Through a dense fog, I hear the splintering of timber. Voices. Male voices.
Something about ‘drifting away’.
I’m being wrapped in a blanket, it’s woollen, I can feel it against my skin. It’s warm.
Strong arms guide me toward my bed. More voices. ‘Cover the mirror’.
Why are these people in my room? What do they want?
I feel very light, and I see myself from a distance. A very comfortable distance.
I’m trying to decide. Do I come back or do I drift away? Drift away seems like an excellent idea.
I’m not asleep, but I’m not awake, either. I’m in that in-between place. It’s beautiful here.
When I awake, a day and a half have passed.
I’m feeling rested, and it’s quiet because almost everyone is off at work.
I take my time and bathe.
I look at myself in the bathroom mirror; I don’t look any different, but I definitely feel different.
I spend the afternoon quietly sitting in the garden listening to the birds and trying to collect my thoughts.
Eventually, my extended family begin returning to our large home.
The house is surprisingly quiet as the women prepare the evening meal.
The men bring in wood for the fire and go about the small tasks that men perform to keep a large house like ours running smoothly. There is very little of the usual chatter, and what conversation there is, is carried out in hushed tones.
It is not spoken, but everyone is thinking the same thing.
What happened, and how will it affect the fortunes of our family?
Even if they did work up the courage to ask, I would not know how to answer.
Quite simply, I don’t remember what happened.
I know that the experience almost cost me my life, and I know that I feel at peace.
Something passed between me and the mirror and even though I don’t know what that ‘something’ is I know that it was good. I know that our family will prosper and I know that I will come to be its leader, in the fullness of time.
Everyone is looking at me in a different way than they did before, and that is as it should be.
How the mirror came into our family and where it came from are two facts that are shrouded in mystery.
My favourite story? That it was enchanted by a gypsy princess.
The princess was captured by angry townsfolk who were upset about a poor crop yield, or something like that, and blamed it on the gypsies.
I guess people have always needed someone to blame.
One of my ancestors, who was a poor but chivalrous young man, rescued the gypsy princess.
She was a bit bruised, battered and dusty, but otherwise unhurt.
She took my young ancestor back to her caravan and gave him a good seeing to, which they both rather enjoyed.
She also gave him the mirror. Her enchantment meant that the mirror would respond favourably to any female member of his family who was beautiful, naked and brave.
I guess I was all of those things.
I know I’m not the same.
I dared to face the mirror, and that sets me apart.
My self-confidence goes all the way down to the tips of my toes.
I’m the same height, but I feel taller.
My thoughts are now full of answers, as well as questions. The future feels bright and full of possibilities.
Sometimes courage is its own reward, and outward beauty has very little to do with it.
I know that my daughters will be vigorous and wise. The experience with the mirror taught me that bravery overcomes all obstacles, but in the end, it is the love that comes from within that holds a family together, no matter how large or small that family might be.
There are people in this world who can identify dust by its aroma.
Book dust is widely considered to be the most aromatic and most likely to evoke memories.
I mention dust because the house we rented has lots of it.
If the building had been hermetically sealed before we got there I would have wondered how the dust got in, but it wasn’t, and it did. Get in that is.
The house is about as sealed as a sieve.
Don’t think I’m worried about it because I’m not. I’ve never been prissy about such things.
I like the bare floorboards (they’d polish up nicely — hardwood with an attractive grain), and I love old furniture (the house came furnished). The furniture is functional, but not at all stylish — not now nor when it was new, but that’s okay too.
It has an open fireplace and thin pointless curtains which don’t block out the light or give any kind of privacy during the evening hours.
Some bright spark said that dust is mostly made up of discarded human skin particles, but I know this is bollocks. I’ve explored buildings where no human being has ventured for many years, and the place was still full of dust — neatly settled on every available surface.
Renting the house happened on a whim.
We needed to get away for a while. Someone suggested this country town because of the river and the pine trees and the old general store which doubles as a cafe during the day and a bar at night.
The quietness is deafening.
I need quiet if I’m going to finish this book, but I worried about Rebecca. Would she be bored? She said not, so I had to believe her.
“I’ve got my sewing and my books, and it looks like a great place to go for long walks. I can cook and write and play with Billy (our small dog). That is if he can drag himself away from you. He really is the perfect writer’s dog,” said Rebecca, and I had to agree. “You finish your book, and we will look back on this time as being special.”
Billy, the dog, wandered into my life a couple of years ago when I was sitting at the garden table — I’d left the back gate open, and he took it as an invitation. He curled up next to me and went to sleep. It turned out that he belonged to the Mitchell family from Bent Street, about half a kilometre away. They had six children all under ten years old, and the little dog was exhausted from the morning’s chaos, so he came to my house to get a bit of peace.
