JUST STORIES

[THIS IS A STICKY POST DATED EARLY 2012. IF YOU LOOK AT THE POSTS BELOW YOU’LL SEE THE BLOG IS UPDATED REGULARLY WITH NEW STORIES.]

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. Some of the stories are a touch serious or reflective, not so plot-heavy. But much of what you get here is just bedside popcorn, so be warned. Expect some all-artificial product with heavy plotting, twists, unmaskings and the like. In some cases, a story is just a rambling account; even then, I may 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…

THE PEACE OF CAREME

THE VERY DEVIL

A chain letter down the centuries…

HELOISE TO UNKNOWN

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

WANDERER

A sleepy queen entertains…

THE PLAY

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

THE GOLDWYN CODE

Romane memento!

ALTOGETHER ELSEWHERE

The Middle East, and all that.

WATER

Rocky life of a saint. Ouch.

LOCUSTA 1

LOCUSTA 2

LOCUSTA 3

LOCUSTA 4

LOCUSTA 5

LOCUSTA 6

LOCUSTA 7

LOCUSTA 8

LOCUSTA 9

LOCUSTA 10

LOCUSTA 11

LOCUSTA 12

It’s never over till…

THE LONG GAME

Speaking of the game…

BLOOD, IRON AND PHRASING

Thinking of redecorating…

A ROOM TOO LARGE AND COLD

***

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

A LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY

AN ADEQUATE MURDER

CHILD’S PLAY

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

QUINLIVIN I

QUINLIVIN II

QUINLIVIN III

QUINLIVIN IV

QUINLIVIN V

QUINLIVIN VI

QUINLIVIN VII

Maigret comes to Australia. Really!

MAIGRET’S LONG REACH

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

BITS OF BAD

Are you insured?

PURGATORY HILL

You will pay if you skip this one:

EVERYBODY PAYS

A twisty track:

THE GORGE

***

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

QUO VADIS

THE MOTHER

CEMETERY LOOP

THE WEEPER

Strange entities…

DON’T SAY YOWIES

THE OLD F-S SCALE

FOAM OF THE SEA

Bent fairy tales…

LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS, FAKE I

LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS, FAKE II

THE LOST CITY

TARQUIN’S TRAVELS

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

THE SECRET OF 63

AN INTRUSION

That little opinion of yours…

QUALITY OPINION SUPPLIES

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

SHE SLIPPED

God knows what this is about…

ME

Or what this is about…

SURE SCIENCE

My answer to Mr Chips…

PAST RUINED ILION

In the end, you just have to fight…

REXIE (Part 1 of 3)

REXIE (Part 2 of 3)

REXIE (Part 3 of 3)

***

Australian interest, bush first…

A BUSH ANSWER

DRAGON

CHASE

THE .22 CLUB

WOY WOY

TRIVIAL TALE

THE NAME OF THE BEAST

Some Sydney stories, some names changed, of necessity…

UNIQUE

EVEN IN ARCADY

ANGELS RUSH IN

EAST SYDNEY: A MEMOIR

STRESSING MOLLIE

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

DECADE OF GREED I

DECADE OF GREED II

MADE IN FRANCE

AUSTRALIA’S GREATEST SALESPERSON

Sports fans!

AUSTRALIAN PIETAS

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

ESCAPE FROM KRYPTON

***

Stories modern and medieval, from the pilgrim ways…

THE COCK AND HEN

ANOTHER PILGRIM TALE

THE CATS OF LA ROMIEU

GLOBAL INGRATITUDE

NOT IN MY CONTRADA

DEVIL’S BRIDGE

TRUFFLES AND DEMONS

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

THE THIEF OF SAINT FAITH

***

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

THE WAY THESE PEOPLE THINK

THE RETURN OF THE SON OF REHASH

A GOOD JUDGE OF CHARACTER

REMNANT

FOR THE BIG ROUND THING

THE MEDIOCRE SAMARITAN

MEETING IN FRANCE

LONG TIME LISTENER, FIRST TIME CALLER

FAUX-PAS

***

Uh-oh. He writes poetry…

WRITERS BLOCK

CIRCULAR QUAY AT SIX

LOBSTERMAN’S PRAYER

POWER

DITTY ON THE SHORE

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF TEMPLES

***

The serial, Life of Saint Locusta, is now available as a read-through novel. It is the same text as published on this short fiction site in episodes, but arranged as ordinary chapters in chronological order. It looks like a single post with a single date on it, but if you scroll down you are likely to find new chapters from time to time.

Life of Saint Locusta: a serial.

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 3

“So, what do we do while waiting?”

“One more round of drinks, but just one.”

“Brenda, your sister is sounding her old self.”

“I was just about to say the same thing, Brenda. A real transformation. The old Naomi is back.”

“And very much in charge, it would seem.”

“Thanks, everyone. Things really are looking up. The treatments seem to be working as hoped. But I know she’d hate to be talked about this way…you know…as a patient this way. Let’s just get those drinks…”

“Is it permitted to listen at the door. Well, Winston?”

“Strictly forbidden by Wiltshire rules for Body in the Library. Naomi is allowed ten minutes of full privacy to arrange the crime. She’s had all day to prepare clues outside the room, but she only gets the ten minutes within…”

“How do we know she hasn’t been in the gallery already today, fixing things up?”

“Proprietor’s privilege, nothing to do with me. I am only a humble and dusky physician, and my office is to hold on to this key and watch that nobody approaches that door till the ten minutes are up…Brenda, why are you looking so grave?”

“Winston, did you have to encourage her to drink? And even take another later?”

“Would I have got far by arguing? Any further than I can get by arguing with you now? We all know even these mountains bow low to the Berger ladies.”

