A Sam Bennett story
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.
A collection of cigarette butts caught Sam’s eye when he walked out of his front gate to catch a tram to the city.
If he had been driving, he would have missed them.
A tight grouping directly under the tree.
When they moved into their substantial residence — built by a rich bloke back in the 1970s, they decided to increase the width of their driveway. The aforementioned rich bloke had knocked down several houses and plonked his creation right in the middle of the now considerable grounds, all to impress his new bride.
It didn’t work, and he sold the house soon after.
Several owners later and Scarlett decided that this was to be their home.
Big houses were out of place in this neighbourhood, but it did have the benefit of being in the community where Sam grew up.
New electronic gates, with a pedestrian gate at the side (Sam was the only person who moved through it), were installed. The driveway brushed dangerously close to the sixty-year-old street tree. There was some discussion about whether the council would allow them to excavate so close to the tree.
These days the tree seemed happy enough, and if you stood under it — as someone obviously had, you would have a sweeping view up the paved driveway to the entrance of the house.
“What’s happening today, Sam?”
Scarlett was being considerate — showing some interest.
Since the accident, Sam’s world had become considerably smaller.
Blood, crushed metal, a rapid ride in an ambulance, followed by a frantic time in the emergency room.
“We have to relieve the pressure on his brain.”
What if we don’t, thought Scarlett.
A boring stay in a hospital room with an interesting view, followed by a stay in a rehabilitation facility. Sam made lifelong friends on that ward, but now he was home doing his best to regain lost memories.
“Your memories will come back slowly, or they may all come back at once, it’s hard to know,” said a kind face in a white lab coat.
“I have an appointment with Dr Doug at four, but not much till then,” said Sam.
“How’s it all going? The memory stuff, I mean?”
“Slowly. Dr Doug seems happy, but he would be, at five hundred dollars an hour.”
“Is that fair, Sam? Dr Doug has an excellent reputation for such a young psychiatrist. I liked him when I spoke to him. I think he has your best interests at heart. Give him a chance.”
Scarlett found Dr Doug and gently encouraged Sam to go and see him. Sam was prepared to be unimpressed, but the two of them got along. Dr Doug dealt in dreams and Sam had vivid and sometimes disturbing dreams, which he wrote down in great detail — a match made somewhere near heaven.
“I might go in early and wander around the city for a bit, or I might not and have a nap instead. I was up very early this morning. Which reminds me; you get up very early during the week. Have you noticed an older man standing outside our front gates?”
Scarlett ran her late father’s business empire, and she took it all seriously, arriving before anyone else.
“Not standing, but I have noticed an older man walking his dog. Between five-thirty and six each morning. Usually smoking a cigarette.”
“He could be the one,” said Sam.
“Why do you ask?” said Scarlett.
“I’m not sure. It just seems strange. I’ve seen him standing on the grass under the tree and staring at our house. He stands there looking like he is trying to make up his mind — ring the bell or not, then he walks off, dog in tow.”
“Do you think we need to be worried?”
It was evident from the size of their property that the Bennett’s were wealthy. Big money attracts some who might want to lighten their load.
“No. No need to worry,” said Sam.
The next morning, Sam was staring out of their first-floor bedroom window when the older man drifted into view. His dog stopped as though he knew in advance that they would be there for a while. The older man dropped his cigarette on the ground, stepped on it and lit up a new one, all the while leaning on the trunk of the tree.
Despite the distance to their front gate, Sam could see the man clearly.
This routine went on for several weeks before stopping abruptly.
Sam missed seeing the man and his dog. There was something comforting about their appearance at the appointed time. They had been coming for so many days that the little dog now walked to the tree and lay down, making itself comfortable, knowing there was going to be a long wait.
“The old man and his dog have stopped standing out the front,” said Sam over toast and coffee.
“Did you ever find out who he was?” asked Scarlett.
“No, and now I miss him.”
Sam retired from detecting when he married Scarlett, but this seemed like a good time to come out of retirement.
On his next walk to the tram, Sam knocked on a few doors. Mostly his knocking was met by silence until the retired couple who lived a few doors down opened their door.
