“Just for a break, we’re going to play something different.”
“C’mon, Johnno. I thought we come here to play poker.”
“We do, but it’s my house, my game and I say we play something different. Just one hand, so don’t get you panties in a twist.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this was a smoke-filled room full of tired, semi-drunk businessmen with more money than sense — it wasn’t.
That’s not to say that I haven’t been in one — too many to mention.
What we had here was something entirely different — almost refined.
John Jackson, ‘Johnno’ to his friends, lived on the edge of town — the old part, built in the 1910s. The houses were and still are, owned by the people who make decisions. This area escaped the rampant demolition and redevelopment of the 1960s.
‘Money’ does not like to be disturbed.
John Jackson’s games room was big enough to stage a large party but intimate enough to make you feel cosseted. You lost track of time, as all gambling establishments encourage.
“So, what are we going to play?” I asked. It was evident that Johnno was going to get his way, so we might as well get on with it, then we could get back to Poker.
“Have to say that I have not had the pleasure.”
“Bugger that for a game of soldiers. I’m getting a drink. Billy, you want to join me,” said Matt Johnson.
Johnson stood about three inches under six foot but weighed about the same as someone eight inches taller. He came to these games because he was in construction and it was good for business. Billy Mitchell liked sandwiches and beer and women — which did not include his wife.
“Where did you get the tucker from Johnno?” said Billy, rising from his seat, issuing the grunt of a man who had sat in the same place for too long.
“Preston’s on Miller Street. Best Deli on the westside.”
“Better than Louie’s?”
“You tell me?”
By this time, Billy had a sandwich in each hand, and he grunted his assent. Matt Jackson poured them both a beer and they headed for the plush armchairs lining the wall.
The wallpaper was from another era. Dark and extravagant. The two men sank into their chairs, and the standard lamps that were well placed around the room shone a light on them both. They munched away and looked across at the card table.
The light behind the bar, illuminating every liquor known to mankind, was dim whereas the stained glass lightshade above us was bright enough for even the most imperfect eyesight.
I prefer green baize, but Johnno’s table was covered in a rich burgundy.
“So, how do we play this game?” I said.
“Before you get started, I’m off to the ‘ladies room’. Deal me out.” Michelle was one of three women who regularly attended. She ran three ‘female’ business in our town. Her divorce made her very wealthy, and while her husband drifted away from the regular monthly games night, she stayed. She rarely lost, and her winnings were modest. I think she was lonely, but what would I know? She pressed up against me one night when we met in the hallway leading to the toilets. She didn’t say anything, just didn’t get out of the way to let me pass. She smelled sweet, and her body was soft and inviting. I still don’t know why I didn’t fuck her — one of life’s great mysteries. She didn’t hold it against me if you know what I mean.
Johnno had one of the bedrooms on this floor made into two generous sized toilets. This old house was not built with such amenities. The area wasn’t sewered until the 1920s, so, the toilet was outside — away from the house. It’s still there though not used for that purpose. I think the pool cleaner keeps his stuff in there.
With Michelle gone, it left me, Johnno and Danielle.
I have to admit to wanting to do all sorts of intimate things to and with Danielle. At the time, I hadn’t figured out if the feeling was mutual.
Life was a game to Danielle.
Winning was not only important — it was the manner of winning that was paramount.
Johnno explained the rules and produced a deck of cards. Basically, it was a kids game, and you could win in one of two ways.
If you picked up the designated card from the deck, you won, or if you got down to your last card, you won. Pretty simple, but fun none the less.
“Clockwise around the table,” said Johnno.
Michelle had returned to the room. She poured herself a drink and sat in one of the comfortable chairs.
The deck had elaborate illustrations and a single word printed across the bottom of the card in a font that matched the style of the picture.
“So, what’s the designated card?” said Danielle.
“MOTHER,” said Johnno.
We started with five cards.
If we did not guess the name of the card that the player on our left was trying to get rid of, we had to pick up a card.
“He works with a substance that makes him sound like he’s rich,” said Johnno.
“Dough. So that would be BAKER!” said Danielle triumphantly.
Johnno had to draw a card.
He was not doing well.
