The whole plaza had been sealed off. There were only the police and their vehicles, all at a discreet distance from the Coast Country Credit Union. One late model Falcon had its nose right to the entrance. The car was empty, with its driver door flung open.
Toona Plaza was a typical small town makeover, with the street landscaped and closed to through-traffic. It had outdoor seating, a mall, some arcades, along with some original shopfronts.
All was now deserted, except for police, though curious crowds were assembling at both ends of the cordoned area. The situation inside the credit union was no robbery. That Ford Falcon had been chased by dozens of pursuit vehicles and a helicopter for hours; its driver, finally pinched within the centre of the town, had decided to park and dash inside the Coast Country Credit Union. It was a place where he would know what to do, since rural hold-ups were his specialty.
The whole of NSW knew; radio stations had been giving updates; the images would be all over Australian television by evening.
It had started with a tip-off from another known criminal, no doubt influenced by the half-million in reward, and that had started the chase. Now came the finale of the biggest manhunt in the state’s history.
The fugitive cornered in the Coast Country Credit Union was Quinlivin.
Some local police, who happened to be on foot near the plaza, tried to approach after he stormed the little building; but Quinlivin, with the confidence of a professional, had promptly moved to the entrance with a hostage, a young woman. He had one arm round the woman’s throat, with the other he brandished a shotgun. Keeping his face obscured – a famous knack of his – Quinlivin shouted out a promise to release the woman, who would relay further instructions for the police. In the meantime, they needed to stay to the other side of the plaza and wait. He also reminded them that he had ten other hostages.
The police co-operated. This was Quinlivin, after all.
As the muzzle of the shotgun became visible behind the automatic glass door, the door opened and the same young woman shuffled uncertainly to the middle of the exit. She stayed in full sight, looking to the side and nodding, as if listening to final instructions from her captor. The gun muzzle was waving in her direction. Now she advanced into the plaza, almost stumbling in her high heels. She was pretty and groomed, in that careful but dated way of country town girls.
As she drew nearer to the police across the other side, her terror and relief were obvious.
“I…I have to give messages. To whoever’s in charge.”
A sharply suited young man with a teardrop beard and shaven head responded: “In charge? Me, for the time being. Brad Ball. Detective. There’s a senior man on the way, name of McGroder. He knows more about Quinlivin. Firstly, are you all right?”
“Because if anything has happened, if he’s done anything to you…”
“No, nothing. I’m fine. I’m a trauma nurse, I can monitor myself.”
“Okay, what does the hostage taker look like?”
“You don’t know?”
“He changes his appearance. Famous for it. This time he’s had months to do it.”
“Well, he looks…average. Average in everything: face, height, speech. Dark hair, cut very short, needs a shave…he’s just so average. It’s strange, when I think about it, how average he is.”
“Sounds like our man. Okay, the other hostages? How many?”
“Ten. Six women and four men. But I need to tell you something. He cut some young guy in the back of the leg. A tourist or backpacker who tried to fight him. It’s like the thug wanted to show the rest of us what would happen if we made trouble. There’s blood, lots of it, and the tourist’s in pain. I wasn’t allowed to help him, so I don’t know how bad it is.”
“Christ! Don’t tell me the tourist is Indian. Please! They’re already threatening to call off the next cricket tour.”
“No, no…he’s just English, or Irish…something like that. He was very brave, but he needs attention. The others inside are fine. Just frightened.”
“We’ll see what we can do for the tourist. Now, the messages?”
“Nobody is to come any nearer to the building. And nobody is to interfere with the Ford Falcon near the door. No shooting at the tyres or anything like that.”
“What else? How can we talk to him?”
“He says you’re to ring him on the mobile of the credit union manager, who’s one of the hostages. Once he’s got your number registered on that phone, he’ll ring you back. But he’ll only ring when he wants. He won’t answer the phone. If you do ring, he’ll assume you’re trying to distract him. He’s collected all our phones, plus money, cards, passports: everything!”
The young detective called to one of the uniformed police: “Ring the credit union main office. Get the manager’s number.”
“Why doesn’t he just give us a number of any phone he can find?”
“Control, probably. He wants us to know he’s definitely got the manager there as his hostage. Psychology, also. He’s now the manager. And the phone has to be a mobile because he wants to move around freely in there. He won’t let us control or predict. It’s Quinlivin: he’s thorough. Quickly, get that number. Oh, and tell our HQ that my phone is off-limits to all calls except from that number. They can reach us on your phone.”
