It wasn’t murder, not really.
Whatever it was, I needed to keep a low profile for a while.
At least until the dust settled.
Does dust ever settle? Someone always stirs it up.
Keeping my head down was a good idea, but where? I’m a predictable young bloke. I like the places I like, and I tend to end up there sooner or later. So, if someone was looking for me, I would not be that hard to find.
I needed advice, and my grandmother was very good at hiding in plain sight, back in the day. You would never think so to look at her now.
People underestimate her now.
She spent three years in an occupied country doing her bit. She got caught once and talked her way out of trouble. Think about that. How cool do you have to be to be young, female, in trouble and talk your way out of it?
Seriously cool, my grandma.
I could probably hang out at her house, play video games, watch movies and help her with the garden, but I know I would get bored and do something stupid — I’m good at stupid.
I sat at grandma’s kitchen table, as I had done many times growing up. I used to bring my mates to her house on my way home from school. Cake was always available and soft drinks. Grandma always knew the hungry ones, the ones who didn’t get enough to eat at home.
“Have another piece. It’ll only go to waste if you don’t eat it.”
No, it wouldn’t, I’d be thinking.
The sun was coming in through the window and splashing onto the edge of the table. I held onto my mug of tea the way girls do when they are trying to get warm.
“I didn’t have any choice, Grandma. It was him or me.”
Grandma didn’t speak, she just stared at her mug of tea. Grandma never drank from cups, even though she had some fine ones. “You never get enough in a cup, and you end up refilling it over and over.” Grandma was not one for wasting energy.
After several minutes, she applied words to her thoughts.
“You can stay here with me until this is resolved.”
I took a long breath out. I knew she would look after me.
“I have an old friend who runs a nursing home and hospice. I’ll ask if you can help her. I’ll tell her you are considering becoming a nurse and need the experience. The old men will welcome having a man to talk to, and the old ladies will be dazzled by your handsome face.”
I tried not to blush.
This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for my forced isolation, but it will while away the time. Old people don’t frighten me.
Two days later, and I’m shaking hands with Ethel, my grandma’s friend. We were standing in the foyer of a modern building, the light streaming in behind me illuminating Ethel’s face. She seemed kind and determined. The sort of person you would follow just to see where she was going.
“You must be Stephen. Your grandma said you wanted to have some practical experience to add to your nursing application?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Are you planning to specialise in geriatric nursing?”
“I think so.”
“Come, and we will get you a uniform. You can do a few jobs for me. Basic stuff. You are not too proud to do a bit of cleaning, are you Stephen?”
“I’m here to help and to learn.”
“Good. Most of your work will be talking to our residents. Most of them will be happy to have someone new to tell their stories to. They will want to know a bit about you as well.”
Not too much, I hope.
“I can do that.”
The ‘uniform’ turned out to be a set of scrubs with the name of the centre embroidered on the breast. Pale green and they suited me. I never thought much about what colours suit me.
On my fifth day, I was playing chess with Mr Johnston (always call the residents by their last name — it’s a sign of respect, they come from a different generation), when I saw Ethel, Mrs Wilson, walk briskly by the door — the staff never run, it upsets the residents.
“That must be for Billy,” said Mr Johnston. “He’s near the end. I’m going to miss the old bugger.”
“It’s your move Mr Johnston,” I said.
“Don’t feel much like playing, young fella. Need to be on my own.” Mr Johnstone got up and walked back in the direction of his room. I walked out too. I wanted to see what was going on.
I stood in the doorway to Billy Madison’s room. It felt like the air was thicker in there. I hesitated to break the invisible barrier.
“Come closer, Stephen. Mr Madison is leaving us.”
I stepped forward as I was told and watched as the nurse spoke gently to Billy Madison.
“You can go now, Billy. We are here with you. You are not alone.”
Billy Madison breathed his last few laboured breaths, sighed and was still.
This was only the second time I had watched someone die, and the emotion was quite different this time.
“We were with him when he died, which is what we promised him. Now we will prepare his body for the undertaker, and you can help.”
Ethel looked at me as though she expected me to run. I didn’t. Death does not frighten me, it’s living that scares the shit out of me.