Once I worked out where he was from, I left the gate open for him each morning.
When the Mitchells split up, Mrs Mitchell asked if I’d like to have Billy, “I’m taking the kids to my family in Queensland, and I don’t think Billy will enjoy the heat.”
I said yes, I would like to keep Billy and he’s been with me ever since.
Acquiring Rebecca was another matter entirely. Billy had a bit to do with it.
Rebecca worked for the local pet groomer, and I bought Billy’s dog food from them. Billy’s not the kind of dog who needs a lot of grooming, but he is small and white (except for the black bits), and he has a disarming smile.
Rebecca offered to trim his nails, which needed it even though he wore them down while walking with me every day.
I checked with Billy, and he seemed okay with the idea, so I handed him over. After that, he veered violently into the dog groomers every time we walked by. Rebecca would see us and come out from the back of the shop and pet Billy, who squirmed up against her loving touch. I wondered how Rebecca’s boss felt about these frequent trips, but I guess she was happy to put up with us because of all the expensive dog food that Billy consumed.
I’d been living on credit in the house my aunty bequeathed to me, and things were getting a bit grim when I sold the film rights to my first book. That gained me a bit of attention, and my publisher (I use the term loosely — about as helpful as tits on a bull) decided to reissue my first three books and actually put a bit of money into promoting them.
I paid off my debts with the proceeds of the film deal and suggested that Rebecca might want to join Billy and me in a spot of celebration.
Fortunately, she said yes, and the rest you can probably guess.
My publisher set a deadline for my latest literary effort. Rebecca is happy being my muse, Billy is happy to have Rebecca living with us and I’m just flat out happy.
This dusty little house is going to be our residence for a few months, and while we are here, we will make it our home.
It’s getting a bit chilly, so I’d better light the fire.
Someone in a summer dress asked me if I preferred men or books.
“Books, my dear, every time. They will take you to a lot more interesting places.”
I was being facetious, of course. Men are necessary, but you can’t put them down and come back to them as easily as a book.
The pressure is mounting because the money my grandfather left me is rapidly running out.
There is nothing else for it, I’m going to have to get a job or marry a man, preferably one with an excess of funds.
I think I prefer the first option, but what to do?
I have a reasonable education, although I’ve failed to keep up the friendships from that time in the way that men do — networking, I think they call it.
I’m pretty, and I speak well enough, and I can type, but I never admit to it.
I’m well-read, although I’m not sure how that will help me. I guess I shall have to find out.
The ‘summer dress’ argued with me, passionately. Men are wonderful things, apparently.
I suppose I know a few decent men.
My grandfather adored me, hence the inheritance.
My father likes me, although you would not hear him say so.
My brother is the finest man I know, but they won’t let you marry your brother, which always seemed absurd to me. I understand the bit about two-headed babies resulting from such a union, but I’ve never felt the need for children, so no problem there.
Sadly, my brother did not return from his stint at ‘King and Country’, so that avenue is pure fantasy. He really was the most delicious person, and I miss him. Something in me died when he didn’t come home.
In a way, I’ve been living the kind of independent life I know he would have lived.
Mustn’t get too maudlin, I have decisions to make and a life to live.
Maybe the ‘summer dress’ has a point.
On second thought, no, she hasn’t.
Books trump men every time.
Now, if I find a man who loves books, I’ll be in a quandary.
Not for the first time, the informant was a no-show.
It happens more often than you think.
In the movies, the detective gets a phone call from someone who won’t give a name, ‘but I got great information for yous’, and the scene cuts to the dark, dangerous meeting place. The informant does, or does not, cough up information in return for a handful of notes or a punch in the stomach — depending on the director and his taste for violence.
In my world, I meet people where I can keep an eye on them, but occasionally I will turn up to a deserted location like the old wharf at South Bank.
It wasn’t the warmest night on record, and I waited a reasonable length of time, but he wasn’t coming. There could be a hundred reasons why he didn’t show, but I was too tired to list them all, and besides, Pop’s doesn’t have paper napkins (it’s not that sort of place) so where would I write them?
Pop’s serves a weird assortment of goods including peanuts and ice cream, which is mostly for the day trade. At this hour of the night, a man was likely to get mugged for ordering ice cream. Beer was the order most heard. There was also whiskey, but I wouldn’t recommend it. None of it had ever seen the shores of Scotland.