“I think you are referring to Judge Nardella. He’s been retired for a long time now, and I sometimes talk to him on his early morning walks,” said Mr Wilson, (call me Ted).
“Neither of us sleeps very well, but Ted is worse than I am,” said Mrs Wilson, (call me Beryl).
“He was a big deal in his day. Sat in judgement on some high profile cases. Put Enselmo away for life. Lives in that big house up on Oakover Road. The red brick one with all the roses.”
“I know the woman who cleans his house, and she says that his house is full of boxes and filing cabinets. All his old court cases, apparently. Spent a fortune having them photocopied when he retired. She says he reads through his old cases looking for something,” said Mrs Wilson.
“Does she know what he’s looking for?” asked Sam.
“No. She doesn’t know, and she’s not game to ask.”
Sam finished his second cup of tea and wondered if he would make it into the city before he had to answer the call of nature — he didn’t. A stop at the Edinborough Garden was necessary.
His relief break made him slightly late for his session with Dr Doug, but he had a story to tell.
“So, what do you plan to do, Sam?” said Dr Doug.
“Investigate,” said Sam.
Another day went by before Sam walked the short distance to the judge’s house. Sam liked to let ideas percolate before taking action.
The front door was at the top of a few brick steps. Next to the door was an old pull handle doorbell. It was connected to a cable that rang a bell in the kitchen. The house was built at the same time as wealthy families had electricity installed, but some old building habits died hard.
The bell still worked. Sam could feel the resistance as he pulled on it and felt it settle back into position.
Sam was about to give it another pull when he heard the bolt on the front door unlock, and an elderly man opened the door.
The judge stood at Sam’s height. Grey thinning hair roughly combed and a gentle but determined face.
There was a moment’s silence after which the judge said, “Mr Bennett. I suppose you are wondering why I stand outside your house?”
“Good afternoon, judge. You come right to the point. Do you have a few moments?”
“No, I don’t, but if you are free tomorrow afternoon, about three, I would be delighted to serve you tea and cake. My housekeeper isn’t here today. She makes excellent teacake.”
“I’ll be here,” said Sam. He was disappointed, but he was also patient. His mentor had taught him that patience was essential. “Let the world come to you. Don’t push it away in your haste.”
Sam heard Scarlett’s car come up the long drive. He heard her thank her driver — she always did that, Scarlett treated everyone with respect.
The front door opened and Scarlett put her handbag on the hall table and her briefcase, a present from Sam, on the marble floor. She came into the old servant’s kitchen (Sam loved this room — a bit worn and very cosy — he wouldn’t let Scarlett redecorate it).
Sam had lit the fire, and a snack was waiting for her.
“Your coffee will be ready in just a moment.”
The coffee machine whirred happily on the bench.
“How did your day go?” said Sam, who desperately wanted to tell Scarlett about his adventure.
“Meetings all day. The glassworks expansion is going well, or so I’m told.”
“I love glass,” said Sam, for no particular reason.
“Are you okay, Sam. You’ve never professed a love for glass before, and it’s freaking me out.”
“I’m trying to be supportive. I read an article that said a wife should show interest in her husband’s work as soon as he gets home.”
“Now I’m really starting to worry.”
“I REALLY want you to ask me how my day went.”
It had been a long time since Sam had anything interesting to say when Scarlett came home.
“Okay. I’ll bite,” said Scarlett and Sam poured her coffee. The snacks looked good — she had skipped lunch again.
“Well,” said Sam making himself comfortable on a barstool.
“Don’t eat too much cake and no making eyes at his housekeeper,” said Scarlett before kissing Sam on the cheek. “I should be home on time. I can’t wait to hear about your meeting.”
The front door closed, and her car drove off. Now Sam was stuck with the task of filling in the hours till three.
He chopped some wood, mowed the back lawns — the front ones could wait a few days, walked the dogs and read the paper. Still three hours to go.
Sam’s physical condition was steadily improving, but an early afternoon nap was needed most days. This took him up to two-thirty. He showered and dressed and walked the distance to the judge’s house. His dogs were disappointed at not being invited.
“Maybe next time,” said Sam as he closed his front door.
The judge was waiting at the open door as Sam climbed the steps.