“So how was your first week?” said my grandma as she put a load of fresh scones on the table.
“It was fascinating, but I’m glad to have a day off. It’s quite hard when someone you are just getting to know dies in front of you.”
I reached for the butter and the jam as my grandma put the whipped cream on the table.
“How long have you been making scones, grandma?”
“Too long to contemplate. My grandma taught me.”
“Why do your scones taste better than anyone else’s? Don’t tell mum I said that.”
“A secret ingredient,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“It’s been a week for secrets. I was sitting with a woman just the other day, and she told me a story that only a person who was facing the end of their life could tell.”
“I’ll make a fresh pot of tea, and you can tell me all about it.”
For the first time, I’m not very bright, it has to be said, I realised that my grandma too was at the end of her life. It never entered my mind that she would someday, not be here.
“Well, her story started the day she brought a new wheelbarrow. A red one,” I said as I stuffed the last piece of the scone I had been eating, into my mouth.
“I’ll tell it to you the way she told it to me.”
Without it, I would not have been able to move the body.
I’d always taken it for granted — the wheelbarrow, not the dead body.
It had always been there, leaning up against the shed or sitting quietly, filled with weeds or split fire-wood — just waiting for the task to be completed.
It was ‘on special’ at the hardware store on the high street.
The shop went out of business not long after, but I remember the wheelbarrows all lined up outside with a huge sign saying how much they were and how much I would be saving if I bought one.
The sign had the desired effect.
I’d needed a wheelbarrow for some time, and the first one in the stack was red.
The gentleman who served me was happy to make the sale but worried about how I was going to get it home.
“Have you got a ‘ute’ lady?”
“No, why? Is it a requirement for owning a wheelbarrow?”
He looked at me for a moment. I could tell that he was wondering if I was ‘winding him up’.
He decided that I was.
“No, but she’s a big bugger, and she probably won’t fit across the back seat of your car.”
“I don’t own a car. I walked here, and I’m planning to drive her home. I’ll park her outside the supermarket and load her up with my weekly shopping, and away I go.”
“Fair enough, but she really is a bloody big wheelbarrow. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a smaller one? You can still give the grand-kiddies a ride in a smaller one. The one you picked is big enough to fit a large dead body in.”
He must have thought that he had gone a bit too far because he looked up and gave an embarrassed smile. I wasn’t worried about the ‘dead body’ crack, but I was considering running over his foot for the grandmother comment.
“Is the smaller wheelbarrow on special as well?” I said.
“No, just these huge industrial buggers that I got stuck with when I bought the business.”
“Well then; I have the right barrow, don’t I?”
I smiled and staggered off down the footpath scattering pedestrians in my wake.
I didn’t stop to buy groceries; that was just me ‘getting carried away’ with the hardware store owner.
Every time I go past his old shop, I wonder what happened to him.
His shop became a Noodle Shop, then a $2 Shop, then a Tattoo Parlour, then a Bakery, then an empty shop with a strange collection of bits and pieces lying in the middle of the tiled floor.
It looked like someone had swept up after the last tenants, and never came back to throw out the collection of flotsam.
I’ve always wondered what the orange penis-shaped thing was.
I’m sure that it’s not an orange penis, but there has never been anyone at the shop for me to ask; which is just as well because I think I would be too embarrassed to make that particular enquiry.
Gardening is not my favourite pastime, but since my husband died, I have had to work up the enthusiasm.
Bill was the love of my life, and I miss him so very much.
He left me suddenly — an industrial accident. Everyone was very kind, especially his business partner Ambrose Kruis.
Bill and Ambrose built the business up from nothing, and when Bill died, Ambrose inherited the company; it was part of their partnership agreement. I understood; I wasn’t upset. They were engaged in high-risk construction, and if one of the partners died, it would put the whole business in jeopardy, so it was only fair that the surviving partner benefit.
It also explained the massive payout that Ambrose received as a result of the ‘partners insurance’.
He was not under any obligation, but he helped me anyway.
He knew that Bill put all his capital into the business and consequently, there wasn’t any life insurance.
I had some savings, but they were for a ‘rainy day’, as Bill used to say.
Ambrose was very generous when the roof needed replacing and when the plumbing packed it in.