The building is small, but there is a small verandah at the back that looks out onto the water. During the day, people tramp up the sandy steps sit and lick ice cream. At this hour of the evening (Pop’s never closes), cigarettes and beer help to accompany the view. You can hear the waves even when the wind is still.
Detective work is a lot like being in the army — moments of terror and excitement punctuated by long stretches of mind-numbing boredom. This was one of the latter.
Something will come along, it always does. The rent has been paid, there’s food in the fridge, and the tank on my Coupe is full. I could use a haircut, but that can wait. I haven’t been shot at for a while, which is good.
“Sorry to disturb you sir, but there is a lady just came in, and she wants to talk to you,” said the barman, leaning out of the door leading to the verandah.
“Why didn’t she come out here?” I said.
“I don’t know mate. Maybe she’s delicate and the evening air would adversely affect her completion. How the fuck would I know.”
The barman disappeared, I stubbed out my cigarette, sculled my beer and put on my hat.
I know what you’re thinking, and you are partly right — I was writing ‘I Love’ on the train carriage window, making him think I was going to finish with ‘you’.
Instead, I wrote ‘chocolate’.
I wasn’t being mean, he liked my sense of humour.
In retrospect, I probably should have written the letters in ‘mirror image’ so he could see more clearly what I was writing, but I knew he was a smart fellow and would work it out. Besides, writing ‘mirror image’ is harder than you might think.
My girlfriend took the photo, and I think I look good. I was certainly feeling good on that blustery day. I should have been sad, I suppose, but in my youthful foolish way, I thought I was enveloped by the beginning of a wonderful adventure. I thought he would follow me all the way to the other side of this vast country.
He looks so handsome with his coat collar turned up — wistful, wondering why I don’t look as sad as he was feeling.
He didn’t follow me, but we did exchange letters for a while.
He found someone else, and it broke my inexperienced heart.
My heart healed, and I found happiness, of a sort, but I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t got on that train, had written something different on that window.
My girlfriend and I are still good friends. She had an extra copy of this photo made for me, and we get it out from time to time and reminisce.
I’ve never been tempted to write on windows since that day.
It has to be said that the dog in question was way brighter than I was.
If she fancies another dog she simply ‘shakes a tail feather’ and it’s on.
Sadly, I’m not a dog.
It’s trickier if you are human.
I’d been trying to find an original way to strike up a conversation.
I couldn’t come up with anything original, so I reverted to a classic — walk a cute dog and females will at least smile at you, probably strike up a conversation. Dogs make men seem less likely to, well, I don’t know, do whatever it is that females don’t like. I’m woefully ignorant of such things.
So, the plan was hatched with only one glitch — I didn’t currently own a dog.
Used to — when I was young, but my apartment building didn’t allow dogs — must do something about that one day when I get the time.
Fortunately, my third best friend, William, had a beautiful standard poodle — black of fur with a cheeky smile and fun in its heart. Her name is Gladys, and she commands and demands attention — just what I needed.
Gladys likes me, which came in handy. I think she understands me, which is more than I do.
I remember the year, 1952, but not the exact day. You know how it is, you plan a campaign, but you have no clear idea of when success might come and when it does, you are so deliriously happy you forget to write down the date because you think this wonderfulness will go on forever — the folly of youth.
Then you are less young, and you wish you had stopped and written down every delicious moment.
I’d staked out what I thought was the perfect spot, just in front of the iron fence that had surrounded the small park for more than a century.
I tried to look casual — maybe I was preparing to light a cigarette, or I was writing a poem in my head. Perhaps I was just lost in thought. It didn’t matter unless someone asked me why I was lingering on this spot. No one asked.
“What a beautiful dog,” she said. I was so busy looking casual, I’d missed her approach.
She was immaculately dressed, perfect accessories. Her scarf was a few shades lighter than her outfit. Her curves were exquisite, and her gold earrings were bold. I wondered how she managed to keep her beret in place — another one of those secrets that females pass down through the generations. I didn’t ask, and I don’t want to know — some things should remain secret.
“Yes, she is,” I said, but you put her to shame, was what I was thinking, but I thought it better to say less at this stage.
“How old is she?” asked the vision in maroon.
“I have no idea. She doesn’t belong to me. I’m walking her for a friend, he’s not well.”
I figured that this gave me essential points — a man who is thoughtful and considerate of his friends. It had to provide me with an edge.
“Nothing serious, I hope?” she said. She wasn’t looking at me, she was patting Gladys, who was enjoying the attention while trying to look aloof.
I was handsomely dressed — she was fierce company, so I had to create the impression that I was in her league. Impression only — not actually close to her league, but my father always said that I should play against superior players and drag myself up to their level.