Danielle and I, on the other hand, were neck and neck.
“Bugger this,” said Johnno. “I give up (he had fifteen cards in his hand at that moment). “You two can fight it out.”
“It was your idea, Johnno,” said Matt. Johnno shot him a look.
Danielle and I stared at each other. Everything and everyone faded into the background — there was only us and our insatiable desire to win.
“Want to make it interesting?” said Danielle.
“Five thousand and a packet of Juicy Fruits.”
“What is it with you and chewing gum?”
She didn’t answer.
I’d put five thousand down on a hand before, but this felt different. It felt like a dream I often had — standing naked in front of a room full of people.
Frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing Danielle naked, but that was a whole other dream.
We had both worked out that the trick to this game was the way you asked your question.
If your question was too obscure, you got jumped on by the other players and had to pick up a card.
If you could justify your question, you would win that round, and they would have to take a card.
We battled it out evenly until we each had two cards left.
No sign of the MOTHER card, so it would probably come down to who got down to their last card.
I don’t remember it happening, but somehow the four non-players were now surrounding our table. They stood silently and waited.
“This person can be two people. This person is in every country and every town. Age does not define this person. This person can lead and follow. Without this person, psychiatrists would go out of business. You know this person.”
I thought about what she had said, and my mind went straight to ‘mother’. But that could not be. If she had the MOTHER card, she had already won. It had to be a trick. She was playing with me. Then again, maybe she wasn’t. No, no-one is that crazy. But she might be. I have to say something soon or pick up a card.
“I know this sounds crazy, but MOTHER.”
I looked at Danielle, who did not have a ‘tell’, not as far as I knew. She looked down at her face down cards. She picked up the top card and held it up for me to see.
Our hardened audience gasped, ever so softly.
“What were you thinking?” said Michelle, “You had the game won. You had the MOTHER card. Are you crazy?”
“No. I’m not crazy. I wanted to rub his nose in it. I wanted to get down to my last card and wave it in his face. His smug know-all face.”
Her tirade took me by surprise.
Here I was imagining her naked, and here she was imagining dancing on my grave. Boy, did I judge her all wrong.
Danielle reluctantly took five thousand dollars out of her purse and put it on the table.
“Don’t forget the Juicy Fruits sweetheart, and I guess a fuck is out of the question?”
The secret to surveillance is patience.
Some will tell you coffee, others will tell you having a bottle to pee in because something always happens while you are off taking a leak — and it’s true, but those things can be managed.
Without patience and a keen eye, you are just sitting on your arse ticking off the hours.
Allowing yourself to get bored is fatal. So, being in the moment keeps you sharp and wide awake.
Take the magpie drinking from the leaking tap as an example.
I see him most days around lunch time — the hottest part of the day. He lets the water fall from the sky and trickle down his throat. Birds can’t swallow like we can. I read that somewhere. It’s why they tilt their heads back after they dip their beak. This bloke has it covered — straight down his throat.
I’m a low-level operative in a big agency, and it suits me just fine. They don’t give me a lot of responsibility, and that’s fine too. I get lots of jobs like this one, “Keep an eye on Joe Blow’s apartment. Don’t follow him if he goes out just record the time and the time he comes back.”
The client must be well healed. One bloke to record the comings and goings and another to follow him to and fro.
I vary my vantage point.
Sometimes in my car and other times, I sit in the cafe with the red and white table cloths.
The magpie is starting to get used to me.
I give him some of my sandwich.
He doesn’t like tomato.
The cafe owner is distant but friendly, and as long as I order a coffee every hour or two, he doesn’t bother me. He thinks I’m one of those people who write in cafes and that suits me.
I had ambition once.
Then a small boy fell off a fence, and my heart sank with him. No one said it was my fault because no one knew he was helping me. All little boys can climb, right?
I went to the gravesite. There was so much grief and so many people that no one asked me why I was there.
If I sit on my arse and chronicle the comings and goings, nobody gets hurt.
For a while, I thought the magpie was keeping the leaky tap all to himself, but yesterday he turned up with a female. It was hard to tell if she was impressed with his prized secret.