“Can I ring your doorbell, just for the fun of it?” asked Sam.
The judge nodded without expression.
With the door open, Sam could hear the bell ring deep within the house. It was satisfying.
The judge ushered Sam into the large front room. High ceilings, thick curtains, and lush furniture covered in boxes. Boxes covered most of the parquetry floor and oozed out through the connecting door into another room.
Two comfortable looking armchairs had been released from box covering duties, and Sam chose the one with its back to the window. The two men settled into their chairs as tea and cake magically appeared.
The judge’s housekeeper was modestly dressed, barely concealing her fifty-odd years. Sam tried to smile at her, but she avoided his gaze.
The judge poured from a china teapot. The tea was hot, and the cake left crumbs on Sam’s shirtfront. He tried to flick them onto his other hand and deposit them onto his plate with only moderate success.
Other than to compliment the judge on his teacake, Sam kept silent.
“In your career, have you ever caught someone who turned out to be innocent?” said former judge Nardella.
“Not that I know of,” said Sam.
“What would you do if you had?”
A moment of silence.
“Do my best to rectify the situation,” said Sam.
Another moment of silence.
“If you don’t mind me asking, are these, in the boxes, your old cases?”
“Why do you have them here?”
“I’m reading through them — looking.”
“For what, judge?”
“My mistake. I know it’s in here — somewhere.”
“I’m sure, with your reputation, the courts would dig out any file you asked for. What is the name of the defendant?”
“I don’t know which defendant it was,” said the judge. He stared at the boxes, and for a moment, Sam thought he had lost his attention.
“You don’t have to answer judge, but are you a religious man?”
“Yes. Catholic. Devout.”
“I don’t want to sound rude judge, but I strongly suggest that you stop torturing yourself.”
“I stood outside your house because I wanted to ask you what you would do. You are known as an honest, brave and principled individual. I couldn’t get up the courage to ask you, but here you are, and you have given me your answer.”
The judge went back to staring at his boxes, piled so high that Sam feared for the judge’s safety.
The dusty smell that only librarians and archivists know filled Sam’s nostrils as he said his goodbyes. The housekeeper showed him to the door.
“Your employer is not a well man,” said Sam.
“I know, but he doesn’t listen to me. Thank you for coming Mr Bennett.”
Sam’s walk home was considerably slower than his journey to the judge’s residence.
Scarlett was home very late despite her assurance. She crept into the bedroom so as not to wake her Sam.
“There’s a plate in the fridge. I can heat it up for you,” said Sam in a muffled voice from under the covers.”
“No need. I ate at the office. Someone Ubered Italian food. So how did your afternoon tea go?”
“I’ll tell you about it in the morning, but the headline reads, sad afternoon had by formerly famous detective.”
“Oh,” said Scarlett as she slipped into bed next to her Sam. She snuggled up to him feeling his warmth and smelling his aroma. She put her hand on his bottom.
“So, that’s how it is,” said Sam.
A little over three months later, a package arrived for Sam.
“Sign here please, sir,” said the thirty-something-year-old delivery driver. “Love your house. Felt like I needed a passport to get through the gate.”
Sam’s dogs were getting curious, trying to push past him to get at the delivery driver. In their experience, delivery drivers had a plethora of interesting scents to investigate.
Sam gave the young bloke a smile and carried the package into the small kitchen. It sat on the old bench like a suspicious package in the suspense movie.
The dogs looked at Sam for direction.
“I guess I should see what’s in it.” A thought crossed his mind, should I put it in a bucket of water first?
The thought passed quickly.
The package put up a bit of a fight. Finally open, there was a thick file with a person’s name on it. The folder was tattered and worn, and the name was written in an unsteady hand. Apart from the file, there was a letter.
Dear Mr Bennett.
I found what I was looking for.
After you have read the file, I give you my permission to do with it what you will. The man died in prison after his first three years of a life sentence, so I cannot put this right. Maybe, by shedding light on my foul deed, his family can have some peace. I am in no way defending myself, but at the time, I was distracted by domestic issues. I missed the clues because I was wrapped up in my own worries. I should have directed the jury to acquit, but I was selfish and self-absorbed. I hope my God will forgive me. My life will be over by the time you read this, and I’m wondering if my God will forgive my early arrival.