The young detective turned back to the woman. “Look, we’d better take your details, then get you checked out medically.”
“No, I want to make sure you get that young tourist out of there. I’m a trauma nurse, down from Walcha to visit friends. I can help. He was so brave, and the other just threw him to the floor and cut across the top of his thigh, like he was meat in an abattoir. We have to help him!”
“Well, till more medicos get here, I suppose you could stick around.”
The uniformed officer called out: “Sir, I’ve got the number: 0416 426 302.”
Brad Ball was dialling the number within a moment. Then the call was ended by the recipient. A minute passed, the phone rang.
“Brad Ball, North Region Detectives. Who’s this?”
“Starts with a Q. McGroder not there yet?”
“The boss? We’re expecting him. Apparently you know one another.”
“He’s the one I’ll negotiate with. Nobody else. I’ll ring you when I see him out there with you.”
“Wait! The lady said someone was hurt in there. What about we kick things off by letting the guy go. Let’s show some good faith here.”
“Your first hostage negotiation, Brad Ball? The answer is no. Now, it’s au revoir till Clive McGroder gets here.”
Brad Ball winced, then explained to the others: “Hung up. Won’t talk till McGroder arrives. Bugger it.”
The young woman flared up. “No. The tourist is in pain, bad pain. We have to do something. Please, try to ring, try to…” She moved forward from the line of police vehicles. “Please, let me go back, let me talk…” One of the uniformed officers grabbed her.
Unexpectedly, the phone rang.
“I see the lady is getting agitated. She’s not going to rush forward, is she? I believe you know that I have a rule: kill anyone or anything…”
“…but only for a reason. Yeah, I’ve heard about your famous rule.”
“Good. Restraint is needed. But I have good news. We’re all a bit tired of listening to this Pommie backpacker moaning. His language is making me blush, and he’s making such a mess. I like a calm situation, so I’m going to let him go. This will be your first triumph, Brad Ball.”
“That’s great, Mr. Quinlivin. Can I call you by your first name?”
“No. I love the formality. Now, listen. When our tourist walks out, he won’t be walking fast. As well as a cut under the buttock, he’ll have short cord between his ankles and his hands will be heavily taped. That’s to stop him running, kicking and headbutting me. He’s a handfull. You are not to approach him, no matter how much he stumbles about. You wait for him to cross the plaza to you. He can do it. Understood?”
“And then make sure you restrain him. Otherwise…Bang! McGroder will be pleased that you’ve already got two of the hostages from me. Don’t spoil his day. Over and out.”
They waited. The phone rang again.
“Okay, he’s coming out. I’ve told him I’ll shoot him if he tries anything, or anybody else does. He’s moving to the door now. I’ll stay on the line a minute. Be careful, he’s a hothead.”
A man appeared in the door. He had on a bright red shirt and cargo pants. A mop of chaotic blond hair tumbled before his face. His arms were behind him, there was blood down the pants, more on one side. He shuffled forward, on to the empty plaza. He had cord between his legs, to stop him moving quickly.
The man tried to move faster and fell. He was curled on the ground with his back to the onlookers, and they could see one side of his lower body saturated in blood. His hands were taped up high above the wrists.
The nurse dashed forward, but a policeman grabbed her.
“We have to help him! It’s sadistic!”
Brad Ball spoke into his phone as the woman was being dragged back.
“It’s okay. We’re controlling her. Mr. Quinlivin, are you still there?”
“I’m still here. Now, keep her under control, and when the Pom gets to you, control him too. He’s a maddie, wants to fookin’ well fook me, he says. You’ll see what he’s like soon. Control your people, Brad Ball. Over and out.”
The call ended. Out on the plaza, the tourist writhed on the ground, kept struggling to his feet, then falling. In the end, he wriggled his way over to a street pole. By leaning against it as he rose, he kept his balance, and was able to get upright. Brad Ball used his public address system.
“Take your time. Just take very short steps…that’s it…short steps…balance yourself…”
As the man got closer to the police line, they could hear him sputtering:
“I’ll fookin’ get ‘im. Sliced me on purpose, like a fookin’ dog…”
“Stay calm, sir. Just keep your balance, now. We’ll talk soon.”
