A collection of short fiction by me, some of it published elsewhere, nothing under anyone else’s copyright, except for one or two pieces (uncertain).

This is an amateur’s shot at reviving short fiction as pure yarn. Much of what you get here is just bedside popcorn, so be warned. Expect an artificial product with heavy plotting, twists, unmaskings and the like. In some cases, a story is just a rambling account; even then, I try to incorporate a twist, through sheer stubbornness or bad taste.

I try not to treat characters as furniture or mere plot pivots, but they are sketched, rather than painted. I’m not afraid of using the now unfashionable adverb or other descriptive flourish – but let’s move that story along!

Lit-fic and creative writing may be fine things, but there is none of that to be had here. My prose will rarely be sinewy, luminous, supple, lucid, muscular, spare or taut. I won’t use the word “arc” at all, unless the topic is geometry. Things will merely drop, fall or tumble, they will not arc. I’ve got it in for “arc”.

In most of my gloomy stories, I contrive happy or uplifting endings, even when such seem impossible. That’s just to cheer everybody up, myself included. In accounts of villainy, bad guys won’t always get their comeuppance, but if if you wait till that last paragraph…maybe!

For those who find this undertaking to be dated and lacking a worthy purpose, you are probably right. If you find some of the stories downright pulpy, you are certainly right.

As a mercy to those who prefer more substance, even in their lighter reading, my intention is to stop after fifty entries, though that is an intention, not, as they say in Australian politics, a core commitment. [Note: began publishing more stories August 2013. See? Told you it was just an intention.]


In the historical category, two views of the French Revolution, by two if its shapers. Meet the Great Survivors…




A chain letter down the centuries…



Overlapping our fantasy category, a venerable Jewish doctor admits his age…



A sleepy queen entertains…



An unlikely encounter in post-war Rome, over bad carbonara.



Romane memento!



The Middle East, and all that.



Rocky life of a saint. Ouch.







In the category of crime and detection, an insurance expert has trouble unwinding on holidays, relates some favourite cases…





A master criminal roams the bush, visits the city. We don’t approve of him at all, however…









Maigret comes to Australia. Really!



Evil is not an Ikea purchase. My best opening sentence?



Are you insured?



You will pay if you skip this one:




In the category of fantasy and the improbable, some ghosts…






Strange entities…





Bent fairy tales…






Guardian angels: not the glamour job you’d think.



That little opinion of yours…



There’s even a time travel yarn. An easy, pulpy read. You won’t know where the minutes went…



God knows what this is about…




Australian interest, bush first…








Some Sydney stories, some names changed, of necessity…






Sydney in that Decade of Greed, and whatever you call the nineties…






Sports fans!



Getting that perfect balance between no-life and no-work…




Stories modern and medieval, from the pilgrim ways…









Novella length.  Come on, they can’t all be short…




A miscellany of pulp: a bit silly, most with strong final twists, what you want…










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Once again the three unlikeliest of friends had assembled in that unlikeliest of places, a prison winery run by the most hunted criminal in the state’s history.

As Don Dibble grew warmer with the wine and the two convicts sipped on their tea, the subject had drifted to the bond between them, a bond which extended to certain others, living and deceased. Quinlivin was saying:

“Now we know each other a bit better I suppose we can judge. What about our mutual friend, Gavin di Gianvincenzo? While it’s old Clive McGroder who brought us together, I feel Gav is one of us. I sometimes feel he’s with us. He has a way of hovering in my conscious…even in what slight conscience I have…”

“He has that effect on a lot of people, believe me. In fact, I could tell you a story…But I’ll let him tell his own stories. I still can’t believe you know him, Quin. Don’t get me wrong, but Gav’s standards are sky-high, and you’re a bloody crim. A major one at that.”

“Let’s just say Gav’s a finisher. Finishers need other finishers – with specialties – in order to, well, finish. If you get what I mean.”

“I suppose I do. But you and Gav…I dunno…”

“I’ll let him explain the connections we’ve made. That’s if he wants to.”

“You know he takes his holidays down in the Haven? I suppose I’ll see him often now. Maybe he’ll visit you, Quin, since you know him so well.”

“It’s booked in, some time during his kids’ mid-year break. We can all get together here…”

“You’re able to run a NSW prison as your personal social club? A bloody crim who’d be in Supermax in the normal run of things. I dunno…In my day…No offence, Quin, but…”

“Get over it, Dibs. Someone has to run this place to a satisfactory standard. Anyway, on the subject of a little get together, we’d be quite a mix. You, a retired chief inspector; Dessie, the upright serial killer; me, the only real rogue of the group; and the relentless Gavin di Gianvincenzo, the insurance industry’s avenging angel. How’s that for a mix? But let’s talk about you, Dibs. We’ve worked out that all of us are extreme characters, right? That’s what we have in common. For example, Dessie here would hunt someone who hurt his family as far as Antarctica, and wait in a snow cave for twenty years if he had to…just sharpening that big Afghan’s knife of his…Dessie, don’t blush now. You would, wouldn’t you, Dessie?”

“I’d run out of tucker, Quin.”

“Oh, come on, Dessie. We all know you’d gnaw on your own leg if family was involved…But what’s your extreme, Dibs? Something you shared with old Clive?”

Dibs took a sip and thought, then began to nod.

“Old Clive had more patience than anyone else. We know that. He’s the man who caught Quinlivin twice, isn’t he? His patience beat your brilliance…

“But no, with me it’s not patience, Quin. It’s sort of the opposite with me. It’s more an impatience to learn, a craving to learn. Until I’m curious about a subject I’m as thick as two planks, a cow in a paddock. But once get me curious and I’m not just thorough. I’m tormented…I…I’m…What’s the word?”

“A fusspot?”

“A fusspot? Yeah. And that’s maybe why I’ve had my best success with fusspot crims. I’m one of them, but they have no way of knowing it by looking at me. All they see is a big dopey copper who started life as a big dopey prop representing Combined High Schools then went on to be a big dopey prop for Newtown lower grades…

“Oh, I know how I come across: old style bull who’d belt you with a phonebook as soon as say g’day. But I’m a fusspot, first and foremost. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not some southern hemisphere version of Poirot. No bloody way. I don’t deduce cold. I can’t. I’m thorough, that’s for sure, but not smart or observant enough for cold deduction. No good with logic, sums and all that…

“I have to get absorbed in what absorbs you, I have to let you suck me into your orbit. Then, very briefly, I’m smart and in charge. Then I’ve got you!”

“I don’t really see…the difference…”

Dessie, still timid around a hulking chief inspector, could not finish what he was saying.

“Nah, I don’t suppose I’m explaining myself too well, Dessie. So let me give you an example.”


That evening Peter Vaughan had chosen the Opus 74 Quartets – performed by the Auryn, naturally – as music to tinker by. Anyone who appreciated the sound which filled the house might have asked how there was that extra warmth about it. Peter Vaughan would have been happy to tell them of his cunning ways with stereo, combining the best of old analog with the best of the new and digital.

But there was nobody to ask such questions. Peter was alone in his exquisite little Corrawang Valley bungalow, set just far enough into the bush to be out of sight and earshot of the two neighbouring homes, both costly, thrusting 1990s constructions of corrugated iron, timber slats and much glass. Each to his taste!

For all the money Peter Vaughan had made, nobody had ever said he had more money than sense – or taste. Having chosen the original homestead for his own weekender he had been careful to preserve its best features without putting them on blatant display. What was the point of an old country home which could not nestle comfortably amid its ancient liquidambers and magnolias, with the gums safely distant but still in view from the north facing alcoves?

When he successfully subdivided the valley at the perfect moment, he had a notion that the neighbours would be a little “vigorous” in their architectural choices. But since Corrawang Valley was the last of those hour-from-Sydney retreats to be developed for prime weekenders, its buyers had been mostly “young” money, as Peter Vaughan put it so kindly, when he might have said “new”.

Did any of it matter? He had another nice home and a nice corporate and personal profit to show from “another  devastatingly deft Peter Vaughan coup”, to quote Heather Golightly-Mingus, the Sydney Morning Herald’s property editor. People were even starting to say his name in place of the vast company he headed, Trumble Holdings and Developments.

That evening, as Peter listened and even hummed along to his almost-favourite Haydn, he would attend to his new private purchases, cataloguing, admiring, fussing, before placing most of them in a locked display cabinet. A few of the less expensive pieces could be left out, as decor and conversation pieces.

Peter handled the packages from France with his usual extreme care and with white-gloved hands. The first to be opened was a selection of cutlery from an estate sale in the Auvergne…

While not given to expressions of awe, his mouth and eyes widened at the sight of the ancient pieces which had been forged over a century before but most of which had clearly seen no use at all. A real score! He fondled several slightly worn work knives and set them aside for practical use, since he loved to cook with traditional implements. A dark patina on an old blade of Thiers, not some gaudy new Japanese Damascus, was his inspiration in the kitchen.

It happened without sound.

A powerful arm was around his upper chest and neck.

A hand much larger than his own grasped a paring knife he had just laid aside for kitchen use and then its point was on his carotid artery.

A deep, calm voice.

“You know who this is.”


The arm tightened round his neck.

“I asked if you know who this is.”

