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Bert Mallard reclines behind a massive oak desk, sucking on a Camel cigarette. Waving me over to a chair, he barks, “Still in touch with Jane?”
“Ahh… I— I—” I stutter. The chief editor’s bloodshot eyes bore into mine, his greasy lips massaging the butt. “Ahh… Yes, Mr Mallard.”
Eustace Jane is famous, and a symbol for all that is honourable in the journalistic profession. His heroic exploits as an international correspondent in conflict zones across the globe are what first inspired me to sign up for a journalism degree. He's also the reason why I able to score an enviable position at the Brisbane Post, the leading city paper.
Mallard leans back in his swivel chair and exhales a pungent cloud. The smoke tickles my nostrils. The sensation makes me want one too, but he doesn’t offer me one. “So what are your chances of getting him to cooperate on a story?”
“Good. Very good,” I assert.
“In that case, I’ve got a new assignment for you. The Mylestone death — it’s looking like a murder, but it seems no one’s talking so someone on the ground with some sway with the locals could make all the difference. You leave tomorrow, plan on being at least one week away. See Beck downstairs, she’ll sort you out with an expense account." Stubbing his cigarette into a glass ashtray, he snatches up the telephone receiver and dials for a line out. And as I slink out door, he bellows, “I’m giving you a chance so make sure you deliver.”
I return to my desk to collect my things. Phoebe darts over to perch on my desk. “Dana, what did he want?” An affable blonde with dazzling green eyes, she’s also a junior journo like me.
“I’m to go to Mylestone tomorrow and work up a story about the body in the cane field.”
“Ahh… The suspicious death.” Phoebe looks puzzled. “But why you?”
Despite how it sounds, it’s not an unreasonable question — it’s unheard of for a junior to be let out on their own to do a murder story let alone outside the city. “Eustace Jane,” I tell her.
“What about him?”
“I know him.”
Phoebe’s mouth drops open. “Ahh… I get it. Guess Mallard’s hoping you’ll get him to spill.”
“Guess so.” The joy in my expression fades.
“What’s up?” Phoebe asks, swinging one slender leg.
She kicks my chair. “Ahh — C’mon!”
“It’s just that when you put it like that, it’s really all about Eustace and less about the murder,” I confess. Or about me, I decide to refrain from adding.
“Well, yeah, sure.” Phoebe grins. “But it doesn't have to stay that way. You can satisfy Mallard and write up a stunning exclusive about the murder.” And as we canvass ways of carrying out a murder investigation, I’m getting more excited by each and every second. With reluctance, I glance at my watch. I want to keep talking but I have to get ready to leave the following morning.
I grab my bag. “Gotta go.”
"Okay." She tilts her head and suggests, “Don't let on immediately why you’re there. You may learn more.”
Good point. I nod. ‘Okay.” Phoebe's so fun, sassy and smart, I’m beginning to wish she was coming along.
“Besides, no one expects a serious journo to look like you,” Phoebe teases.
“Jeez, thanks.” I yank on her sleek plait.
I start the long drive north in my Datsun Sunny. On the way, I reminisce about when I was last up this way, six years ago, when I met first Jane. I was nineteen years old, and travelling with me was Martha MacNeil, otherwise known as Red. Shy with a delicate face and flaming red hair, Red was from Scotland, and studying biology in Australia on a one-year student exchange.
In a gaudy orange Kombi, we raced up the coast eager to reach the alluring realms of emerald forests and turquoise seas. Living in T’shirts, shorts and thongs, we cooked barbecued meals on the beach with the car tape deck permanently looped on Rolling Stones tracks. At the start of our journey, I scarcely knew Red but it didn't take long to discover she was an utter knock out at the pool table, leaving a string of chastened players along the way.