Finally the man arrived, sweating and bloody, and flung himself over the bonnet of a police car. Above his blood-soaked cargo pants he wore a Man U shirt – the picture of a young English tourist, northern variety. Brad Ball and two officers rushed to support him. The nurse was quick to follow. The man was drooling on to the bonnet as he snarled:
“I’ll fookin’ get the dog. I’ll fookin’…”
“Now, sir, just stay quiet till we get you untied. Someone got a Stanley knife?”
They cut the cord between the man’s legs easily, but his wrists were so solidly fastened that Brad Ball decided to let the practiced hands of the nurse cut carefully through the half-dozen layers of tightly wound packing tape.
While they worked to free him, the tourist, apparently in his thirties, was ranting like a classical lager lout about how he would fookin’ get the fooker. However, from his own account, it was obvious that, in a return bout, he would be helpless against Quinlivin, who had simply thrown him to the floor, cut him deliberately as he held him down, and then bound his hands. When the tourist started to kick out with his one good leg, Quinlivin hobbled him with a piece of cord.
As the man calmed down, he began to accept that he was lucky to be on the outside. The nurse insisted on immediate medical treatment at the nearby Midcoast Hospital. Brad Ball nodded, though he seemed uncertain.
“I’ve got an ambulance on the way, as standby. But maybe…Look, what about I send the two of you up to the hospital with one of my officers? He can take all your details while this gentleman gets his leg treated. What about it, nurse?”
“That’s fine. I can seat him so the bleeding is reduced. And it’s only a few minutes trip. But can we take some towels from somewhere? So he doesn’t bleed on the upholstery.”
“I keep a pile in my boot for drunks’ night,” said one of the uniformed officers, Kieran Dunphy.
“Okay, Officer Dunphy can give you towels to put under the gentleman’s legs. In fact, he may as well drive you there. Dunphy, when you get them admitted, take all their details, any statements, anything they might remember about Quinlivin or the hostages…anything about the physical layout of the credit union…how and where he’s holding the hostages…all that. Only contact me if there’s something solid. And ring Goldie’s phone, not mine. My phone is for Quinlivin only. We need to simplify here.”
As the police car was about to draw away, the nurse leaned out the window toward Brad Ball.
“It’s really him, isn’t it? Quin-something. The one they’re all chasing.”
“It’s him. It’s Quinlivin.”
“Well, he’s a monster!”
As the car was leaving, Brad Ball could hear the Englishman:
“He’s a fookin’ dog. A fookin’ dog is what he is…”
After that, all they could do was wait for Detective Inspector McGroder to arrive, or wait for another call – whichever came first.
After half an hour, the phone rang.
“McGroder’s taking his time. I suppose old Clive is organising all the road blocks and air support. He’s very thorough. Most would just come rushing here. Not Clive.”
“He knows his job. Look, Mr. Quinlivin, we really appreciate that you’ve released two people. Would it be possible to release one more? That’s less for you to worry about.”
“Why, Brad Ball, you are a greedy boy. I bet you’d take all my hostages if you could. I’m a little annoyed, so I’m going to hang up now. When I ring again, please don’t be so pushy, or it may be our last chat.”
The phone went dead.
Twenty minutes passed, then it rang again.
“Now, Brad Ball, I want to make another one of my humane gestures…”
“That’s great, Mr. Quinlivin.”
“Don’t interrupt me. I have a lady here who’s worried about getting her children picked up from karate. I’m going to let her talk to you, but if she tries to say anything coded or out of line, well, I’ll just have to kill her, won’t I? I’m giving her the phone now.”
“Hello?” The voice was thin.
“Hi there. I’m Detective Brad Ball.”
“Look, my name is Sandra Dillon. I work here. My kids are at the dojo up in Gawler Street. There’s nobody to pick them up. They’re probably waiting right now. If someone could help…”
“We’ll send someone right away to pick them up. Are you all right? Are the others all right?”
The phone went dead again. Brad Ball turned to one of the local police. “You know a lady who works in there? Name of Dillon?”
The other nodded.
“Apparently her kids need to be picked up from karate. In Gawler Street. You know all about that?”
“Okay, go and pick them up. Then send them to a friend or relative you know of and get back here smartly.”
On the other phone, Brad Ball received a text message from Officer Dunphy. The English tourist was all right after receiving stitches. Dunphy was now taking details from the tourist and the nurse. Detective Ball had not been expecting much information from the two out-of-town people, who had only been in the credit union by chance.
Another thirty minutes passed.
The phone rang.
“I want a cricket score, Brad Ball.”
“You heard me. You’re going to have to stop playing dumb. What I say, I mean. I’ll ring back in fifteen.”
