“Can I ask, why did you appear here in my office yesterday, then run out again?”
Don Dibble was the sort of policeman who could make you feel coddled and threatened at the same time. He was big, with one of those rambling frames that no chair or suit can accommodate. Mostly, his face wore an ironic grin amid its countless folds and crags. That grin could disturb, but not so much as his other expression, his neutral glare. Polly – groomed, blonde and acceptably pert – could only hope her girlish normalcy would serve to keep him listening for just long enough. Girlish normalcy, and a muted apricot blouse – those had always been her best defenses in a very odd existence.
“Chief Inspector, the best way I can excuse myself is to say I slipped.”
“You slipped? And that’s your best excuse? Don’t tell me the worse ones, missie.”
“No, I mean I slipped…in another sense. Doctor Miskell told you I was an unusual case and asked you to just hear me out, didn’t he? As if I were normal? Regardless?”
“Something like that. You’re very lucky to have him treating you. I’ve known Swot Miskell most of my life. I gave him the name Swot, because he studied books like the rest of us drank beer. We played cricket for Petersham together. Rugby League together at Newtown. Otherwise, I doubt I’d be having a conversation with you.” The smile was straightening now.
“Chief Inspector, I…”
“Call me Don. Or Dibs. Or Mr. Dibble.”
“Mr. Dibble. I came into your office only a few moments ago. When I saw the date on your calendar, I realised I’d made a small timeslip, and that I was in yesterday. I didn’t know what else to do, so I left, used the bathroom to splash water on myself, to pull myself back into today. It was just a minor slip, due to nervousness. For you, I was here yesterday. For me, it was a few minutes ago. I couldn’t stay here – in yesterday – because the event I have to report hadn’t occurred…Oh, I know how crazy it all sounds.”
“You’re right about that, girlie. Fortunately for you, Doctor Miskell prepared me a little, so I’ll hear you out. What’s this about someone trying to knock you down?”
“Someone tried to run me over. It was deliberate. Happened crossing the circular drive in Centennial Park, as I warmed down from my regular run after work, late yesterday. With this…this condition…I have to keep fit, keep normal hours. I sleep and eat very regularly. It’s like any psychiatric problem, even though it’s not actually psychiatric…I don’t know if I’m losing you…”
“You lost me at ‘Good Afternoon’. I haven’t a clue what you’re on about. But how did you know this car tried to run you over? All those Asian students who cut through the park to the Uni have fewer driving skills than a…never mind. The modern police officer doesn’t say such racially-tinged things. But what made you think it was deliberate?”
“Well, it was around dusk, the park was nearly deserted. I don’t suppose it’s a good idea to run at that hour in winter, but, you know, it’s a regularity thing. And I live in Cook Road, just metres from the park. There was this big sedan – like the ones highway police use – and it was creeping forward from the kiosk as I stepped on to the drive. No lights. Next thing, it accelerated as fast as it could. If my iPod hadn’t been between songs I wouldn’t have heard and reacted in time. I may have had a teensy timeslip to help me – not sure. Sometimes, when I’m alarmed, I can have a slip that’s so brief I’m not aware of where I go. Sorry. Sorry to talk about timeslips. I may have disappeared from in front of the car, then reappeared after it passed. A half second, at most. Maybe. Anyway, I dodged – just – then ran up the hill toward the old covered reservoir. The slope’s rough and bushy, so I knew I could get away. I wasn’t followed. The car roared off.”
“And that’s all?”
“Well, what else?”
“It’s just that the park is locked to traffic at that hour. I’m wondering how the driver of the car left the park after he took off. He must have had a key to one of the exits. I mean, he wouldn’t have left his car in Centennial Park overnight. If he did, the rangers would find his car and book it, I presume? Or they’d at least record the registration?”
“And if he had a gate key – I keep assuming it’s a ‘he’ – he’d have to be a ranger, or someone like a ranger…”
“A policeman, for example?”
“Could a policeman have a key?”