I mentioned a cafe nearby that had outside tables, and wasn’t it a beautiful day, and hadn’t Gladys taken to you — if you don’t have anywhere else to be?
She hesitated before saying she had a few minutes before having to be somewhere, she always left early for appointments.
Gladys stepped up just when she was needed by looking directly at the vision in maroon with a complimenting scarf and matching gloves.
I tipped my hat, and we walked with Gladys between us.
She was late for her meeting, and I was in a daze which lasted for the rest of my life.
Some days are better than others, and planning and preparation are never wasted.
The red light on Sam’s answering machine was blinking.
It did that from time to time.
This was the same answering machine that Sam took to the repair shop.
“Gees mate. This thing’s an antique. Must be late 1990s,” said Joe, the repairman behind the counter of the very hard to find electronics repair shop. (Down the alley and ask for Joe).
Joe’s name was embroidered on his shirt. It looked hand done, not by a commercial machine.
“Wife, mother or girlfriend?” said Sam pointing at Joe’s name.
“Me wife. She’s really good at stuff like that.”
“The machine was new in 1994, so technically, it’s early 1990s and as long as you can fix it, it will sail into its fourth decade happily recording political ads, people from another continent pronouncing my name badly while trying to sell me a new telephone/internet/electricity/gas plan, not to mention fake warnings from the Australian Tax Office, and the occasional message from a prospective client,” said Sam.
“You do know that you don’t need an answering machine, don’t you? Your phone company will store your messages for you,” said Joe while peering at the back of the machine.
“Yes, I do. And any bozo with a journalism degree can check my messages for me,” said Sam.
“That shit only happens to famous people. You famous mate?”
“My mother would like to think so,” said Sam.
This conversation continued just long enough for Sam to find out that Joe wasn’t sure how long the repair might take or how much it would cost, but Joe was confident that, “It’d be cheaper if you bought a new one, assuming they still make ‘em.”
Sam got a call about a week later.
“Bugger to find the parts — but I did,” said Joe with the embroidered name.
The price was mentioned, and Sam took a small breath in.
“Can I get back to you. I’ll have to ring my bank manager and arrange a second mortgage,” said Sam.
Joe didn’t flinch. He’d heard all the jokes before, “I don’t think they still have bank managers, Mr Bennett.”
The message on Sam’s expertly repaired, analogue answering machine, was from a detective sergeant who owed Sam a favour.
“Bennett. It’s Miller. You remember that naughty person you were trying to pin the Style’s murder on but couldn’t (detective sergeant Miller had been equally unsuccessful, but his tone of voice made it sound like Sam was the only one who fucked up), well he won’t be murdering anyone else. I thought you would like to know. That makes us even Bennett.” Sam’s answering machine announced the time of the recording, which was five hours off because Sam had not gotten around to adjusting its clock.
“That doesn’t get you off the hook, Miller,” said Sam to his answering machine.
A phone call the next morning gave Sam the address where Roman Vigata was shot. A bit of convincing and detective sergeant Miller agreed to meet Sam and tell him what was known about the circumstance of Vigata’s passing.
The sky had cleared, but the recent rain made it sticky underfoot.
The shack, with an excellent view across the valley, was up a steep track.
Sam slipped a few times but managed to stay upright. Miller was waiting at the top of the track. He was enjoying watching Sam dodge around rocks and mud.
“Who the fuck lives all the way out here?” said Sam.
“Roman Vigata’s father. It turns out that this is where he would head to whenever things got warm.”
This answered a lot of questions.
Sam had explored the ‘relatives’ angle, but there was no sign of a father.
Roman Vigata senior was pretty much ‘off the grid’. His phone was a ‘pay as you go’, he used gas bottles from a service station, kerosene from the hardware store, wood from the forest, paid cash for groceries. None of these activities left a footprint. Even the local council had his land listed under a company name.
Vigata senior did not want to be known.
“Who was after Vigata this time?” said Sam.
“Apparently, he’d upset his associates. Hand in the till, that sort of thing.”
“They don’t take kindly to that, but he has been a good soldier for that crew, so why come after him now?”
“Who knows and who cares. They got him, that’s all that matters, and no innocent bystanders got hurt. The press is less likely to get worked up when these half-wits kill each other without collateral damage.”
The cabin had not been dusted since before the Tasmanian Tiger went extinct, but serenity and solitude sometimes come with dust.
“Wind up radio,” said Sam as Miller showed him through the three-room shack.
“So what?” said Miller.
“No reason. I’ve always wanted one of those. Wind up torch as well.” Sam wound the handle to the accompanying whirring sound.