“George…George Framling…”

“That’s right. Now I want you to take your phone from the table there and send me a text message.”


“I know you’ve got my number there. Dial it and send me a text message inviting me round to your house if I’m in the area. Which I am. Obviously.”

“George, why…”

“Peter, am I going to have to hurt you? You know I know how. I am to pain what you are to wine tasting and boring music. Now, are you going to send me that message?”

Peter Vaughan did as he was told. Soon the other man’s phone beeped and he checked it after placing down the knife but without relaxing his grip.

“That’s fine, Peter. Now we can talk.”

The man called George let go, ambled to the other side of the table and sat down with an ironic sigh of satisfaction.

He was the opposite of the fine-featured, stooped and bespectacled Peter Vaughan. George Framling was the model of a blonde, square-featured military type – which explained the one minor movie role the ex-stuntman had managed to secure.

“George, I…”

“I think I should start the conversation, don’t you think? Me being the big muscly intruder and so on?”


“Now, I’m here on your wife’s behalf to discuss certain arrangements with company shares. Specifically, how you’re going to relinquish your majority holding…”


“Sure. You’re going to leave Trumble holdings in the hands of the Sky Vaughan, nee Trumble.”

“George, what’s the point of that? You know Sky is…well, incapable due to medical problems.”

“You mean the booze and pills you drove her to?”

“Well, the causes are a matter of opinion. But substances are her big problem, no question. And the fact that she’s never had to work a day in her life. With me in control we both have shares in a successful operation.”

“But with me, her future husband, in control?”

“You! An ex-stuntman who lived off an accident pay-out for something he did to himself. I’ve looked into your record. A would-be actor and discharged corporal reduced to patrolling in the Solomons…”

“Don’t say anything unkind, Peter. Or I’ll have to walk back round the table.”

“No, but, George, the very idea…I mean, if you and Sky want more money, fine. But to kill the goose! You surely don’t think that you can run Trumble Holdings.”

“You got your start marrying Sky Trumble. I intend to start the same way. And I actually love the woman.”

“I worked bloody hard and well for old Sir Ken…and for his daughter! What’s more I loved her too. I’m not pretending things didn’t go sour and much of it may have been due to me and my ways…”

“What woman can stay sane with a bloke who won’t use a toothbrush unless it’s made with the bristles from some Italian pig?”

“Now you’re exaggerating.”

“Not much. Anyway, she needs a ridgy-didge man and I’m that man.”

“Look, George, this is all stuff for lawyers. Whatever happens, she’ll have money. Which means you’ll have money. You’ll be able to finance that cage fighter movie you’ve been wanting to do, the one you approached me about. In fact, I was tempted…”

“I don’t believe you and neither does Sky. We know what you’ll do with control of the company, how you can skim and syphon…”

“Christ, George, if I was as bad as that would I have left her in the best beach house on the coast? You’re probably living there now. There’s been no divorce yet and I’ve already relinquished…”

“Window dressing. Just window dressing. You’re conceding stuff you knew you’d eventually have to concede in any case. You’re building a case where you look like the nice accommodating hubbie. And soon three generations of Trumble money and assets will all be yours. We know how clever you are. I’m here tonight – after your kind invitation – to tell you how dead you are if you push ahead with keeping control of the company.”


“That’s right, Peter. Tonight is about letting you know how easy it is to kill. What do you think I was doing for the Solomons government? You might be dead right now, but, you know me, Mr. Nice Guy. By the way, it doesn’t have to be me in person. I’ve got friends in the Angelitos, not to mention old Solomons buddies. You push ahead with trying to take Trumble Holdings from the last Trumble and you’ll be dead. This is my speciality. This is what I know about and what you know nothing about. It’s called killing. I should add that we don’t kill quick. We have to mix in a punitive element, for professional reasons. Helps to concentrate the mind. Remember what happened to so-and-so, they didn’t do him quick, and all that. How are you with pain, Peter? Maybe you once dropped a library book on your toe. How did you handle that?”

“This has become a police matter, George. I’m willing to forget this stunt but…”

“What stunt? You invited me to pop in for a drink and here I am. Nobody is going to know what time I arrived because nobody saw me arriving. What have I done but chat, listen to some tortured-cat music and inspect your antique steak knives?

“No, Peter, there won’t be any threats or complaints from us. It’s simple: push ahead and wake up dead. Leave alone and we leave you alone. Keep some shares and dough, by all means. Maybe this house. Let the lawyers talk about that. But forget, forget right now, about controlling Trumble. It’s over. Choose life, Peter.

“Now goodbye.”


George Framling had visited Hong Kong briefly, to do stunts for a movie that was cancelled. He had returned to Australia broke.

On this second visit it was all so different. He was riding in a Mercedes through the swarming streets of Kowloon, with his own driver and own personal assistant for the day. The Deng Brothers knew how to look after the talent!

He asked Oxide Chow, the groomed young man beside him:

“So…Denis Deng wants a meeting straight away? Shouldn’t I check in at the hotel first, just to freshen up?”

“Hotel? You didn’t book a hotel, did you? Mr. Framling, I was very clear when I rang you confidentially on behalf of the Deng Brothers…”

“No, no bookings. I did just as you asked, Oxide. Picked up the tickets at Kingsford Smith and just got on the flight. Thanks for First Class, by the way. Only my partner knows I’m out of the country – I think we agreed she should know – but nobody else. Everything is under wraps.”

“Good. The Dengs don’t want anybody talking about new productions till the money is in and the cameras are rolling. Especially a production this big. We love your script and we’re pretty sure you’ll be perfect for the role of the European bad guy. It’s looking good, but the Dengs want you to meet them and the investors before anyone says a word about a new Deng production on this scale.”

“Well, I may be in a position to invest myself soon. That’s something you need to keep quiet, but it’s a possibility…”

“Really? Better and better, then.”

Framling leaned forward and spoke to the driver through the open interior window.

“You’re Korean, aren’t you?”

The bulky man smiled as he turned his head slightly while keeping his eyes on the intricate Hong Kong traffic.

“Yes, Korean, me. How you know that?”

“Oh, lots of Tae Kwan Do. I’ve met a lot of Koreans through the sport.”

The driver emitted a strained laugh.

“That good. That very good. You know Korea people is good.”

A few minutes further on the car swerved into a lane and stopped by what looked like a fire-exit from an old building. The young PA explained.

“We just need to do a stop here to pick up some of the Deng security staff. Denis wants them to arrive with you so we look like a big entourage to the investors. You know how the Cantonese are about these things…”

George Framling did not know, but he agreed anyway.

Two very big men in suits emerged from the doorway. One got in the front with the driver, the other got in the back on Framling’s side, wedging him in the middle of the seat – to his slight discomfort.

The new arrivals smiled and nodded awkwardly as the car took off again.

As they drove along Framling took a glance at the new passenger beside him. Then he leaned forward and briefly scanned the passenger in the front.

“You…you two gentlemen are also Koreans, aren’t you?”

A vague grunt from the big man beside him.

For no real reason, George Framling found himself studying the car doors, wondering if the loud clunk he had heard on leaving the lane meant those doors were well and truly – and centrally – locked.


The two men were sitting out on the verandah, seemingly just taking in the first mild spring night. In the glow from the French window behind them they could observe early bulbs thrusting up through a stretch of soft lawn, left deliberately long. A magnolia which had drooped a stray branch downward had fat, purple, wooly buds.

Like the house, the grounds had order without rigidity.

Each of the men had his cup of tea.

“You know, Mr. Vaughan…”

“Oh, call me Peter, Chief Inspector. This is your third or fourth visit. By Corrawang Valley standards that makes you an old acquaintance.”

“You know…Peter…the first time you served me tea like this I thought it was a bloody miracle. My late wife, Gwenny, she knew her way around a teapot, but I’d never tasted anything like what you can brew. It’s like…I dunno…”

“Malty is the usual description. It’s a matter of knowing which Assam is best for a milk and one sugar man like yourself, then brewing it just right. I favour a Mokalbari second flush, not too buddy or fussy, just a modest amount of leaf in the pot, plenty of heat for about four minutes, then pour off fast. One gets the hang. It’s worth it, I think, that little extra effort.”

“Mmm, it certainly is worth it. You don’t do anything half-arsed, do you, Peter? Excuse the French…and I do mean that in a good way.”

“Well, why not take a tiny bit of trouble with things. Get them right. It’s almost as easy as getting things wrong, and life goes so much better, don’t you think?”

“Somehow it’s not as easy for the rest of us…You know, when you showed me your collection of old Alvey fishing reels, it really got me thinking about how much thought and craft can go into making things we just discard or forget about.”

“Not every old device was a good idea, Chief Inspector. But there have been some marvels made from wood and bakelite which just require a bit of our love and an open mind. An old Australian Alvey is like an old cast iron skillet of the right sort, perfectly seasoned. You only have to think a bit and care a bit and it outperforms anything made since, using all the technology available. I don’t love certain things because they’re old, you know. I love them because they represent a pinnacle. You can always make things more convenient, but sometimes you can’t improve on function.”

“Ah, that’s so true, so true…Remember how we got to discussing your collection of Alveys?”

“Sadly, I do.”