“I just wish…Oh, never mind. Let’s get drinks. Everybody! We have Great Western, Reschs, Pimms at the bar. No spirits till after the game. And, before you ask, that is also a Wiltshire rule. It seems an old vicar at St Albans broke his leg on a staircase following clues once. Sounds like a story, but there really was a vicar playing Body in the Library. And please do watch the parquetry in the gallery, especially if you have heels.”

*

The angular and athletic Miss Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot – Tally to friends – had done nothing but peer at the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch which she was a bit too smug about owning.

At last she raised a fist in the air and, still with her eyes on the dial, began to count down, raising one finger after another. The crowd chanted along.

“Five…four…three…two…One! Open! Open up! Winston!”

With a smirk and an air of mock authority, Winston Pereira approached the gallery as he jangled a hefty key ring. The others milled behind him.

He unlocked and opened the door.

The first thing they all saw was Naomi Berger, sprawled face down on the floor, a puddle of dark liquid near her head. Immediately, her half-sister pushed past Winston Pereira.

“This has gone far enough. Naomi, so please get up! Tell her, Winston! You’re a doctor, aren’t you? This can’t be healthy. Naomi, the point’s made, the joke’s been had. But please, this is too much…for me, in any case. The rest of you please stay back. Don’t encourage her…

“Naomi, we can have our game without all this…disturbing stuff. Tell her, Winston…Naomi, please get up…”

The obvious fury of Brenda caused the others to stay back and silent.

“Please, for me, Naomi…just get up and clean up.”

Her half-sister did not move.

“Naomi, I’m not criticising…But do this for me. You know I worry about you. It’s all I’ve done lately. This is no joke for me…It might be a joke for you and the others…Naomi…”

As her voice trailed off she moved closer to her sister.

“Na…Naomi?”

Being careful of any fake blood, she crouched and inspected her still unmoving sister. Next she took hold of a wrist, as if to feel for a pulse.

“Winston! Winston! What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she…?”

The doctor moved forward, waving at the others to stay back.

He crouched down and felt the wrist then the bloodied neck of the woman who still had not moved.

“I…I’m afraid…I don’t see how, but…Mr Marley, could you please assist Brenda away from here?”

“No! I’m not leaving my sister! What is it? Why is she not moving? Did something or someone cut…No! She can’t be…You have to look harder, Winston!”

“I will, Brenda, I will…but I need you to move away…Everyone back, please, except Mr Marley.”

The elderly lawyer moved forward and looked in bewilderment at his client’s unmoving body in the puddle of what they had all assumed was fake blood. Then he drew Brenda up by an arm and led her gently toward the door.

The doctor placed a hand below Naomi’s jaw without changing her position. The hand and sleeve he raised were soaked in red. He turned to the others and shook his head.

“I’m afraid…I’m afraid she’s gone. There a deep cut across…across the throat. Somehow…her throat’s been cut!”

“But how?”

“I don’t know, Brenda…Surely she wouldn’t…She seemed so well…”

Winston Pereira beckoned to the local alderman, who was also the local pharmacist.

“Mr Collins, there must be a knife or blade. There’s nothing in her hands. Best we look under the body without changing its position. As I lift, I need you to look. Don’t stain yourself. I’ll handle the side where there’s blood.”

The two men performed the operation with great care, lifting one end of the body, then the other.

“There’s nothing, doctor. No blade.”

“Then how…or who…Unless…Quick, check the windows, Mr Collins…Could you help him, Tally? But touch nothing!”

Alderman Collins and Miss Hobbes-Talbot began to patrol all the windows in the gallery.

“These are locked, and the bars are all in place…”

“No, this one has no bars and the window isn’t locked.”

“What? Are you sure, Tally?”

Miss Hobbes Talbot was standing by a window which looked east into the valley.

“Yes, and there’s a high ladder right up against it. Shall I check…?”

“No, touch nothing. But someone has obviously taken the trouble to close it again from outside so as not to draw our attention to it. Brenda, did you know there were no bars on that window?”

Still slumped against the family lawyer, she managed to reflect between sobs:

“The bars were unbolted and removed, just for a few days…We’ve had to fix the lintel…it was rotten. The ladder is ours. Roland must have left it there overnight…But why did you let her take the drink, Winston?”

“Brenda, one Cinzano had nothing to do with it. You sister has been…well, obviously she’s been murdered. Murdered by someone who must have entered and escaped through that window…”

“The Guerard! It’s missing!”

Miss Hobbes-Talbot was pointing to a small rectangular area on the wall where a painting had obviously hung for a long time.

“That’s what they were after: the Guerard. Somehow they knew the gallery was unsecured at this window, noticed the ladder and bars missing. Naomi must have surprised them…But why didn’t she scream?”

Brenda Berger whined as Mr Marley was trying to draw her out of the room.

“If she hadn’t drunk the Cinzano she might have been able to scream, defend herself…something…”

Winston Pereira raised himself up, blood on his knees, blood all over his hands and arms. He was trembling in his helplessness.

“Just ring the police…I’ll wait by her…But get the police.”

“Who are you to give orders here? You’re not in Ceylon with your servants now. If you had just been responsible enough to give one sensible order to Naomi…”

“But, Brenda, how could I control her? She could have been drinking all day for all we know.”

“She might have listened to you, if not to me. Instead you let her walk in here alone and half drunk…”

“All right, all right. But please go with Mr Marley for now…Nobody touch anything. Everybody out. Mr Collins, could you arrange to get me some towels?…Please, take everyone away, Mr Marley. Nobody needs to look at this, nobody must touch anything. I’ll wait here till the police come, but please fetch me towels for all this…this blood. It’s on my shoes as well…Perhaps if you could close the door behind you…or just leave it ajar…Nobody should have to see this.”

*

Minutes later, it was Mr Marley returned with the towels, having left his client in the care of the pharmacist. He found Winston Pereira still standing by the body, hands outstretched to keep from smearing more blood on his clothing. The normally confident, even cocky, Ceylonese had the expression of a baffled child.