Thank you for listening to me. You are a good man.
The obituaries listed the death of former Judge Nardella and you had to read very carefully, between the lines, to decern that the good judge had taken his own life. The article listed his considerable achievements.
The man deserved his rest.
When Scarlett had gone to work, Sam walked to the far corner of his backyard. The dogs followed him and sniffed as he dug a large hole.
He placed the unopened file in the hole and poured kerosene on it, lit it and added more fuel until it was reduced to ashes. The dogs watched as he pocked the ashes and added more fuel, lit it again and watched it burn.
The dogs got bored and fell asleep on the lush grass as finally satisfied that the file was destroyed, Sam filled in the hole and walked back to his house.
“I’m sorry Mr Bennett,” she didn’t look that sorry, “but a shared sleeper is all we have left. If you must travel on that day, you will have to share. If you can put your trip off for a day or two you can have your pick of the solo cabins — they are more expensive, of course.”
“I have to be there on Friday, so it has to be the overnight train on Thursday. I’ll take the ticket, but tell them to stock up on decent whisky. I’m going to need it, and so is my sleep buddy,” said Sam
“You will have some time to yourself because your fellow passenger won’t be boarding until Ararat.”
That’s a few hours of peace, thought Sam, who was looking forward to reading the new Michael Robotham novel he purchased just for this journey.
The Overland sat quietly at platform 2, waiting for its passengers.
Train travellers are an interesting bunch. Many of Sam’s fellow passengers shared his dislike of planes and airports.
Trains rarely involve a full body cavity search, lack of legroom, surely security and godawful food.
The Overland, beautiful named, is a throwback to a time when people travelled for adventure, and the cost was not the top priority.
The train company asks that passengers arrive thirty minutes before departure. They are met by a company employee dressed appropriately, including a wide-brimmed Akubra. Passengers wait patiently next to their assigned carriage until the porter opens the doors. Find your cabin, stow your bags and head for the bar, maybe a snack. The evening meal is delivered to your room and so is breakfast, but a man needs snacks and a stiff drink.
Sam chose the upper bunk — first in first served.
He opened his book but decided to enjoy the view. In a few short hours, darkness will descend.
The hustle and bustle of Spenser Street station at peak hour provides lots to look at. City workers heading home. Their tired countenance is even more disturbing than their morning gaze.
Suburban, country and interstate trains all share this massive station.
The train sounded its horn and slowly pulled out, right on time.
“If Mussolini were alive, he would be proud,” said Sam to himself. Right-wing arseholes are obsessed with trains running on time.
The train travelled slowly as it negotiated the rail yards with its twists and turns. The wheels and bogies complained loudly at the frequent changes of direction.
The train travels slowly for the first hour until it clears the suburbs of Melbourne. Some would say that the view is uninspiring, but Sam enjoyed the sometimes rusty and occasionally grubby nature of these old industrial suburbs. They reminded him of his childhood. His father worked skillfully with his hands, and on rare occasions, Sam was allowed to accompany him to work on weekends, when the bosses weren’t around.
Rust has its own distinctive aroma as do grease and dust and sweat, all ingredients of a working-class employment.
Once in open country, the train accelerates, and Geelong approaches rapidly.
Past Geelong and the country flattens out. The early settlers called it ‘Pleurisy Plains’. Anyone venturing out during the areas vicious gales was sure to contract the infection.
The flatness comes about because it is a larval plain. The local Aborigines have lived here for so long that their oral history talks about the distant volcano erupting some twenty thousand years ago.
Through the gloaming, Sam could just see Mount Elephant — its indigenous name is ‘Hill of Fire’.
It was getting harder to see the countryside as the train pulled into Ararat.
The massive, now empty, rail yards looked like an old car park that no one used anymore. All a bit grim.
There was a country train on the other platform as Sam’s train pulled in. The passengers gazed at his train, no doubt wondering where it was headed and what the passengers were headed to.