“You know, I had to question you about where you were on the night your wife was…”

“Of course. It’s your job. I understood then, as upset as I was. And I understand now.”

“I know it all seemed unnecessary. The only vehicle marks or footprints anywhere on the approach to the beach house were from George Framling. His prints and nobody else’s were on the knife and he’d disappeared to Hong Kong that night.”

“Is he still ‘disappeared’, Chief Inspector?”

“Yep. A bloke like that, an ex-paramilitary, he’s probably got a job burning down villages somewhere or other. But I still don’t quite get his motive. Judging by his intention to marry your wife after the divorce…”

“I quite agree. No motive.”

“But if he was a violent or jealous type…Or if your wife was changing her mind about him…”

“Maybe. I wouldn’t know. I can understand a man loving my wife. I certainly did love her. Really, I don’t want to reflect on motives. It seems he did it, as you say. I can’t forgive him, but I can’t hate him either. Maybe because I understand how strongly he felt about Sky. The failure of my marriage is the greatest regret I have.”

“You know…we have had to delve a bit more since…because, well, you know…”

“Of course. The great beneficiary from my wife’s death and Framling’s departure is me. I know that, and I know what people might suspect: that I paid Framling. All of that has to be put to rest.”

“It’s not as dire as that, Peter. We’ve checked around and it’s pretty clear that Framling had his eye on marrying your wife and getting control of Trumble Holdings. A man doesn’t just turn himself into an international fugitive after leaving a blatant trail of evidence of murder. Not when he stands to gain more from a respectable marriage with a very attractive heiress. No, we don’t think you were in cahoots with Framling.”

“But you have to check.”

“We have to check.”

They sipped on their tea.

“You know, Peter, I have a confession to make.”

“What’s that?”

“When you told me where you were that night – fishing along Three Mile – and how you caught enough fish to impress the locals…”

“I wouldn’t say impress…”

“Well, we checked with a couple of them and they said they were impressed.”

“Is that your confession?”

“No. When I told you I was a fisherman, I was lying, in a way. You know I was raised in the Haven, still take holidays there, and I can see myself retiring there soon.”

“You must be a fisherman!”

“Here’s the thing: there’s a sort of standing joke where I come from. Blokes in pubs around the Haven talk about Dibble Days and Dibble Nights. They’re referring to times they caught nothing. Really, I don’t know why I’m like this…but when I told you I was a fisherman…well…I thought of how loud they’d all laugh down in the Haven if they heard me big-noting to a bloke like you. A bloke who can really fish.”

“Well, I’m sure when you get time in retirement…”

“Nuh. I’m a dud fisherman and I know it. But I can still get fired up by someone else’s good catch. When they told me about how you fished the gutters along Three Mile right through the run-out, then went out to the point on the low tide, I thought: there’s an artist. Apparently it was a very low tide…”

“It was, now you mention it.”

“In fact, I got so interested I checked. It was the lowest tide of the year. Something to do with a supermoon.”

“Well, I didn’t get much for my trouble. Most of the good fish I got earlier off the beach.”

“But then I got to thinking, how if that tide was so low that a man could scoot round Three Mile Head? Then he’d only have to hurry across Boulder Beach, never anybody there at night, get round Cabbage Point, then walk over Trig Hill…”

“And he’d be at the beach house!”

“In maybe half an hour, if he was good on his feet. Time to get back on the slack tide. It was just something that popped into my head, Peter. I hope you don’t think…”

“Why shouldn’t you think about those things? I haven’t tried it, but I can see how someone could get to the beach house that way. On maybe one night of the year. I’m impressed you’d even think about it. Certainly not offended.”

“Well, I doubt I would have thought about it, but for a couple of other things. You know Framling left the house without eight thousand dollars cash which was in your late wife’s handbag?”

“Mmm, yes. That was mentioned. But I suppose with a lot of emotion and no planning…”

“Ah, but there was some planning. Remember his air ticket?”

“Paid in cash, they said.”

“Yes, but paid that afternoon.”

“I see.”

“So if a man knows he’s about to skip the country, why does he leave eight thou lying?”

“Maybe he was planning to leave the country, but not to kill Sky. One thing was planned, the other not.”

“Exactly. But if you asked me what got me thinking extra hard about the possibility of somebody else being the killer – somebody approaching from the sea in the most unexpected way – then I suppose it was that cash left lying. Not to mention a lot of very valuable jewelry. Look, don’t mind me, Peter. It was your fishing expertise shown on the night that got me connecting stuff in the craziest ways. I’m like that. Just don’t mind me. My Gwenny used to say I was born with an invisible bonnet full of invisible bees. Once a things starts to fascinate me…”

“Don’t explain. I’m a bit that way myself. And I can certainly see why you’re a senior detective with such a high reputation. More tea?”

“Well, I won’t say no.”

Peter Vaughan went inside. A few minutes later he was back with a fresh pot of tea.

“This time I’ve brewed up some Halmari second flush. See if you can taste a difference. Want me to pour a cup for your man in there?”

“Nah, he’s young and keen. Let the young work, I always say. I’ve told him no mess, by the way.”

“Thanks for that, but I’m learning there’s always mess when police rummage through your stuff. Is there anything he’s been told to look for apart from evidence of contact with Framling?”

“I don’t know what, really. I’m kind of going cool on the whole case, to be honest. But with George Framling a missing person we have to check out every lead.”

“Like I said, I invited Framling here once when Sky was just too out of it with pills and booze. I wanted to discuss her welfare with him, possibility of rehab again and so on. Also, whether or not it sounds callous, I needed to explain to him that Sky would have more money and help if I was in control of Trumble. They had some idea that if I was off the scene they would be rolling in it. Truth is, they would have been rolling in debt and disaster within a year. The company could not be run by two spoiled kids who think they’ve inherited a bottomless lolly shop. I had to get that across, politely…

“But George Framling never came. The only time I met him was early in the piece when he approached me after he became Sky’s driver…or whatever he was for her. He wanted me, or Trumble, to fund a cage-fighter movie starring Jason Lo and himself. I was very polite in saying no, for Sky’s sake. That was the full nature of our dealings.”

Dibs took a long sip of tea, followed by a satisfied “ah”.

“Mmm, this one’s more…what’s the word?”

“I’d say more flowery. It’s a tea with more buds, so I choke back the brewing temp a bit, pour it off a bit short of four minutes.”

“Look, Peter, I know I come across as big old style walloper, but I really do appreciate you showing me all these lovely things. Your wines, your teas, your Alveys, your knives. A bloke like you…I dunno…I really can see why you feel entitled to head up a great old firm like Trumble. I remember thinking what a pity it was when spivs got control companies like Adsteam back in the 80s…”

“I wouldn’t say I feel entitled, Chief Inspector. But it’s fair to say I put the same care into running a business as I did into brewing that pot of tea. More, maybe. I’m aware of the market and bottom line and all that. But I also think a business is flesh and blood. My employees and suppliers aren’t just numbers. They’re flesh and blood, just like the customers. I also believe in tending a business like a garden, not over-fertilising or rape-harvesting for the sake of some annual bottom line. Maybe I’ve been good for Trumble. Old Sir Ken thought so. Sky thought so, before the substance problems and so on.”

Dibs took another contented swig on his cup, sighed, and stared out into the night. Then:

“Values. That’s what it comes down to.”

“Yes. That about sums it up. But I can see you take a similar approach to your work, Chief Inspector.”

“Well, I try. To tell you the truth, when I’m around dills I’m a bit of a dill myself. But around someone like you…I dunno…I seem to lift. Like when you showed me your collection of knives. I’d never thought of a kitchen knife as anything but…well, something for cutting or poking. My Gwen understood more about things like that, but till you showed me all those old beauties of yours it never occurred to me that there was so much in an old knife.”

“Ah, but there is. I’ve even travelled to places in Europe like Solingen, Ekilstuna and especially Thiers, just looking and learning.”

“Is that where you buy?”

“Not really. A great old knife can show up anywhere in the world, even on ebay in the middle of Kansas. You can never tell. I concentrate on the best French carbon steel which is hallmarked, otherwise I’d be collecting forever.”

“The knife which was used on your wife…did you get a good look at it?”

“Just photos. It was just too sickening for me to look for long.”

“It was French, you know. And old. Very worn in places, but quite useable.”

“Well, there are thousands of old Sabatier knives lying around in drawers. Sky had one or two at the beach house. Even Framling might have his own from his mother. Very common after the 1960s. Bit of a fad. Now the fad is for Japanese Damascus.”

“It’s just that after our talk last time I couldn’t get it out of my mind. French knives, hallmarks and so on. So I did some extra checking. Got one of our techs with a special microscope to send the murder weapon off to some place in Melbourne where they’ve got even better microscopes…”

“Well, that’s really doing your job. Good for you.”

“It’s all really thanks to you, Peter. You’re the one who got me thinking along refined lines.”

“So how did it go, your check on the old knife?”



“Yeah. Obviously there was all the blood on the blade, but it turns out the blade was a pretty good one. Lots of fancy forging. There was an almost faded hallmark that said…let me think…it said…Vile…or Veel-something.”

“Vilebrequin? With a mark of an old hand drill?”

“That’s it!”

