The Body In The Basement

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“Do you think he’s been lonely down here, all alone, all these years?”

It wasn’t like my partner to be this way. Typically, he’s offhand about sudden death — professional and a bit dark in his humour.

“I don’t think so,” I said, “he’s off wherever they go when they’re not here anymore.”

“Even so,” said my partner.

Ashley Bloomfield had worked his way up through the ranks to Detective Sergeant, and I’d been his partner for nearly three years — just long enough to get to know a bloke who guards himself closely.

It was a strange question for him to ask. He’s more a question and answer type of bloke, but on this day he was looking to me for an answer.

“Are you getting all spiritual on me, Ash?” I said.

“I don’t know, maybe. It’s this place. It’s genuinely spooky.”

He had a point, but I knew not to let him get one-up on me.

The call came through at a decent hour and Ash and I were next in the rotation, and about now we wished it had been someone else.

The old mansion on St Kilda Road had been empty for more than thirty years.

Some investment company in Dubai had bought it for a sizeable sum in the early 1990s, then the property market went flat. They decided to sit on it and wait, as all well-healed people can afford to do.

No one was much interested in looking after the place, so people with nowhere else to go would find a way in — out of the storm, so to speak. The property manager would eventually block up the break-in and lose interest again.

It must have been during one of those incursions, so long ago that some sort of fight broke out, and our body had lain there ever since, covered in rubble and wooden planks.

Some enterprising developer had bought the old mansion and was preparing to renovate it (within heritage guidelines, of course) into trendy offices. St Kilda Road still has clout when it comes to city addresses.

This was going to be a thankless job.

If the body turned out to be a homeless bloke, we have our work cut out for us to identify him. If he was killed by another homeless bloke, then he’s probably dead by now. Homelessness tends to shorten your lifespan. Likely no one to slap the cuffs on, just a mountain of pointless paperwork and a John Doe toe tag.

“The forensic folks will be here soon. Constable Whatshisname can keep an eye on things. You want to get a coffee? The dust down here is clogging up my soul,” I said as I moved the most prominent plank out of our way.

The body was fully clothed (bloke’s clothing — I’m not psychic, but it seemed inevitable it was a ‘he’), and it lay where it fell, all those years ago. Bugger all forensic after all this time. No one had dropped a wallet or a calling card or a cigarette case as they do in the movies.

“A coffee sounds good. Get me the fuck out of here, before I forget I’m a lady,” said Ash, and I could see his unique sense of humour returning.

Coffee was easy to find because this is Melbourne, and even my dog can make a good coffee. You have to prove that you know what good coffee tastes like before they will let you cross the border into Victoria, and in Melbourne, the cops will breath-test you for instant coffee — if detected, the penalties are draconian.

The sandwich shop lived up to expectations, and the coffee was a perfect temperature. The tiny glass-fronted store was awash with delicious aromas.

We sat on tall stools and looked out onto the road. Trams rumbled by, and pedestrians did what pedestrians do. Some bloke was making his third attempt to park a Fiat in a space that would accommodate a mid-1960s Ford.

“What do you reckon. Is he gonna make it?” I said. Ash looked up from his coffee. He’d been mesmerised by the pattern on the crema for the past few minutes.

“Nah, he’s buggered.”

“Yeah, I agree. Most blokes will give it away after the second go. It’s too embarrassing.”

Right on cue, the Fiat shot off into traffic accompanied by the copious tooting of horns and the waving of fists.

“He nearly had it that last time,” I said.

“If I disappear in mysterious circumstances, don’t stop looking for me, will ya?”

“Is that something you’re likely to do?” I said.

“Nah, but just in case. I don’t want to lie somewhere, cold and forgotten,” said Ash, who had gone back to staring at the pattern on his coffee.

“I’ll find ya mate, but not before I’ve finished off that bottle of whisky you keep in your locker.”

Ash didn’t look up. This one had gotten to him. I had never seen him like this.

“You know I got wounded — in the war?” he said.

“Not really,” I said.

Ash’s life before the police force was a mystery to me, and I felt guilty that I had never asked. Mostly, I’m not that interested in other people. But this was different. I remember the feeling of being with a dying comrade — the less I knew about their life, the easier it was to deal with their death.