“I…I could do nothing for her. She was my friend, both sisters were good friends to me. I couldn’t argue with Brenda in her state…but there was nothing I could do to control her sister. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m simply caught in the middle, Mr Marley.”

“I think we all understand. So will Brenda when she’s over the shock. We need to put the blame on whoever did this, nobody else. If the criminal was surprised he’s probably left a trail behind him in his panic. The painting won’t be easy to dispose of profitably. We’ll track down whoever did this…Dr Pereira, when you’ve got your hands and legs wiped down, would you like me to stay by the body so you can clean up?”

“Do you mind? I feel awful standing here with Naomi’s blood all over me.”

“No, I don’t mind. Go and freshen up. The police will be here soon.”

Pereira threw a bloodied towel flat on the floor and wiped his shoes hard on it till it stopped transferring.

“Thank you, Mr Marley. So much blood…I shouldn’t be surprised, as a doctor…but there’s just so much of it.”

“Was it at least quick for her?”

“Yes, I’d say instantaneous. That’s one good thing. The only good thing.”

*

Brenda, Mr Marley and Winston Pereira sat facing the young man who looked both too young and too small to be a policeman, let alone a detective.

“As I think I mentioned on arriving, my name is Clive McGroder. I’m from the Western District detectives. I’m sorry I was so late in coming after the local police, but I live some distance away…”

“McGroder? Son of the late Arch McGroder?”

“Yes, Mr Marley, my father was Chief Inspector McGroder. I’m sure you would have known him.”

“Knew him well. Fine man.”

“Thank you, Mr Marley. I’m the runt of his litter, so the physical resemblance isn’t strong…Now, there are a few matters I’d like to raise with the three of you while my men interview the other guests and the one or two staff who were around today. Well, it’s just the one matter for the moment, since it’s such a puzzling one.

“Dr Pereira, you say there was no weapon, no blade, near the body?”

“As far as I could tell.”

“Well, we’ve now been able to inspect more closely and there was, in fact, no cutting implement of any sort on or near the lady’s body. There was no sort of ring or key or piece of jewelry which could have inflicted the wound…”

“Well, obviously the thief took the blade with him.”

“In fact, we don’t see how.”

“But it’s obvious…”

“Miss Berger, you mentioned to the local police that your handyman, Roland Cassin, had been working on a new lintel for the window, and that was why the bars and mesh had been removed? The work required him to get access to the outside of the window by means of a very high ladder?”

Brenda nodded weakly.

“The reason for the sturdy bars and mesh, as well as the heavy entry door to the gallery, is the value of the paintings and books kept there?”

“Yes. Especially the von Guerard, the work that was stolen. I don’t see why it’s a puzzle…”

“Miss Berger, would you describe your handyman, Roland Cassin, as a careful, conscientious type?”

“Till now I would.”

“Honest?”

“Till now…I would have said so.”

“From my brief contact with him by telephone tonight I got the same impression…”

Pereira cut in:

“Where is this taking us? Nobody has accused Roland or anybody…”

“Dr Pereira, the thief, the killer…if there was such a person…”

“Of course there was!”

“Let me finish please, Mr Marley. I was saying that, if there was such a person, he could not have entered or left the gallery through that window.

“You see, on Friday afternoon, before knocking off work, the careful and thorough Mr Cassin, aware of the need for security and without having to be asked, neatly drilled into the window frame at two inconspicuous points and screwed it shut. He then took the ladder back to the workshed. There is no sign of interference with the screws, and anybody wanting to screw them back in place, even roughly, after removing them would need tools, time, and a powerful light…and would not be escaping the scene of a murder in darkness and in panic.

“Which means nobody could have entered or left the gallery by that window, despite the fact that the ladder had been put back below it. We inspected the other windows and their grids were all bolted into the brick and undisturbed.

“Now, since nobody could have entered through the locked door by which you were all standing and waiting, and since the completely open floor plan of the gallery would have made it impossible for someone to conceal himself there; since a first inspection reveals no hidden panels or openings in the solid walls of the gallery, no crawlspaces of any useful sort on, in or behind the pictures, cabinets and shelves; and since it seems that Miss Berger could not have inflicted such a wound on herself…

“You see, we really do have a puzzle on our hands.”

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 2

“To make the evening perfect we should have invited that old French detective.”

“Can’t. He’s back in France by now.”

“No he isn’t. He’s stuck in Sydney because of the airport strike. Along with Shirley Bassey.”

“If only we’d known!”

“Not sure he’d have come. Pretty old.”

“I didn’t know he was a real person. I thought he was invented by that author, Simone.”

“Simenon, you mean. That’s what a lot of people thought. I read where they asked him – Maigret, that is – how he felt about being mistaken for a character in novels. He just said: ‘I’m real. But are you sure Simenon exists?'”

“That’s so French.”

“How is it French?”

“Oh, you know…Exist…Existentialism…”

“They don’t all sit around in cafes smoking Gauloise cigarettes having discussions about existing…”

“So what was he doing in Australia?”

“Investigating Harold Holt’s death, they say. At least, he went to Portsea and Cheviot Beach…So putting one and one together…”

“Nah, just a publicity stunt. You find those Maigret books all over Europe but they don’t seem to sell as much here and in the US. You’ll see. Angus & Robertson and Dymocks will have whole racks of Maigret mysteries on show in the next few weeks. It’s the system.”

“Oh, no! Not the system! Duck, hippies!”