“Hmm, nice old knives. Made in Thiers. Lovely rivet work on the handles. And often forged perfectly, depending on who was forging on the day. I’ll bet a knife like that would be old though.”

“This one was very old. You know how we wondered why there was no blood on the handle?”

“Not really. Does that signify much?”

“Well, Framling was a professional of sorts. Of the wrong sort. It didn’t surprise us that he knew how to kill with the least splatter…sorry if that upsets you…”

“It does upset me, Chief Inspector. But you have a job to do.”

“The handle was interesting in other ways. It seems that old knives are restored by experts using lemon oil on their handles. Which you’d know, of course.”

“That’s a common enough procedure. The better auction houses know better than to scrub or sharpen for customers who have their own preferences for restoration. But a touch of lemon oil can’t hurt. It’s just for the surface of the better ebonies, and only if needed.”

“This knife had lemon oil on its handle, George Framling’s prints…and nothing else.”

“That seems odd. You’d think if it had just been lying around in a drawer there’d be other marks and prints. Any conclusions?”

“Well, who knows? I suppose you could, at a stretch, suspect that Framling had somehow got hold of one of your knives…maybe to incriminate you. Silly, since his own prints were all over it. But Framling is not known for thinking things right through.”

“I have one Vilebrequin, an eight inch chef knife. But it’s mint. All my knives are mint or near mint. I’d love to collect everything with a good marque, but where do you put it all? So I limit myself to the top condition items. I’ve never owned any other Vilebrequin but the one in my collection, which is right where it’s always been.”

“I dunno. I thought maybe you had the odd worn knife just for general or kitchen use.”

“I do have a few like that. But everybody does. Probably in a drawer in the kitchen. Want to see?”

“Nah. It’s all just wondering and speculation. But till we know where George Framling went after he left Hong Kong airport we have to keep checking these things. I’ll get my young bloke then we’ll both get out of your way. I’m sure you’ve got things to do and educating an old bull is not top of your priorities…”

“Come on. You know I’m not like that. You’re more than welcome to stay on. And I hope you pop in again. I’ve got some tea coming in fresh from Mahalaluxmi garden. You won’t have to pronounce it, just drink it. I’m pretty sure it’ll bowl you over.”

“Well thank you, Peter. And thank you for everything. I’ll just pop inside and get my young bloke – he’s had plenty of time to find something – and we’ll be going.”

Dibs got up and as he entered the house yelled:

“Oy, Travis.”

Just as Peter Vaughan was following through the front door with the tea tray a young detective emerged from one of the inside rooms. All three men came together in the kitchen.

“Time to get out of Mr. Vaughan’s hair, Trav. Got anything?”

“Not really.”

“Well, whatever it is you’ve got for taking away, let’s do a quick inventory and give it to Mr. Vaughan.”

“There’s really just the one type of item, sir. These. I’ve swept up any fine dust or filings as well and put them in their own bag.”

The young man held out some small rectangular rocks, each of which had been placed in ziploc plastic.

“Oh, be careful with them, guys. I assume you know what they are.” Peter Vaughan had what could only be described as a sudden jump in his voice.

“Peter, I hope you don’t mind, but we just need to take a look at your whetstones. From what you told me before, I know they must be very valuable. All mined in Japan?”

“Yes, so please be careful. They look like nothing, but I hand-picked them myself, in Kyoto, near where they were mined a long time ago. Far more valuable than any of my knives.”

“Yes, after you told me a little about them I boned up, asked around. Amazing stuff, whetstone. I’m told one lump of the best Jap stuff can set you back twenty thou. Can that be right?”

“Fifty thousand would be cheap for one of those Nakayamas your young friend is holding. Chief Inspector, do you really need to take these away?”

“Well, you see, Peter, when I was getting the murder weapon checked and rechecked, analysed and reanalysed and so on, I found out that fancy microscopes can turn the tiniest thing into a huge landscape. You know, the blade on the knife used to kill your wife – I don’t think I’ve mentioned the blade – it had been freshly sharpened.”

“How do you know that?”

“Oh, I don’t how they know, but the techos told me it has to do with rates of oxidisation and other things. Sharpened within hours of use. They also told me it had been sharpened perfectly. Not many knives are sharpened well at all…as I’m sure you know. This old blade was sharpened by a real artist, using the absolute best gear.”

“But it was Framling’s knife, or Sky’s, never mine.”

“Of course, but we need to check everything. It seems that when an old carbon steel blade interacts with a drenched whetstone there are all kinds of chemical and physical exchanges. Doesn’t apply necessarily to modern stainless blades, of course. But there are so many places on a worn carbon steel surface where things can lodge or be dislodged. With the kinds of analytical microscopes they have now you can identify the knife from the stone and the stone from the knife. The one is all over the other, like a pair of honeymooners.”

“You’re kidding. I know knives and stones, and you can’t be that definite.”

“Seems you can be, Peter. You’re the one who set me off on all this, I just followed it through. This knife made by Vilebrequin – seems I can pronounce it! – had its personal print of iron, carbon, sulphur…you name it. Bits of stone and mineral, microscopic bits, lodge in the steel. Stone and steel tell quite a story. Of course, we won’t know for sure till we analyse these stones, but there was a perfect sharpening job done using some kind of Jap stone on the day the knife was used to kill. Seems there had been no sharpening before that for decades, so it makes sense that whoever used the knife needed it sharper for the purpose. Somebody, a person super-fussy and anxious to do a perfect job, wanted that knife in efficient shape for cutting through a woman’s neck flesh, though he was confident she’d be asleep or in a limp, drowsy state. It was somebody who simply didn’t know how to do a rough job. A stranger to mediocrity.

“I’m guessing the somebody was fussy in all kinds of ways. Fussy about getting the woman’s boyfriend on a plane at the perfect time by using a dud movie deal as a lure. Framling didn’t take the cash from his wife because he was intending to return in triumph. It’s a good bet Framling won’t be back in a hurry.

“Our somebody was fussy about coordinating all that with a tide that would allow him to approach the house in the most unexpected way. Fussy about keeping the prints on the knife absolutely intact after Framling had handled it, possibly to intimidate our somebody.”

There was a long silence, then Dibs dangled the bags of stone in front of Peter Vaughan’s face.

“What do you think, Peter.”

Vaughan seemed paralysed for a moment, then:

“I thought I was distracting you very pleasantly for the last hour, Chief Inspector. Seems you were distracting me. You will look after my whetstones, won’t you?”

“Certainly will, Peter.”

“Er, how long will you be looking after them, Chief Inspector?”

“I’d say around fifteen years, if all goes perfectly for you.”


So that’s what I’m like. I’m a dill with dills and a fusspot with fusspots. Why if I were to take it into my head to start learning about the ins and outs of making wine…”

“Oh, no.”

“Don’t do that.”

Quinlivin and Dessie Saleh had spoken almost simultaneously, not without a touch of panic.

“Why not? Why shouldn’t I be a bit of an expert in wine. Everywhere you go these days they’re spouting about vintages and ‘terroir’. Did I pronounce that properly? Probably not.”

“Now Dibs, do you really want to take all the fun and romance out of wine?”

Dibs took a good swig from his preferred old tumbler, once a Vegemite jar.

“No, I don’t. I think I’ll stay a dill for a while – at least where wine is concerned. I don’t think my Gwenny would want me turning into a fusspot over bloody plonk.”


Posted in CRIME/DETECTION | 9 Comments


The castrum was contained in a great rectangle. Once home to entire legions but now used as a peace-time garrison, it was unusually bare in the centre. The pattern of fires around its inside perimeter indicated where most of the occupants now had accommodation and stables. Permanent buildings from sixty years of peace had replaced tenting, and even replaced other buildings, though the castrum was still a military post, defending the road which connected the great city of Lugdunum to the south of Gaul.

As the day drew to a close, there was a steady hum of male voices punctuated by orders or laughter, and a general clatter of arms, tools and cooking utensils. The air was heavy with the aroma of boiling farrum, the imported corn loved by Romans which sometimes made its way to pots in the Morgarita.

Outside one part of the vallum, the traditional fortifications, there came glare and sound from the small town which had grown up to serve the castrum. One could even make out the voices of women and squeals of playing children.


Locusta was now alone in the cage on the back of the cart. The horses had been detached and the cart left on a clear area well in from the busy perimeter.

The massive woodcutter had been pulled from the cage then dragged to the vacant centre of the castrum. Still trussed, he was chained to what looked like the sawn-off trunk of a dead tree. The flattened top of the trunk was about ten feet off the ground, and leaned against it was a length of heavy timber.

In the growing dusk Locusta could just make out an odd discoloration all down the base of the trunk.

The chained woodcutter, just before dark, called out:

“Sleep, young lady. Consult your voices, then sleep. Strength will be needed if…”

A passing guard jabbed the man with the end of his spear and ordered him to silence. He waited for the guard to move away and cried out again:

“There’s nothing you can do for me, but you can plead a case for yourself. These Romans have funny, fussy laws. Find their law. There may be some law…”

A much heftier jab was followed by a groan, and the woodcutter fell to silence.


After dark, the officer who had led the patrol approached the cage. He had a tattered cloak over one arm and a steaming bowl cradled and concealed in its folds. Opening the back, he threw the cloak at Locusta and placed the bowl down on the floor of the cage, which he then closed again abruptly.