“Possible. Or someone in the Premier’s Department. Or someone else again. Or anybody who knew anybody with a key to Centennial Park. Anyway, missie, I’ll duly note what you’ve said, and, with your permission, I’ll ring your doctor. Here’s my card – ring me any time you sense actual danger. I’m going to get one of my detectives to drive you home. Since you’ve got the afternoon off, I assume you’ll go straight there.”
“Oh, I think I’ll be okay to get home, but I won’t go running or go anywhere I could be alone.”
“Accept the lift, missie. That way, my man can see where you live and what the dangers could be. As for the rest of your story, about the time travelling or whatever, I’m afraid…”
“Who was Bumper?”
“Who was…Who was Bumper, did you say?”
“Yes. Oh, I’m sorry. It’s complicated. You see, there’s rather a slippery spot in your office here. I mean, a timeslip. I actually entered three times today. The first time, I stepped into – I’m guessing – the 50s, judging by the furniture? There was a huge man here, he had a chubby face and ears that stuck out. He was walloping another man on the floor – there in the corner – with a phone book. The man on the floor was saying “No, Bumper, no”. Then this Bumper, whoever he was, turned to me and said…well, he told me to go away, though not in those words. You know, violence can make a place slippery. I mean, it can create a timeslip…”
Chief Inspector Dibble was smiling no longer. As he fixed the young woman with that neutral glare, he picked up the phone and pressed a button.
“Maggot. Can you come round here. I want you to drive a young lady home. She’ll tell you what’s happened. Just check her flat for security issues when you get her there.”
He put the phone down, still fixing Polly.
“I don’t want you talking about slips and so on around here. Or anywhere, except at your doctor’s. And no more talk about…you know…about phone books and so on. Is that clear? It can only make my job of helping you harder. In the old days they’d have locked you up for a spray like that.”
A rap at the door. A craggy, younger detective in a too-brown suit entered. On seeing Polly, he froze and stared. Dibble broke the momentary silence.
“Miss Polly Vaughan, this is Detective Maguire. Maggot, I want you to take this young lady home, and take notes on anything relevant she may recall en route regarding a possible assault by motor vehicle late yesterday. There’s to be no discussion about anything else. That’s all.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dibble”
When the young woman had left in the company of the detective, Dibble immediately dialled her doctor’s direct number.
“Swot, Don here, mate. What’s all this about?”
“Polly Vaughan? I had to do something. You were the something. Look, I don’t know. The whole thing is, well, so exotic, from a medical point of view…”
“Don’t feed me all that tripe. She’s a flaming ratbag, or you are. What’s going on?”
“What did she tell you?”
“She told me all that stuff about slipping in and out of time. And she told me about someone trying to run her down in Centennial Park. That bit sounded slightly less mad than the rest.”
“Don, consider my point of view. I had to alert the police discreetly about the vehicle in the park. That event may not be imagined. You see, she doesn’t suffer from the usual delusions, paranoia and so on. Not at all. It’s surprising how normal she is beyond all the stuff about timeslips. I couldn’t let the matter drop, but I couldn’t advise her to go to just any police station. Until I get a handle on her condition, I’ve got to play things by ear. So I sent her to you. Plus – now don’t rush to any conclusions, Don – I have to consider the very, very remote possibility that she isn’t suffering any mental disease at all.”
“You mean, you believe…”
“No. I just don’t know. It’s difficult. In this one case, it’s hard to diagnose anything. And, as you know, if I had a diagnosis it would be confidential.”
“Look, what is a bloody timeslip?”
“Before movies and so on, timeslips became a fad when these two highly educated spinsters wrote a book about slipping back a century or more as they were walking around Versailles. Versailles is…”
“I know what Versailles is and where it is.”