For this one night, Sans Souci was its old self – provided the lights were kept dim and imaginations sharp. A fire of mountain ash and stringy bark logs had been roaring then glowing in the gargantuan fireplace with its Deco sculpturing; through the panorama window, guests had once again watched the winter sun set over a cloudless Megalong Valley; and again the huge lounge was filled with aromas of eucalyptus smoke, tobacco smoke, brilliantine, cologne and perfume. The guests were small in number, but by their formal attire and excited mood the date might not be 1968 but 1928: the year regarded as the peak of the Sans Souci heyday, the year of the two duchesses, the year a reduced D’Oyly Carte company performed the Mikado in front of both the Governor-General and Governor…

“Look, shouldn’t we get the evening underway before Sans Souci crumbles and falls around our ears?”

There was an awkward silence after this last remark from one of the tipsier guests. Eyes did a quick shift to check the reaction of Naomi Berger.

The lady, fortunately, was in one of her elevated moods. While the middle-aged features were etched and strained by the years of sanatoriums, drugs and experimental treatments, not even a careless reference to her greatest love – decrepit Sans Souci – could darken Naomi’s expression on this special evening.

“Don’t worry, Sans Souci will be standing when the Harbour Bridge is scrap…Now, shall we get on with Body in the Gallery?”

“Naomi, it’s going to be great fun…but medication first, okay?”

Lowering her voice with the reference to medication, Brenda Berger caressed her half-sister’s lank hair and gave her an entreating stare.

“Oh, not tonight. Those tablets make my mouth dry. What I really need is a brisk Cinzano.”

“Naomi, it might be okay…just the one Cinzano…but you have to…you know…”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Bren, later…just not tonight!”

“But it’s not like aspirin. It’s like…a mineral salt or vitamin. You know…you have to keep up a certain serum level. It’s been such a great party, and about to get better. Don’t let’s argue about it in front of everybody, because I really do have to insist…”

“All right, all right…but only if I can still have my Cinzano!”

“Maybe…What does Doctor Pereira think?”

The man addressed, a very dark Ceylonese with tweed jacket, Dunhill pipe and David Niven moustache, moved closer to the two women.

“What do I think about what?”

“If Naomi takes her medication can she have maybe one Cinzano?”

“I wouldn’t inflict red vermouth on any living creature. Maybe a Pimms…”

“No, seriously, Winston! If I can’t have one, then no tablets either!”

“Ladies, I’m not Naomi’s physician. I’m just a friend, here for an evening of Body in the Library…or Gallery, in this case.”

“You can give an opinion off the record. You have…some idea, I think, of Naomi’s condition. You know most of the tablets she has to take…”

“Well, look here, there are members of my profession who are starting to condemn even good pipe tobacco. It’s hard to know what’s in another doctor’s mind…But if you ask me, one drink now won’t hurt. And maybe even one more much later. Why not? Just don’t quote me.”

The two women excused themselves from the rest of the company and went into a kitchenette off the disused bar. Soon they came back and Naomi Berger eagerly poured herself a Cinzano, over ice which had been brought up in a bucket from the still functioning lower kitchens.

“Now, while you have your drink, give us a few clues about your impending murder.”

“Out of the question, Winston. Listen to me, everybody! The clues will all be physical, starting in the gallery. Secret till then. I’m giving the well-respected Doctor Winston Pereira the key to lock me in for a full ten minutes…”

“Isn’t that a bit risky…after drinking…”

“Oh, ease up Brenda. I’m alone when I sleep at night, aren’t I? Ten minutes to get the clues ready and make myself a corpse is hardly going to kill me. Well, I intend to be dead…but you know what I mean.”

Naomi finished her drink with relish, then clapped loudly.

“Everybody! Your attention please! Come closer for a moment…

“Thank you all for coming, all you friends of the Berger family and Berger-Kent Music Publishing, friends of Sans Souci. And thank you for being attired in the way…well, let me just say…the only way people should be attired of an evening.

“The clock has been turned back for tonight, but, rest assured, Sans Souci has a future as well as a past. Plans are underway with government, financial institutions and private investors to secure that future, which will be a future like our past, one of elegance, refined leisure and civilised entertainment.

“I have been missing from the helm due to private difficulties some of you know about. But I am back.”

Light applause and cheers, with some glasses raised.

“Tonight, the southern winter solstice, we are staging one of our favourite events. Tonight we again play Body in the Library, though we long ago renamed it Body in the Gallery because, as most of you know, our gallery is right over there to my right, behind that one large door, while our library requires a bit of a wander through corridors.

“The game is much the same as that played annually at the northern winter solstice in the famed St Albans guest house in Wiltshire, whom we thank for the inspiration and whom we have long regarded as a sister institution in what I am not ashamed to call the Mother Country.

“The rules of the game are simple and time-honoured. One member of the assembled company is to lie dead in the library after leaving numerous clues, not all straightforward, as to the identity of the killer. In the local tradition, you keep your own identities, since Sans Souci guests have tended to know each other well and new guests of the right sort are quickly and warmly included. In the age of the Beatles there may be rush and anonymity beyond these grounds, but within these grounds…never!

“You will notice that I alone am dressed without proper tone this evening. That’s because I am to be tonight’s body and being a body can be a messy affair. Hence my slacks and skivvy. Mind you, I make a good bohemian, as the old denizens of Sydney now defunct Bongo Lounge will attest. However, the rumour that I once voted Labor in those early wandering years are exaggerated. What are you laughing at, Alderman Collins?

“Now, please be aware – especially you ladies in heels – that the magnificent oak parquetry of the gallery has been erupting and is awaiting restoration, like much else in Sans Souci. So watch your step, please!

“If you have any further questions…I refuse to answer them! You must find the clues and use them to find the murderer and motive. I am about to step inside that door, the door will be locked by our family solicitor, Mr Walter Marley, who will then pass the key to Doctor Winston Pereira, who will be in charge of unlocking. Both are responsible for the only iron rules of the game: no peeking, and no leaving the lounge for any reason! I will be given exactly ten minutes, timed by Miss Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot, to arrange the crime scene and my demise.