“The mornings can be frosty in these flat parts.”

“Thank you. Can you find a cloak for the woodcutter? Some food, perhaps? Some of mine…”

“I can do nothing for him now, not since he killed his skinny friend. Say nothing. We know he did it. A brave act…But I can now do nothing for him. Quickly, eat. I’m not sure I want to be seen giving you food. No-one’s forbidden it, but…Just sit up and eat, girl. Use fingers – it’s thick and not too hot. I need that bowl back.”

Locusta sat up, lifted the bowl and suddenly jerked backward at the smell. The Roman officer gave a faint laugh.

“That’s the garum. We mix it with some oil and pour it over our porridge. Never tasted it?”

“No. What is it?”

“Salty fish muck, I suppose. Juice from rotted down mackerel, oysters…whatever is at hand, as I’ve heard. But it gives flavour and strength. Skim it off if you don’t like it.”

“No, no…it makes sense. To ferment, to concentrate what would otherwise be wasted. A liquid of fish-meat. It makes sense. I’ll eat it.”

“Sense? You say it makes sense? You’re a strange one, girl – even for a forest Gaul.”

When she had finished gobbling she handed the bowl back to the officer through the bars.

“Thank you…But if you could find some food for the woodcutter…”

“Girl, he is a dead man. A prisoner awaiting questioning is Roman property. Imperial and Roman property, never to be tampered with, let alone eliminated. Your woodcutter has spared his friend but made his own case hopeless. There will be justice, but it will be against him and severe. And he will be questioned that much harder. He will be questioned for two…”

“He knows nothing. He told me so and I believe him…”

“That will make his questioning so much the harder, as his sturdiness will make it longer. I can change none of that though I like none of it. I like a fair fight with a few deaths to speed promotions, not this bully work in a dull peace. But I can change nothing for your friend. Even our commander is bound in this regard. However…for you, thanks to a certain visitor to our camp from Germany, there is some hope. If you show yourself well before this visitor he may be moved to influence our commander.”

“What visitor has such power?”

The officer dropped his voice as he moved nearer the cage bars.

“You may as well know that our visitor is none other than Germanicus Julius Caesar. He is a descendant of Emperor Augustus and relative of the present emperor…”

“That name…even in our forest…it is sometimes mentioned around firesides, I think…”

“No doubt. It is a name heard the world over these days. The name of the man who recaptured the Lost Eagles. Germanicus is far more than somebody’s relative. If Rome has ever produced a greater soldier his name is not in the history of any legion. All Germany has learnt that lesson. No man ever killed so well, with such unfailing success, and yet…”

“What else can a great Roman do but kill greatly?”

“Leave off your mockery, if you wish to live, girl. Germanicus is as great in forgiving and protecting as he is in slaughtering. That is what you need to know. He has been known to care for the captive wives and daughters of his enemies as if they were his own. Moreover, though he is a stickler for courtesy and proud of his breeding he sees even a mindless German brute as a potential citizen of Rome. Do you see my point? Do you see how you may live if you cut a good figure in the presence of General Germanicus?”

“Yes. But how is it that this man is not emperor?”

“Well, he will be, once the present emperor…becomes a god.”

“And that will be a good thing for Rome? To have an Emperor Germanicus, I mean?”

“No doubt. A man more capable or more suited to the position has never lived. All agree. I speak no treason, since he is the adoptive son and heir of Tiberius. What’s more, his wife, the Lady Agrippina, is the most forceful and capable of all his adjutants. Such a things has never been seen, a Roman lady who follows the legions and could command a legion if need be. But everything about General Germanicus is exceptional. He is all Rome in one man.”

Locusta paused before responding in a low but oddly firm tone.

“I appreciate your advice, captain.”


Thanks to the cloak, the food inside her, and her long practised method of breathing deep and slow, Locusta was able to sleep till dawn.

She woke to the sounds of barked orders in Latin and ringing metal, sounds coming from the direction of the tree stump where the woodcutter was chained.

Her first impulse was to turn and look. But no. She would continue to breathe deeply and observe anything but what was happening over by that stump. If necessary, she would close her eyes. The Romans did so much for purposes of display. So much of their power lay in display. In this one tiny way, she could thwart them.

There were thumping sounds, then the sing and smack of whips. It took a while till groans were heard. There were men’s voices speaking Gallic, but she could not – would not – make out what they were saying. No doubt they were interrogating their victim in his own language.

At one point the thumping noises and whip sounds stopped, but the groans became screams. Perhaps something was being silently gouged or hacked.

She thought of the woodcutter’s powerful bulk, contradicted by those alert, intelligent features. Someone was wasting all that great mass of life. Wasting.

At last there was a sound of hammering into wood, and with each hammering came a scream. Till the screams joined into a steady howl.

Then the squeal and rattle of some hoisting device. Some cheering among the men. The howl weakened to an agonised whine.



Posted in HISTORICAL | 12 Comments


Tarquin was an atheist and evolutionist by birth. Or rather, he was that way by education and conditioning, since “by birth” sounds a bit…oh, just a bit wrong. Even “by education and conditioning” is not really an adequate description, since it implies a passive role for Tarquin, and intellectual passivity was the sin of sins in Tarquin’s milieu. (Of course, “sin” is the wrong word in most contexts,  however, you know, sometimes…)

Let us say that it was early impressed upon Tarquin that he would always “speak truth to power”. Unlike most people, Tarquin had the kind of mother who encouraged contradiction, enforced it, almost. Beyond the three absolutes, which his parents declared to be “science, sustainability and inclusiveness”, all things were expected to be contradicted, and were. In fact, Tarquin had at times grown tired of racking his brain for things to contradict, though he never said as much to his mother (whom he always addressed as Andrea). That would have been contradiction of the wrong sort.

While he did not enjoy the exhausting intricacies of contradiction – his mother said no single English version of Proust was acceptable, not even Scott Moncrieff’s, so she read all versions at once – everywhere Tarquin Saunders went he loved to let people know his position on the most important things: atheism and evolution. The effect in his early years was delicious. At some point in a conversation there would be an opportunity and he would unleash his reserve of shocks in the mildest way, as if he were announcing a cricket score or asking for the salt. The milder the tone, the bigger the shock…

For a while!

Up to the age of thirteen, it had been so effective and the result so pleasurable. There was always that satisfying wave of surprise or outrage or stunned approval around a table  of adults when Tarquin expounded. Cutlery would be suspended above plates, necks would crane toward him, his parents would beam discreetly but so smugly. Tarquin had once again spoken his mind as non-Saunders children never can.

But with years the effect dwindled. What shocked from a child was mere common opinion coming from a teen.

Still Tarquin persisted, in the hope of producing that one glorious effect one more time.

The first time he met a girl he liked at a party he told her:

“I’ve always been an atheist…”

And she:

“Oh, yeah. I am too, totally. Who isn’t?”

Then he remarked:

“I think I was an evolutionist before I could walk.”

“You mean, like Darwin and all that?”


“Yeah, Darwin was great. I think Richard Dawkins is pretty cool. For an old guy.”

Later that evening the girl went home with a boy who was good at sport.


You see his problem?

By the time he was in his twenties he could find nobody within his family or circle of friends who were the least bit responsive to his shocks. The wrong types were all long gone from the Saunders’ sphere. People of the non-inclusive sort had been excluded. All within that sphere were committed rationalists who referred constantly to The Science. All thought alike and thought like Tarquin. They all watched Neil Degrasse Tyson and read Richard Dawkins. They all believed people who held other viewpoints were suffering from “cognitive dissonance” and various mental aberrations as defined by Daniel Kahneman (whom they quoted frequently and with enthusiasm, despite the uncomfortable fact he was Israeli.)

Tarquin needed to find fresh fields of humanity on which to unleash his shocks. How was he ever again to find those delicious Tarquin-centric moments when a table fell silent as a small child announced his atheism and Darwinism as lightly as he might name his favourite Wiggle?

He had heard of groups and institutions where people were not atheists and evolutionists. He felt a call to meet these people and visit these institutions. The call grew so strong that it became like an unconquerable urge to pilgrimage.

Yes! Tarquin would go among the strangers. He would listen to them, discuss indifferent things and make them like him. Then he would administer his shocks and wait for those waves of awe, disapproval or admiration to come washing over him.

Author’s note: One can only represent Tarquin’s evolving state of mind and tell the rest of Tarquin’s story by sometimes using the florid, antiquated language of biblical accounts, pilgrimages and such like. Sorry, but there really is no better way. In fact this pleasant literary device, having its origins on the mid-north coast of NSW, is now enjoying a certain mode, and is occasionally referred to as Biblical Realism.


So Tarquin Saunders went forth from his familiar circle and travelled among men of all kinds in many and diverse places.

Yet in great gatherings and small, Tarquin could say nothing to surprise or even cause the slightest stir. It was as if the world was full of atheists and there was not one creationist to be found anywhere.

Perhaps if he went to a definite source?

He enquired at one Seventh Day Adventist school if he might speak to one of their creationists. The school secretary informed him that opinions on such matters were a little “fluid” within the religion, and gave a wink. She said the most suitable person to consult was the school’s head science teacher – but she was in Canberra receiving an award for Best Physics Experiment. Tarquin decided against pursuing this course.