I knew that I could not rely on him forever, but up until I made a surprise visit to his office, he had looked after me financially.
I arrived early on a Wednesday morning, and his secretary let me wait in his office. “He won’t be long. He’s at a breakfast meeting with the bankers.”
I decided to make the most of my time and write a couple of letters.
I do send emails, but I still prefer the personal touch of sending a letter.
I stepped behind what used to be Bill’s desk and opened the top drawer looking for notepaper.
Two more drawers were opened before I found some, and that’s not all that I found.
The writing paper was not lying flat in the drawer.
There seemed to be something small and bulky under the ream of paper. I removed the paper, and the sunlight coming in low through the office window reflected off the polished silver surface of an antique Victorian hip flask.
You might be wondering why I knew what it was.
I’d given this flask to my husband on our wedding night.
It belonged to my grandfather.
He was some twenty-years-old when he bought it upon arriving in England in 1915.
He was a young Lieutenant on his way to the front.
The flask saw a lot of action, and no doubt helped to dull the terror that trench warfare brought to all those involved.
I recognised the flask from the inscription and by the dent on the top corner. It was caused by a German sniper’s bullet.
After surviving at the front for all those years, one moment of lost concentration and my grandfather’s war came to an end, only months from the close of hostilities.
The notice of his death arrived on the day that the Armistice took effect.
The flask was returned to the family along with his other belongings.
Obviously, I was aware that the flask was missing from my husband’s effects, but I put it out of my mind. He had it with him on the day he died; he always had it with him.
I’m not that bright, but I didn’t need a degree in Physics to figure out that something was terribly wrong.
Ambrose had murdered my husband so that he could get control of the company and collect the insurance. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was all about the insurance and he probably expected to sell the failing business for the value of its component parts. But, to his surprise, the company survived, mainly because my husband had set it up well and the business had an excellent reputation. Its employees loved him and worked their arses off to keep the company going.
It helped that Ambrose was a bit of a womaniser and that he would often disappear for several days at a time when he was on a ‘bender’.
I invited him around to the house for a meal — something that I had done a dozen times.
During the dessert course, I excused myself, “Just need to visit the ladies room.” I came back with an old shovel that my husband used to dig the veggie patch — the irony was not lost on me.
I struck Ambrose twice on the back of the head. He went down, and apart from his lemon-meringue-pie landing on the floor, he did not make much of a mess.
Moving the body proved to be a bit of a chore, but the trusty red wheelbarrow was up to the task.
I didn’t own a car, so Ambrose was going to have to travel in the wheelbarrow for the two-kilometre ride to the construction site that Ambrose’s business owned. There was a concrete pour scheduled for the morning.
I’m not sure what I would have said if someone had stopped me, and I’m pretty sure that I looked hilarious as I struggled along with this huge red wheelbarrow filled with an Ambrose.
I was utterly exhausted when I got him there and dumped him into a pit and covered him with gravel, but I still had to get the wheelbarrow back to my house without being seen.
I was in the lap of the gods on both halves of this deadly journey, but the gods smiled on me, and I made it safely home.
I slept for fifteen hours straight.
I cleaned up the blood and the lemon-meringue-pie when I woke up and waited for the police to arrive.
They never did, and what’s more, it turned out that the partnership agreement had a clause covering the eventuality of both partners dying within ten years of each other.
The business went equally to the wives of the partners.
Ambrose wasn’t married.
I had to wait seven years before Ambrose was declared dead, but I didn’t mind — the money and the business weren’t the points.
That old red wheelbarrow is very ancient. Rust and a little red paint are about the only things holding it together now, but there is absolutely no way I am ever going to throw it away.
Every time I look at it, I’m reminded of everything I’ve lost and also of the revenge that was mine to take.
So much depends on a red wheelbarrow.
My grandma looked up from her cup of tea.
“Never underestimate an old lady,” she said. “Another scone dear?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
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.
Painting by Alex Alemeny
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.
Billy loves it when I light the fire.
If television is to believed, people walking their dog or children chasing a ball into the undergrowth are the main ways that dead bodies are discovered.
That’s not how they found mine.
I’d been dead for a while.