After fifteen minutes, the phone rang.
“England 5 for 233.”
End of call.
At last, Clive McGroder arrived, without ceremony, striding on his own across the plaza to where Brad Ball had command. Ball, like everyone else, recognised the famed and now elderly detective, whose father had hunted Darcy Dugan, and who had himself hunted every major fugitive since the 1970s.
He was a slight and balding man, who looked more alert than dominant. His eyes darted, everything else about him was pure composure. After brief introductions, he began to quiz Brad Ball in a voice so soft it surprised.
The younger detective explained all that had gone on since Quinlivin was cornered in the credit union. The older man listened without responding. Finally, he probed for details.
“So, nobody has come out since the nurse and the tourist?”
“And they’re with your man, up at the hospital?”
“Yes, and he’s just contacted me. The Englishman is all right. A few stitches needed. I suppose they’ll monitor him for a while. My man can stay with him.”
“And there are nine hostages left in there?”
“The nurse mentioned ten before the release of the Pommie. So did Quinlivin. I’ve got people asking around the crowd there if they know who might be in the Credit Union besides staff. Sandra Dillon is the only one I’ve actually spoken with inside.”
“No other possible exits? Nothing underground?”
“Nothing. We’ve got all plans, consulted council engineers. He’s trapped in there.”
“Have I…done the right things so far?”
“More or less…more or less. There’s just something bothering me. I’ve been organising the pursuit within a couple of hundred kilometre radius, and I can’t work out why he kept manoeuvring back to this town. We know he’s got a girlfriend in the area, but would he risk everything to see her, while the whole state is after him? I mean, we would have caught him today regardless, with the chopper and so many vehicles; but it’s like he wanted to spend time getting chased only to end up here. Why wouldn’t he try his luck on the open road, or in a town with more exits? Why not one of his famous cross-country dashes? Why pull in here, and try a low percentage play with hostages? He’s given me time to lock up the whole state. I’ve got men on forest trails and in back alleys.”
“Sir, maybe he was running low on fuel. Simple as that.”
“Maybe. In fact, when I think about it, you must be right, young feller. He could hardly stop at a servo and just fill up.”
There was silence and more waiting. Then the phone rang.
“So it’s Bradley now! Is McGroder with you yet, Bradley?”
“I thought you could see us.”
“That would mean I was standing in a certain place, wouldn’t it? You think I’m sniper bait, Bradley Ball?’
“No, no…I don’t know what I meant. Chief Inspector McGroder is here with me now. I’ll put him on.”
“I’ll ring him when I’m in the mood. My biorhythms go down this time of afternoon. Over and out.”
“What does he say?” McGroder asked, when Brad Ball lowered the phone in frustration.
“That he’ll ring you back. His biorhythms are low.”
McGroder snorted in amusement, shook his head.
They waited. Even McGroder could think of nothing else but to wait. As he did, the eyes kept darting, though there was nothing to see but the impassive brick front of the Coast Country Credit Union. The radio police car against which he was leaning was tuned to the cricket.
The phone, which was now in McGroder’s hand, rang.
“Clive, how have you been?”
“Not bad, Quin. Yourself?”
“Oh, you know, skipping meals, missing sleep…but what’s the score?”
“England are eight for 302. The new young quick has got five wickets. How are your biorhythms? Ready to, you know, negotiate and so on?”
“I suppose so. I’m just trying to get it final in my mind.”
“Quin, do you really want to go through all this? Hostages? You? We both know you don’t like hurting civilians. That’s what makes you special. You’re still a popular bloke. Even cops like you. You’ve never hurt one of us. Much. You’ve only killed – what? – a total of two, three low-lifes? Never any nasty stuff with sheilas. You’re not an animal like Dugan or Naden. You’re even a St. George supporter. Okay, you’ll have to be locked up, probably till you’re old. You know that, I know that. But I think I can improve your situation, I really do.”
“Clive, you’re not going to promise me cable television and my own sandwich toaster? Bloody sandwich toasters. They all lose their teflon after a bit. Have you noticed that? Come on, Clive. We both know this is my last chance at freedom. These new supermax jails…”
“No, Quin, I was thinking about education, about you using that powerful brain of yours. On the inside, you could become something. I’ve been giving it some thought…wait! Another wicket! The Poms are nine for 307.”
“Well, Clive, I need to think long and hard. With this powerful brain of mine. I’ll ring again before it gets dark. Looks like the Aussies will bat in the morning, weather permitting. Over and out.”