Women are hard to understand — with or without feathers.
Not exactly matching.
Not meant to be.
They each have a story to tell, and they all reflect my love of old things — things with history.
Take the broken catch on the bone coloured case, for example.
I was on an ‘overnighter’, up north. My boss, at the time, wanted some documents delivered by hand. Which was either a nod to the old school way of doing things or there was something dodgy going on. Considering how he ended up, I’d say it was probably the latter.
I never much liked Manchester, and having someone try and lever open my bag while it was in my room, didn’t raise my opinion of the place. I told the manager, and he checked the CCTV. I could see a bloke with a key going into my room, but he didn’t come out — not on that tape. It didn’t take a detective to work out that the bugger was still in there when I noticed the bag.
“Do you want to see if he comes out before you go back up Luv?” said the helpful manager.
I went out for dinner and asked the huge doorman to come up to the room when I got back. Lovely bloke and brave for a person on minimum wage. No burglar and the case was just as I left it. He must have legged it when I stormed out. Never heard anything more about it.
I stole all the toiletries, towels, and the entire contents of the minibar put them all in a huge designer bag and gave them to the brave doorman.
“For your missus,” I said.
“Thanks, luv, but I’m not married,” said the brave doorman.
“For your boyfriend then,” I said, and he laughed. One of those laughs that makes you believe in people again.
My boss looked at me scornfully when he got the hotel bill, but he never said anything. All charged to the client, I’m thinking.
The big tin trunk belonged to a friend, and she was throwing it away when she moved out.
“I’ll have it,” I said and tried to stuff it into the hatchback I was driving at the time. It banged on the back window all the way home.
I cleaned it up a bit — not too much.
The faint lettering said Lieutenant Wilson 2/12 brigade.
I looked him up. He was my friend’s grandfather. Killed in New Guinea.
I asked her about it, and she just shrugged.
If it doesn’t take batteries and connect to the web, it’s not seen as useful.
This tin box also has a dodgy catch which works when it feels like it. I usually wrap a belt around it, but large belts are hard to come by, and mine broke a week before this photo was taken.
The brown case was a present from an old boyfriend who left me to live and work overseas.
I was sad, but I understood.
Sometimes you just have to go.
The catches work well, and it even had its original key (a bent paperclip works just as well). I keep my personal stuff in it when I travel.
Today I’m on a train, my favourite form of conveyance.
The flowers are for my aunty. I’m going to be staying with her for a week or two until things blow over, but that’s a story for another day.
My pockets are full of chocolate bars, the scenery will be beautiful, and my aunty will meet me at the station with her old Morris van. Between the two of us, we should be able to load my bags into the back.
I considered bringing a book to read, but the views are too beautiful to miss, especially the viaduct.
No time to have my head stuck in a book.
“Sixty-eight point three per cent of all murder victims that have been found dead more than two days after death are found by citizens walking their dog.”
The lecturer had excellent chalkboard technique. I ought to know, I did two years of Teacher’s College before I signed up. During those two years, we did one fifteen-minute session, and I remember learning how to hold chalk so that it didn’t make that excruciating squeaking noise. “Makes you look like you know what you are doing.”
Our instructor, freshly escaped from the classroom, knew that we didn’t — know what we were doing, that is, and he was trying to minimise our ‘knownothingness’ in the only way he knew how.
A futile but kind gesture.
“How many of the dog walkers wear jumpers, Sarge?” The smartarse with a death wish was just as bored as the rest of us, and he foolishly chose to show it.
“Roughly the same percentage as you got on your last evaluation detective Wilson from Broadmeadows. Considering the suburb you are stationed at, detective, I would have thought that your arrest record would be higher. You pretty much only have to be the unfortunate bastard who opens the front doors in the morning, and five nefarious characters come tumbling in.”
The ‘smartarse’ detective indeed got a bit of a giggle out of us, but it has to be remembered that if ‘two or more of you are gathered together there will be mirth’ applies to any gathering of knuckle-dragging police officers — it’s infectious. Laughter kills the boredom and at least a bit of the terror — terror that you might get maimed for no good reason and then get pensioned off, and terror from the thought that you are wasting your life. My terror falls into the latter category.