Just south of Mylestone, the heavens unleashed an almighty storm with a flood of frogs leaping all over the tarmac. The car skidded in big puddles, the wheels churning in soft mud; we had no choice but to pull over into a caravan park. Across the road, we could see the windows of the Northern Hotel glowing warm yellow against the darkening blue of the sky so after a shower and a change of clothes, we strolled over. The place was packed with farmworkers, the air rank with sweat and stale cigarette smoke. Carrying brimming glasses of ale, we approached the last vacant table near a grey-haired man sitting on his own. He stood up and gravely shook our hands. With an authoritative air, he enquired about our travel plans, and when he heard what I was studying journalism, he responded by saying he had recently returned from covering the war in Vietnam.
“You’re Eustace Jane,” I exclaimed. No wonder I hadn't recognised him — his normally neat moustache was an outgrown tuft, his hair now past his shoulders. As we ate, he talked about working in different countries as a war correspondent. While I was riveted, Red barely bothered to listen. Lured by the crack of billiard balls, she started playing a game of pool with Tim, a skinny guy with a rakish scar dissecting an eyebrow. And as always, when Red presided at the table, the clink of ball against ball increased in tempo, and an excited crowd gathered. But this time, it was an even match with Tim the loser by only a small margin. With shy smiles, he and Red shared a beer and segued into another game. A huddle of tipsy men punched their arms into the air, chanting, “Oi, oi, oi," so loudly that Tim missed his shot, his lips settling into a tight line.
Jane set his empty glass on the table and flashed an extraordinarily magnetic smile. “Looks like your friend’s going to keep playing. Why don't you come round and see some slides. I’m just down the road.”
In a white panelled room, Jane poured out two generous shots of Stolichnaya. An ancient Labrador on the floor farted wetly, legs paddling in his sleep. The night was tranquil other than the lusty thrumming of crickets. On the wall hung a framed photo of a bearded man who I guessed must be Jane’s son, Adam. His mother, Jane’s wife, had died many years ago. With a fluid energy, Jane loaded up slide projector and showed a succession of slides accompanied by eloquent commentary in his trademark mellifluous tones. Interspersed among the vivid snaps of violence were images of ordinary war-ravaged citizens — old people, women and children — carrying out everyday village tasks with grace and fortitude: an old man digging a field, a girl fetching water and a toddler scratching lines in the dirt with a stick.
The last image, a young mother with desperate eyes clutching a smiling baby, remained flickering on the screen in a haunting contrast to the somnolent peace. Emboldened by alcohol, I ventured, “Why don't you write about the smaller stories that don't make the front page in the heat of a war?"
Jane stared at me. “Now that bears some more thought.” He poured out more vodka and chinked his glass against mine and proclaimed, “For that effort alone, I’m willing to write you a reference." The dog rolled over and let out a gusty sigh.
By the time I walked back to the caravan park, Jane’s reference a warm square in my pocket, the rain had diminished to a drizzle and fireflies buzzed the roadside trees. Red was curled in her sleeping bag in the back of the Kombi. I whispered her name but there was no response and, on a heady wave of optimism and alcohol, I fell asleep.
The next morning, Red was bundled up in trousers and a long-sleeved shirt and
had a bruise on her cheek. She explained she had slipped in the mud while walking back from the pub. Unusually quiet, she also said she didn't feel well. We continued to drive north. On reaching Cairns, Red caught a train back to Brisbane and, I later learned, returned to Scotland. We didn't keep in contact.
After graduation, I started at the Brisbane Post. Meanwhile, Jane released a book, a heart-rending epitome of how war affects a nation, now and into the future. He became a regular fixture on the television and radio on all matters of war and peace until he unaccountably disappeared from public view. In truth, it would be an absolute coup for the paper to snare him in print. The problem is I hadn’t been completely honest with Mallard; my last few letters to Jane had met with zero response.