“Well, I’ve read their account, and read the explanations of skeptics. The truth is, they probably ran into a kind of fancy dress party staged by an eccentric poet. So they thought they’d travelled back to Marie Antoinette’s day. As you never stop reminding me, Dibs, too much education can make you more obtuse than the average yob – especially if you’re not getting enough nookie. Not only do I think the Versailles affair was all a beat-up, but I’ve discussed the matter with Polly and she’s sure it is. She thinks just about everything written or rumoured about timeslips, time travel, the supernatural in general, is pure beat-up. I tell you: she’s ridiculously normal. She’s a hard-head. She spends her day managing one level of David Jones. She likes it on that floor because there are no major timeslips in Manchester and Soft Furnishings. And, to tell you the truth…this absolutely stays between us…she’s confused me by sometimes coming up with, well, certain details…”
“You mean, she’s told you something about the past? Something she couldn’t possibly have known?”
“By your tone, Don, I’m guessing she, er, confused you too?”
“Look, mate, I actually think this is a silly prank and maybe you’re in on it. Maybe the old Petersham club or the old Newtown club are in on it. Is that it? Is that what’s going on? Because, if it is, call it quits now and we can have a beer and a laugh. Otherwise…”
“Don, what did she tell you?”
“She named and described old Bumper. She even described how he pummeled some weasel who was perving on the little girls coming out of SCEGGS. Flogged him right here in my office. With the phone book. Bumper told me about that himself.”
“Well, really, that’s not such a revelation. He was notorious as well as famous. Anyone could guess that Bumper would have phone-booked someone in his office over the years…”
“Swot, this wasn’t the Bumper’s office. He only used it while they painted his. In a forty year police career, he was here for a total of three days.”
Polly left Darlinghurst Police Station in the company of Detective Maguire. He was very quiet, avoided looking at her. When they got into his car, there was a clunk as all the doors locked. Obviously, police cars must have a special way of locking, considering the nature of certain passengers.
Still the detective said nothing, still he did not look at her.
It was late June. Already, before five, it was getting dark.
After a short drive through Paddington, it was Polly who spoke.
“If you’d just turn down to the left, we can park under the flats where I live.”
“No. I’ll stop alongside the park. I want you to show me where this event occurred.”
“But…I didn’t mention to you that it happened near here.”
“Someone tried to run you over, down there near the kiosk, right?”
“How did you know?”
“Oh, Don’s got…sort of an intercom thing. I heard.”
“You heard? Everything?”
“Yeah. Let’s stop here, near the Mitchell Street entrance. The park’s closed to cars after sunset. We can walk down.”
There was another loud clunk, as the doors came unlocked. Polly did not move in her seat, as she surveyed the darkening park.
“Detective Maguire, you heard that description I gave of the colour and model of the car?”
“Detective, I didn’t describe the model or its colour. It was too dark.”
“Yeah, well, it doesn’t matter…Let’s go look at where this car tried to…”
“I’d rather just go home.”
Now Maguire turned and looked hard at Polly.
“You really should have told Dibs what you saw, as soon as you laid eyes on me in his office. He’s not in on it, you know. Dibs would have helped you. Too late now, Miss Floor Manager. And you can stop playing dumb. I know you got a good look at me last week.”
“But…I’ve never seen you before today. Unless…Oh, no! Unless there was a slip…”
“You saw me just fine. We can both stop pretending. That light was strong enough, and you stared right into my face. I still don’t know how you wriggled away. That was bloody miraculous, like how you dodged this car last night. You’re a nimble one, Miss Floor Manager. I had to spend days finding out who you were, what your routine was, to set up that hit-and-run. Somehow, you managed to disappear like a puff of smoke – again! But you’ve used your ration of tricks…”
Polly, a quick adapter due to her bizarre existence, recalled that the passenger door was still unlocked. In a trice, she was out of the car and was racing through the pedestrian gate, down into the darkening park. It was the very place he wanted to lure her, but, with enough of a lead, she would be able lose him. Instinct drew her on to familiar ground, where she knew every path, tree and structure. The darkness aiding, it would have worked, except…
Her high heels! Her heels were strapped on!