Our instructor got a bigger laugh.
The sound of one of the many smartarses in our life being brought down to earth is satisfying and mirthful.
He kept on writing.
Never turned around.
Eyes in the back of his head.
I could easily be back at school again.
It helped that we were in an old school room in an old school building. Now called The Baker Institute, anyone who went to school during my decade knew the unmistakable architecture. I was tempted to hang my coat on the hooks outside the sliding door. The walls are painted a modern colour, and there have been other attempts to hide the room’s original purpose.
The chairs are comfortable, but my arse was not interested in testing their long term durability.
At a glance, I’d say that there are about twenty-two of us. Mostly males, a variety of ages, but I’m probably the only one over forty. A quick scan of body language clues tells me that most inhabitants of this standard-sized room are just as pissed off as I am. One or two still think that this one-day course is part of their growth as a police officer.
“What about the bodies what never get found?” The smartarse was making one final attempt to redeem his flagging status as the funniest bloke in the room.
Without missing a beat, our instructor (I’ve forgotten his name – on the job I write stuff down, or someone else does, but here and now, who gives a fuck what this bozo’s name is) writes one point zero nine per cent on the board. Somehow he has changed the chalk colour — impressive.
“Somewhere in the region of your chances of promotion,” says our instructor. He speaks the words so softly that we lean in to catch them. Those in the front row snigger before the rest of us.
“Can we have a window open sir?” says an attractive brunette sitting a few rows forward of me.
“Yes, we can and don’t call me sir. I’m a sergeant. I work for a living.” He shot a look at the bloke sitting on the end of the row who sprang out of his seat and opened a window with the skill of someone who had done it many times.
The brunette who had been one of the few people in the room taking notes said, “Thank you, Sargent.”
There were a few moments of silence.
The board was covered in colourful statistics and a wellborn piece of chalk dangled between the instructor’s fingers.
He was thinking.
I doubted that he had lost his place.
This bloke came prepared.
I made a mental note to remember his name the next time I heard it.
Why was he here in this room with us percentage losers?
Our instructor raised a chalk dusted finger and pointed at his handiwork.
“This shit is just numbers. We’ve got a few minutes before we break for lunch (I hadn’t thought much about food until now. A raging hunger rolled over me) I want to hear a human story. Without humans, you don’t have the raw ingredients for murder. The causes are simple — sex and money.”
“And religion,” said someone behind me.
“Okay,” conceded our instructor, “but mostly sex and money. Causes might tell you why, but my job is to give you an insight into why people do what they do after the fact. Fuck why they did it, where do they dump the body? And how does that affect your investigation? Can anyone share a story about a citizen finding a body.”
He was now pointing at me and inexplicably, my hand was in the air — no idea how it got there.
“Yes. You. Leather jacket.” At least he didn’t know my name.
“Got yourself into a spot of bother with a highly ranked officer’s wife, if I remember rightly. Back of a Bentley? A patrol car shined a light in your direction. Took you a few minutes to retrieve your warrant card. Firm buttocks were unnecessarily added to the report? Was that you?”
I didn’t need to answer.
“I’ve been involved in a few cases where a body was found by a punter — before my buttocks became famous.”
The laughter was generous. The kind of laughter that says ‘glad it isn’t me that’s in the sergeant’s spotlight, you’ll be just as generous when it’s my turn, won’t you?’
“I was stationed at Preston. Most dog walkers wandered up and down the footpaths or headed to Bell State School after hours to exercise their dogs. Still, a group calling themselves The Widower Dogs Society walked their dogs up behind the old cinema off Oakover road. Merri Creek runs through there and in those days it was rough and ready. No shortage of old fridges and car tyres. These days it’s all gentrified.”
“So, what happened?”
“The Widower Dogs Society were three members strong. All of the dogs had lost a female partner. The owners banded together to brighten up their lonely dogs. Grief hits dogs as hard as it does us.”
I could see the brunette looking at me, listening intently.
I finished my story, and the instructor looked at his watch.
“Close enough,” he said, and we filed out of the room in search of food and a beer. We’d earned it.