“In former times we had an orchestra to dramatise things as little. Till we again have a weekend orchestra for Sans Souci, it will be helpful if you use your imaginations. Oh, and an extra rule for tonight…

“Nobody is allowed to ring Sydney and the Menzies Hotel to consult with any visiting French detectives! C’est entendu?

“Walter, I now present you with the only other key to the gallery beside the one retained by my sister as gallery curator…

“Please lock the door behind me.”

As Naomi stepped toward the closed door her half-sister rushed to her side, squeezed an arm, and whispered:

“You were magnificent. So confident. You really are back with us.”

“Only the beginning, Bren. I am back. And Sans Souci will be back.”

Naomi Berger entered the gallery, which was immediately locked behind her by old Mr Walter Marley, of Marley, Marley and Crabbe Solicitors.

 

 

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 1

“What do you make of this famous old French detective they’ve brought to Australia? Was it to find out how Harold Holt died? What’s the word in Labor circles?”

“I wouldn’t know, Sir Keith. Apparently he’s still in the country, in Sydney – the Frenchman, not Holt – stuck here because of the airport strike. I hope you don’t think I had anything to do with that. The strike, I mean. Not Holt.”

“I don’t blame you for anything, Mr Macken, and I’m not interested in attacking your party without reason. Give me a reason, and that’s another matter. Look, you people may think my late father and I have been too political all these years – and in the wrong way for you – but I’ve been doing my job, that’s all. Make my job hard and I make your job harder: that’s the Ducker way…What’s your drink?”

“Just whatever you’re having, Sir Keith.”

Sir Keith Ducker turned round from the silver drink trolley and his face wore that full-lipped smirk which was as threatening as anybody else’s scowl.

“You’re my guest, Mr Macken. You can have what you have, you know.”

“Well…scotch I guess. As it comes.”

“Right, scotch it is…And I might join you in one.”

He poured two drinks into hefty cut glass which was the old Brilliant preferred by his grandfather, who thought anything Edwardian and after showed the roots of modern flimsiness.

“There you go, Mr. Macken…Or can I call you Pat?”

“Pat. For sure. They all call me Pat.”

“And you can call me…Sir Keith. Like they all do.”

His grin broadened, till the face atop that massive frame was of an amused predator cat. His guest, suitably dominated, gave a suitable chuckle.

Sir Keith lowered himself into a venerable armchair which was bigger than the others in the study. The murky green leather showed wear, as was the intention. It was the wear of four generations of Duckers making money, each more than his predecessor.

“As I was saying, Pat, I’m political because I have to be to survive. But I also feel I’m helping this country to survive. Can you look me in the eye and tell me we’d be in better shape if the likes of Evatt had been running the show since the war? We wouldn’t be in Vietnam. We’d be bloody Vietnam, right? It’s okay, I know you can’t answer.”

“No, I don’t mind saying that Menzies might have got even my vote over Evatt. Don’t know about Gorton…But you have to remember the Party was never really Evatt’s. Anyway, that’s Federal Labor, and I’m a state member. NSW is my concern, and yours too, I think…”

“Before you go on, I just want to make a point of order, Pat. Do you mind?”

“N…no, of course not.”

“You just said there was something I have to remember. I’ve sacked blokes for phrasing like that.”

“Phrasing…like…?”

“What you have to remember is that I never have to do anything. If people could tell me what to do there wouldn’t be much point in being a Ducker, would there?”

The voice had not been raised, it was even slightly softer, but the grin had flattened out. The point was taken.

“Now, you were saying that we’re both interested in the future of NSW?”

“Well, of course. If we win government we’re not interested in turning the clock back. Our union base has to recognise that choking the goose is no way to get any eggs in the long term. And, frankly, I don’t see why every major new enterprise has to go south to the Vics. And now South Australia. What’s wrong with doing the big things in the premier state? Hang out the NSW shingle, that’s what I say.”

“You’re dead right. Why does everyone feel it’s safer to marry the ugly sister?…Premier state. I like the sound of that, Pat. You can put it on number plates if you win government. Of course, you have to win government first.”

“Yes, well…we’ll be doing our best. We have a great new leader in Paul. He’s been a knockabout from Redfern, background like most of us, but he’s also got that appeal to youth, thinking types, the middle ground. No silver spoon like a lot of these law school socialists, but you look at Paul and you don’t see the Old Guard either. You see someone who looks like he’s stepped out of a boardroom and might be heading off to the opera. Other times he looks ready to pull on a jumper for South Sydney.”

“No need to oversell the bloke, Pat. I’ve actually met him at the opera, and, unlike me, he didn’t have the excuse of being dragged there by his missus. Anyway…I like the look of the man, but I won’t be bothering him. If he enjoys a good drop like they say he can always come round and help me polish off a case of ’53 Margaux. Happy to know him, and even talk a bit of business…but I’m more interested in a key minister in any new government he forms.”

Pat Macken shifted in his chair, said nothing.

“A key minister in a new, can-do government…and you can call it Labor, for all I care. Someone who knows the unions and knows how to keep them sweet with developments that are good for for them, and good for the NSW public. Someone who sees the other side. No more red-raggers – but also no more micks with chips on their shoulders. Excuse the reference to Catholics, Pat, but I think you know what I mean. This is the 1960s and it’s time to bury a lot of old baggage. I’m not against anybody’s rosary beads, but I don’t want them shoved down my throat.”

“Couldn’t agree more.”

“Here’s the thing, Pat. My family got into publishing and stayed in publishing because a long time ago we worked out that if millions of people can read they will want to exploit that ability. Go back a century or two and such wasn’t the case. At first the general public couldn’t read; then, when they could, they were told to just read the Bible at night, which they did. Then they realised they could read all kinds of stuff. Language was language, print was print. Then someone invented better lamps, then electric lights, and people realised they could sit up late reading all sorts of stuff – appealing, easy stuff – instead of just having naughties in the dark with the same old body lying next to them. Then someone invented ways to put photos, lots of photos, into periodicals….then colour photos…You following me?”