It can’t have been fun to discover what was left of me.
Being dead, I don’t tend to worry much, but if I did, I would feel for the poor soul who looked through my window, and the unfortunates who had to take me away.
I’m considering haunting the real estate agent who is so gleefully trying to sell my former abode. My family needs the money, apparently.
I’ve tried giving her a fright, but she seems to be too self-absorbed to notice me — hanging around, with not much to do.
I not sure why I’m still here, but it’s not at all unpleasant.
I seem to be able to get progressively further from my home each day, so I can walk around a bit and spy on the neighbours, talk to dogs, that sort of thing.
I don’t sleep, obviously — not the human type of sleep, just the eternal type.
I always like the night time. It’s another world, and apart from the ner do wells who use the undercover nature of the dark, most people who are awake when others are asleep are friendly and sad somehow.
I don’t hurt anymore, not physically. It’s a strange sensation, something like in a dream. I’m aware of my body, but it does not seem to have any weight. I should float off the ground, but I don’t. Everything seems the same, but I don’t have any sensation of touch. It doesn’t slow me down, I just do what I always have — I put one foot in front of the other, and away I go.
I can move through solid objects, walls and things. I know this because I accidentally walked through a chair. It freaks me out a bit so move around like I used to, by opening doors and occasionally climbing through windows — I did that a lot, back in the day.
I’m not worried about what comes next. I’m applying the same rules I’ve always lived by, be patient and let life come to me. Though in this case, it’s afterlife.
I have encountered a few others who are in my situation, but they are confused and angry, sometimes frightened. It doesn’t seem to matter what I say to them, it doesn’t help, so I steer clear.
I like my own company and the company of dogs, so I’m okay for now, but there are a few people I would like to catch up with.
Maybe one day, assuming they end up where I end up.
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.
The doctor died not long after delivering the news.
“Give up coffee, or you will surely suffer a painful death. Maybe not tomorrow, but quite soon and it won’t be pleasant.”
I didn’t gloat, but I did smile when my sister told me the news.
My sister and I set up house together when it became evident that neither of us was going to attract a mate.
“We can save on utilities and keep each other company.”
“What if I get lucky and attract a short-sighted woman who will love me until she gets her eyeglasses changed?” I asked.
“We’ll cross that chasm when we get to it,” said my sister.
I’m used to her and her to me. We don’t exactly like each other, but neither of us contemplates homicide either.
“Dr Colour died yesterday,” she said while peeling potatoes.
“Did he have a cup of coffee in his hand when they found him,” I said. Unkind, I know, but he really pissed me off with his holier than thou coffee criticism.
“Not that I know of,” said my sister.
She rarely understood my witticisms.
“Charlie Varick? I’ve been working for him for about four years, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
The question came out of nowhere, and it really pissed me off. It’s a job, what difference does it make? When I go home, I leave work at work.
“What difference does it make? He’s a fucking private eye, and he uses you as a decoy.”
“I’m his secretary, and the decoy stuff only happens every now and then. Mostly, it isn’t dangerous, and mostly I answer the phones and make appointments. Of course, there is coffee and dry cleaning, but mostly it’s answering phones.”
My parents were in town for a couple of days, and I was glad to see them; well ‘glad’ is probably too strong a word, but it was good to see them. Parents should be kept at a distance that is directionally proportional to the amount of shit they put you through as a kid. Mine weren’t that bad but using this formula they should be at least 427 kilometres away at all times.
I’m 26 years old, gorgeous and leggy with long black wavy hair that men hold on to when they are making love to me. Not that there are that many of them.
I like men, just in small doses.
Not small in the way you are thinking, just small in the sense of time I have to spend in close proximity. Charlie’s different, but he is old, at least 47 years old, and he is taken, but he treats me like I’m someone. Like I count in the grand scheme of things. I guess he is so relaxed because he is old, and old people don’t worry so much about stuff.
My dad was wound up, but I know it was my mum who put him up to it.
“We just want you to be safe; safe and happy. That’s all your mother, and I have ever wanted.”
“I know dad.” Things seemed to be calming down now that the shouting had stopped.
