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Fiction: Short Story.
It was one of those jobs that you really hate; clearing out a dead person’s house.
That’s where we come in; we specialise.
We get a call from some rich bozo who’s grandma just died, and he’s going to sell her house, but he wants to make sure that he also gets to sell anything of value.
He can’t be bothered doing it himself, so he hires us.
Big Bill, who never leaves the offices these days, started the company just after the war with two of the blokes he served with in the army. In those days they would do most anything that was required, and some of it wasn’t exactly legal if you know what I mean, but these days the business has morphed into ‘Tidy Up’, the company that takes the effort out of selling up your dead relative.
Naturally, it doesn’t say that in the sales literature, but that’s what we do.
The house we were working on was in one of those old upper-middle-class suburbs. The sort of suburb where wealthy people who don’t need to flaunt their wealth would be very much at home.
I liked the house as soon as we walked in.
Some houses welcome you; this was one of those houses.
The ground floor area was quite large, and it was going to take a few days to sort through all the stuff. By the time it all went to auction, you would be able to buy a small three-bedroom house with the proceeds; this lady had taste, and a pocket to back it up.
Her silverware was real silver, and her china was only the best.
The stamp collection I found in a draw in one of the upstairs bedrooms looked like it would be worth a bit, but really, that’s not my area of expertise.
It was in this same bedroom that I found the photograph mixed in with the usual family photos.
I’m assuming that the young woman in the photo was the former owner of this house and I knew that there was something strange about it right from the start.
The photo was in colour, and someone has scribbled ‘Boss Lady’ on the top. Colour photos from that era are quite rare.
The colour was strange, but the content of the photo was even more bizarre.
The woman was sitting on a stool while listening on sort of headset while perusing what can only have been surveillance photographs.
Whoever this woman was she was a rarity; a highly placed female in some sort of covert organisation.
The rest of the room was full of benches and what looked like radio equipment, graphs and a male, who was using a more traditional headset. He was also making notes.
I looked at the back of the photo, but all I found were the words ‘Louise 1943’. Nothing else. No specific date or place.
I slipped the photograph into my pocket and consoled myself with the thought that it would probably be burnt with all the others; so why shouldn’t I save it?
I put the photograph in a drawer when I got home and didn’t think about it again until I went looking for some wrapping paper, and there it was; inviting me to solve the puzzle.
I have a friend who loves conspiracy theories, so I thought he would be an excellent place to start. He said that it went too far back for him, but he knew an old-timer who might be interested; might be able to shed some light.
I arranged to meet my friend again on my next rostered day off, and we took a tram ride to the end on the line.
We stopped for coffee at one of those trendy little coffee shops that have sprung up all over Melbourne, and my friend said, between mouthfuls of coffee and bites from an eclair, “Are you sure you want to go through with this. This bloke is pretty ‘out there’.”
“More ‘out there’ than you, Malcolm?”
“I’m a government spokesman compared to this bloke.” This did make me hesitate for a moment because Malcolm was the craziest person I knew. I liked him a lot, but he definitely was crazy; in a harmless sort of way.
In the end, I said, “Let’s do this”, with more flourish than was necessary.
“You’re a funny bloke’, said Malcolm, and it occurred to me that the kettle was calling me black.
We walked for about fifteen minutes and turned left into what looked like a quiet suburban street. About fifty metres along we turned left again down a narrow laneway. At the end of the bluestone paved laneway, I could see what looked like the entrance to an old factory.
Malcolm looked up at the small CCTV camera and made some sort of sign with his right hand, and the door clicked open.
“What was that with the hand signal?” I asked.
“What hand signal? I was just flexing my fingers. I got them caught in the cutlery drawer this morning. Not everything has to be mysterious, you suspicious fucker.”
There was that black kettle again.
An extremely old bloke met us and immediately asked me if I was a cop.
“In what sense?” I asked.
“Don’t fuck around,” said Malcolm
I thought it was funny, but obviously, I had entered a ‘funny free zone’ that had not been adequately signposted.
“We need some help with a found photograph. Probably from the 1940s.” Malcolm handed the old bloke the photo as he spoke.
The old bloke turned grey.
We all just stood there for what seemed like forever.
“Is he dead?” I asked facetiously.
“Shut the fuck up”, said Malcolm.
“I only ask because he has been standing there for a long time and I need to know if I should call someone.”
“You’d better hope he’s not dead. He’s got the place rigged to explode if he doesn’t reset every hour.”
“Holy shit. How long has it been since he reset?”
“How the fuck should I know”. Malcolm swore a lot.
“I’m not dead you bone-head. I was thinking. The photo took me by surprise, and I was thinking. Remembering. Some of it I haven’t thought about in a long time.”
The old bloke went over to a desk and pulled out an album and opened it to reveal more photos of this attractive woman. They weren’t in colour, but it was evident that they were taken around the same time.
“You worked with her”, I said.
“Back when the world was a simpler place, and you knew who the bad guys were. Then it all went to hell, and it ain’t got any better.”
It was getting late, and I needed to tell a very attractive woman that I was going to be delayed.
The old bloke noticed me fiddling with my phone.
“Don’t bother trying to make a call from in here. The whole place is wrapped in copper mesh. Nothing gets in, and nothing gets out. Use my landline if you must, but keep it short.”
I made my call and Malcolm, and I made arrangements to meet up in a week. We needed to talk more about the photograph, the lady and the old bloke who knew her ‘back in the day’.
The old bloke opened the door for us, and we said our goodbyes.
“Most dangerous person I ever knew”, was his parting comment.
Four days later, I got a call from Malcolm.
“Did you see the news?”
“I don’t watch the news; it depresses the hell out of me, and as I always say, if something significant happens, someone will tell me about it, so why watch? What have you got to tell me, Malcolm?”
“The old bloke blew up.”
“Did he forget to reset?”
“I don’t think so. He generally resets ten minutes after the hour. That way if he forgets, the chiming of his clock will remind him. He blew up at half-past four in the afternoon. I think someone got to him and I think that your fucking photo got him killed.”
This time I felt that Malcolm’s obscenity was warranted.
“I think that we need to take a holiday and quick.”
I concurred and had the car packed inside forty minutes.
Two hours later I was on the highway headed for Queensland.
Indeed, spooks will eventually find you if they really want to, but I know for a fact that Queensland is the last place they are going to look.
No one goes to Queensland unless they really have to.