“These things are usually a bit more salubrious. This one isn’t even catered,” said a mellifluous female voice.
“Mel Carter,” said the brunette.
“Catastrophy Jones,” I said with a straight face. “This is punishment. Catering might have spoilt the effect.”
She looked a bit surprised at my words, which could have been taken one of two ways.
“Everyone in that room, with the possible exception of you and the bloke next to you, were there because they had pissed someone off — a way of wasting our very precious Saturday.”
She thought about my words, dismissed them. They didn’t apply to her. She was young (younger than me) and on her way up.
“Your story — the Widower Dogs Club. How did you know that was what they called themselves?”
“Back then. I listened to people. When you listen, people tell a uniform all sorts of things. They were shocked. Trying to understand why someone would do such a thing. They understood stealing cars, ‘we used to nick cars when we were kids, but this!’ No-one was yelling at me to get on with it, so I listened — let them talk. They felt better because someone appeared to care about them.”
“You interest me. leather jacket.”
“You interest me, open window.”
Open Window looked at my left hand — no ring.
“Can I buy you lunch?” she said.
“Lunch with a liberated woman. Very Jane Tennison.”
“Don’t tell me you have never watched Prime Suspect? I can see that I’ll have to take your education in hand. By the way, there isn’t a ‘Mr Tennison’ floating around, is there? I don’t want to get thumped by some hulking constable who believes he has branded you.”
“There are no brands on me sunshine.”
“I look forward to proving that statement,” I said, and she didn’t slap my face.
I took that as an encouraging sign.
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.”
My first mate reminded me that we were half a day ahead of schedule, so I gave the order.
“Alter course. We’re heading for the island where the Sirens hang out.”
“But captain, they are incredibly dangerous,” said Claude, who had been with me since I bought this trading schooner.
“That’s sort of the point, Claude. Break out those industrial-strength earplugs and make sure that idiot Phillip puts his in. I’ve had it with that bloke. I don’t care how good a cook he is, we’re dumping him when we hit port,” I said.
The crew lashed me to the mast well before I heard the song.
It’s impossible to describe to you how beautiful it was, and as far as I was concerned, that was more than enough ecstasy.
I could see her swimming out to our boat, but I thought we would sail by before she got to us. My head was swimming, and for a while, I thought she was the girl from the cafe back in our home port — the one who does the deliveries. It wasn’t her of course, and the fact that she was utterly naked cleared that up — the delivery woman is always fully clothed when she does her deliveries. Mind you, if she did decide to change that, she would get better tips — just saying.
Anyway, the naked siren (I did mention her lack of clothing, didn’t I?) climbs over the railing and walks straight up to me, stares directly into my eyes and plants the biggest, saltiest kiss right on my all too willing lips.
I was pretty wound up by then, but after she kissed me, I lost it, which was embarrassing.
After giving me a wink, she dove over the side and swam in the direction of her island, giving me an excellent, if a fleeting view of her bottom.
Once we were clear of the island, the crew untied me, tidied me up and after a respectful period, asked me what it was like.
“Put it this way fellas, the song almost drove me crazy, and then this naked woman gave me the best kiss I’ve ever had and flashed her bum as she dove over the side. How do you think I’m feeling?”
The crew were quiet for a long time until Phillip broke the silence.
“Did she say anything?”
“Are you kidding me? What could she possibly say that would have enhanced the events I just laid out? Bugger off and work on your CV. You’re going to need it.”
When we got back to port, word of my adventure spread quickly.
These days, my crew and I run tours to the island for rich buggers with more money than sense, we go through a lot of eye plugs, but never has that naked beauty swum out to our boat.
I guess she was just for me.
Gustav Wertheimer – The Kiss of the Siren, 1882
“It was good of you to come in so promptly, Mr Ashton.”
“I had to be in the city today, so I thought I should fit you in, and besides, it’s not every day that I get a summons from my accountant.”
“Not exactly a summons, Mr Ashton, surely?”
“Better call me David. After all, I feel like I put your kids through private school, and summer camp, and that school trip to Austria for the skiing.”