It was still early. Hotel restaurants tend to wind down around 9:30 pm, and it was now way past that, so we had the room to ourselves except for the girl at the bar and the waiter who was doing a little shuffle that was Morse code for ‘they don’t pay me past 10:00 pm even if you are still here drinking coffee, and I have a home to go to, and my dog misses me’.
It was a complicated dance.
My father, mother and I talked about nothing for another fifteen minutes before my dad signed the bill, and they went up to their room. I stood and watched as they walked up the staircase. My mother clung to the handrail as though it was saving her from a sinking ship. My dad negotiated the stairs easily enough because he never used elevators unless he absolutely had to.
I asked him about it once, and he said that it was his small concession to keeping fit, but I think it had more to do with the stories that his father brought home.
His dad was a fireman, and he would be called out to rescue cats and people, and sometimes he was expected to free individuals who had been trapped — sometimes these people had been stuck in elevators, and he delighted in terrifying his children with stories of people who had gone insane after being stuck in an elevator for six hours.
“One bloke tried to chew his arm off, which seemed pointless to me. It wasn’t as though they had him in handcuffs — he was trapped in a lift for fuck sake. Now if he had tried to eat through the door, that I could understand, but his arm — that’s just nuts.”
I sat on the overstuffed couch in the hotel’s foyer and tried to collect my thoughts.
I still had half an hour before I was to meet Charlie at Bar Alfredo on Little Collins Street. I walked the short distance up Collins and turned left onto Exhibition. Little Collins was the first on the left, and the bar was about two hundred metres down.
This end of the street had been disrupted by building activities for nearly two years, which made it difficult to negotiate on foot, or by car. The street was already very narrow, and its name gave a hint. ‘Little’ Collins Street was originally an access road for the rear of the more significant and grander edifices on Collins Street. Deliveries would be made, and tradesmen would be admitted.
It was best to keep the grubby people out of sight.
These days the ‘Little’ streets were home to trendy bars and eateries as well as exclusive apartments and the occasional clothing shop.
The footpath on both sides is extremely narrow, and I was forced to step out onto the road to let a large, rude man pass by. He looked vaguely familiar until I remembered I had not seen him before — he was exactly how Charlie had described the man I was supposed to ‘distract’.
“He’s big, about 40 years old, always wears a dark suit with a red handkerchief in his top pocket, and he smells like lemons. He will be sitting at the bar because he always sits at the bar. Third stool from the far end as you come in the front door.”
I had the feeling that these instructions and this description were going to go to waste.
To get to Bar Alfredo, I first had to walk past a narrow laneway and at this time of night, the laneway was in complete darkness. Being a female living in a big city, I avoided dark laneways because I wanted to go on ‘living in the big city’.
As I looked into the darkness, I saw Charlie lying in a pool of his own blood.
I say ‘saw’, but that’s not what I mean. I didn’t see him with my eyes; I saw him in a vision. The dark laneway was like a giant projector screen, and on it, I saw Charlie’s exact location, as though it were daylight.
I used my phone to light the way to the spot that I knew Charlie would be lying. He was behind some boxes with a single knife wound in the middle of his chest.
I would love to say that he lived long enough to look into my eyes and tell me who had killed him. I would like to tell you what his last words were and that he had smiled before he died, but I can’t.
He was gone by the time I got to him — warm but gone.
I sat next to him for what seemed like forever and thought about my life and wondered what Charlie thought when the large man in the dark suit took his life. I wondered what my life was going to be like from now on. I wondered if my mum and dad had gone to sleep yet.
I don’t remember ringing anyone, but I must have because an ambulance arrived closely followed by the police.
The weather was warm, so why there was so much fog? And why did my voice sound funny, and why was the police officer mumbling?
When I came to, I was sitting on the back step of an ambulance with an oxygen mask on my face. A young policeman was trying to get my attention, and the ambo wanted him to give me a break.
“Give her a minute mate; she’s had a rough night.”
The policeman ignored the world-weary ambulance driver. The brash young policeman considered civilians to be annoying. They kept passing out or screaming or generally being uncooperative. He just wanted to get a statement so he could get back on patrol. The homicide detectives would be along very soon, and they would shoo him away like an unwanted blow-fly.