A full hour passed. The summer day was darkening. At last, the phone rang.
“Well, Quin, any thoughts? The people in there with you must be getting hungry. You must be peckish yourself. Shouldn’t we think about ending this before dinner?”
“Clive, I can’t make up my mind. Maybe I should give up, maybe I should arrange for a big pizza delivery and see how things are in the morning. My hostages will be okay for another day or two. Of course, I’m also considering a minibus to be backed up to the entrance and filled with hostages. Maybe Brad Ball could be our driver.”
“Come on, Quin. You’re cornered. The hostages-in-the-bus thing is a bloody turkey, and you know it. Look, I want several beers and good meal real soon. Of course, you’ll have to be arrested and processed, but I can arrange a good night for you as well. Maybe even some beers. They say you have a girlfriend in the area. We can let you see her tonight, if you’d like. Mate, it’s over. Why drag it out? I know you can drag it out, I know you might drag it out. But why? Why….?”
McGroder’s tone was suddenly dreamy. He stared, but at nothing. The hand with the phone fell limp to his side, as he muttered to himself:
“Why drag it out…Girlfriend…Drag it out….
McGroder winced like a man ready to despair. Then to Brad Ball:
“You said you’d been in touch with your man at hospital…who still hasn’t come back. Did you actually speak to him after he left here?”
“No, he texted me on another phone. Is there something wrong?”
“Girlfriend…Drag it out…”
McGroder, in a fury, lifted the phone to his ear again.
“Quin, you bastard!”
“What’s up, Clive? Another wicket? I thought it was stumps.”
“Jesus, Quinlivin…you’re not in the Coast Credit Union! You’re not bloody there!”
Long laughter at the other end, then: “Fair enough, Clive. I’ve been gone for hours. I didn’t expect it to go this smoothly; but when life sends you a Brad Ball, you make lemonade! What is it about blokes with those teardrop beards?
“Anyway, the hostages are locked in the stationary room. I didn’t tell them I was leaving, but I left ’em with water. Told Sandra Dillon I’d have her kids picked up. There’s a Pom who needs a shirt – anything but Manchester City. All the hostages are okay.”
“And the police officer? Dunphy? The one whose car you’ve been driving?”
“That was two cars ago. Get with the program, Clive! The officer is all tied up in the big storm drain in the park next to the hospital. Professional job, of course: no constriction or discomfort. I would have told you before it rained.”
“Is your girlfriend really a nurse? That cut looked bad.”
“I can’t tell you about my girlfriend, can I, Clive? You might start making inquiries. But I’m fine. I know how and where to slice for lots of mess and no real damage. You just have to keep a cut like that clean. The main thing was to get out before you arrived, so I needed some blood and sensation as distraction to speed things up. You would have recognised me, Clive.”
“So how did you manage to talk to Brad Ball while you were rolling around on the ground with hands taped? Don’t tell me! An earpiece and a microphone which you just had to retract through your clothes after you ended the call. The phone itself was in your hip pocket, your fingers were free. Best if it was the manager’s phone, so we wouldn’t think of tracking location. Jesus! And all that back-and-forth while we chased you was to give your girlfriend time to get to the credit union, ready to be the star hostage and hand taper. Then later, while you were driving away, she was Sandra Dillon, concerned mother…Jesus, Quinlivin, you play with people like you’re God! God won’t like that for much longer.”
“Don’t blame me, Clive, I’m for the death penalty. You keep locking me up when you should hang me. Anyhow, I’d better ditch this phone now. Don’t want you running traces on it. Let me tell you, it’s been a luxury to cruise across NSW for the last few hours – and not a policeman in sight, once we got our cop car beyond your control radius. At least, I think we’re still in NSW…
“Clive, have your beers and rest up. It all starts again tomorrow. Maybe I’ll make a little mistake, sometime, somewhere, before you retire – and you’ll be on to it. You do good work. My girlfriend says goodnight. Can I have a word with Bradley?”
McGroder, grim-faced, passed the phone to Brad Ball, who had been listening in disbelief.
“What do you want, Quinlivin?”
“That’s Mister Quinlivin. Bradley, I just wanted to apologise for being a fookin’ dog from fookin’ Manchester.”
McGroder snatched the phone back.
“Quin, still there?”
“Just for a moment.”
“Justice, Quin. Justice. I will get you.”
“If anybody does, I hope it’s you, Clive.”
“It’ll be me.”