Meanwhile, Maguire swore furiously then scrambled from his seat and followed.
Polly had no time to stop and throw off the shoes which were hindering her. If she screamed she would be easier to follow in the dark. If only she had run toward the Paddington shops and crowds! If only there was a late jogger or dog walker!
Maguire was close, panting, his shoes thudding, keys jangling. At times he seemed to veer off her track, but she could not open up enough of a lead on him. She heard him fall and swear, but he was quickly on his feet again – and gaining. Her best chance was to run across the drive, then into the confusion of shrubbery behind the Sydney High dressing sheds, pausing there a moment to ditch the shoes. If she could run freely…
She could no longer hear Maguire behind her. It was much darker, for some reason, as if it were suddenly midnight.
Near the bottom of the hill she could see someone moving by the lake. Nearby, there was a light. If she could get to that person, Maguire would be constrained, at least enough for her to get the shoes from her feet. Perhaps the person was a park ranger, perhaps…
She drew right up to the figure crouched by the lake and opened her mouth to speak. In the light from a security lamp attached to the nearby dressing sheds, she saw that the person was wrapping a long chain about a naked man. The stranger turned his face toward Polly…
And Polly knew that Maguire was no longer behind her. She knew that today was no longer today.
This was the slip: the timeslip where Polly saw Maguire – and he saw her.
Maguire looked hard at Polly as he rose from a crouch near the chained body and advanced. Now he shone a torch on her. And now she remembered that, attached to her blouse was a David Jones badge with her name, under the words “Floor Manager”.
As he did this, Polly contemplated her best chance. She rushed to the side, to the shadows of the trees.
She was not quick enough. The burly Maguire, the Maguire of her timeslip, had hold of her.
Maguire had followed Polly down the hill, swearing and panting. He had gained on her. The park was empty. He could drag her to the pond and hold her head under, like he meant to do the week before. Easy, so easy. She was stumbling. In the darkness of some trees he lost her. Then he spotted her again. If she stopped to kick off her high heels, he would have her in seconds. If she kept running in them, he would have her just as surely. He tripped, losing track of her for a moment. Then he was on his feet and had her back in sight. Once more, he gained on her…
Then she vanished.
Just like the week before. Gone. Just gone!
Moments later, there was a siren sounding from the direction where he had parked his car. Next there was a screech of tyres. Doors slamming. Flashlights and voices.
The sky was dark but less so. Dusk, again. Today, again. Maguire’s grip on Polly had evaporated. Maguire had evaporated. She saw several figures moving, with flashlights, up in the direction from which she had run. Then she heard:
“Polly Vaughan. It’s all right. We’ve got him. Maggot. We’ve got Maguire.”
It was the voice of Chief Inspector Dibble.
“So, if we drag the pond we’ll find a body?”
“No, Mr. Dibble. You’re the one who knows about criminals. I’m guessing that, since I witnessed him wrapping it in chains, he took the body somewhere else.”
“A body, naked, with chains wound around it. Interesting. Very interesting. In fact, you’d be surprised just how interesting that is.”
The other police had taken Maguire away. Dibble had decided to invite Polly to a coffee in nearby Paddington. The formalities could wait for the next morning. In fact, it was more important to get the stories straight from all parties before proceeding to formalities.
“Mr. Dibble, what made you decide to follow us?”
“I’m thorough. I’m very thorough. After you left I put in a call to the Premier’s Department. Turns out Maggot signed for a key to the Centennial Park gate. Told ’em he was looking for a flasher, but he made no entry about it on his duty sheet. Pretty stupid, really. If he’d succeeded in running you down, the question would be asked who else could be in the park with a vehicle after dark. Although…
“Maybe he used a spare car from the pool, rather than his nominated vehicle. Signed out his own, took another – that might have worked. Come to think of it, one his mates was off sick. We would only have checked his car for marks and damage, in the unlikely event that we connected him with the hit-and-run. I dunno. Still pretty stupid. Stupid and messy. I’ve never esteemed Maggot Maguire. Don’t trust a man who wears a brown suit, my mum used to say.”