On my arrival, it’s almost midnight. The moon’s on high, fruit bats mobbing the sky. An elderly woman sleepily hands me the keys to my room on the first floor. Under a bedspread of murky mauve and phlegm yellow, I fall asleep to the steady chug of sugar trains trailing the sweet aroma of freshly cut cane. Over a breakfast of bacon and eggs, I scan the local rag for any news about the woman’s death but it doesn't even get a mention. Dialling from the Bakelite telephone in my room, I leave a message for Mallard to let him know I’ve arrived then wander along the river into town. A man and small boy are fishing off the end of a jetty. Silver flashes from the end of the boy’s line. Squealing as his father removes the hook from the fish's mouth, the boy tenderly carries the wriggling catch over to a bucket of water and drops it in with a splash.
In a corner shop, I take a selection of cheese, salami and bread to the cash register. Near by, a middle-aged woman is stacking shelves with coconut tanning oil.
I hand over the money to a young girl. “Terrible news… Did you know her?”
As she leans over to pack my purchases in a cardboard box, a long lock of brown hair falls to conceal her face. “No.”
The woman walks towards us. “New in town?”
“Just passing through.”
She slides the box over to me, smiles grimly and says, “Enjoy your stay.”
I enter a bottle shop with aisles of worn linoleum with planks of silky wood gleaming beneath. A man with white-stubbled cheeks, his bulbous nose a livid maze of red veins, listens to the horse races on the radio.
“Two VB long necks, please?”
Without a word, he grabs the bottles and pushes them into a paper bag, viciously twisting the top with a meaty fist.
I smile. “Thank you.”
The man grunts.
I say, “Do you know—”
Shunting up the volume, he props his round belly on the warped metal counter and snaps open a newspaper.
I stack the cheese, salami and beer into the fridge in my room and doze off in a slanted rectangle on sunshine on my bed. Startled awake by the roar of a Harley-Davidson, I turn on the black and white television and the evening news reveals the dead woman had been strangled. There's no evidence of a sexual assault and her identity remains unknown.
From across the road swells the rhythmic thump of live music from the pub where I had first met Jane. I pop over for a hot meal and sit at a table by the back wall with a pint of beer. Crumbed barramundi and chips is delivered to my table and the icy bubbles slice through the grease and salt. The band’s strumming Hank William’s tunes within a gold halo of smoke. The singer launches into the song, “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive," and with flushed faces, the locals sway and croon along to the words.
A man lopes in and sets up a game of pool, his scar stark white against deeply tanned skin. As I approach he looks up and asks hopefully, “Wanna play?”
“No. You’ll thrash me.”
Grinning, he responds, “Maybe. Maybe not. I’m Tim.”
“I’m Dana, and we’ve met. And yes, you will.”
He looks at me in surprise.
“You played my friend Red. She beat you, but only just.”
“Oh yes, Red!” Tim’s expression shifts and something skitters at the back of his eyes. “How— How is she?”
“No idea. She’s back in Scotland.”
Tim turns back to the table. Lining up his cue, he proceeds to dispatch balls with all the pent up ferocity of a large caged carnivore.
I walk down a dirt road plastered with flattened sun-dried toads. On either side, fields of charred cane stubble stretch to misty blue hills. Jane’s house comes into view, an impressive white house with a wrap-around verandah nestled beneath hulking trees. Wide wooden stairs ascend to a ochre door with a brass knocker in the shape of a fist.
The knocker makes a surprisingly loud crash. A lank-haired woman in the early stages of pregnancy flings open the door.
I introduce myself, then ask, “Is Eustace in?”
With a surly expression, the woman shakes her head. Inside, a small child begins to cry.
“Can I leave a note for him?”
She nods. The cries erupt into hiccupping screams. I tear a piece of paper from my notebook and write down my number. “Thanks. Do you know when he will be back?”
“Dunno.” The door bangs shut.
Dragging an armchair to the window and I put my feet up on the sill. Giggling children ride their bikes in circles within a haze of red dirt. Splashing beer into a tooth glass, I snack on cheese and salami sandwiches and come to the resolution it's time to break cover, or risk having nothing to fend off Mallard. I head back outside and follow the signs to the police station. The road is lined with graceful timbered structures, backyards bustling with chickens, dusty dogs flopped out in the sun out front.