“Forgot to pay the electricity bill, Bennett?”
“People talk about ‘living off the grid’, but this bloke did it. Imagine not having a refrigerator, not having electric light or the internet.”
The kitchen table looked handmade, and the two chairs were old and didn’t match. There was a well worn three-seater couch against the wall with a blanket thrown over it.
“Hard rubbish collection,” said Sam scanning the furniture.
Miller couldn’t be bothered asking what he was on about. He wanted this walk-through to be over. He had things to do, but not being beholden to Sam Bennett was worth the discomfort.
There was a dried bloodstain on the table — soaked into the grain.
“Whoever did him in stood behind him and pulled the trigger. Execution.”
“Did you find the gun?” said Sam. “Nuh,” said Miller.
“What about his gun? This bloke was on the run from some nasty people. He definitely had a gun.”
“Not that we found.”
Sam looked at the bathroom, which didn’t have a bath and the bedroom, which had not been slept in.
In the main room, the kitchen area was reasonably tidy, and the open fireplace had ashes but no heat.
“Have you tracked down the father?”
“Not yet, but he’ll turn up. Probably ran away after his son got shot. No body in the area and no blood traces, so he got away clean,” said Miller.
“Have you seen enough, Bennett? I have to go.”
“I think I’ll hang around for a while,” said Sam.
“You’ll be here on your own. I’m pulling the constable out.”
Sam stood at the door of the cabin and watched the police walk away. He walked down the track and retrieved a large flashlight and a chocolate bar from his glovebox. His Jag held all sorts of things that ‘might come in handy’. Sam’s car was far enough away from the house that anyone who was interested would not necessarily associate it with the cabin, even if they knew it was there.
With about an hour till darkness, Sam resisted the urge to light the fire or the kerosene lamp.
Before the light was gone, Sam searched the tiny residence again. He put his hand up the chimney and felt the years of accumulated soot. To the right, the residue had been scraped away, and a revolver had been taped to the brickwork. Sam remembered the roll of industrial-strength tape that was in the drawer of the kitchen cupboard.
Sam removed it and checked the chambers. One bullet had been fired. He taped the gun back into its hiding place and waited.
Sam had been asleep in the comfort and warmth of the large single bed when he became aware of a man standing in the doorway.
Sam shone the powerful torchlight onto the stranger, who held up his hand to shade his eyes.
“Mister Vigata?” said Sam.
“You’re hurting my eyes,” said the man.
The man’s hands seemed to be empty and Sam, who was good at reading people, decreed that he wasn’t a threat.
“Go back into the kitchen, and we can talk,” said Sam.
After lighting the lamp, the two men sat at the table and stared at each other.
“You’re Roman’s father. You’ve been hiding him.”
The old man shrugged.
“People said bad things about my son, but I never believed them. I had to protect him. I know he was not an honest man, but I believed he never hurt innocent people,” said the old man who’s head was almost resting on the table.
“I was hunting for your son a few years ago. I guess you were hiding him then?” said Sam and the old man shrugged. “I tried to protect him. I believed he was a good man at heart, but after all this time he boasted of the men he had killed, ‘I’ve even killed women and a ten-year-old boy’. He was sneering at me. Waving his gun around. Drunk, but not sorry. Boasting. Jeering. He said I had wasted my life, and he had taken anything he wanted. He killed a child. My son killed a child!”
“So you put him down?”
“When a dog goes crazy, you put it down. For its sake and for everyone else’s. He fell asleep on the couch where he slept when he came here. I knew he kept his gun under the pillow. I was hoping that he would be sad and sorry when he woke up. In the morning, I walked to the general store — he was still sleeping. When I came back, he was sitting at the table, eating cereal. He wasn’t sorry. He wasn’t sad, and he wasn’t the boy I remembered. He was a violent man I didn’t recognise. I took out his gun and did what I did,” said the old man.
“The police think that his associates caught up with him, but I couldn’t see him sitting still while one of them walked around behind him and pulled the trigger. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. If we knew we were going to die anyway, we would lunge at the guns, run for the door, anything — anything other than sit there and take it,” said Sam.
Sam thought the old man may have passed out from the grief and realisation of it all when the man jumped up from his chair and dived into the fireplace and produced the revolver.
“I don’t know your name, and I don’t have anything left to lose.”
Sam could feel the weight of his gun in its shoulder holster. He weighed up his options.
“I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if I have to. If you’re the bloke I think you are, you’ll get out of my cabin and close the door behind you,” said the old man and Sam looked at the hole at the end of the barrel.
