Seven and a Half

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“And what is your name, little one?” I was sitting in Audrey’s family room which wasn’t huge and looked a lot like it did the last time I was in it when the McKilntocks still lived here. Audrey had not made many changes to this fully furnished rental. Most women would have added and removed, but not Audrey.

It was a bright and sunny afternoon that reminded me of my childhood.

“My name’s Betty, and I’m seven and a half,” said Audrey’s daughter, still dressed in her local private school uniform — two sizes too big for her. “She’ll grow into it, and I won’t have to deal with the Mother’s group again anytime soon.”

“Your age was going to be my next question, but you beat me to it,” I said with a friendly smile. Betty smiled back — she got the joke. It is always easier to get to know a child if they appreciate your sense of humour.

Betty had been trying to read a book when I interrupted her. She was amazingly gracious for a seven and a half-year-old.

“Is that something you have to read for school, or is it for pleasure?” I asked.

“It’s for school, but I don’t mind. I like learning big words,” said Betty.

“I’ll bet you do — with those bright eyes. I’ll bet you know heaps of big words,” I said.

“Not heaps,” she corrected me, “but quite a few.”

“Do you have a favourite word?” I asked. Children like absolutes — biggest, highest, loudest, nastiest.

“It changes from day to day,” — good answer — “but today I would say that vegetarian is my favourite. Yesterday it was princess and tomorrow I think it is going to be imagination.”

“Those are all excellent words,” I said with conviction.

While our conversation was continuing, Audrey was in the kitchen with only the island bench separating us. The kettle had boiled, and freshly brewed coffee was appearing. Audrey had not asked if I wanted brewed or instant and I found that interesting. The coffee appeared on an enormous antique silver tray. The cups did not match, but they were both exquisite examples of nineteenth-century pottery making — all English in origin and were showing their age. The sugar bowl was the prettiest, and the coffee pot held just enough for four cups. The silver spoons were solid silver and also did not match. Audrey had enough taste to know that having everything look alike was not always the best way to show that you appreciate beautiful things.

“My compliments on your taste Audrey. These are lovely pieces, and I’ll bet there is a story behind each one of them,” I said as the coffee was being poured into my cup.

“Thank you. Most of these pieces come from my grandmother. She died when I was still young, and I barely remember her, but she insisted that these pieces of china be held for me,” said Audrey.

“I discovered a lot about my grandmother after my mother died. I found her diaries in an old box in my mother’s attic. I sat there and read until the light went out of the sky,” I said.

“Were they interesting?” asked Audrey.

“More than you can possibly imagine. She was an amazing lady — a war hero and much, much more. She has been an enormous inspiration to me,” I said when I remembered that I was supposed to be getting her to talk and not telling her my life story.

“I wish my grandmother had left some diaries. I would love to know a bit more about her life. My mother is wonderful, but she is not a good storyteller. I think her mother was hard on her. I don’t think they had a close relationship.”

While we were talking, Betty had taken herself and her oversized school uniform into her room which came off the family room. She left the door open, and I wondered how many more years would go by before the door would be firmly shut to keep the adult world at bay.

“When my boys were Betty’s age, they slept with the light on and the door open. Is Betty the same?” I asked. This was no idle coffee time conversation on my part. An idea had been forming in my head since my meeting with Barry.

“She has a princess nightlight, and her door always stays open. I guess all kids go through that phase,” said Audrey.

And there it was.

The opening I had been hoping for.

We talked about the usual family things for a while, and I guess I was impatient — I wanted to take a fully formed idea back to Barry, so I took a chance.

“My husband has this routine when he gets home from work. I leave him alone for a bit then I sit and listen while he tells me about his day. I’ve never met most of his work colleagues, but from his nightly debriefing sessions I feel like I could pick them out of a line-up,” I said, and Audrey smiled politely. She hesitated for a moment, and I considered whether I should have spent more time gaining her confidence before heading down this road — the wait was agonising.

“Basil’s job is very demanding,” she said followed by another long silence — I resisted the urge to fill it.

“His work is very important — he’s very important. That’s why the company is picking up the bill for the rent on this house as well as paying all our moving expenses and Betty’s school fees. Your friends, the McKlintocks were a bit greedy about the rent, but the company didn’t quibble. They need him to be close to his laboratory — I guess our needs come second.”

Another long silence.

“He isn’t supposed to talk about his work, but he does. He talks to me. I don’t understand a lot of it, but it makes him feel better to talk out loud about it. I worry about his health. He’s under a lot of pressure.” She looked panicked, as though she ought not to have said anything, but she too needed to unburden herself to someone, and I got the feeling that her mother was not the sort of person who you could unburden to.

And there is was.

The second and most important part of the sting.

Barry was likely to burst a blood vessel.

Susan and Fireman Ken

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Barry’s message was curt and to the point, meet me — usual place — Tuesday — 2 pm.

I had to cancel an appointment that I didn’t want to keep, and I planned to hit the ‘outlet shops’ in Richmond after my meeting with Barry so that the day might not be a complete waste of time. I knew this wasn’t a new job — I could tell from the message. This was something else, and I hoped that it wasn’t one of Barry’s meet one of my dodgy mates. Barry sees it as his responsibility to introduce me to anyone who can help me in my newly chosen career. I probably shouldn’t complain, but mostly these meetings are a waste of time.

On this day I wasn’t disappointed at all.

He was sitting next to Barry as I arrived. He was handsome and also brave, and I knew this because he was drinking a beer from the bar — and in one of the hotel’s glasses!