“Miss? Miss? How did you know he was in that alley? Did you hear something? Did you see anyone come out of the alley?”
I was trying to decide which question to answer first when it occurred to me that this was all very strange.
“I had a vision, which was weird. I don’t normally get visions at night-time. I always get my visions in the morning.”
The police officer stopped asking me questions after that, and he and the ambo were looking at each other with the strangest expression on their faces. I don’t think that they believed me, and I wanted them too. This was a first for me.
A pair of plain-clothed detectives arrived and scooped me up heading me towards their car, but before I got in, I gave it one last try to convince my interrogator.
“I really did see him lying there, in the dark, which was weird. I always get my visions in the morning.”
I hadn’t noticed her stall at the craft market before.
She was not the kind of person who is easily forgotten.
There was a possibility of rain, but her market stall was uncovered — lacking the portable ‘gazebo’ covering that most of the stalls seem to have.
Shiny black medium length hair, and a long black skirt with an off-white blouse.
Embroidery was the theme, with her clothes and the white table cloth that covered her display bench all showing touches of colour applied by an experienced artist.
She spoke softly, which made you lean in to hear what she was saying. A slight eastern European accent completed the picture.
It sounds unkind, but she wasn’t beautiful or even pretty, but you forgot all the frivolous assessments as soon as she spoke.
When I sailed by in my usual ‘craft market mood’, three people were standing in front of her stand, making it difficult to see what she was selling. I did a quick scan for signage or a banner only to be disappointed.
“You may want to sit down,” were the first words I heard her say, “it may come over you immediately, or it may take a minute or two. Every person feels it differently.”
‘Feels what differently?’ I thought out loud — I do that, talk to myself in crowds. It rarely gets me more than a quizzical glance.
I’d separated myself from the rest of my family. Playing the doting grandfather wears a bit thin after a while, so a modicum of solo wandering is liberating. I could see them through the throng, waiting for food. My daughter-in-law is bouncing the youngest on her hip. Mothers develop hips where no hips were before, have you noticed that? Females are amazing. They accept their roles and dive right in. I’m sure they are just as pissed off as males, but generally, they seem to get on with it. I admire that, and I wonder how they do it, or are they just better at hiding their despair from the rest of us?
An old wooden, curved back, early Australian chair sat dangerously close to encroaching on the sacred space in front of the adjoining stall and a late thirties female was gingerly making herself seated. The old chair was rock solid, and the young woman seemed to sink into it, head back eyes closed, arms draped at her side. For a moment I was worried she might topple off the chair onto the hard old school ground surface. My kids played on this old blacktop many years ago, and they came home bloodied and bruised on most days — an unforgiving surface.
I saw her friend take a step towards her as she finally settled.
“It’s amazing. I’m flying. There’s heaps of blue and clouds and birds, and I can feel the wind on my face,” she said, and I wondered if she had been a ventriloquist in a previous life.
“She loves clouds and birds,” said her friend.
“And flying?” said the older lady next to her.
“She used to flap her arms a lot when we were kids, but she never actually took off. Not that I know of.”
“It not matter,” said the lady with the black wavy hair and the gentle voice. “In her mind, she is flying. It as real as if she were bird.”
“She’s driving me home,” said her friend. “How long does this last?”
“It varies. About an hour.” She turned her gaze to the amazed customers, all looking at the flying thirty-something ventriloquist.
“You must not partake and drive, or operate heavy machinery, or sign anything, sex okay though, even encouraged,” said the stallholder with the delicate embroidery.
“Is this stuff even legal?” said a skinny male with a tightly cropped beard and hand-knitted beany.
“My family has been making IMAGINE since before time. It has nothing to do with law. It has to do with what your heart wants. Would you ask lady who makes the jams if it is legal?”
She slowly raised an arm showing old bones and tight muscles and pointed at the large lady in the red and white gingham apron who looked across and smiled at us. She held up a jar and said, “Apricot. Only a few jars left.”
“Her jams are delicious, but no one asks her if they legal. Is happiness legal?” she whispered. The wind caught her hair, and it moved back from her face revealing cheekbones and a gentle mouth. Her eyes weren’t on any of us, but off in the distance.