After the train pulls out of Ararat, a strange thing happens. The mileage signpost suddenly drops about 30 miles. After asking the porter, Sam found out that the interstate train travels a longer route to get to Ararat than the regional line. So now they are on that track. Sam wondered who thought that going the long way was a good idea, but why people do the things they do, gives Sam a headache.
Sam’s cabin mate did not appear, and the train had been travelling for long enough for him (he assumed it was a him — even these days, Sam could not imagine a woman wanting to share a cabin with a strange man) to have found the right sleeper berth.
The first part of Sam’s journey had been peaceful, so why worry about the fate of his fellow traveller.
Sam climbed onto his bunk and read his book, but soon turned out the light and snuggled under the covers. The rolling motion is a cure for most people’s insomnia.
He was facing the door when it opened, and a medium height man wearing an overcoat padded into the cabin. He left the door slightly open, which allowed a subdued amount of light to penetrate the darkness. Sam had not pulled the blinds, but on a moonless night, there is only pitch black in the Australian outback.
The new passenger took off his coat, revealing a crumpled suit with no tie. The man was travelling with only a small bag. He reached into the side pocket of the bag and produced a bundle wrapped in an old cloth. The bundle went out the window, and the sound of rushing air diminished when the man closed it and climbed onto his bunk. He didn’t snore, but before long Sam could hear the sound of heaving breathing.
That same rhythmic breathing was still to be heard when Sam woke instinctively as the porter knocked on his door, breakfast trays in hand.
“Thanks, mate, I’ll take those,” said Sam and the porter did not glance nor comment on Sams lack of suitable attire. Porters see it all on sleeper trains.
Sam put the tray for the mystery traveller on the small table and his tray on the bunk. He managed to climb up without putting his foot in his breakfast. He was pleased with this achievement and proceeded to consume his eggs and toast while unfolding the newspaper. Somewhere, the train had picked up the early edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, which seemed fair as they were closer to Adelaide than Melbourne, but Sam would have prefered the Melbourne Age, even if it was a bit hard to unfold at this hour of the day.
The articles rolled out the usual tales of local and international mayhem, which surprised Sam because, from his experience, people in Adelaide didn’t know there was an outside world, apart from Melbourne which they hated. Forever in its shadow, Adelaide folk take any chance to compare themselves favourably, usually around Australia’s favourite religion, sport.
One item caught Sam’s eye.
There had been a shooting in Ararat.
A young husband had come home from work and found his wife in the arms of her lover, a small-time gangster from Melbourne. There was a photograph showing the front of a house illuminated by police floodlights. A neighbour, dressed in her dressing gown said that it had been going on for months and she felt sorry for the husband, “Such a nice young man. Works all the hours that God sends. Gets home late after commuting to Melbourne. He deserved better than her, God rest her soul.”
The wife died in the arms of her lover, and the lover was in a critical condition. The writer alluded, ever so subtly, that even if he did survive, his philandering days were over.
The husband and his Great War revolver were still missing when the paper went to print. The gun came back from France with his grandfather. A Webley six-shot revolver, an officer’s weapon.
The passenger’s tray was untouched when Sam climbed down, washed, dressed and waited for the train to pull into Adelaide Parklands Terminal.
Sam will need a taxi because for some reason they built the terminal away from the city, which means that it does not go to the beautiful old Adelaide Station.
Sam wasn’t trying to be quiet as he performed his preparations for arrival, but the passenger did not wake.
When the porter came for the trays, Sam told him to come back as late as possible, “This bloke needs his sleep. He’s had a rough time. Don’t wake him till you absolutely have to.” Sam slipped the porter a ‘fifty’. The porter smiled and promised. Sam made a note to add the ‘fifty’ to his client’s bill. The rich buggers can afford it.
Sam didn’t mind having a train trip to Adelaide, but all his business could have been handled by email or on the phone, but this law firm only wanted face to face meetings. It seems that they don’t trust computers. Their bill was going to be huge, but they didn’t seem to mind.
The taxi was waiting when Sam stepped out of the station, the air as hot and dry as he remembered.
“City, please driver. Rundle Mall,” said Sam.
“Might take a bit longer at this hour mate, peak hour and everything,” said the driver.
Sam laughed, “I’ve seen your ‘peak hour’ son. It lasts about ten minutes.”