“You’re referring to our fee structure — I’ve heard all the jokes. We are the best at what we do, and that’s why you employ us. We save you way more in tax than we charge you.”
“I know you do. I’m just feeling good today, and I thought I would take it out on you.”
Mr Ashton’s accountant seemed to relax slightly. He sat back in his chair and dropped his shoulders. He was wearing his suit jacket which David Ashton took as a sign of foreboding. Nithiyan Nathan, on the other hand, saw the wearing of the suit jacket in the presence of a client as a sign of respect.
These two men were from different worlds and only crashed into each other around tax time. Nithiyan saw things in black and white — numbers never lied to him. David saw the world as an opportunity full of risk and reward.
“So, what’s the problem? Did I allow too big a deduction for my mistress?”
Nithiyan Nathan looked perplexed, an emotion he did not enjoy.
“Relax Nithiyan. I can call you, Nithiyan?”
“Yes, of course. You were being light-hearted? I get it.”
He didn’t get. Light-hearted was for less serious people.
“I don’t have a mistress. Not that I couldn’t afford one, mind you.”
Wealth, and people knowing you are wealthy, was essential to David Ashton.
“I do your books, Mr Ashton ..”
“Yes, of course, David. I do your books, so naturally, I know you could afford a mistress.”
In his head, Nithiyan was calculating the cost of keeping a moderately priced mistress.
“So, if it isn’t my non-existent mistress, then what is it?”
“Your night watchman. You pay him approximately,” Nithiyan hated being approximate, “$183.47 per hour — based on an eight-hour shift, five days a week.”
“He works seven nights a week, and I fly him and his family to Sicily once a year for a three-week vacation. He has family there. It costs me a fortune for those three weeks because I have to employ a team of security guards to cover for him.”
“I was going to ask you about the security guards,” said a confused and intrigued Mr Nathan.
“So, now you know. Is there anything else?”
Nithiyan Nathan sat forward in his seat, putting his hands palms down on the glass-topped surface. He wanted to raise his voice, but that would be as bad as unbuttoning his coat.
“$183.47 per hour. A night watchman would be lucky to earn $18 an hour even if you factored in superannuation and a meal allowance. Is this man blackmailing you? Is he a member of the Mafia? Is he a ghost employee? These are all questions the Australian Tax Office are likely to ask, so I’m asking you before they do.”
“Do you watch a lot of TV cop shows, Mr Nathan?”
It was true that Nithiyan Nathan watched a lot of TV cop shows. It was his release from the world of numbers and clients who were determined to hide their real income.
“That isn’t the point,” said Mr Nathan.
“Okay, you’ve been a good sport, I’ll tell you why I pay him so much, but I warn you, you are going to find my reason difficult to believe at first. But I know you are a man of logic and once I explain the numbers, you will believe me even though you won’t want to.”
“Is this explanation going to take very long, I have another appointment at three o’clock, and I am charging you $500 per hour.”
“It will be worth the cost just to see your reaction. Do you remember the war, it was in all the papers?”
“Yes, I remember,” said Mr Nathan.
“Well, I spent some time playing poker with a bunch of American soldiers during the occupation. There wasn’t much else to do. They were well paid and inferior card players. My wife started to worry about where all the money I was sending home was coming from.”
“I never play cards, but I can see it would be a good way to stave off boredom.”
“We were all prone to telling ‘tall stories’, but there was one story that kept cropping up whenever Americans spoke about their time in Sicily.”
“Where your night watchman’s family comes from?”
“Exactly. The stories talked about certain houses in villages that had been destroyed by American shelling. Certain houses were untouched.”
“Probably pure luck. Just like the scenes you see after a bushfire sweeps through a country town and one house is still standing amongst all the devastation.”
“That’s exactly what I said, but they argued that it happened too often, and on each occurrence, the inhabitants were from an ethnic group known as Daemons. Sicily isn’t far from Greece where the stories about Daemons originate — I looked it up.”
“You are telling me that your night watchman is a demon?” said Mr Nathan, who’s eyes were wider than usual.
“I didn’t say demon, I said ‘day -mon’. Having a demon for a night watchman might be counterproductive. Think of all the slime and debris.” David Ashton smiled at his own witticism.