“Buy, don’t buy. Is your choice.”
A little boy ran into the back of my leg, and when I winced and looked down, he said, “Do you like my dog, mister?”
I looked at the kid and the dog. The dog looked at me with pleading eyes.
“Yeah, cool dog,” I said.
“You want to buy him?”
“How much?” I heard the words spill out of my mouth before my mind engaged.
“Ten bucks and packet of Juicy Fruits,” said the small boy.
The dog seemed to think it was a good deal. The dog had been on this planet for several years so he would know a good deal when he heard it, I guess.
“Wouldn’t your parents object if you sold your dog.”
“Nah. They wouldn’t care,” said the small boy who sensed that I was not an easy mark.
“See ya,” he said and turned to leave. The dog held my gaze as the boy dragged him away.
I turned back to the quiet drama that was still unfolding at the market stall run by the gently spoken lady.
Some of the crowd were now surrounding the young woman in the kangaroo backed chair. They were listening as she narrated her adventures — something about perching on a mountain range with snow all around.
I took the opportunity to peruse the merchandise.
The table was partially covered in tiny clear glass jars about the circumference of a fifty-cent piece. She had arranged them into one small pyramid. The tops of the jars were golden and unbranded. There wasn’t any branding anywhere on the stand, just gold-topped glass jars.
One jar was open and sitting on the table in front of the stallholder. Next to it was an empty jar full of toothpicks.
“How long have I been gone?” asked the lady in the chair. She was attempting to sit upright, straightening her skirt.
“About ten minutes,” said her friend who put her hand on the young woman’s shoulder for reassurance.
“It felt like hours,” said the young woman. “I know what I have to do now.”
She reached in her handbag, pulled out her purse and produced a handful of cash.
“How much for a jar?” she said, looking at the dark-haired stallholder.
“I’ll take two jars please,” said the woman snatching two jars and putting them in her bag. “Can I have your card, please?”
“Olga doesn’t have card. But be back again soon.”
The young woman seemed dazed for a moment.
“Don’t bother smear it on; doesn’t make it last longer. Do just as I showed you.”
The woman and her friend disappeared into the crowd, and the young lady who had been flying only minutes ago seemed determined to get somewhere.
“Don’t let her drive,” the old woman said as they rushed away, “give her vodka and potato soup, then she can drive.”
The others in our group pushed money at the lady, and she gave them each a gold-topped jar.
“You want wrapped?”
“No. Thank you, I’ll just pop it into my bag,” said a slender woman with grey-blond hair.
“Good luck, and don’t worry. He’ll be okay.”
The slender woman stared at her before melding into the crowd of craft market shoppers.
The young bearded man who was concerned with legality held out a fifty-dollar note, and the stallholder placed a jar in his upturned palm. She looked him square in the eye. “You know what happiness looks like, and it knows you.”
The young man closed his fingers around the jar, bumped into a lady with a pram before heading off in the direction of the windchime stall.
“Would you like to try IMAGINE?”
I stared at the chair before looking to see if my extended family were still in sight. The little bloke on the hip was stuffing a hot dog in his mouth — little kids always get fed first.
“Yes,” I said, “what do I have to do?”
The woman delicately chose the right toothpick from amongst a jar of identical toothpicks and dipped it into the pale green mixture. The breeze wafted a scent of menthol.
“What adheres to tip of toothpick is enough. Any more and it a waste.”
She awkwardly handed me the toothpick. My large old fingers were reacting to the cold afternoon air, and I was momentarily afraid I would drop the pick.
Thumb and forefinger did their job as they have for more than seventy years, and I rolled the toothpick applying the sticky substance to the back of my hand and rubbed it in with my little finger.
After putting the pick down, I sat on the chair, but not before rubbing my fingers across the pressed pattern on the back. In my youth, I had restored chairs just like this one. Sitting on it felt like coming home.
I fully expected the school ground to be empty of stalls and people with only the occasional paper wrapper blowing in the wind. But, instead, it was as it had been when I sat down.
I didn’t go flying, there weren’t any clouds or birds and no snow-covered mountains, but I knew I had to find that kid and the dog. Nothing else was more important.
I handed her money, and she gave me a jar from the pyramid.
