“Now, I don’t suck up to any bugger, Quinlivin. You can be sure of that. I especially don’t suck up to…you know…”
“Well, people with…with a past. Let me put it like that. No offence to either of you two.”
“Oh, none taken, Dibs.”
“So I’m not peeing in your pockets when I say that there is something about the stuff you brew up here that turns me into a drinker. Away from this place, I’m a two-beers man. But here! I mean, when people say such-and-such a wine has a flavour of pepper and so on, I can’t taste any pepper. All I taste is grapey vinegar. But this stuff you make…I can really taste pepper. No, really…actual pepper…”
Dessie glanced toward the benches, hoping he had remembered to put away the large jar of peppercorns. He had.
“Not only that, but my bowels work like a dream after I’ve been with you blokes drinking your plonk. My old pop used to give us spoonfuls of glycerine to make our bowels go this good…”
The quick look Quinlivin exchanged with Dessie was a touch guilty. Just how much glycerine had they been adding?
The three men sat in their party caps before plastic bowls of nuts and sweets as well as a platter of fruitcake. There have been few odder friendships than that between these men, who had only ever been three together in a prison winery.
Don “Dibs” Dibble, recently retired Chief Inspector, alone was drinking the wine. His rambling frame was starting to sway on the flimsy stool which had always tolerated his weight, but never before with so much movement. After a life of virtue and vigilance, he was falling victim to cunningly faked prison wine.
Jockey-sized Dessie Saleh, wisp of a Top End cameleer’s son, was still timid in the presence of a policeman, retired or not. He sat stiffly, and would have preferred to be on the fringe of the conversation, listening but not speaking, tinkering about the shed rather than seated as an equal.
“So…you two aren’t tempted to take a drink with me?”
“Well, Dibs, prison rules and all so on…”
“I know that, Quin, but it’s flamin’ Christmas. You tell ’em I said to make an exception, because I want to drink a toast to the memory of the finest man that you or I ever knew, Quin. I want to drink to the late Clive McGroder! The man who nabbed Quinlivin twice, the second time almost from his grave…and did so on the condition that the authorities would place you in a low security boob like this – if you gave your word not to escape! How many men could pull that off? Who else could have caught you in the first place, Quin? Who else could make you give your word and keep it? We both know you could be through and out of this place like a fly from a country dunny…”
After exchanging looks akin to grimaces with his assistant, Quinlivin poured out two very small measures of “wine” into plastic tumblers.
“Well, if we’re drinking to old Clive, we’ll have to do it properly. Because there is just one man I’d ever let catch me…”
“Let him? You didn’t let him, Quinlivin!”
“No, Dibs, of course not. But I did help keep him on the job…”
“I seem to recall talk of Clive getting moved off your case…Something to do with that flamin’ dill, Brad Ball, was it?”
“Bit of a story, actually. You won’t have heard much about it, since it was hushed up. Even I had trouble finding out how things unfolded. After I got away from the credit union they blamed old Clive. Maybe because of his failure to publish in some wanky criminology journal? Next thing you know – and speaking of wankers – Brad Ball was in charge of catching me. The very bonehead who’d let me escape!”
“Brad Ball. If that young drongo had stayed in charge you’d still be on the loose.”
“Not necessarily, Dibs. Old Clive kept me sharp. I always knew those steady, plodding feet were coming up on me. I seemed to need him after me. He was my Hound of Heaven. I knew he’d never rush but never quit, never overrate himself or underestimate me. I couldn’t relax when Clive was in charge. But when they gave the reins to Bradley Ball with his cute little bits of trimmed face hair – and told Clive to sit at a desk and just advise – I could feel myself uncoiling. Soon I’d get downright sloppy…
“Besides, it was a plain bloody insult to both of us! Brad Ball! My God!
“No. I had to get old Clive back in the saddle…”
Brad Ball, already in holiday clothes, perched his Oakley Radarlocks on top of his shaven skull to check his phone messages. As he did so, he let out little whimpers of amusement, with the occasional sneer or pout.
The other young detective, a little in awe of the department prodigy, waited in silence.
At last Brad Ball pocketed his phone.
“Sorry mate, but these days I get messages from people you wouldn’t believe. The Q case is still red hot and, to be frank, I’m their main go-to dude these days. Didn’t ask for it, just got it slapped on my plate. I’d say they’ve decided to nudge old Clive McGroder into retirement. Just between you and me I think they’re not too happy he was late arriving at the credit union when Quinlivin was holed up there with the hostages. Left me in charge there while he worried about securing all escape routes. I was cool with that, cool with any command situation…but I’d never met Quinlivin before, had I? Also, I don’t think the higher-ups are easy with those two – I mean Quinlivin and McGroder – having a weird kind of friendship.”