It’s a charming rural vista but on closer inspection, the dogs are flea-bitten and the houses invariably askew and tinted with mildew, looking ready to keel over in the very next cyclone.
The police station is a square ruddy-bricked building with a green roof, the front door propped open with a brick. Behind the front desk, a balding sergeant raises one bristling eyebrow.
I present my press card and he sighs. “So Miss Brady, what can I do for you?”
“I’d like anything you’ve got on the murder.”
“I see.” He hands me a sheet of paper. The press release, dated the previous day, contains nothing new.
"Anything new on identity?" I ask.
He shakes his head.
“Do you know where she was staying?”
“Nope.” He sits down and mops the sweat from his forehead with a sleeve.
A young female detective enters the building. The sergeant snaps, “Andrea. Mac’s waiting for you.”
She glances at the press release in my hands, scans my face then hurries out back.
“Can you give me the names of anyone who knew her?”
“Sorry. Can’t help.” He leans back in his chair and gulps down water from a glass, drips rolling down his chin and neck.
“I’ve come all the way from Brisbane — it would really help—” A shadow flickers across the wall. Andrea is silently standing by the doorway. I look up, she jerks out of sight. “It would really help if I could talk to the investigating officers.”
He opens a file. “Leave your number and I’ll see what I can do.”
I’m hanging out for a fag. I’ve been trying to give up but I go to buy a tin of Champion Ruby and Tally-Ho papers and return to sit on a bench by the police station in the shade of a sprawling fig tree. Shrieking cockatoos hurtle across sheer cobalt and swooping bee-eaters nab insects mid-flight.
More than a few cigarettes later, Andrea emerges and presses a police cap down on unruly auburn curls.
I call, “Andrea.”
A look of dismay crosses her face. She speeds up her pace. I catch up with her. Seizing a slim arm, I force her to a stop. A rusty black sedan passes, slows. Three menacing silhouettes turn to glare.
Andrea pales and gasps, “Oh no.”
“Please, Andrea. Help me. I can help you.”
She looks at me, tears welling up in her eyes and whispers, “Hospital,” and sprints away.
Outside a squat grey building, a nurse is smoking on the cream portico. I roll a cigarette. Studying me with curiosity, her eyes squinting against a stream of blue smoke, she says, “Not from here, are ya?"
A man on crutches hobbles inside. The nurse stubs out her butt. I roll another and offer it up.
Accepting it with a grin, she says, “Ta. I’m Maude.”
“I’m Dana.” I strike a match. She leans in to the flame, the fag jammed between pursed dry lips.
“Never been. But I hear the lights at night are real pretty…” Maude blows a smoke ring. The gossamer wobbles, dissolves. “I’m from Townsville. Come up now and then to help out.”
“Any more news about the murder?”
“No. And as usual, no one’s talking.” Maude takes a long drag. “It's a strange town.”
“Way too many injuries. There’s bruising and bruising and I know what some bruising means…” Maude shakes her head. “But the women here don't talk, not even to the nurses. They keep their mouths shut — every single one.”
She tosses her butt into a shrub. Smoothing her skirt over a bony rump, Maude cautions, “You take care, dearie,” and scuttles back inside.
The sky’s streaked with violet, the air syrupy with molasses wafting out from the sugar mill. I’m ravenous but the bread’s stale and the salami’s a dried out nub. I whip over to the pub for a quick meal. The tiled bar is lined with old men with gnarled hands snaked around pints of ale. On my entry, there’s a murmuring ripple. I check the specials on the chalkboard and the barman, a brawny man in a sweaty maroon singlet, gives the counter a savage swipe with a towel.
I smile. “Hi. A steak sandwich with chips… And extra mayo, please.”
He shakes his head.
“Ohh… No worries.” I take another look at the board. “Fish will do. Plus a pint of VB.”
He sneers, baring nicotine-stained teeth, "Nope. Nothing here for you," his bicep bulging with steely veins as he swipes the bar once more. And as one, the men swivel their heads to follow me out with their eyes, the setting sun imparting a timeless bronze cast to their wrinkled faces.