“Your destiny is not yet written. It has soft edges,” she said.
I wondered what the ‘soft edges’ meant, but I let it go.
The smell of menthol was in my nostrils as I picked my way through the crowd.
It took a while, but I found my sprawling family near a pottery stall. The little one had smeared tomato sauce across my daughter in law’s shoulder, but she didn’t seem to mind. Mothers blow me away.
“Where did you get the dog grandad?”
I’ve always hated being called grandad, but this was not the time for an argument.
I looked down at the straggly dog with the golden eyes, and he looked up at me.
His lead was a length of stout string that was biting into my hand.
The dog stood patiently by my side, sniffing the air for any interesting smells.
“It’s a long story,” I said. “Do we have any toothpicks at home luv?” I said to my wife. She looked at me in that way she does and said, “I think so.”
The dog licked my hand, and we all disappeared into the crowd.
“Tiny lines of cotton that hold the world together,” said my grandfather, but he would — he was a romantic.
He wanted me to see what he saw, romance, adventure, creation.
“A woman comes to me with a dream. I never ask what that dream is, but I know it lingers beneath the request. I need a dress for a formal occasion, might translate into, My husband is losing interest in me, and I want to knock his socks off.
Or maybe the lady is trying to impress the other women in her circle — that’s serious business, or so I have been told.”
I was twelve when this conversation took place, and within a year my grandfather would be found in his workroom, needle in hand, the life having ebbed out of him. No one said he had a smile on his face, but I’d like to think so.
“The customers I love are the ones who come to me because they want to please themselves. They know they are beautiful and they realise that the clothes I make for them complement their beauty and poise. From the time they step in the front door of my shop we are engaged in a dance. A creative dance. They don’t spell everything out for me, I’m expected to participate, do my part. When I have made the garment and done the final fitting, we both know that the dance is coming to an end. The exceptional customers participate in a denouement — they let me know if the garment had the desired effect. I love it when they prolong the dance.”
I was way too young to understand the undercurrents of my grandfather’s observations, but I guess he hoped that his words would stay with me, ring in my ears at a later date.
It was never my intention to go into the family business. I could think of nothing worse than being confined in a shop fussing over women with more money than sense.
I rebelled and left home as soon as I was able. I travelled and worked and soaked up life until I thought I might burst.
Every time I saw a beautiful woman I examined her clothes — off the rack or made to measure — you can always tell.
I remember the look I got from a girl in Paris when she caught me examining the stitching on her skirt. She wasn’t wearing it at the time. She wasn’t wearing anything at all, and neither was I. We were taking a break during a long session of lovemaking on an autumn afternoon. The view from her apartment was stunning, and the sight of her was equally so, but I could not resist the urge to find out how well her clothes were made.
“Have you checked the hems to see if there is anything hidden in them,” I said.
“No, why would I?” she said.
“Some old school dressmakers will hide little things like tiny pieces of paper with something inscribed, or a fragment of ancient cloth. They feel it personalises their work.”
The naked lady thought I was marginally less crazy after my explanation and we continued to tangle erotically for several more months until she left me for a trumpet player. I minded, but I got over it and continued my travels.
Whenever the money ran out, I would seek employment, and on more than one occasion I got work at bespoke dressmakers — not the usual job for a young man, but I had my family’s name, and it opened a few doors, even if I did end up sweeping more often than designing and sewing.
I didn’t care; I was free.
The Telegram caught up with me when I was staying in a provincial city in Spain. My father had died, and my mother was distraught.
It took me a few days to get back home, but they waited for me.
After the funeral, while everyone was eating little sandwich triangles and drowning their sorrows, I went to my father’s shop, the same shop that my grandfather had owned. The gold letters on the glass door spelled out my family name.
The rest you can probably work out for yourself.
Your dress is now complete. I hope you are happy with the work?
I know it is none of my business, but I was wondering why you wanted me to make it for you?
“I don’t need another dress. I just like spending time in your shop without igniting the gossips. Does my admission shock you? Have I ruined our friendship?”
Not at all, but you might want to take the dress off.
You wouldn’t want to get it all wrinkled.
Painting by Jack Vettriano