Sam moved his hands away from his sides and stood up very slowly. After all his adventures and near misses, she didn’t want to explain to St Peter that he died at the hands of a grief-stricken old man.
Sam closed the door behind him and walked down the steps.
The gunshot momentarily lit up the inside of the cabin.
Sam’s walk back to his car was slippery, dark and dangerous.
When he reached the Jag, he climbed behind the wheel and dialled his phone.
“Miller. Bennett. I found Vigata’s father. He’s at the cabin. He isn’t going anywhere.”
Sam didn’t wait for Miller to unleash his avalanche of questions.
It was late, he was cold, and it was a long drive.
A collection of cigarette butts caught Sam’s eye when he walked out of his front gate to catch a tram to the city.
If he had been driving, he would have missed them.
A tight grouping directly under the tree.
When they moved into their substantial residence — built by a rich bloke back in the 1970s, they decided to increase the width of their driveway. The aforementioned rich bloke had knocked down several houses and plonked his creation right in the middle of the now considerable grounds, all to impress his new bride.
It didn’t work, and he sold the house soon after.
Several owners later and Scarlett decided that this was to be their home.
Big houses were out of place in this neighbourhood, but it did have the benefit of being in the community where Sam grew up.
New electronic gates, with a pedestrian gate at the side (Sam was the only person who moved through it), were installed. The driveway brushed dangerously close to the sixty-year-old street tree. There was some discussion about whether the council would allow them to excavate so close to the tree.
These days the tree seemed happy enough, and if you stood under it — as someone obviously had, you would have a sweeping view up the paved driveway to the entrance of the house.
“What’s happening today, Sam?”
Scarlett was being considerate — showing some interest.
Since the accident, Sam’s world had become considerably smaller.
Blood, crushed metal, a rapid ride in an ambulance, followed by a frantic time in the emergency room.
“We have to relieve the pressure on his brain.”
What if we don’t, thought Scarlett.
A boring stay in a hospital room with an interesting view, followed by a stay in a rehabilitation facility. Sam made lifelong friends on that ward, but now he was home doing his best to regain lost memories.
“Your memories will come back slowly, or they may all come back at once, it’s hard to know,” said a kind face in a white lab coat.
“I have an appointment with Dr Doug at four, but not much till then,” said Sam.
“How’s it all going? The memory stuff, I mean?”
“Slowly. Dr Doug seems happy, but he would be, at five hundred dollars an hour.”
“Is that fair, Sam? Dr Doug has an excellent reputation for such a young psychiatrist. I liked him when I spoke to him. I think he has your best interests at heart. Give him a chance.”
Scarlett found Dr Doug and gently encouraged Sam to go and see him. Sam was prepared to be unimpressed, but the two of them got along. Dr Doug dealt in dreams and Sam had vivid and sometimes disturbing dreams, which he wrote down in great detail — a match made somewhere near heaven.
“I might go in early and wander around the city for a bit, or I might not and have a nap instead. I was up very early this morning. Which reminds me; you get up very early during the week. Have you noticed an older man standing outside our front gates?”
Scarlett ran her late father’s business empire, and she took it all seriously, arriving before anyone else.
“Not standing, but I have noticed an older man walking his dog. Between five-thirty and six each morning. Usually smoking a cigarette.”
“He could be the one,” said Sam.
“Why do you ask?” said Scarlett.
“I’m not sure. It just seems strange. I’ve seen him standing on the grass under the tree and staring at our house. He stands there looking like he is trying to make up his mind — ring the bell or not, then he walks off, dog in tow.”
“Do you think we need to be worried?”
It was evident from the size of their property that the Bennett’s were wealthy. Big money attracts some who might want to lighten their load.
“No. No need to worry,” said Sam.
The next morning, Sam was staring out of their first-floor bedroom window when the older man drifted into view. His dog stopped as though he knew in advance that they would be there for a while. The older man dropped his cigarette on the ground, stepped on it and lit up a new one, all the while leaning on the trunk of the tree.
Despite the distance to their front gate, Sam could see the man clearly.
This routine went on for several weeks before stopping abruptly.
Sam missed seeing the man and his dog. There was something comforting about their appearance at the appointed time. They had been coming for so many days that the little dog now walked to the tree and lay down, making itself comfortable, knowing there was going to be a long wait.
“The old man and his dog have stopped standing out the front,” said Sam over toast and coffee.
“Did you ever find out who he was?” asked Scarlett.
“No, and now I miss him.”
Sam retired from detecting when he married Scarlett, but this seemed like a good time to come out of retirement.
On his next walk to the tram, Sam knocked on a few doors. Mostly his knocking was met by silence until the retired couple who lived a few doors down opened their door.