“We were on patrol, and all hell broke loose. When I woke up, my leg and back hurt like buggery and all my mates were dead. I wasn’t game to call for help so I lay there for what seemed like days, hoping someone would come looking for us. After about thirty-six hours, a rescue party found me. I don’t remember it happening, but I do remember wondering if I’d bleed to death, and I remember wondering if I’d be found or would I be one of those bodies that farmers find, decades later, after the war is over. I’ve never felt so cold and alone. Do you reckon that’s how that bloke felt?”

“I don’t mind telling you that you are freaking me out, Ash. Here, drink up,” I said as I poured the contents of my hip flask into his coffee.

The bloke behind the counter gave me a look and started to say something. I moved my jacket so he could see my detective’s badge — he went back to slicing tomatoes without saying anything.

Ash drank his coffee, and I poured a wee dram into mine.

“Same goes for me mate. If the ungodly catch up with me, don’t leave me lying out there somewhere,” I said.

“Deal,” said Ash and we clinked paper cups to seal the deal.

The Portrait

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My inheritance arrived on the back of a medium-sized truck driven by a bloke with a missing tooth. I thought about asking him how he lost the tooth, but I got distracted by the three boxes he effortlessly unloaded.

“Where do ya want ‘em, lady,” said the tooth deprived deliverer of wonders.

“On the front verandah, please.”

My plan was to unload and sort into piles – keep, donate, chuck in the bin.

In retrospect, my plan was a bit mercenary. A bit callous, even.

I expected my inheritance to be mostly junk.

The young can be unthinking.

Uncle David was my second favourite uncle, and he always called me ‘Spot’ and I don’t know why. I didn’t mind at the time. He seemed harmless enough, and I barely paid him any attention. He smelled like cigarettes, which was better smelling than most of my relatives. Altogether, I had seven uncles and three aunties all with partners (who assumed the moniker of aunt or uncle as well). I was swimming in adult relatives, and my cousins were numerous as well. I only associated with the cousins that were my age and that thinned things out a bit. All my relatives loved to talk and tease.

Uncle David was the exception.

“It’s all a bit much when we get together,” he said to me one day when I found him hiding on the front verandah of my grandmother’s house. We could hear the continuous dim of relatives conversing and children playing in the rooms behind us, all trying to outdo each other.

“Does my head in,” was my reply.

Looking back, in a maelstrom of competing personalities, Uncle David got lost in all the noise.

When he died, I went to the funeral, at least in part because it got me out of school for the day. I was sad that he was gone so suddenly and I wished we had talked more, but then it was too late.

As I surveyed the boxes now sitting on the verandah of the house my father rented for two of my friends and me, I’m wondering why my uncle left me these things and why had it taken more than a year for them to arrive.

I searched the boxes and sifted them into piles, but I searched in vain for a reason.

No note, no letter of explanation, which was reasonable considering his rapid departure — and yet he had left a will highlighting the things that went to me.

As far as I know, I’m the only cousin who received anything — the rest of his possessions went to his immediate family.

The ‘keep’ pile was tiny — an ancient Swiss Army Knife (I’ve always wanted one of those — how did he know?), a silver teapot which I will use for its intended purpose and a portrait wrapped in a dusty canvas.

When I removed its tattered covering, I found an intriguing  portrait of a woman — probably a self-portrait of the artist.

The painting was out of character with the other boxed possessions. It seemed to demand attention.

On the back of the canvas, a few words in pencil named the artist and dated its creation.

The painting was as bright as the day it was painted and the frame was in perfect condition. This painting had not seen the daylight since the time it was created.

Did my uncle know the artist in a biblical sense? Was my aunty aware of this mysterious woman? Was this a sign that Uncle David believed I would understand his secret? Were the rest of these bits and pieces a smokescreen to hide the significance of the painting?

I wonder if the artist is still alive and I will find out, but that is an adventure for another time.

For now, I need to find just the right place to hang this portrait.

When it is up, I’ll make myself a cup of tea, and sit and ponder on the mystery and the uncle who I should have paid more attention to.

Sleep well uncle David and thank you for noticing me.