“I think so.”

“Pat, this is the age of the masses, no thanks to Marx or Doc Bloody Evatt, but thanks to hungry buggers like me making stuff for the masses. There’s another hungry bugger called Ludwig who’s buying up whole forests in Brazil so he can make money selling newsprint to blokes like me who’ll make money selling Rugby League Month and Women’s Journal to any punter with two bob to spare. I mean, one day there may not be any phone booths because people might be getting about with walkie-talkies; but there’ll never come a time when they don’t need paper to print on and read off. So if it takes a forest, we’ll grow forests. There’s the Ducker secret: sell as much as possible to as many as possible, and never price yourself away from the working man…

“So who’s more Labor here? You or me?

“The age of the masses! We’re there. Think about it, Pat. The working man is the main customer because what he lacks in income he more than makes up in numbers. Now sheilas aren’t getting married till their mid-twenties – some even later – and they’ve got a few bob to spare. Seems crazy, but it’s the reality. Thousands of young unmarried women with their own money. Should we pretend they’re not there?

“What do you reckon, Pat? Haven’t we got a lot in common?”

“I’d say…we do, Sir Keith. It’s just that we’ve been coming from different angles, maybe.”

Sir Keith sat back and stared into his drink before taking a slow, satisfied sip, to allow his guest to digest what had been said and worry about what it was leading to. Nice or nasty, Duckers never allow too much comfort.

“Now, Pat, you and I are nodding acquaintances from the track. I’ve also seen you at a certain illegal casino, where we refrained from nodding. I gather you like a bet and some fun?”

“I…yes, I do. I…”

“No explanation needed, Pat. You and I and millions of people in this state of convicts and weekend-seekers want to live a certain way. Just like our forebears. Doesn’t mean we don’t want to work and go places, make an honest quid. We just want to be able to clock off in our own way. Isn’t that about it?”

“I’d say so.”

“Yet we have to wait on-course for a horse-race, or queue up in something like a post office, or maybe buy an Opera House lottery ticket, if we want to gamble and stay legal. The whole legal system is there to make us seem what we’re not: Victorian Pommie serfs. The sports-loving working man of NSW has to creep around like a dog about to be beaten if he wants a flutter. Fortunes are made which never see the light of taxation. Old Perc Mallia has to buy out entire lotteries to wash all his bookmaking money. We hate bloody wowsers – yet we live under these bloody wowser laws we’re not game to touch because we’re frightened to be ourselves.

“It’s not just the flutter, either. Sydney’s an old port city where people have been buying and selling sex forever. But all we offer openly by way of sex in publishing is a sheila in a bikini on page three, or maybe Tania Verstak in a one-piece. In entertainment, there’s one tiny strip where everyone’s supposed to go to get a look – and then only the looking is legal. Why can’t a working man go to a working lady, Pat, to satisfy two needs at once – legally! And why don’t governments get their take from it all? Someone gets to do the taxing, but the public sees none of it. Why not fund a new expressway with the rooting by American servicemen up on the Cross?

“Now, I’m not proposing open slather, but look at all the poofs, in Sydney especially. Most of them just working men who want to get on with their lives, not interested in touching up kids, just other blokes. Why, I’ve even heard things about your new leader. Maybe it’s just because he dresses well…”

Was this a threat? Pat Macken was too quick with a response.

“I can assure you, Sir Keith…”

“Let me assure you, Pat, that I couldn’t give a rat’s what Paul Furst’s preferences are in that regard. I want to propose certain things for the future of this state, that’s all. Do you think you could come along with me, if those proposals were sound and meant more money for the NSW government?”

“Well, I…I’d have to know what proposals…”

“Casino.”

The other’s mouth dropped open a little.

“Yes, a casino, Pat. Legal and huge and world standard and world famous. Right here in NSW.”

Pat Macken was silent, his brain was not.

“Well, Pat?”

“Er, Sir Keith…it’s visionary, of course. But…”

“I’ll say all the buts for you, okay? The wowsers will hate it, and the underworld will hate it. And maybe young Murdoch will decide he hates it just because I’m a Ducker and he’s just a bloody Murdoch.”

“Sir Keith, when you try to do this sort of thing…even if you handle the local influences, which is not easy…there are people in America who are experts in moving in, then taking over. If you legislate them out of ownership they’ll manage to own every business and supplier connected with the enterprise, control every union…”

“Pat, do you think I’m just hatched? I said the casino would be legal, I didn’t say all my partners and associates would be altar boys. Nobody who really matters will be kept out of the action, and some of them are just aching for a legal front.”

“But the Yanks…”

“Pat, Sir Andrew Adele can come to satisfactory arrangements with overseas interests, and you can help him, I’m sure. I’m talking about something enormous, something that will be able to give suck through a lot of very big tits. Imagine Monte Carlo, and then some. You think Adele would be interested if it wasn’t so? Nobody fries bigger fish than Sir Andrew.”

Silence for a long, thoughtful moment.

“Sir Keith…it’s just that Sydney is so jammed in, and there are so many small establishments operating to meet the needs…the recreational needs of…”

“Who’s talking about bloody Sydney? If planners want to put giant broken eggshells right on the harbour to make a business loss, then call the flaming thing an Opera House, let ‘em. We don’t want to hang off the harbour like a sore thumb and shock the wowsers waiting for ferries at the Quay. If people want to go to dives for a flutter on the tables, they can keep doing it, and the dives can go on making money. In fact, my plan is to grow their market, give people a taste. A little bird tells me you’re mates with George Snoweiss. Well, if you are, you can go and tell George his businesses around the Cross and Darlo won’t die but grow under my plan. My supermarket will be a long way from his little boutiques…

“Pat, I’m talking about a superb heritage building on a superb site with endless development room. It’s days off being acquired by the right…transitional syndicate, so to speak. There’ll be massive extensions and remodelling, but under my plan Sans Souci will be preserved forever.”