Usually, Sam would have reminded the driver of what was likely to happen to him if he did the old trick of driving ‘the long way around’, a popular ploy of taxi drivers worldwide when they sensed an ‘out of towner’, but on this trip, Sam didn’t care. It was all on his client’s account.
“Just make sure I get a receipt and don’t get greedy,” said Sam.
The passenger woke to the sound of the porter and his gentle nudge.
“Sorry, sir. I left it as long as I could as per your friend’s instructions.”
“What friend?” said the sleepy man with the ruffled suit.
“The one you shared the cabin with,” said the porter, “he left this for you.”
The porter handed him a postcard with a photograph of The Overlander crossing Australia’s longest rail viaduct, just outside Geelong. On the back, written in a clean hand with a newly sharpened pencil were these words:
Dear Mr Park. I’m sorry your missus cheated on you. I know your heart is broken and I know that you will come to regret what you have done, but I do understand. A bloke can only take so much, and betrayal is about as bad as it gets.
It’s not my job to turn you in, but if you hurt anyone else I will come and find you, and you will regret breaking my trust.
P.S. I hope you took the remaining bullets out of the gun before you threw it out of the window.
Keep your head down and don’t make me regret my decision.
The tram ride into Collins Street was marked by people trying not to be blown into traffic and girls doing their best to maintain a bit of modesty as the wind was determined to show the world what colour underwear they had chosen for that day.
Sam often wore a hat, but not today.
He remembered the Dickens’ quote, There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat.
Sam had enough problems — he wasn’t about to add embarrassment to the list.
When he arrived at Collins Street, there was a noticeable absence of pretty girls sitting at tables drinking coffee.
The wind had swept them away.
They sheltered behind glass and Sam didn’t like his women under glass, he liked them out in the open.
The elevator played its familiar rattly tune, and Dr Doug’s secretary gave her usual smile.
Sam had gotten used to her over the months, but this day he rediscovered her beauty. It’s funny how we get used to things we see every day. Sam’s detective senses were out of practice. There was a time when he observed through eyes that saw everything. It was one of the things that gave his writing such a sharp edge.
“We haven’t talked much about your writing Sam. Do you remember a time when it became clear to you that you would become a writer?” Dr Doug was having a good day. His first patient of the day showed a good deal of improvement from the previous week. Dr Doug’s ego was in full flight.
“No, I don’t. And I don’t mean that it is one of my lost memories, I mean that it was just one of the things that interested me, so I thought I would give it a try. It would make a much better story if there had been a Road to Damascus moment but that’s not how I do things. I just sort of find myself in it, and when I look back, it is difficult to see where it started. Obviously, that doesn’t apply to Scarlett; that was definitely a blinding flash.”
“I should think so. She’s amazing, and I really would have been disappointed if there was not a little lightening and thunder.
“Were you a stand out in English studies at school?” asked Dr Doug.
“Not at all. I guess I did okay. Mostly my marks were around the mid-seventies, which I guess were good but everyone around me was in the mid to high eighties, and beyond, so I didn’t stand out. I remember enjoying the subject, and I’ve always had ‘the gift of the gab’ as my mother would call it.
I had excellent English teachers all the way through high school, which helped. I liked them all, and I wanted to please them, so I guess that drove me on.
I remember one year in particular.
We were in a scholarship year, which meant that at the end of that year we would sit an exam and hopefully qualify for a government scholarship which would pay for some of our expenses for the next few years of schooling.
This was a really big deal as most of us came from working class homes where our tradesmen fathers were working overtime to put us through this private school. It wasn’t a private school in the sense that you see these days. It was definitely at the bottom rung, but we had uniforms, and there were school fees and books and sports equipment and stuff like that and most households were single income back then, so a scholarship was a big deal and our families were counting on the money. If we didn’t get it, there was a chance we would be out of school and placed in a trade. Most of the parents in that era wanted more for their kids. They wanted them to better themselves. These days ‘tradies’ make more money than bank managers but back then it was about moving up in society.
Middle class trumped working class, any day.