He wandered through the remoter parts of the state, where men had slower speech and slower internet.

At last he came to a small and dusty village with two pubs and two churches.

Outside one of the churches was a tattered sign saying: “GOD MADE MONKEYS AND MEN. HE DID NOT GET THE RECIPES MIXED.”

This was promising.

Tarquin decided to dwell among these men, taking lodging at one of the pubs.

For a week he sat in the bar of that hotel and spoke of diverse indifferent things: of cricket, of weather and of the main interest of the village, cattle sales. Men grew fond of Tarquin, since there were so few from the great city willing to immerse themselves in the details of the sale of cattle.

When at last he had a large company assembled around him and there was opportunity within the conversation, Tarquin remarked that he was an atheist who had no time for the foolishness of creationism.

Yet his words were lost in air, tossed vainly upon the ether. Men continued to discuss cattle sales and only attended again to Tarquin when he spoke of…cattle sales.

In the second week he went to the second pub and sat amongst men there. Many of the customers were travellers from far places who had station wagons full of pamphlets and samples, and sold such things as castration devices and cattle drenches.

Tarquin decided he would no longer seek to seduce men with honeyed words and flattering interest in rural products. He merely said to as many as would hear him that he was an atheist with no time for the foolishness of creationism. No man seemed surprised or even slightly interested; most said they felt much the same. Only one man engaged him deeply on the subject, but Tarquin suspected that this man, being an impoverished drunkard, was only interested in free beers.

One night the drunkard, bored with Tarquin’s repetitions, finally remarked:

“Tarquin, do you remember the television show where the fat little man  always insisted he was the only gay in the village?”

“I…seldom watch television, but…yes, I do seem to recall…”

“The trouble was that there were gays all over the place. Everywhere he went, whichever way he looked. Remember?”

“Yes, that was the joke of it all…”

“Well you’re like that bloke. You want to be the only atheist and Darwinist in the village. But that’s about all we have in this village. Maybe one or two reps, Hillsong types, and that potty old couple who grow mushrooms out at the old mine…but probably not even them. Who knows? Nobody could be bothered finding out.”

Tarquin’s heart was moved to wrath by these words and he thereafter insisted the drunkard buy his own beers.

In his bitterness he resolved to enquire at the church which displayed the worn creationist sign, and demand to meet its author. Through the course of a day he knocked and waited at the church door, but nobody responded or arrived. Around evening an old gentleman came hobbling by and explained to Tarquin that the church had been abandoned for years.

“And does the church have no owner now? Surely there is someone I can speak with.”

“Far as I know it’s still the property of the Gay Atheists Mardi Gras Committee. They use it for their AGM and rent it out for things like the Darwinists Ball…”

The next day Tarquin went to the other church, a Catholic church on the village’s only hill.

He found the presbytery was now a condemned building and the church locked up. On the door was a sign: Father Wayne Driscoll is presently conducting the Catholic Evolutionists tour of the Galapagos Islands. Nearest masses: Williwirrin Parish Church.

Tarquin Saunders returned to the pub in despair. While he must needs dismiss all notions of mysticism and destiny, it had always seemed to him that his quasi-divine role in life and society was to announce his atheism and his adherence to Darwin at tables full of religious dupes. If he was not born to that then why did the universe or society or whatever send him such clear signs in childhood?

Yet in the course of his wanderings he had found few religious people and absolutely no creationists. He had seen creationists on the television, usually in documentaries from America. But how far would he have to travel, and at what cost, perhaps only to discover that America also was full of atheists and Darwinists?

It was the end. There was only beer.

That night in the first pub and then the second pub he drank all the beer he could, but still the bitterness gnawed at his heart.

It was Saturday and the bars were full. As the evening wore on Tarquin found himself seated in a large group discussing…oh, he did not know what they were discussing. Probably cattle sales, but maybe weed killers.

He was drowsing boozily when he felt a nudge. He looked up and saw a ruddy faced young farmer.

“Tarquin, mate, what do you reckon?”

He could only manage a drunken slur:

“About what?”

“About the old glyphosate. How it worked out cheaper than the new stuff if all you had was some bracken to worry about…”

“I’ll tell you what I think…I think…I think…Are you all listening? I think the world, bracken and cattle and all, counting rest day, was made in seven days. Exactly seven days. What’s that in hours? Let’s see…seven twenties…one hundred and forty…plus seven fours…twenty eight…that makes…one hundred and sixty eight hours…

“That’s how long it took to make the world!”

The entire group fell silent, and even those beyond the group went quiet from curiosity about what was being said. The young farmer:

“Are you fair dinkum, Tarquin? The whole world? A hundred and sixty eight hours?”

“Exactly. You could have set your watch by it…Of course, you’d have to allow for daylight saving…And that’s counting the rest day. Without that it was…six by twenty-four…mmm…one hundred and forty-four days!”

Deep in his beery sulk, Tarquin had scarcely been aware of anything but his own thoughts.

But now he looked up and saw the entire company looking toward him, silent, their glasses suspended. He continued, half-aware now:

“4004 BC. That was when the world was made. Some say October 23, but don’t believe it. That’s the old science. Day one began 9 AM Oct 3…4004 BC…Can I have a beer?”

The others continued to stare. Then one of them, a touch aggressive:

“Tarquin…you are giving us a bake, right? Because we’re hicks out here, you reckon…”

Tarquin was suddenly sober, and now fully aware of the silence and surprise around him.

It was that moment! That feeling! That sense of suspension!

He had recovered it at last. His Grand Contradiction.

“Hicks? I you people are hicks then I’m a hick and Isaac Newton was a hick…I tell you, it’s written down in black and white, just needing some exact scientific analysis. And don’t get me started on your missing rib!”


And Tarquin travelled back to his own people. His family and friends rejoiced to see him, and his father declared they should hold a bountiful feast of sustainably harvested good things.

And when they had caroused and eaten their fill Andrea Saunders addressed her son:

“And now tell us of your travels, Tarquin. What manner of people have you dwelt among and how deeply have you contradicted them?”

“Mother, I…”


“Am I not the son of your loins? Shall I not call you mother?”

The table grew eerily silent. Ah, the suspension. That delicious suspension. Tarquin continued:

“My mother, and all of you my friends, I propose we say grace to give thanks for this bounty we have received – particularly the excellent calamari in its own ink. What a craftsman is the creator, they he should give the squid ink for its protection and give us, his stewards, both the squid and its ink for our delectation.”

The suspension and silence were now absolute, and at their centre…Tarquin!

A number of the inner city types invited to the feast were experts in irony. Yet none could find irony in Tarquin’s words or tone or expression as he continued:

“We give thee thanks, o almighty God…”


And though Tarquin was cast out from his brethren and friends, it mattered little. Everywhere he went he was able to contradict more casually yet more splendidly than any Saunders before him. Room after room, table after table, went into silence and suspension when Tarquin gave forth on the miracle of creation and its precise dates and details.

He soon married a devout super-model from Venezuela and began to take speaking engagements and countless other gigs on both new and old media.

The Tarquin Saunders Creationist Cook Book is presently the best seller in its category on Amazon, and has netted him millions. His new book, Successful Stewardship: Contradict to Win, is climbing the charts rapidly.

According to IMDB, the film of his life will star the only nice Baldwin brother and has the working title The Only Creationist in the Village.

Posted in ON THE COMICAL SIDE | 10 Comments


After scrambling along clogged and granite-strewn forest trails, the detachment, with Locusta as prisoner, reached a clearing where they joined a larger group of soldiers with two other prisoners, both Gauls. One of the Gauls, a slight and ragged man, was known to Locusta from a recent medical emergency: an infected foot which she had cured by herbal compresses and strong garlic stew. She noted the man’s lower leg now appeared sound.

The other man, a hairy giant, was unknown to her. He had the kind of powerful, hurdling frame which no clothing will ever fit; his face, by contrast, was intelligent and wore a savage calm. While the smaller man only had his hands bound in front, the giant was bound behind, with rope biting hard round his upper and lower arms.

After discussion and orders in Latin, a language not yet known to Locusta, the whole group began to trudge west through clearer country and away from the Morgarita fringe. It seemed likely to Locusta they were now headed to the Roman castrum, the garrison settlement west of the forest on the main road to the great city of Lugdunum.

As they progressed, Locusta kept her breathing steady and sought for matters to busy her mind and cram the mental spaces which would otherwise be occupied by fear. She studied the Romans: faces, weapons, clothes, gait. Their easy coordination gave most interest. The only method and uniformity Locusta knew till now were her own habits of mind; now she saw the physical manifestation of these things in the way the soldiers moved with a minimum of hesitation and conferring. The Roman way. Her way, in a sense.

Yet Locusta knew this was not a time to be overwhelmed, absorbed like the rest of Gaul – the rest of the world, perhaps – into Rome’s greedy vortex. No. She would turn her thoughts back to her own sources of power. And Locusta turned her thoughts deliberately, with relentless focus, as she did all things.

She began to observe the flatter, more open country, wondering about every live thing or mineral, about what gave the soil of the level land more energy for food production but less for most pharmaceuticals.

