’s arm and used it to stand up. The back of her skirt was torn. She bent to pick up her squashed hat.
“You have to stick with me,” she whispered harshly in Kelpie’s ear, gripping harder as Kelpie tried to shake free.
Why did she have to stick with Dymphna? That dead man had nothing to do with her.
Dymphna staggered a few more steps away from Mrs. Stone’s. It was obvious she had no idea where to go.
Behind them Kelpie could hear shouting. They must’ve got the back door open.
“They’ll kill us both,” Dymphna said. “We’re both in this.”
No, they weren’t. It wasn’t Kelpie’s name on that card what’d been on a dead man’s chest.
Tommy snorted. “Jeez, sounds like there’s an army after you! Don’t fancy your chances, Kelpie. Wonder where you’ll haunt. Right here on the lane with me? Won’t that be cosy?”
“This way,” Kelpie said, Tommy’s comments deciding her. She pointed at the Darcy place. No one would be awake but Neal Darcy, and he’d be too focused on his writing. “Let’s go.”
Dymphna complied but kept a grip on Kelpie’s arm. Kelpie dragged them three doors up past leaning fences covered in choko vines that were still months away from fruiting.
Kelpie pushed the loose board aside and scrambled into the Darcys’ backyard on hands and knees, landing next to the dunny. Dymphna scraped through behind her. Kelpie turned to stop the board from swinging. They were both breathing too hard.
The ghost of Dymphna’s dead boyfriend appeared next to her. Cripes but he was a huge bugger.
“It’s me, Dymph,” he said. “I know it’s all gone bung, but we can fix it.”
His hands pawed uselessly at Dymphna’s side. Kelpie shuddered. She hated when ghosts touched her.
“Why won’t you answer me, Dymphna?”
Kelpie could hear men on the lane stomping and yelling.
“I’m sure it’s the cops,” Dymphna breathed. Her gloved hands shook. They weren’t shiny clean anymore.
Someone cleared his throat. Kelpie turned to see Darcy sitting on the back steps, cigarette in hand, staring at Dymphna.
“And who the fuck are you?”
The young man took another drag on his cigarette, still staring at her. She hadn’t lost him. She had to make sure, too, she did not lose herself.
The yelling in the lane was louder. She thought she recognised Boomer’s voice. He was almost as big as Jimmy and one of the few coppers not in Davidson’s or Glory’s pockets.
Dymphna did not want to go back to gaol.
“Coppers,” the young man said, quietly. “What’d you do?”
Dymphna shook her head. “Nothing,” she whispered.
He took another drag, let the smoke curl slowly out of his mouth. “Sounds like something.”
“It was what we saw.”
He nodded. But she couldn’t tell if it was in agreement or if he was merely acknowledging that she’d answered his question.
All he had to do was call out.
Dymphna was no longer sure he was looking at her with admiration. It was more like he was considering. She would not let herself panic.
If the coppers did grab her, well, gaol was better than being dead.
Not that coppers meant gaol for sure. Plenty of those cops were Davidson’s or Glory’s. They owned a few judges too.
Jimmy Palmer was dead.
She hadn’t been with Jimmy because of his looks or his personality. He was tall and strong, and almost everyone in Razorhurst was afraid of him. He was smart too, and ambitious, and knew everyone who mattered in their world. That’s how he’d become Glory’s righthand man.
Dymphna had been sure he would keep her safe. Thought him not being an underling meant he’d last longer. She’d been right. He had lasted longer than her other men. By a matter of weeks.
Now Jimmy’s blood was everywhere and her own soon to follow.
Beside her Kelpie shifted against the fence, causing a faint creak in the timber. Dymphna told herself no one would have heard it over the hullabaloo behind them.
“Kelpie?” the boy said softly, as if he had only just noticed she was there. He raised an eyebrow. Kelpie shrugged, smart enough to be quiet.
Dymphna had to focus on getting out of this mess, getting them out of this mess.
She almost laughed that now, in the midst of this disaster, she had finally spoken to Kelpie, the girl who saw ghosts same as her, the girl she’d planned to rescue someday—and had found by accident over Jimmy’s dead body.
She still had hold of the girl, but her grip had slipped to the girl’s hand, as if Kelpie were a littlie and Dymphna her mum. She would be happy to mother her. Kelpie needed it.
But Jimmy Palmer was dead. Which meant Dymphna had no protection until she lined up her next man, who would not be Mr. Davidson. There would be no next man if Glory knew what she and Jimmy had been planning. If Dymphna was merely waiting to be a twice-murdered chromo.
Dymphna wanted to hold her head in her hands and weep. To ask Jimmy what he knew. Even though once you let a ghost know you could see it, it started to eat away at you. Even though it would give her away to Kelpie too soon. Even though that young man might hear her, the coppers too.
Instead she watched the young man smoke his cigarette. The smoke curled up in wisps past his curly dark hair, clear as day in the full moon’s light. She smiled a little wider. He could not give them away.
Kelpie shook off Dymphna’s hand and stood with her back pressed to the fence. Dymphna breathed in sharply. But it was all right. Unlike Dymphna the girl was shorter than the fence. Dymphna took hold of the girl’s ankle. Gently. She didn’t want to hurt her.
“They’re coming for you,” the ghost on the lane screamed. “You’re doomed, Kelpie, doomed!”
Bloody ghosts. Dymphna was going to have to teach Kelpie to be a lot less friendly. Mind you, the girl had wandered into Mrs. Stone’s as if it were a gingerbread house and not full of standovers and gangsters and dead men. She didn’t seem to know how dangerous anything was.
The young man ran the glowing tip of his cigarette gently against the step’s edge, and the ash floated gently onto the garden.
“Please,” Kelpie whispered. “Please don’t give us away.”
Dymphna doubted he’d heard. Kelpie repeated her plea.
Dymphna smiled again. Surely he wouldn’t call out? But what if the coppers started searching each yard? They were done if…
She could not let herself think through all the dead ends.
A brown and yellow bundle of fur jumped over the fence, streaking across the yard and over the next fence. Dymphna choked back a scream as the cat flashed past. Chickens squawked loudly in the next yard. Almost as loud as the cops.
Dymphna’s heart beat too fast. She had to calm herself. Focus. Smile, she told herself. Win him over.
“Please,” Dymphna whispered, trusting to the strength of her charm.
Neal Darcy opened the back door. Kelpie kept low, skirting the dried-up veggie garden, the water pump, the tub, the line hung only with old pegs, and up the wooden steps. Dymphna slipped past her and inside first. Darcy shut the door behind them.
“Don’t say nothing,” Darcy said from outside. The door bowed inward under his weight. “Walls are thin.”
Kelpie leaned against their side of the door breathing through her nose. Quieter that way. Outside she heard men’s boots thudding on the lane, whistles and sirens, and so many raised voices they overlapped. Inside she heard Dymphna’s breaths, her heart pounding too. Though that could have been her own noisy beater ringing in her ears.
The curtains at the window were white and transparent. If they moved beyond the safety of the door, they’d be seen. She hoped Dymphna knew to stay still.
The big, tall ghost planted himself on Dymphna’s other side and yelled at her to stop ignoring him. Yelled at the world to tell him what was happening. Why was his skin wrong? Why did he feel wrong? Kelpie wished she could yell at him to shut his big, fat gob.
Dymphna gripped Kelpie’s hand again. Kelpie’d never felt such a soft hand. No calluses. No scars.
Outside: more yelling.
Excerpted from Razorhurst © Justine Larbalestier, 2015