“I think you are referring to Judge Nardella. He’s been retired for a long time now, and I sometimes talk to him on his early morning walks,” said Mr Wilson, (call me Ted).
“Neither of us sleeps very well, but Ted is worse than I am,” said Mrs Wilson, (call me Beryl).
“He was a big deal in his day. Sat in judgement on some high profile cases. Put Enselmo away for life. Lives in that big house up on Oakover Road. The red brick one with all the roses.”
“I know the woman who cleans his house, and she says that his house is full of boxes and filing cabinets. All his old court cases, apparently. Spent a fortune having them photocopied when he retired. She says he reads through his old cases looking for something,” said Mrs Wilson.
“Does she know what he’s looking for?” asked Sam.
“No. She doesn’t know, and she’s not game to ask.”
Sam finished his second cup of tea and wondered if he would make it into the city before he had to answer the call of nature — he didn’t. A stop at the Edinborough Garden was necessary.
His relief break made him slightly late for his session with Dr Doug, but he had a story to tell.
“So, what do you plan to do, Sam?” said Dr Doug.
“Investigate,” said Sam.
Another day went by before Sam walked the short distance to the judge’s house. Sam liked to let ideas percolate before taking action.
The front door was at the top of a few brick steps. Next to the door was an old pull handle doorbell. It was connected to a cable that rang a bell in the kitchen. The house was built at the same time as wealthy families had electricity installed, but some old building habits died hard.
The bell still worked. Sam could feel the resistance as he pulled on it and felt it settle back into position.
Sam was about to give it another pull when he heard the bolt on the front door unlock, and an elderly man opened the door.
The judge stood at Sam’s height. Grey thinning hair roughly combed and a gentle but determined face.
There was a moment’s silence after which the judge said, “Mr Bennett. I suppose you are wondering why I stand outside your house?”
“Good afternoon, judge. You come right to the point. Do you have a few moments?”
“No, I don’t, but if you are free tomorrow afternoon, about three, I would be delighted to serve you tea and cake. My housekeeper isn’t here today. She makes excellent teacake.”
“I’ll be here,” said Sam. He was disappointed, but he was also patient. His mentor had taught him that patience was essential. “Let the world come to you. Don’t push it away in your haste.”
Sam heard Scarlett’s car come up the long drive. He heard her thank her driver — she always did that, Scarlett treated everyone with respect.
The front door opened and Scarlett put her handbag on the hall table and her briefcase, a present from Sam, on the marble floor. She came into the old servant’s kitchen (Sam loved this room — a bit worn and very cosy — he wouldn’t let Scarlett redecorate it).
Sam had lit the fire, and a snack was waiting for her.
“Your coffee will be ready in just a moment.”
The coffee machine whirred happily on the bench.
“How did your day go?” said Sam, who desperately wanted to tell Scarlett about his adventure.
“Meetings all day. The glassworks expansion is going well, or so I’m told.”
“I love glass,” said Sam, for no particular reason.
“Are you okay, Sam. You’ve never professed a love for glass before, and it’s freaking me out.”
“I’m trying to be supportive. I read an article that said a wife should show interest in her husband’s work as soon as he gets home.”
“Now I’m really starting to worry.”
“I REALLY want you to ask me how my day went.”
It had been a long time since Sam had anything interesting to say when Scarlett came home.
“Okay. I’ll bite,” said Scarlett and Sam poured her coffee. The snacks looked good — she had skipped lunch again.
“Well,” said Sam making himself comfortable on a barstool.
“Don’t eat too much cake and no making eyes at his housekeeper,” said Scarlett before kissing Sam on the cheek. “I should be home on time. I can’t wait to hear about your meeting.”
The front door closed, and her car drove off. Now Sam was stuck with the task of filling in the hours till three.
He chopped some wood, mowed the back lawns — the front ones could wait a few days, walked the dogs and read the paper. Still three hours to go.
Sam’s physical condition was steadily improving, but an early afternoon nap was needed most days. This took him up to two-thirty. He showered and dressed and walked the distance to the judge’s house. His dogs were disappointed at not being invited.
“Maybe next time,” said Sam as he closed his front door.
The judge was waiting at the open door as Sam climbed the steps.
“Can I ring your doorbell, just for the fun of it?” asked Sam.
The judge nodded without expression.
With the door open, Sam could hear the bell ring deep within the house. It was satisfying.
The judge ushered Sam into the large front room. High ceilings, thick curtains, and lush furniture covered in boxes. Boxes covered most of the parquetry floor and oozed out through the connecting door into another room.