At last, in defiance but also out of interest, she turned and spoke to the smaller of the two Gallic prisoners:

“Gela, I see your leg is sound enough. Have you kept up the hot brews of mountain garlic?”

Almost immediately Locusta felt a scalding lash above her shoulders and around her neck. Rather than wince or raise a hand toward the point of pain she stayed completely upright and kept walking. Only when she felt sure there was no second lash coming did she turn carefully, wary of eye damage as she was wary of any physical injury, to herself or anybody. There was the rodent-faced Roman she had saved, sneering in his usual manner, a short whip in his clasp.

The soldier was waiting for a reaction which did not come. Locusta faced front with an expression of indifference and walked on.


Some hours later they came to the main road which ran north to the castrum and Lugdunum beyond. Locusta knew she was barely repressing terror, yet one part of her busy mind was genuinely stimulated by curiosity about these places which once seemed so distant to a child of the Morgarita.

Waiting where the track met the road was a caged wagon guarded by two soldiers. Two horses were grazing nearby in fettles. One of the guards immediately opened the back trap of the cage.

The legs of the prisoners were soon bound, and all three were forced into the cage, which was then closed and locked.

“The witch rides while Romans walk!” Rodent Face spoke in Gallic.

“They ride like poultry. You can ride with them if you like, Virio. But whatever you elect to do, keep your whining mouth shut. At least these wild Gauls have shown some courage.”

It was clear that the officer in charge was as disdainful of Rodent Face as was Locusta.

“A joke, sir, just a joke…”

“The only joke is when a Roman comes back to his castrum shoeless with a bare bum. And you’d best hope your story about being drugged by a witch who poisoned your comrade has at least a smack of truth to it.”

Locusta reared.

“I am no witch. I am a pharmacist. I drugged no-one. I saved this man’s life then spared it after his comrade tried to…”

“Never mind. You can make your case to the commander. The rest of you men, speak Latin and don’t address the prisoners. Especially you, Virio. Just try to keep your bum covered this time.”

After some laughter, then a brief rest and drink for the soldiers, the horses were attached and the Romans formed up before and behind the wagon, as well as one to each side of it.


When the rattling of the cart was loud enough to cover his voice, little Gela hissed at Locusta:

“You? It was you who saved the Romans? Why? What did they offer you?”

“Nothing. I found them and released them. That’s all.”

“But why?”

“I…keep wondering. I don’t know. If they had been killed quickly it would have been different…Perhaps it was the idea of feeding a common enemy with the pain of humans. The Morgarita wolves have killed more of us than have the Romans.”

“Romans have killed Gauls by the thousand. By a thousand times a thousand. Julius Caesar alone…”

“I was speaking of the Morgarita. I hardly know a Gaul from beyond my forest. Those I have met are just like Romans to me. Even the Arverni.”

“Locusta, we are your people, even those who live out here…”

“Oh, leave it be, Gela.” The giant had spoken quietly, so as not to draw the attention of the guards, but he had resonance in his voice which matched his frame. “I’ve heard of this lady. She’s cured many. Now she may cost a few lives through her error. Leave it be. It’s over.”

“Matra…when…when will you…?”

“Further on we leave the fields and pass through a narrow rocky stretch which is dark from the trees and overhangs. We’ll do it there.”

Locusta, surprised:

“You are planning to escape?”

“Escape? You might call it that. I suppose that’s as good a word as any.”

“Will you…help me to escape?”

The giant snorted gently, smiled and said no more.


They came to the area described, a descent through a narrow pass which was dark by that time of day. The two soldiers on the flank went forward to assist with the horses on the tricky surface.

Locusta watched her two companions.

After a slight nod from the giant, the diminutive Gela slid down the side of the cage so that his head was between the bars and the back of the other man.

The giant shuffled forward slightly on his buttocks and the small man thrust his head in the gap.

Next, those massive hands were around his throat, and squeezing.

After some sputters and writhing, Gela was lifeless. All this while the giant was fixing Locusta, waiting for a reaction which did not come.

“You are wondering why?”


“Not curious? That may be best.”

“I know why you did it. Perhaps for the same reason I released those two Romans.”

“Not quite. Little Gela was not sure he could withstand when questioned. You see, unlike me, he really is one of the rebels.”

“You are not a rebel?”

“No. I’m a woodcutter with a bit of a reputation. I attract trouble like many big men who avoid trouble. I was arrested for being Gela’s nearest neighbour, and for that reputation.”

“Perhaps they will release you.”

“Even if I had not killed a prisoner, technically army property, they would not release me. But at least when questioned I will have nothing to tell them.”

“Is it so certain they will…question you?”

The other nodded, then added:

“Lady, while we still have time…do you wish to escape also?” As he said these words he cast his eyes down ruefully on his friend’s corpse.

“No. Thank you, but no.”

“You realise we are dead in any case?”

“No, I won’t die. Not for a long time. But by tomorrow I suppose I’ll wish I were dead. You don’t have to be discreet. I know more or less what the Romans will do to us.”

“Yet you are sure you won’t die? You killed a Roman, lady. You ask me not to be discreet. You killed a Roman. If you put your head now where Gela put his…”

“No. Thank you.”

“You expect to live…How can you…have you some god or demon with you? Are you truly a witch?”

“There are no gods, no demons and no witches.”

“You’re so sure? And so sure you will live past tomorrow?”

Locusta merely nodded.

“How do you know all this?”

“I hear voices.”

“Voices! Where do they come from, these voices? Have they mouths, tongues?”

“I deal in observations and effects, not explanations. Scholars explain, usually wrongly; a pharmacist brings things to effect with or without explanations. My old mistress taught me that, though she scarcely needed to. My voices are real sounds, though the product of a disorder of sorts.”

“But if there are no mouths to make the voices…”

“Yet there are still ears to hear them. My ears. And even if my ears don’t hear, that part of my brain which receives sound from the ear can hear. Because voices usually proceed from mouths does not mean they must always do so.”

The procession emerged from the pass onto wide road. The guards moved back to flank the cart. They looked in and were not surprised to see Gela apparently asleep on the floor of the cage. It had been a long expedition for all.


Some time later they arrived in sight of the castrum, large enough for a legion gone long ago to the Belgian frontier, now a generous garrison for a much reduced peace-time force in a world as Roman as Italy. Already it was turning into a town, with clusters of shops and rough dwellings beyond its fortifications.

“Well, girl. There it is: a great big piece of Rome. What do your voices say now?”

“Nothing, woodcutter. They only speak to me at times.”

“And what have they told you in the past?”

“That I am to seek the end of all this. That I am to bring it all down.”

“All what?”

“Rome, woodcutter. Rome.”

The man laughed as heartily as he might in the circumstances.

“You know, you are a fine looking girl. You are also strong, intelligent. But do you realise you are completely mad?”

“What I have is indeed a disorder. I treat it with drugs, as much as I can. But it is not madness. It is something which is related to madness, but…”

“For my last laugh on this earth, tell me how you are intending to bring down Rome.”

Locusta looked straight at the man, searching in his eyes.

“You won’t tell? Even when questioned?”

Now he broke into frank laughter.

“I won’t tell, lady. Really.”

“I am a pharmacist. That is how I will do it.”

Posted in HISTORICAL | 11 Comments


Joel had driven the Pathfinder as far as he could, a little beyond where the old hermit had parked his antique Moke, which looked like the twisted relic of a smashed carnival ride. Still, its owner used it to get to town once a fortnight.

It would be all walking from this point, in poor light since it was still early morning. Joel had to hope there was no more rain coming, since those gullies were already pretty full.

While trudging, he checked the reception on the hefty black sat-phone. Yes. Still strong. He checked his own iPhone. Nothing. Amazing what you can do with the right equipment. And the sat-phone had plenty of battery life. Well, that part was going well.

There was only the one track to follow: a clay mess with ruts so deep there were mosquito wrigglers thriving in them. To the side was nothing but a regrowth forest of gums and lantana which now had the optimistic title of Turangi National Park.

How far to walk to the old mill? A kilometre? Well, if a ninety year old could do it regularly…

A sudden scraping sound, very loud. Joel just caught the tail of a startled goanna, which had dashed up and around a tree to the blind side of the trunk.

Then the phone rang.

“Hello, Joel Wagner.”

“Where are you?”

“Oh, hi Roy. I’m nearly there. You’re in an ad break?”

“Of course I’m in an ad break, goose. If you can’t tell my on-air from my off-air voice by now…Listen, I hope this fancy phone you wanted is going to be worth it.”

“I’ve already checked it against mine. No reception at all with the iPhone, and it’s the new model. If I hadn’t brought the sat…”

“Yeah, you’re an underpaid genius. I’ve underpaid plenty of them in my time. Now listen: I’ll be talking to you and then the old geezer in exactly one hour. And when I say exactly, that’s a Roy Laird exactly, not a Joel Wagner exactly. Make sure you’re in a strong reception spot and ready. And make sure he knows how to talk into the bloody phone. Remember, it’s a light segment, so sound light and friendly. Sound like we’re all good mates – which is never going to be the case, I might add. Got that?”

