Chief Inspector Dance slid across the church pew and invaded my personal space.
Hip against hip, knee against knee.
“Be careful Chief Inspector, in some cultures, this constitutes a marriage proposal,” I said, and the detectives close by laughed.
The Chief Inspector shot them a glance — he was the only one who was allowed to be funny.
He’d bullied his way to the head of the Robbery Squad just before I joined the unit. He dumped the previous second in command and installed me as 2IC. Buggered if I know why, but maybe it had something to do with weakening the old alliances.
In keeping with modern police practice, several of our squad were female. They were often the butt of his jokes and sarcasm.
“Back off a bit. I don’t want to get pregnant before the wedding,” I said, and a snigger rippled through our group. It turns out I’m pretty good at sarcasm as well.
I could smell him — dust, hair oil and a cheap aftershave.
Amazingly, our DCI would tolerate such comments because he believed he was a jolly funny chap — he wasn’t, but that kind of banter was his forte, so he would take a bit of it when it came his way — only a bit mind you, and only from the male officers.
Other than that, no-one stands up to our boss. We all want to ‘get on’, get a promotion, get ahead and get out of this squad. But things were changing.
Murder Squad, Narcotics then Burglary; in that order.
The head of Narcotics retired in a cloud of whispers and Chief Inspector Dance expected to get the nod; except, it didn’t happen.
Chief Inspector Valerie Trend was promoted above him.
Dance had run his race.
I’d like to think that the ‘higher-ups’ had finally figured out that he was a prick, but I doubt it. The rumour mill will eventually tell us, but frankly, I didn’t care — about that and a lot of things.
We were seated a few rows from the front on the right-hand side of this huge old church. The ceremony was being held in Richmond this year because St Paul’s in the city had been double booked. Working-class Catholics had paid for this monument to power in the late 1880s. It must have cost a fortune, and I can hear the priest piling on the guilt because the building had not been paid off, and the church needed money.
Detective Constable Helen Morgan was the last of us to arrive.
She sat in the seat in front of us, dressed in the squad’s unofficial uniform; a grey two-piece single-breasted suit, white shirt/blouse and a tie.
She was trim, slightly above average height with bruises and a small cut on one side of her face. The left side of her face, as it happened.
I wanted to make a joke about her ability to arrest someone without getting thumped, when a feeling came over me, which it sometimes does. These bruises had been delivered by someone who should have been her protector.
I turned to our ‘leader’. “Are you going to do something about this?” I said.
“None of our business,” he said and turned away as though not seeing the damage was the same as it going away.
“If a member of the public had done that, you’d be first in line to take him downstairs and beat the living shit out of him,” I said, and I was aware of the volume of my voice.
“Man and wife stuff. Stay the fuck out of it.”
Fuck this for a game of soldiers, I said under my breath.
I stood up and walked across to the side door just as the organ started up to begin the proceedings.
I’m not sure if it was planned when the church was built, but there was a pub just across the road. Mind you, back in those days, there was a pub across the road from everywhere in Richmond.
I blinked under the intense light and hesitated before crossing the broad street. Two of our squad’s female officers had followed me out of the church, closely followed by Helen Morgan.
“You ladies need to think carefully. Your absence will be noted. This assembly is a big deal. It’s a load of bollocks, but it’s a big deal in terms of ‘showing the flag’. Photographers, reporters, the whole nine yards. All the people who make decisions about your future are here. Do you want them to remember you walking out before it all began?”
There was silence.
“You stood up to him back there. You spoke up for Helen, not that it will do any good,” said Sharon Long, who had been in the squad for a little more than a year. Bright, blond and someone who can take care of herself without having to pull her gun.
Betty Green kissed Helen on the cheek and gave her a hug. “You know I love ya kid, don’t you? she said, “but I’ve got two kids, and I need this crazy job.”
She gave us a smile, and we gave her a nod. She went back into the church.
The rest of us went across the road and ordered a beer, then we ordered another one. We sat in what was laughingly called the ‘beer garden’ and listened to the sound of hundreds of police officers giving thanks to God that a new financial year had begun and no one had discovered their transgressions.
“Things are going to change around here,” I said, surrounded by two strong women who could probably beat me in a fair fight.
But there’s the thing — I don’t fight fair. Actually, I do my best to avoid a fight, but as my father taught me, “if you cannot get out of it, dive in with everything you’ve got and don’t stop until your opponent cannot get up. Don’t guess — be sure he is done.”
I sat there thinking about the career I thought I had and about the cricket bat in my car’s boot.
Senior Constable Frank Morgan and I are going to have a little batting practice.
“Getting a birds-eye view is unusual for me. I’m usually talking to a specific person, even if I don’t know who that person is,” I said.
“Unusual, is right!” said the detective with a mustard stain on his well-worn suit.
“If you don’t have anything intelligent to add Detective Johnson, then shut it,” said the Inspector in charge of the investigation.
I hadn’t worked with her before, and I was surprised to be asked.