The school I went to might have been a private school, but it was full of boys from a very rough part of Melbourne. I’m amazed that the teachers were able to control us considering all that, but the reason it worked was that we were all terrified of our fathers. Dads didn’t take any shit in those days, and we knew that they were working all hours just to keep us at school, so we didn’t dare let them down.
The teachers would merely have to suggest that they might call in our parents and we fell into line.
This was a particularly tough era, and we had a long standing dislike of Preston Technical School, and the dislike was returned. The rivalry continues to this day and every decade, or so it boils up into a pitched battle. It happened when I was a junior. A couple of our students were walking to school [no one got driven to school in those days] and got jumped by a bunch of Preston Tech boys. The word went out, and a group of seniors and a couple of teachers went in the direction of Preston Tech and beat the shit out of anyone they could find. By the time the cops arrived, there were bruised and battered teenagers as far as the eye could see. We received our seniors back at the school as the Romans would have back in the day. Those boys achieved legendary status, as did the teachers who went with them. It was an amazing time to be alive.”
“So how did the scholarship year work out?” asked Dr Doug.
“Most of us made it through and those that didn’t left the school. That was how the school maintained its academic record, and I’m sure that it happens even today. If a boy were not achieving the required marks, there would be a meeting arranged with his parents and the next thing you know he leaves school and starts work at the Railways.
I lost a lot of mates that way.
It put us all on notice that we could be next.
I worked out that in year eight, the scholarship year, I had a wide circle of friends numbering around forty boys. By the time I fronted up for the first day of year twelve, they were all gone — every single one. I was the only one left.
We had a good teacher, but I forget his name. He was a big bloke, and I mean ‘big’. Teachers were allowed to cane you in those days, and many of them did. We liked this bloke, but he would get tough if he had to and the teachers we had in the scholarship year were under pressure as well, particularly the English teacher.
I’m sure that the only reason I passed that year was because the scholarship exam was in the form of multiple choice questions. We had never seen this type of exam before, and I loved them. I guess it was the future detective in me but if I didn’t know the answer I could still work out which was the highest probability by eliminating the answers that were obviously wrong.
Worked like a charm.
I romped it in.
Our English teacher would give us a passage from a book, and we would have to know the meaning of every word in that passage. Naturally, most of us didn’t study the passage, and if you were asked to define a word and couldn’t do it, you got the cane; and it hurt.
At that time there was a student in our class who had transferred in from another school (probably a posh private school which he had most likely been kicked out of). I liked him a lot. He was incredibly bright but didn’t seem to care much. He wore shorts when the rest of us would not be seen dead in them, and he loved to play marbles, again not something that our age group did anymore. He did what he wanted to and didn’t care what we thought.
I really liked that.
I sat next to him in some of the classes, and I was fascinated that he could name every sail on a fully rigged sailing ship.
We alway sat next to each other during these define the word sessions, and we had a Kamikaze pact going whereby we would not study for this exam but would instead ‘wing it’ and try and work out what the word might mean from the context of the sentence.
We also worked out that if we appeared eager to answer, we would not be called on straight away. So we put our hand up right from the start, even if we didn’t know what the word meant.
It worked like a charm.
Some poor kid, who didn’t have his hand up would get called on, would get it wrong and would get belted. We would put our hand up and admit that we didn’t know either but we thought it sounded like it should mean ‘this’ based on the context of the sentence. Even though we may not have gotten it right, we never got walloped. I guess he didn’t want to dampen our enthusiasm or he admired our courage.
This boy and I had our own competition going on. The first to get caned would lose that round. This never happened so we would then count how many correct ‘guesses’ we got and I remember keeping pace with this kid and beating him regularly even though he was heaps brighter that I was.
His dad was a doctor, which was rare at our school. No high flying dads to be seen, strictly working and lower middle class. Although one of my mates had a dad, who drove a Jag and worked in the city. But he didn’t have a mum so in our eyes that made him someone to feel sorry for.
A couple of my mates and I tried to tutor the doctor’s son because he was so far behind due to not caring, and he did make an effort, but he didn’t pass, and his doctor dad took him away from the school, and we never saw him again.
I still think about him, and I remember those word sessions with great fondness. I hope life treated him well.”
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.
“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.”
“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.