“What was he like? Quinlivin, I mean?”
“Like nobody or nothing, Marto. That’s the takehome message out of this little briefing of ours. Be ready. For anything. I’ll only be gone for two weeks – God knows I need to take leave some time – and developments aren’t likely over Christmas. But be ready. You’re dealing with Quinlivin.”
“Will you be contactable at all?”
“Sure. I’ll be on the water a lot, moving base with the fish, but you’ll have my private number. However you might not reach me if I’m surfing or pulling in big barras from the father-in-law’s Sea Conqueror.”
“He’s got one of those!”
“Yeah. Top bloke, Fiona’s dad. Got the dealership for Sea Conqueror and River Demon in both northern states…”
“Wow. Good fishing then, Brad.”
Brad Ball leaned forward, dropping his voice:
“Marto, you may get a tip that Quinlivin is trying to reunite with friends for Christmas dinner. He’s rumoured to do that every year, and there’s always a dud tip or two as to his whereabouts. You have to follow up on any tips – obviously – but do it very, very quietly. I’m changing the pursuit culture, with the nod from up top. We have to make this whole Quinlivin business like when they capture a major terrorist. Nobody is hearing anything…next thing, they’ve grabbed the terrorist. And don’t bother old Clive McGroder. He’s not exactly off the case, not officially, but he’s just one of a group now, a desk jockey. Plus…there’s a feeling coming from above…a culture shift, if you know what I mean…”
“Yeah, sure. The culture. I’m getting where you’re at.”
“You’re effectively in charge in my absence, Marto, not McGroder. Almost certainly, nothing will happen. There’ll just be some useless tips to follow up, for form’s sake. Make this command experience for yourself. At some point well into next year Quinlivin will try something, thinking we’ve gone to sleep a bit. But we’ll be wide awake. This is a new command culture, Marto…
“Now, I want you to check these out.”
Brad Ball, with a theatrical card dealer’s move, spread a number of photos before Dane Martenson.
“Marto, these are mostly what you’ve already seen. Photos of Quinlivin with and without beard, mug shots and so on. But by a miracle we got a shot of the girlfriend’s face. It’s from the phone of a spectator at the Coast Credit Union siege. She’s sitting in a car leaving the scene but the face is very clear. She may change her look, but the features are clear. You need to study those features.”
“Wow. I didn’t know we had this!”
“You weren’t supposed to know, till now. Nobody is to know, or she’ll just go to ground, Quinlivin-style. We’ve confiscated the phone, and there are only a tiny number of hard copies. It’s for studying, not showing around, that photo. Consider it a secret thread, just one thread, that might be just enough to lead us to the Big Q.”
“But…if the photo could be made public…”
“Forget it. You’ll understand when you’ve had more command experience. We don’t want to ID the woman through public exposure. Why blow whistles? But eventually there’ll be a strong tip from someone who doesn’t like Quinlivin and/or does like the record size of the reward. Someone likely to tip us off knows who this chick is. Eventually, we’ll get a tail on her – but only if she feels anonymous. We need her to relax and be careless…then lead us right to Q. Got it, mate? See where we’re heading here? We need to get on the same page with the new pursuit culture. This is pivotal. We’re not going to make any branches crackle. I’ll do the usual press conferences and say the usual yadda-yadda. The upper echelons like the way I handle the media, and tap into the culture generally. But Q is not going to know what direction we’re really coming from. We’re going to own the game, right? Our game, not his.”
“Yeah, sure. I see it now. The culture and so on. Hey, she…she’s not a bad bit of gear, Quinlivin’s girlfriend…”
“Yeah, she’s pretty doable. I’d consider making her scream.”
It was Dane Martenson’s very first caller. Dane knew he needed to project calm but not indifference.
“Okay, we appreciate all information, sir. But without details…”
“I’ll give you details, but I want to make sure of two things. I need to stay anonymous and I need the money. How do you arrange all that?”
“Sir, with anonymity there’s no prob. Everything stays between us. Not even the heads of other departments will know who you are. As for the money…”
“The money’s no good if Quinlivin’s mates drop me off Sydney Heads in concrete shoes.”