From what I could ‘see’, she was driven, recently separated and was hopeful of having children. All of that was true for now, but over time, some would turn out to be accurate, and some would not, only time would tell.
My eyes told me that she was about five foot five, stylishly dressed, heals, no earrings (but her ears were pierced), trim with wide hips and a commanding personality. She didn’t have to raise her voice to achieve authority.
“This is a first for her,” said the female detective who’d led me to the squad room, “don’t fuck it up.”
Requests for my services had been constant but sporadic. I gave my time when I could, and the cynical attitude of some of the force was tiring.
My favourite contact is a lowly sergeant in homicide. He’s worked his way up through the Tactical Response Group. His abilities are as good as mine, but he sometimes likes to have a second opinion.
I asked him once about the dangers he faces, especially in the Tactical Group.
“I listen when I get the feeling that it might be terminal if I go down that alley alone. They look after me.”
I was getting nervous, but I ploughed on.
“From what I can see, it’s night time. There is some sort of orange light coming from my right as I look at the scene. The body is lying on the ground, and a man is standing next to it. The ground is free of vegetation, but I can see small trees a few metres away. There is evidence of a stream off to the right. I don’t think the standing person is the assailant. He can’t take his eyes off the body, but he doesn’t touch it. He’s lightly dressed. Too lightly dressed — it’s cold out there. The victim doesn’t look like someone who has fallen or been pushed. She looks like she’s sleeping. The young man is unsure whether to wake her. Does any of this make sense?” I said.
I look at the Inspector, and I can tell she is trying to figure out how I know these things. This happens every time. Inevitably, I’ll be asked where I was on the night of the fourteenth — it never fails.
There are only two ways I could know these things — either I really can ‘see things’, or I did it.
It’s why I almost stopped being involved in homicide.
“Yes, it does. Very helpful,” said the Inspector.
Several of the detectives had been taking notes as I spoke.
“This is all complete bollocks,” said Detective Johnson.
The Inspector turned in his direction, and I put my hand out and stepped slightly in front of her.
“Detective Johnson. Is that your name?” I said without waiting for a reply.
“You are still married, but only just. Your wife used to iron your shirts for you, but not any more. You don’t believe in any ‘mumbo-jumbo’ as you put it (two detectives laughed) because you grew up Catholic and your faith let you down. Father Patric? Tall bloke, young and very friendly. You wince inside anytime someone uses the word faith.”
“You’re just making that stuff up. Could apply to anyone.”
As a rule, I try not to hurt anyone with the information that comes my way. This bloke was making me rethink that rule.
“Your girlfriend, —?” I noticed the young uniformed female at the back of the room stiffen in her seat, “do you want me to go on?”
Detective Johnson remained silent.
All eyes were on me as I took a step back. They were probably hoping I would complete the sentence.
“You all have your assignments. I’d like to thank Mr Page for coming in to help us,” said the Inspector.
She turned to me, “The officer will show you out.”
I’d been dismissed.
I may find out if my information helped, but maybe not. Once you are no longer useful, you don’t have their attention — until the next time the trail goes cold.
“How did I go?” I said as we walked back to the front desk.
The young police officer put her hand out to take my security pass.
“It’s an ongoing investigation so I can’t comment,” she said without emotion.
“You don’t think he did it, do you?” I said.
The young woman looked me in the eye but did not answer.
“Your family are very proud of you. They want you to know that. They don’t want you to worry about them.”
The young woman was still looking at me, but now there was a different expression on her face.
“Thank you,” she said, and her hand touched my arm.
I knew that touch.
It’s almost involuntary in those who have caught sight, ever so briefly, of the ones they love.
I didn’t go straight home. I needed a moment.
I don’t know any of these people, alive or dead and it isn’t my job to worry about them, but they leave their mark on me. A stiff whisky and a bite to eat helps me to come back to earth.
The police officers I deal with see it as their duty to find those who kill. They don’t understand when I tell them that those who have gone won’t tell me who took their life, sometimes because they didn’t know that person when they were alive, and sometimes because it doesn’t matter to them.
The living care about death — violent and otherwise.
The dead have other concerns, but they take pity on us and share some of the details.
I stand in the middle of all that.
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are just things I have to endure.
If you are wondering why I didn’t ask the young police officer out for a drink?
She has a boyfriend and three kids.
Not now, but in her future and he is the right one for her.
I listen when I’m told.
Another whisky and I’m off home.
No, they don’t tell me what’s in store for me, and I would not want them too.
Anticipation is half the delight.
“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.
Anyone who has ever worked anywhere will tell you that their job would be easier if they didn’t have to wade through an ocean of excrement cleverly disguised as bureaucracy. The senior officer in a small country police station solves a mysterious crime only to have his decisions scrutinised by those above him. The writing is on the wall for him and his staff, but he still has a job to do. Fate will take care of the rest.
From the audiobook SLIGHTLY SPOOKY STORIES