“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.
Neighbourhood Of Widower Dogs: Chapter Two
“Not what I expected,” I said.
“What were you expecting? Table cloths, silver service?” she said.
“A table would have been nice,” I said.
“We only get forty-five minutes for lunch, and it only took us,” she looked at her watch, “ten minutes to walk here.”
During the night and on weekends, Habib’s Kitchen opened on the forecourt of the Shell service station some ten minutes walk from what used to be Coburg Teacher’s College, back in the day. These days, the predictable buildings have been repurposed to become a high school and then the privately owned, Baker Institute. Business is not thriving, hence the eagerness of Victoria Police to rent the inexpensive venue. Who gave a fuck about the comfort of the participants? Not the brass, that’s for sure.
“The chairs are comfy,” said my host, who had ordered our lunchtime feast.
Most customers get back into their cars and drive away, but as a concession to midnight dinners with a ‘skin full,’ the proprietor has provided six white plastic garden chairs — easy to hose down in the morning before going home to bed.
“Have you had a stint in ‘Traffic’?” I asked.
“Of course. Everyone does ‘Traffic’ when they start out.”
“Ever been to the impound yard?”
“Once or twice.”
“Ever get lost in that place?”
“Almost,” she admitted honestly. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s these chairs — triggered a memory.”
I took a bite of my ‘extra sauce’ special while she delicately tried to eat her ‘no chilly’ with poise.
“We have time. Tell me your story.”
I love talking with other cops. The general public gets bored quickly, and I think that what we do freaks them out — they’d rather not know how the sausage is made.
“Ever heard of Backdoor Barry?”
“No, and I don’t like lurid sex stories,” she said.
“Don’t let his name put you off. It’s nothing like you are imagining. One day I’ll tell you how he got his nickname.”
“One day?” she said, with the lift of an eyebrow. “Do you think this relationship has a life beyond lunch?”
I ignored the minefield that had been laid before me.
“Moving right along,” I said. She smiled and took another bite. A small bead of sauce oozed from the corner of her mouth, and her tongue retrieved it. I tried not to think about her tongue — I get distracted easily.
“It’s going back a few years,” I tried not to sound too much older than her, “there was a woman who did a bit of work for the bloke you haven’t heard of — I can’t believe you don’t know Backdoor Barry!”
“Get on with it, we don’t want to be late for HAVING A POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CORONER WHEN WE THINK HE MIGHT BE HIDING VITAL EVIDENCE.”
“Are you sure that’s what the lecture’s called?” I said, and she gave me a look.
“Anyway, there was this woman, we’ll call her Susan.”
“Cause that was her name?”
“Right. So she got car-jacked at the Rising Sun Hotel, which is where Backdoor Barry hangs out. The carjacker takes off in her car and gets totalled by a taxi as he exits the carpark. Mayhem ensues. Some important items are in Susan’s car, but she cannot get close enough to retrieve them.”
“People come from everywhere when there’s a car accident,” said Open Window with a touch of glee. She was starting to get into it.
“Our colleagues arrive along with an ambulance and the Towies. The whole nine yards. Being a resourceful person, Susan hatches a plan. After borrowing a car from Barry, she parks it in front of the local fire station, blocking the doors. She sat across the street at an all-night burger truck. They had white plastic chairs as well.”
“What was she waiting for and why park the car there?”
“All will be revealed. Patience, my girl.” She leaned forward, and for a moment, I thought I was going to get punched.
“So, there she is, eating a burger and waiting for the Fireies to notice her poor choice of a parking spot. A quiet night meant she had to sit on the hard plastic chairs for hours. Eventually, they noticed and called us. We arranged to have the car towed out of the way.”
“To the impound yard?”
“Yep. So Susan gets a taxi to the yard and fronts up to collect her car. I remember the clerk’s exact words — ‘I know your car is red lady, but that don’t excuse you parking in front of a fire station.’ She apologies, pays the fine, collects her car and drives it back to The Rising Sun Hotel where she lets the barman, Boris, out of the boot. While the red car was in impound, Boris had climbed out of the boot, retrieved Susan’s suitcase from the damaged vehicle and climbed back into the boot of the red car along with the suitcase.”
“A tight fit, I would imagine? So how did you find all this out? Did it come out at the trial?”
“Never was a trial. The carjacker died in the crash. After a lot of paperwork — case closed.”
“So how do you know all this?”
“That’s the stuff they don’t teach you in these courses. Getting to know people, dodgy people. Having them owe you. That’s where the information comes from. I got Barry drunk one day, and he told me this story so that he didn’t have to answer my real questions.”
“Did I mention, you interest me Leather Jacket?”
“No, but I guessed, and it’s Catastrophe Jones to you, Ms Carter.”
“I’ll try and remember.”
“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.