“But can he be charged with anything now? Since he wouldn’t have ditched the body in the pond.”
“Your description of what you saw in your…timeslip? It’s interesting, like I said. A certain dope dealer known as Anthony Abrahams has just come up in a net outside Watson’s Bay. He was naked and wrapped in chains. Think of that, next time you have the lobster at Doyle’s.
“Abrahams was cutting in on some bigger people in the drug game. Maggot arrested Abrahams a few months ago, and we assumed he was just doing his job for a change. It’s pretty obvious now he was arresting Abrahams for purely commercial reasons.”
“You mean, he arrested this man Abrahams because he was competing with the other people?”
“Happens all the time, missie. I suppose I should have realised it, but an arrest is an arrest. Anyway, Abrahams got off because of Maggot’s stupid handling of the case. Did I mention that Maggot Maguire is stupid?
“The rest I can only guess, for the moment. I’m betting that, after stuffing up, Maggot was then ordered to arrange Abrahams’ death professionally, but decided to do it himself on the cheap. His people will be furious with him for acting off his own bat. These days you just get a couple of blokes in from Korea. They’re here for a day or two, the target is dead, the Koreans are back home next day eating their kimchee. Maggot, being cheaper than a used tea bag, did a home-made job instead – and stuffed up again. With you able to identify him, he was in trouble with the law and doubly in trouble with his employers. It’s obvious Maggot gets his ideas the same place he gets his suits…
“Can you see why he wanted you dead?
“When you came in today with that weird story, I never realised Maggot could be after you, missie. I’m just in the habit of giving him errands so I don’t have to look at his stupid dial and his brown suits. Sorry about that. Amazingly, he’s never realised why we call him Maggot. Thinks it’s a term of endearment. Strewth, even the most bent ones disapprove of Maggot Maguire. And not every cop in Sydney is bent, you know. You get the ones like Shepherd, Rayner, McGroder…and me. I only look and sound sinister. You know I’m at Mass every single morning?”
“I’m joking. I just like the look on people’s faces when I say that. Anyway, it looks like we have a case. Maggot is pretty soft. Cunning, but soft. We’ll get him to admit to most of it. Since he’s already dangerously out of favour with them, he won’t shield his employers. He’ll take our offers of protective custody. It won’t be a prob. Could even lead to some juicy mass arrests. We just need you to identify him in court.”
“But how will I explain what I was doing dressed like this, by a pond in Centennial Park, staring at a corpse and murderer in the middle of the night? Even I don’t know the day or the time. I was in a timeslip. I only saw the whole thing an hour ago.”
“Your…your flaming timeslips…”
Dibble’s ironic grin faded to that grim neutral expression. He was silent quite a while, then:
“Just tell ’em you have a medical condition that makes you go to strange places at strange times. We’ll get your doctor to back it all up, say you’re not a ratbag, just a bit odd. Maggot trying to kill you twice should make the case strong enough. Or was it three times that he tried to kill you?”
“It was three. All in Centennial Park.”
“Bloody timeslips! Anyway, he’ll go to water when we put a few propositions to him. We may not even need you to identify him.”
“So, Mr. Dibble, you believe me? About…you know?”
“I dunno. If there’s a place in Sydney that’s likely to have one of those slips, as you call ’em, it would be that pond. Busby’s Pond. I was there the day we fished out Sallie-Anne – after Neddy Smith gave her the big swim. I dunno, I dunno…
“Poor old Maggot Maguire would believe you. He’s complaining about how you can disappear. Like a ghost, he says. I dunno, I dunno…Look here, missie, can you go forward in time as well as back?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve already been to this year’s Melbourne Cup and Rugby League Grand Final.”
“What the bloody…So what happened? I mean, what will happen? You know what I mean. Don’t tell me South Sydney actually…”
“Now I am joking.”