“Sans Souci! The Blue Mountains!”

“That’s right, Pat. Just a couple of hours or less from Sydney, and a million miles from care. But instead of decaying guest houses you’ll have the greatest casino in the world, where a working man can come with his family because there are safe and wholesome amusements all around. Cec Corkery’s Reptile Park, the Namatjira Gallery, the Museum of Aboriginal Relics…those things are there already. Golf and tennis coming out of your ears, of course. Plans for a world’s biggest putt-putt that’ll be every kid’s dream. Along with all the classic bushwalks and pony rides, the waterfalls, which were the main reason people started going to the Blueys last century…

“But if a billionaire flies in from overseas, there’ll be first class facilities for him, and a high stakes compound the equal of anything in the world…

“I’m not talking about a gaudy strip in the middle of nowhere like Vegas where there’s nothing worth looking at past all the lights, but a slice of Aussie heritage overlooking the Megalong Valley. The breathtaking Megalong Valley. And all it will take is the help of a can-do government which can only benefit from doing what should have been done a long time ago…

“What do you reckon, Patrick Macken, Member for Druitt and Shadow Minister for Works?”

“I…I’d have to think, consult with others.”

“But not too long, I hope.”

“No. In fact…this is making sense. I mean, without your plan Sans Souci will just be a liability for the state and whoever owns it. Nobody can make money with it; nobody can afford to fix it just for use as a guest house again; nobody wants to pull it down just to exploit the liquor licence…I doubt anybody would be allowed to pull down such a huge and famous old building…

“It’d be like shooting Skippy, wouldn’t it, Pat?…Say, it’s a drizzly day and you look about the right size for this spare raincoat.”

Without getting up from his chair, Sir Keith picked up a folded raincoat and tossed it to his guest.

“Oh, I think I’ll be fine just getting to my car.”

“No, please. Do me the favour of trying it on, at least. It was left here by an actual duke, a mate through polo, who died last month. Maybe he should have kept it on…”

“Really, I couldn’t…”

“Stand up and try it on. It’s an Aquascutum, one of their fancier types. Apparently it’s the same model as Cary Grant wore in that movie. Why waste it if it fits? Won’t fit a brontosaurus like me, that’s for sure. Go ahead,  just try it on.”

Pat Macken did as he was asked. The coat was, in fact, a perfect fit, and Pat seemed quite smug as he smoothed it down.

“I told you so. A perfect fit.”

“Um, there’s a bundle or package in this pocket, Sir Keith.”

“Is there? Probably an old bag of jelly beans or something. Please don’t dispose of it here. Look at it later. There’s already too much clutter in this smelly den of mine. But you don’t look like the Member for Druitt in that coat. More like Humphrey Bogart, or a young version of that French detective, the one who’s stranded in Sydney by the airport strike…

A bientôt, Monsieur Macken!”

Posted in CRIME/DETECTION, HISTORICAL | 4 Comments

AN INTRUSION

I’d been mulling about various…

Oh, why give details? I’d just been mulling, as one does at my age. Except that I’ve tended to do it at all ages. You too?

It was the usual mulling. What-if mulling. Best-is-behind mulling. Nothing-secure-beyond these-four-walls mulling. (And nothing secure within those walls, but easier to pretend things are secure here.)

Am I making sense?

Mulling…hesitating…contracting.

It’s a kind of self-shrinking, isn’t it? Like when you tighten a strap around something it leaves a gap or loose spot someplace else, so you tighten there also…You lose by trying to retain.

*

A knock at the door. Not a rap of apology or uncertainty. Not a demanding or urgent knock.

Just a knock like you might get from a busy delivery person who does not know or care if he is expected.

I opened the door. A young fellow there. Looked a bit like a real estate agent or company rep. Sharply dressed and confident. Someone who handles people all day long, usually friendly and familiar, but needing to get to a point or purpose.

“Can I help you?”

“Nope.”

When my visitor said this he grinned. Unexpected, needless to say. It occurred to me that he was someone I must know,  a friend’s son now grown up, something of that sort.

“Er, am I supposed to know you?”

“Nope. Definitely not.”

“Then how can I help you?”

“You can’t.” Still that smug grin.

“Right. Well, if you’ll excuse me…”

I went to shut the door but the young stranger pushed against it, thrust me back inside with the flat of his hand, and strode in. He forced the door shut, turned the key, which had been left in the door, to apply the deadlock, then pocketed the key.

“Look, I’m going to have to phone the police if you don’t…”

He walked over to my phone, picked up the headset and smacked it against the edge of a table. It broke.

“No calls.”

“L…Look, if this is some kind of robbery or shakedown…”

The stranger sprawled on my lounge and looked about with an amused expression.

“Doubt there’s much here I’d want…Hey, maybe this.”

He picked up my mobile phone from a side table.

“Sony Xperia? Mmm, I like these…Then again…”

And he slapped the phone hard against the edge of the side table. It broke.

I decided the best reaction was to stay cool, since he obviously wanted the opposite.

“Look, if there’s nothing you want here…”

“Actually, you can bring me a beer…Go on, don’t just stare. Bring me a bloody beer.”

“If this is some sort of prank, I can assure you it’s gone far…”

“A beer, I said! You look kind of old and, as you can see, I’m pretty young and fit. So who commands here in this little locked world with no phones? Well?”

I went to the kitchen and came back with a can of VB.

The stranger accepted it, then shook the can hard. When he opened it, he directed the fizz all over the lounge and rug.