Two comfortable looking armchairs had been released from box covering duties, and Sam chose the one with its back to the window. The two men settled into their chairs as tea and cake magically appeared.
The judge’s housekeeper was modestly dressed, barely concealing her fifty-odd years. Sam tried to smile at her, but she avoided his gaze.
The judge poured from a china teapot. The tea was hot, and the cake left crumbs on Sam’s shirtfront. He tried to flick them onto his other hand and deposit them onto his plate with only moderate success.
Other than to compliment the judge on his teacake, Sam kept silent.
“In your career, have you ever caught someone who turned out to be innocent?” said former judge Nardella.
“Not that I know of,” said Sam.
“What would you do if you had?”
A moment of silence.
“Do my best to rectify the situation,” said Sam.
Another moment of silence.
“If you don’t mind me asking, are these, in the boxes, your old cases?”
“Why do you have them here?”
“I’m reading through them — looking.”
“For what, judge?”
“My mistake. I know it’s in here — somewhere.”
“I’m sure, with your reputation, the courts would dig out any file you asked for. What is the name of the defendant?”
“I don’t know which defendant it was,” said the judge. He stared at the boxes, and for a moment, Sam thought he had lost his attention.
“You don’t have to answer judge, but are you a religious man?”
“Yes. Catholic. Devout.”
“I don’t want to sound rude judge, but I strongly suggest that you stop torturing yourself.”
“I stood outside your house because I wanted to ask you what you would do. You are known as an honest, brave and principled individual. I couldn’t get up the courage to ask you, but here you are, and you have given me your answer.”
The judge went back to staring at his boxes, piled so high that Sam feared for the judge’s safety.
The dusty smell that only librarians and archivists know filled Sam’s nostrils as he said his goodbyes. The housekeeper showed him to the door.
“Your employer is not a well man,” said Sam.
“I know, but he doesn’t listen to me. Thank you for coming Mr Bennett.”
Sam’s walk home was considerably slower than his journey to the judge’s residence.
Scarlett was home very late despite her assurance. She crept into the bedroom so as not to wake her Sam.
“There’s a plate in the fridge. I can heat it up for you,” said Sam in a muffled voice from under the covers.”
“No need. I ate at the office. Someone Ubered Italian food. So how did your afternoon tea go?”
“I’ll tell you about it in the morning, but the headline reads, sad afternoon had by formerly famous detective.”
“Oh,” said Scarlett as she slipped into bed next to her Sam. She snuggled up to him feeling his warmth and smelling his aroma. She put her hand on his bottom.
“So, that’s how it is,” said Sam.
A little over three months later, a package arrived for Sam.
“Sign here please, sir,” said the thirty-something-year-old delivery driver. “Love your house. Felt like I needed a passport to get through the gate.”
Sam’s dogs were getting curious, trying to push past him to get at the delivery driver. In their experience, delivery drivers had a plethora of interesting scents to investigate.
Sam gave the young bloke a smile and carried the package into the small kitchen. It sat on the old bench like a suspicious package in the suspense movie.
The dogs looked at Sam for direction.
“I guess I should see what’s in it.” A thought crossed his mind, should I put it in a bucket of water first?
The thought passed quickly.
The package put up a bit of a fight. Finally open, there was a thick file with a person’s name on it. The folder was tattered and worn, and the name was written in an unsteady hand. Apart from the file, there was a letter.
Dear Mr Bennett.
I found what I was looking for.
After you have read the file, I give you my permission to do with it what you will. The man died in prison after his first three years of a life sentence, so I cannot put this right. Maybe, by shedding light on my foul deed, his family can have some peace. I am in no way defending myself, but at the time, I was distracted by domestic issues. I missed the clues because I was wrapped up in my own worries. I should have directed the jury to acquit, but I was selfish and self-absorbed. I hope my God will forgive me. My life will be over by the time you read this, and I’m wondering if my God will forgive my early arrival.
Thank you for listening to me. You are a good man.
The obituaries listed the death of former Judge Nardella and you had to read very carefully, between the lines, to decern that the good judge had taken his own life. The article listed his considerable achievements.
The man deserved his rest.
When Scarlett had gone to work, Sam walked to the far corner of his backyard. The dogs followed him and sniffed as he dug a large hole.
He placed the unopened file in the hole and poured kerosene on it, lit it and added more fuel until it was reduced to ashes. The dogs watched as he pocked the ashes and added more fuel, lit it again and watched it burn.
The dogs got bored and fell asleep on the lush grass as finally satisfied that the file was destroyed, Sam filled in the hole and walked back to his house.