“It seems that Daemons can protect an area of land from all harm. If they have a strong connection to an area, nothing bad can befall it. In each of the primitive houses in the bombed-out areas that survived, there was a family that could trace their heritage back to this ancient tribe. They are said to exist somewhere between humans and the gods.”
“It was my experience that American soldiers were quite naive and not to be taken seriously. ‘All mouth, no trousers’ our sergeant used to say,” said Mr Nathan.
“My thoughts exactly, ‘all hat no cattle’, as my dad used to say, but there’s another saying about there being fire where there’s smoke. I had nothing else to do, so I did a bit of digging. The more I dug, the more interesting it got.
After the occupation, I went home and was glad of it. Australia was into its most significant immigration phase, and there were lots of men and families from Italy among them. I’d forgotten about the stories because I did my best to put my war experiences behind me.”
Nithiyan Nathan looked at his watch.
“I’m nearly there,” said Mr Ashton.
“It’s your money, go on.”
“I did quite well after I got back. Built up a large manufacturing concern, as you know. Making stuff means having somewhere to store materials and product and the best place for all that is industrial zoned land. Unfortunately, those areas are often run-down, and they attract the wrong sort of people. People with bolt cutters and old beaten up vans. They like to break in and carry off whatever they can carry.”
“You have insurance?”
“Yes I do, but it’s the inconvenience and the annoyance and the fact that I don’t like to lose,” said Mr Ashton, who realised that he was raising his voice. He took a moment to gather himself.
“As sometimes happens, I woke up one morning and remembered the stories from my time in the occupation. I know it sounds crazy, but I put an advertisement in the positions vacant column of The Age – Daemon wanted. Security work. No questions asked.”
“As you would expect, I got a bunch of crank calls. They all made the same assumption you did. Billy Demon here, just got out of Hades, and I’m looking for work, followed by inane laughter. But in amongst the nut bags, there was Antonio Santamaria. I interviewed him personally, which annoyed our Human Resources manager. Antonio had been out of work for some time. His English was rudimentary, and it was holding him back. I was worried that he was too desperate and would not answer my questions truthfully.
I asked him about his ancestry, and he was guarded in his response. I asked him if the rumours were true and he just shrugged.
It occurred to me that even if it was true, his protection may only extend to where he lives, his family home. Maybe it didn’t cover his place of work. I asked him, and he shrugged again.
I explained to him that we’d had three night watchmen hospitalised in the past year and that we were not allowed to issue him with a firearm so he would be taking his life in his hands if he took the job.”
“What did he say?”
“Did it work? Did he protect your warehouse?”
“I offered him double the hourly rate, and I could tell that he was going to take the job. We never had a break-in after that. I have video of deadbeats trying to cut the chains on the front gate and giving up. I have video of other deadbeats cutting through the wire fence at the back of the warehouses only to get tangled up in the wire until the police came and collected them. One bloke, who was found wandering around the streets with burglar tools, told the police he forgot where he was supposed to break in to. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.”
“So you think that Antonio developed an affinity for your land because he needed the money?”
“Buggered if I know, but I do know that businesses in our area rent space, at a premium rate, to store their goods with us. They think we have some space-age security system that is way ahead of theirs. I’ve even had security companies come sneaking around trying to figure out our system.
I keep up appearances with lights and cameras and all that stuff, but in the end, it’s Antonio.
I’ll admit that I get a few strange looks when I tell people that we have a night watchman. Most properties have roving armed guards with dogs and fancy uniforms.”
“You do understand that there is no way I’m going to tell this story to the Tax Office if they come calling, don’t you?”
“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t tell them that story either. Tell them he saved my life during the war, I don’t care.”
“I’m beginning to wish that I hadn’t called this meeting Mr Ashton, thank you for coming in. You’ll receive my invoice in the usual manner.”
“I know I will, Mr Nathan, and thank you for listening. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have anyone I can tell things to who can’t repeat them under threat of eternal damnation. You are the next best thing. I hope my story is not too disturbing. There are more things in heaven and earth.”
“Go in peace Mr Ashton and may we never speak of this again.”
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.