“Look, I wouldn’t over-dramatise. We have no proof Quinlivin has ever killed. It may just be part of his myth. He tends to treat these things as a game, with winners and losers. But you’ll remain anonymous, so it doesn’t matter…”
“And the money?”
“For the moment we can give you a special code by text message. Like a pin number, and traceable to us. It’ll state your potential entitlement in the event of apprehension of the fugitive. Easy, all right? So if you’d like to give your information…”
“Better than that. Much, much better. I’m about to send you some photos via email. They’re from late yesterday, phone dated. After that, we can talk some more.”
Dane Martenson waited for the emails to come through. When he saw them he felt a rush.
He could barely refrain from ringing Brad Ball’s private number, but knew he should wait to talk to the informant again.
His phone rang. The informant.
“Recognise the lady in the other shot?”
Dane had the presence of mind to conceal his recognition of the woman.
“It’s Quinlivin’s girl.”
“Some of your people would have seen her at that famous credit union stuff-up – though she’s probably never been photographed. Check if you like. I can tell you right now: it’s his girl. The two of them are holed up right where the photos show. Quinlivin country. Remote shack, thick bushland, mangroves. He could have come in easily by water. You can see Quinlivin carrying parcels and beer. Check out the size of that ham! You’ve got a clear shot of the girlfriend getting out of the Toyota Troopie with shopping bags and Christmas stuff. It’s still parked right there, guaranteed. And it’ll be there a day from now. They’re going to be having Christmas dinner tomorrow with friends or relatives, who are already on the spot. I’ve included pics of some of them.”
“Are you part of the celebrations?”
“You’re kidding. I know Quinlivin from boob. And he knows me. I spotted his girlfriend driving that Toyota north with some older people, and I followed her. I took the photos from a good distance, you can be sure of that. And you can be sure I’m now well away.”
“How do you know the girlfriend?”
“I know her from the one time she visited him in boob. She was disguised as a paid mole, but blokes like me know a real mole from someone’s missus or partner.”
“Do I get the payment code?”
“You get the code.”
“So, this is the place, Phil. See? The Toyota parked under the tin extension. Pity the plate numbers were obscured in the photos. There’s the side door where the girl carried in the Christmas shopping…”
“Okay, but we need to keep our voices low, Dane.”
“Sorry, it’s these cicadas. Deafening!”
“Every seven years they swarm like this. But don’t speak louder, just put your head closer to speak. Human voices still carry through cicada din. It’s a frequency thing. Now…as agreed, we’ll probably have to wait till they’re all seated for dinner. Seems wrong to bust in on a family Christmas, but “surprise saves lives” is the unofficial motto of the NSU. I know it’s sticky and uncomfortable out here, but this is the best way.”
Everything had been the result of Dane Martenson’s own decisions. Brad Ball’s phone was still out of signal range. Clive McGroder, old and out of favour, was in Sydney but on his Christmas break.
Dane Martenson had decided to engage the Northern Strike Unit and move immediately in concert with them.
He flew north to meet and to brief the specialised team that very afternoon after talking to the informant. On Christmas morning he found himself driving then hiking through steamy bushland with a squad of police in drab green overalls. While Dane had worn his old army camouflage uniform and was otherwise normally equipped, the members of the NSU had assault rifles, shotguns, flak jackets, helmets with night goggles…the lot.
For the last stage of the approach they had waded through mangrove in fierce summer heat to avoid the road to the isolated house.
The large squad had moved like one silent predator.
Now they waited.
The shack was larger and better built than Dane had expected. The toilet was either inside or on the other side of the building, a fact which meant they would have less chance of isolating Quinlivin. No, they would likely have to take the whole group at once.
As time passed they could see figures coming and going past the mosquito netted windows. From inside there were sounds of laughter and the clatter of cookware. The smell wafting out to the lurkers was unmistakably of roasting meat.
A young woman briefly glimpsed in profile at one of the windows had the same hair-do and general appearance as the woman in the informant’s photos.
At one point an older woman came out to the Toyota to fetch something from its glove box. It was the same older woman as in one of the photos taken by the informant.
How eerily normal they all seemed, the relatives or friends of Quinlivin, as they prepared to sit down to Christmas dinner.
At last there was a settling inside. Figures stopped moving past windows. The voices and laughter had a different tone. Then a sound hard to mistake: that of a carving knife being clashed against a sharpener.
It was two o’clock.
Dane exchanged a glance with Phil Dougherty, the strike unit leader. He nodded, then put his head very close to Dane’s.