Sam is handsome and funny. He seems to enjoy his work, and he has that unique I don’t give a fuck what you think of me attitudes that attract women in large numbers. I asked him about it as we walked back to our cars and he said, “Yeah, I’m aware of it, but these days, I’m a one woman man. Not that I haven’t taken advantage of it in the past, it’s just that now I’m married and that means no fooling around. Having said that, in a previous life I would definitely have given you one.”

“I’m touched,” I said.

“You would have been,” said Sam, “and in many different places.” We both smiled and went our different ways.

Apart from being incredibly wealthy and being married to a beautiful heiress, Sam finds things — he likes to keep his hand in — I could find a use for such a man.

Before all this happened, I sat at Barry’s table and listened to the men talk and wondered why I was there.

“I want you to meet someone Susan. This is Sam Bennett. Best private investigator in Melbourne.”

“Australia,” added Sam.

“In Australia,” said Barry. “He could find a politician with integrity.”

“Let’s not get carried away,” said Sam.

I knew I was going to like him. He had eyes that made you want to be close to him and you knew that if there were trouble, he would stand by you and not run away. In short, he was not like most of Barry’s contacts.

Sam could tell a good story and several beers later, he talked about how he gathers information.

By this time, Boris the barman had joined us at the table, and we listened as he recounted an adventure told to him by ‘Fireman Ken’.

“I learned very early on that it is a waste of time talking to the president, the top dog, the bloke who runs everything.

Why? Because these blokes are just cheerleaders.

It’s their job to tell you that everything is just fine; everything is going great. That’s why the CEO of some big company goes on television to squash all the rumours about his multi-billion dollar company. It’s to give his broker time to liquidate his holdings without driving the price down. Within a week or two, there is a small item on page nine about a CEO who skipped the country on his private jet with two large suitcases stuffed with everyone else’s money.

So that’s why I don’t bother.

It’s my job to find out stuff. So, if I want to know what happened in a hospital, I ask a porter.

They have nothing invested in the politics of the place, and a ‘twenty’ seems like a lot of money to someone on minimum wage. They are ‘invisible,’ so people talk when they are around them, as though they aren’t there.

So, when the shit hit the fan at 206 Rae Street in Fitzroy, I asked a fireman. The lowest ranked fireman I could find.

His name was Ken, and he was a big bloke and a little bit too old to be a rookie. He had done all sorts of things previously but being a fireman seemed like a steady job to Ken, so he tried out and succeeded. Which was an achievement in itself, because they don’t make it easy. The physical stuff was easy enough, but the academic side proved to be a challenge. Ken left school in year nine.

That’s probably not the best way to put it; Ken was asked to leave. Apparently, there was a girl involved, but Ken said there was a whole bunch of them, but one, in particular, caused his sudden exit from the halls of academia. The principal’s daughter was a year older than Ken, but Ken was fully grown, and at six foot four he was almost as wide as he was tall.

The Principal gave him a choice, leave, or he would call the police. Ken decided to leave. Apart from the continuous supply of girls, he wasn’t really enjoying himself anyway.

A couple of dozen jobs and some years later and Ken finds himself as part of a crew that is called to a house fire in Fitzroy.

The senior man knocked on the front door, but it did not open. At this stage, there were no visible signs of fire, so the urgency level is low.

A voice came from inside the house.

“Go away.”

“I’m sorry madam, but there has been a report of a fire, and we must come in and make sure that there isn’t any danger.”

“Go away.” The female voice was becoming more insistent, but so was the senior fireman.

“Look, lady, we’ve got a job to do. Just open up, let us have a look around, and we will be on our way.”

“Go away.”

“Open the door lady, or we are going to break it down.” The senior turned to Ken and gave him the nod. Ken got into position and began to swing the axe when the door opened just enough for the old woman to stick her head out.

“Go away, we ain’t got no fire.”

The senior pushed past her and the men moved rapidly through the dark hallway to the back of the house.

As they moved out into the back yard, it became apparent where the fire was. Two large couches were well alight, and as the property backed onto a creek, the neighbours on the other bank had probably called in the fire.

It was quickly extinguished, and probationary Ken got the grunt job of filling out the report, which included listing that every room in the house had been assessed as free from fire. This seemed strange to me, but Ken said that ‘unexplained’ fires often break out in multiple locations within a house; this is shorthand for arson.

Ken did as he was told and the last room to check on was the one they went past as they first entered the building.

The old lady had hold of the door knob.

“You don’t need to check in there.”

“Yes, I do,” says Ken, and brushes her aside.

When he opened the door, he saw a table with about eight blokes sitting around it. They were playing cards, and by Ken’s guess, the pot looked like it contained about ten thousand dollars. These were obviously dodgy and seriously dangerous people. Ken was worried that they might remember his face, but it seemed that no one in the room took their eyes off the money while the door was open.

“Everything seems to be fine in here,” says Ken and quickly shuts the door. Fortunately, the truck was packed and waiting for Ken to finish.

“Drive. Drive now,” said Ken in a voice that suggested that he would someday make an excellent senior officer.

I asked Ken if the bloke I was looking for was in that room and he said he was. He also asked me not to tell anyone who told me. As I mentioned, Ken was a big bloke, but he seemed genuinely scared. This was a wise reaction. The bloke I was looking for was a bad person. He’d done a reasonable job of faking his own death, but now that I knew he was still alive, I’d pass the information along to the police. They wouldn’t drag their feet either. They wanted this bloke badly, and they were disappointed when it appeared that he had been killed. No body, but plenty of evidence to persuade the top brass to shift their resources to another case. I knew a particular Detective Inspector who was going to be very pleased to hear my news.

My clients would not pay me until this bloke was arrested, but I could wait.

Always talk to the little fish; they know what is going on, and they can always use a little extra spending money,” said Sam.