“Got it. But…we haven’t really secured an interview. I mean, we don’t know this guy, haven’t been able to contact him…”

“You’ve got some cash there to sweeten him up. And a big box of his favourite radio batteries. That should do it. If you can’t get him on line you’ll still have a job. But the job will involve cheeseburgers. Understood?”


“And don’t pre-interview him. Don’t ask his feelings about the show and why he listens and so on. That’s my job. I don’t want some ninety year old getting cranky because he’s been asked the same thing twice. They tend to do that. Your job is to keep him sweet and make sure the connection goes like silk. When I talk to you at the start just sound like a cheerful idiot, which shouldn’t be a problem. Understood?”


Call ended by caller


Roy Laird with you through till nine, taking your calls. Have your say on 2WA, the station which pioneered listener talkback.

Now, before I interview the Attorney-General at the top of the hour about a very serious subject, namely, the release of sexual predators back into your community and mine, I just want to follow up on a couple of matters raised yesterday.

Firstly, I’d like to mention Annabel Gashler’s bravery in fronting the media about her controversial transformation.

The lady formerly known as Brad Gashler of Brad Gashler Motors was and remains a good mate of mine. I hope I’ve made that very clear. You all know that Brad – or rather, Annabel – was for a long time a sponsor of this station. I drove any number of cars from Brad Gashler Motors and was as proud to be a customer of the company as the company was proud to be our sponsor.

I played Rugby Union with Brad, as she was known at the time, in lower grades at Chatswood, though I was a lot older. I’m proud to call him – her, I mean – team mate as well as sponsor and personal friend. Annabel has moved out of the automobile business and into dietary supplements and specialised gym equipment, where I’m sure she’ll make a great success, because she’s that sort of bloke…sheila, I mean. Bugger it, you all know what I mean.

I simply want to say to Annabel what I might have said when she flashed over the line for a game-clinching try from the wing back in our Grand Final in 1987: I’m with you one hundred and ten percent, mate, whatever decisions or directions you take in the future.

Now, before we go the news and more serious subjects, a bit of a surprise, something I know you’ll enjoy.

It’s to do with our big ratings win yesterday. And when I use the word “our”, I believe the win is for all of us: for me, for staff, for station and, above all, for you listeners.

You’ve all been kind enough to put me and my team – because Roy Laird is just a shag on a rock without his team – in the number one position again for morning radio in all of Australia. By way of returning the compliment, we’ve decided to track down some of our more devoted listeners – some would say 2WA morning addicts – and ask them what it is about the program that makes it special. We’re not about bagging other shows or comperes in this great industry, but if we’re winning the ratings this convincingly then why not hear the reasons from fair dinkum listeners rather than media experts.

Now, before any of you ring in, I want to make contact with a listener who can’t ring in ever. This is a gentleman who lives in an old timber mill right on the edge of what used to be the Turangi State Forest and is now the Turangi National Park. The property is out of signal range for normal mobile phones and there has never been a landline or power to the ancient mill.

Nonetheless, the ninety year old occupant of that mill has been listening to our show for the last twenty or so years. That’s the tip I got from the bloke in Dumphries Crossing who sells him the batteries for his old transistor radio. Johnno who runs Johnno’s mixed business in Dumphries Crossing – thanks for ringing in with the tip, old mate. The word is that this senior gent, just known as Norm, has been buying the same batteries with his pension for all those years. When Johnno got round to asking Norm – who isn’t renowned for talking about himself – what he did with the batteries, he explained that four C size batteries were enough to give him this show, the Roy Laird Show, for a month.

Now, we hope to do a bit for Norm’s battery problem, and maybe help out with one or two other things. But first I thought we’d try to get Norm on the line.

So, standing right now with Norm at the old Turangi mill, is our roving reporter Joel Wagner, my young mate I always give the messy jobs to. I do all the stuff like interviewing Miss Venezuela and Joel does the cyclones and traffic jams. It’s a perfect arrangement – if you’re me. No, folks, in the fair dinkum department, he’s a top young bloke and a real little Aussie doer. We all love him to death around here. I see my producer nodding a bit skeptically…

Anyway, Joel’s got a satellite phone with him and the hope is that we’ll have a strong enough signal to reach Joel and Norm for a bit of a chat.


“So, Norm, you were in the timber game all your working life?”

“Oh, long time ago now. Long time ago. When’s that call coming through? Bladder’s not the best. Have I got time to strain the spuds?”

“Sure, sure…but maybe just do it here. You’ll have about a minute after the station puts us through. Right now they’ve got my call on hold, but we’re already connected. After they put us through I’ll be talking first to Roy for a bit, then I’ll pass the phone to you. Then you just talk into it like I showed you. It’ll all be good fun. You’ll see.”

“You want me to piss right here?”

“Well, maybe move a few yards away…”

Joel and the old man were standing on some cleared high ground above the decaying timber mill. Somewhere in the mess of rusty corrugated iron Norm had his dwelling – but Joel had not been curious to look. On arriving, he had  called out and had been greeted first by a half hairless blue heeler almost too feeble to yap or run. Then Norm emerged from somewhere inside the mill, tiny and stooped, but nimble enough.

Joe declined the offer of a cup of tea inside – “if you don’t mind milk powder” – and quickly explained his business while oozing his boyish charm. The old man seemed neither interested nor uninterested. He merely agreed to do the interview with Roy Laird, then said very little as they roamed about the clearing in search of the best reception spot.

And now they waited: Joel with the sat-phone pressed hard to his ear, the old man holding something else altogether.

At last:

“Joel Wagner! Are you there, champion?”

Roy’s on-air voice.

“G’day, Roy. I’m at the old Turangi mill. It was a bit of a drive then a long trudge, with some hairy moments, but I’m here…You don’t pay me enough, Roy.”

“Don’t tell me I’m paying you! I’ll speak to the accountant. No, but in the fair dinkum department, how is it out there, mate?”

“Well, it’s like you might imagine. Six foot goannas…”

“Six foot!”

“No need for Olympic pools. They swim in the ruts on the road…”

“Stop it, stop it…Now look, I hear you’re with Turangi’s only resident, an older gentlemen who still lives in the actual mill…”

“That’s right Roy. Norm’s with me now.”

Joel made frenzied gestures at Norm, who had just finished zipping his trousers and was now wiping his hands on his faded King Gee work shirt.

“Now I’ve got the tip from Johnno that Norm’s got our program going for the full three hours five days a week. Is that right, Joel?”

“Well, why don’t we hear it from the horse’s mouth? Here’s the man himself, and I might add that Norm has lived in the area since birth and spent all of his working life working the Turangi timber, as forester and miller. A real vanishing Australian. Everybody, this is Norm.”

After wiping his hand one more time Norm nervously took hold of the sat-phone from Joel.

“Hello…hello…can you hear me? Am I coming through?”

“Loud and clear, Norm. Loud and clear. Know who this is, Norm?”

“Uh…I dunno for sure…from the voice…”

“My voice sounds different on the phone, but this is Roy Laird.”

“Oh, righto.”

“Now Norm, I know an old bushie like you is not going to get excited by anything, but I want you to know that I’m excited to be talking to you. And I know a few hundred thousand listeners are excited also.”

“Now? They’re all listening to us right now?”

“That’s right, cobber. And I want you to know that the years and decades and half-centuries that blokes like you have spent fighting fire and flood and accidents and probably greenies have not gone unappreciated. Not by listeners to the Roy Laird program.”

“Oh, thanks for that. And for the stock of batteries.”

“Don’t mention it, mate. And if we can help you out with a better radio…”

“No…no…The one I’ve got is a beauty. Good and loud.”

“Good on you, cobber. And I hear you’ve been playing the full show for more than twenty years…”

“That’s right, the whole thing. Then I turn the radio off when the show finishes, to save the batteries. Sometimes I turn it on for some news or cricket scores, but mainly I use it for your show.”

“Good on you, old mate. God love you, I…”

“It’s the animals, you see. Mainly possums. Sometimes goannas and pythons in the warm season, they’re noisy…”

“Eh? You get possums? And pythons? God love you…”

“It’s the noise, you know. You get possums up there and you cop the racket all day till they go out at night. They’re supposed to sleep in the day but they’re mainly fighting and running and rooting…am I allowed to say that on the wireless?”

“Well, just this once, old mate. God love you. Anyway, I just want to say thank you for being a listener for all these years, and I’m just glad…”

“Listener? Me?”

“Of course we’re talking about you, Norm. You’re a star, mate. At least as far as all of us involved in the Roy Laird Show are concerned.”

“No, you see, it’s the noise. You get possums up in a roof cavity where everything’s tin and the noise…well, it’s like World War Three. You have to move ‘em out and keep ‘em out or they’ll send you round the bend…”

“God love you, God love you. Possums, eh? Anyway, Norm, you’re a star. Radio takes talkers and it takes listeners. You’re a star among our listeners. God love you, cobber. Now, if you hand that big lump of a phone back to Joel for a moment…”

“No…no…not me. It’s the possums, you see. There’s just something about your voice, the way you sort of bark at people…

“I put that radio up in the cavity, close the trap so I can’t hear it, and just let it play.

“I haven’t had possums up in the roof in…jeez, more than twenty years, I’d say…”

Call ended by recipient.

Posted in ON THE COMICAL SIDE | 5 Comments