“Okay, the team goes in first. Not you. Remember, Dane. You follow after we secure everything and everybody.”
“It’s just that in a command situation…”
“Bugger all that. Just remember this whole squad has had to cancel Christmas at a day’s notice. Don’t rub them the wrong way. This is what we do, and what you don’t do. Clear?”
The team of specialists were soon advancing on the house. They seemed perfectly rehearsed, needing just a flick of the hand or movement of the head to co-ordinate their movements.
Soon there was a helmeted officer, assault weapon at the ready, under every window and by every possible exit. Several had moved round the other, more open side of the house.
The strike was indeed a strike. It was over in moments.
A door was forced and half the unit was inside. The rest were poking their guns through windows which had been smashed almost in the moment the door yielded.
The only distinct sound after that was a long shriek. It was the voice of a younger woman.
Next moment Phil was at the door.
“Come forward, Dane. All secured.”
Dane walked with authority to the front door and stepped inside.
Members of the unit held the paralysed diners under their guns. In the first moments, they had no way of knowing these were police. The older man at the head of the table, who had been poised to carve, sat wide-eyed and stared in complete bafflement at the intruders. He wore a party hat off-centre while a paper whistle still dangled from the corner of his mouth.
There was a muted scuffle going on below the level of the food-laden table, next to where a young woman – the one glimpsed at the window – was writhing and whimpering as a female officer kept her pinned in her chair.
Now Dane moved around the table and looked down.
Three officers had cast their weight over the athletic body of a youngish man wearing only Cronulla shorts. He was on his stomach. His face had struck the ground hard and, as he struggled under the weight of his captors, he kept trying to spit words through the blood flowing from nose and mouth.
In what was clearly a command situation, Dane now took command.
“Keep him quiet. If he fights, introduce his face to the floor again.”
The man on the floor almost choked as he tried again to scream.
“You can save it all up. Save your words for my superior. He’s been wanting to catch up with you for a long time. You can tell your story to Brad Ball.”
Now the enraged man on the floor went limp, turned his unrecognisable, completely bloodied head sideways and spat more blood. He drew two heaving breaths. At last he gurgled out:
“I am Brad Ball.”
“I suppose it went too well. I thought Brad Ball would step outside at some point and there’d just be an embarrassing moment after they recognised him. Instead, the sting went the full distance, with real blood.”
“So, how did you arrange all that?”
“Not a lot to it, Dessie. The only technical bit was blocking Brad Ball’s mobile reception from a phone tower. It involves a hunting bow and lots of aluminium foil…but I don’t think Dibs wants to hear about that.”
“No I bloody well don’t!”
“Brad Ball’s father-in-law likes to tell half the state where he he can afford to go fishing and with what. Mouth like a steam shovel. Flash as a rat with a gold tooth. So, knowing where they’d be stopping for Christmas dinner, all my girl and I needed to do was wait for them to go fishing on the right tide then photograph ourselves mucking about outside their shack with parcels, jumping in and out of the Toyota and so on. We could have come and gone before Brad’s party got there, but it might have looked suspicious if we used our own car for photos then, when Dane and the police arrived, a different car was parked there. We also took a few long range shots of Brad Ball’s in-laws, minus Brad, to round out the story. My girl’s improvised Fiona Ball hairdo – observed as we watched Fiona go off fishing – added something. Only one thing could go wrong, but it didn’t.”
“What was that?”
“Dessie, to a real copper, the whole sting was utterly lame. As Dibs would know, all Martenson had to do was ring old Clive at home. Clive would have seen through it all in five seconds. But when you’re subbing for a genius like Brad Ball…”
“Did you hang about to watch the fun?”
“No way, and just as well. The Northern Strike Unit is quality. I really didn’t think Dane was going to go in so heavy and make such a fright for Brad Ball’s in-laws. That squad would have been combing the bush and mangrove for me within minutes. No, the girl and I were well south when the bust came. We had a little Christmas lunch together in Sydney – after I’d phoned Clive to wish him the compliments of the season, of course. Old bugger would never have taken a present from me, but he was about to get one anyway, in the form of reinstatement…”
“Christmas dinner? Where does a crim on the lam like you have Christmas dinner?”
“In that little Greek Club on Cleveland Street, the one that’s open every day of the year. Used to sell buckets of sly grog before the government extended opening hours. You know the place, Dibs. Just around from your old office in Regent Street coppers.”