I knew I had problems, but there was no point in reacting the way this person wanted me to. I stared and waited for him to speak.

“Oh, so it’s Mr. Cool? You want me to talk first, show my hand?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, I have the ultimate hand, if you’d like a hint. But have you checked your car? Look out the window.”

I did as he suggested and looked out to where I always parked my car. It was gone.

“Okay. Enough. Who are you? You don’t look like someone who does things for no reason, especially illegal things. Whatever your reason, don’t be too smug. You’ve probably been seen arriving by neighbours and you’ve been leaving prints all over the place. So tell me who you are and what you want. Okay?”

“Well…since you ask…I’ll give you a hint or two.”

“Well?”

“I’ve actually been around a long time. Dress code has changed for me. I used to get about in a funny old getup, but now I’m expected to dress for the times. Just as well, because I was starting to look like something from a cheap carnival. I’ve been told I have to go for a neo-surrealist pitch, whatever that is. Hence the crazy, bullying real estate agent thing. Not that I mind the change overall. I mean, if you want to be taken seriously these days…”

“I’m not getting your point, or your hint, if there is one.”

He stared into the beer can a while, running a finger round the rim.

“That’s the problem for me. I’m supposed to be decisive and scary but I always come across as too theatrical now, whether I dress the old way or this new way. There was a time when my appearance worked for me out of the box. No explanations. I’d just walk in and people would know. It was true drama, not just theatre. People would stare, sometimes shrieking, retreating, sometimes frozen. A few would even welcome me by smiling a little, but they were the odd ones.”

“Just tell me who you are, will you?”

“Okay, big hint: I used to walk around in a dark hooded robe and carry an agricultural implement. Does that help?”

“An…agricultural…?”

“A scythe, okay? I carried a bloody scythe!”

“Robe and…a scythe…”

“Right, like in that Bergman movie where they had me playing chess with some long faced Swede. Or those ridiculous AIDS ads back in the 1980s…”

“You mean you…you’re it? You’re…”

“That’s right. I’m it. I’m that.”

“And…you’ve come for me?”

“Who else? I haven’t come for chopped liver.”

“But there must be some misunderstanding. I’m in pretty good shape. I’ve actually been very careful…probably too careful lately…”

“Do you have any idea how many times I’ve heard that palaver? This is 13a, The Mews, Ridge Street. You are Philip Rogers. It’s your time. Time to go.”

“Oh…now I see!”

“Good. Let’s go.”

“No…I mean I see where the mix-up is. I’m Phillip Rodgers – there’s an extra l and d in all that, and I’m at 13, not 13a, which should be 14. They don’t use 4 for numbering in this building because of some Feng Shui thing the architect was into back in the 90s. Or maybe it was to make it easier to sell the places to Chinese. We’re not exactly sure why they did it.”

“You mean…but how…?”

“Don’t be embarrassed. Happens constantly. And get this! There actually is a Philip Rogers next door at 13a, by sheer coincidence. Our mail gets mixed up all the time. And, yes, he’s been terribly sick lately.”

The intruder slapped his forehead, blushed as he shook his head.

“I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am. This hasn’t happened in ages. And when I say ages, I mean ages…I’m so sorry about the mess and the breakages…There may be a way we can compensate you…I just don’t know for sure…So embarrassing…You know, the reason I damage things is to point you away from possessions and the material, emphasise that none of it matters any more. It’s to do with theology, philosophy, all that sort of thing…”

He rose from the lounge, placing the beer can almost daintily on the side table. As he moved to the door, still blushing, his shoulders were sunken and rounded, his pace a shuffle. I had to feel sorry for him.

“Please don’t kick yourself for an understandable mistake just about everybody makes. Of course, I’ll be wanting compensation if that’s possible. The car’s insured, but I don’t know about the furniture and the phones…”

His voice was a whimper as he opened the door after fumbling for my keys in his pocket.

“I’ll see what can be done about compensation. Sometimes just a new screen for the Sonys…they’re quite robust compared to iPhones. I’m just so terribly sorry for this mix-up…I feel like such a goose…

“The, er, Mr. Rogers without a d, he’s around to the left, is he not?”

“Yes, immediately to the left.”

*

Of course, I woke and nothing had happened. My phones, my car, my furniture etc were all intact. Mr. Rogers is presently in hospital, but he’s not is such bad shape.

It had been a dream, could only have been a dream, and yet…

*

Here’s the thing.

In the ensuing days I found myself mulling less, and even inclined to action.

Soon I could catch myself mulling and stop the mulling.

Action has now re-entered my life. Now my life is  re-entering the external, where life needs to go, right? I’m re-expanding. There’s proportion again. Objects are again for using, not for owning, not for fretting.

If you know what I mean.

*

So, I’ve been thinking. If it wasn’t a visit from that eminent person or personification who used to get about in a dark hooded robe and carry an agricultural implement…and if it wasn’t a dream – far too sequential and vivid for that – but rather something dream-based…

A Guardian?

The Guardians again?

Posted in FANTASY/SF | 3 Comments

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF TEMPLES

Planless Sydney’s crammed; yet here, Queen’s Square,
A clearing and clean thrust of brick above
The swarm in its dinning pit and Pac-Man groove,
Its microbe life of hit, defend or veer.

Up Philip Street, Chicane parades in full,
Black-robed and costly-cute. The Public Good
Troops by in beige, though dreams of rival blood
Down office walls are gaudy in his skull.

On King Street yelps Consumption, ageing cur,
Chews the air or gulps a coloured fly.
Meanwhile, all pigeon-pooped upon her square,
Victoria as corroded faith waits by…

Saint James, like fired bush, finds sun, sucks air,
And sings through every tingling brick O Purify.

1_St_James_Church_lighter

Posted in POETRY | 4 Comments