I lie on my bed, scooping up soggy sweet and sour pork with a plastic fork while watching the television. The evening news reports the dead woman has been identified; her name's Maria Lattanzi and a photo shows a slim woman in her twenties with entrancing dark eyes. A temporary farm labourer from Italy, Maria had not spoken English and been in Australia with her husband, Franco, who's now missing.
It starts to rain, fat drops blowing into the room. As I get up to close the window, I spot a beer coaster skulking on the floor by the door. Written on one side are the words, ask Red.
Red? What has Red got to do with any of this?
I check the hallway but it’s deserted. Calling the overseas operator, I ask to be connected to the MacNeil’s residing on North Uist Island. I’m hoping this is enough as it’s all I’ve got.
A wavering voice says, “Hello.”
“Hello. It’s Dana, I’m calling from Australia, and I need to speak with Red, I mean, Martha.”
“This is Mrs MacNeil. I can hardly hear you. Who did you say you are?”
“Dana. I was at university with Martha in Brisbane.”
“I’m so sorry, Dana, but Martha’s dead.”
“She— She hung herself,” Her voice trembles, brimming with unshed tears. “My— My poor husband discovered her body in the library.”
“She always used to be a happy little thing. Quiet. But happy… Something must have happened over there. There— There— were cuts and bruises all over her back and legs… She never said a word… It happened just a few days after she returned from Australia."
Oh Red! Red! Why didn't you say something to me?
“Are you still there?”
I recall the bruise on Red’s face, the cover-up clothing, that furtive stain in Tim’s gaze… “Yes… Mrs MacNeil… I— I— I will ring you again soon.”
I put down the receiver and come to the realisation that, at last, I have something definite on which to pin a story — with or without Jane. I duck out to the carpark to collect my typewriter from the car. With a sudden stampede of boots, fists slam into my gut. I slump onto wet gravel and two sharp kicks to my breasts leaves me in a whimpering heap.
A gruff voice, somehow oddly familiar, rasps,” Get home, bitch."
A motorbike revs into the carpark, sweeping a light beam over multiple denim-clad legs, and with muffled laughter and hoots of “Oi, oi, oi,” the men scatter into the night.
I stumble back to my bed to dream of a shadowy figures bashing a small grey donkey over the head with rifle butts. With sickening thuds of metal on bone, the donkey folds to the ground, a thick dollop of blood melding with rain drops. Another two horses and a foal crumple to their sides, eyes fragile with liquid bewilderment.
The plaintive wails of curlews send me bolt upright to lie awake until dawn.
I park my car by a battered ute reeking of hot diesel and salt. Jane emerges from his house in overalls soiled with blood and fish scales, his long white hair tied back in a pony tail.
Without a smile, he says, “Dana. Been a long time.”
“Hi Eustace. Yes, it has.”
I follow him inside to the kitchen. Jane empties a metal esky of fish fillets and places them into a freezer. The intense vitality that once characterised all his movements is gone.
Putting an iron kettle on the stove, he asks, “Tea?”
A child scampers into the kitchen, carrying a cloth bunny with a tattered pink ribbon and clutches on to Jane’s leg. His dulled eyes momentarily brighten as he ruffles her hair. “This is my grand daughter, Beth.” The pregnant woman runs in, grabs the girl and leaves. “And that was my daughter-in-law.”
Carrying two steaming mugs, Jane leads the way to a table and chairs on the front verandah and asks, “So what brings you to Mylestone?”
“My editor sent me here to source a story about the murder.”
“Ahh…” He takes a sip of tea. “Gotta smoke?”
I hand him the tobacco tin. “I was hoping you might be able to help.”
“I see.” He deftly rolls a cigarette.
Lighting up, Jane inhales deeply and contemplates the play of sunlight among the rustling leaves of the mango trees as I wait for him to hold volubly forth as his wont in response to an injustice of any kind.
He remains silent.
I stand up and pull up my shirt. My stomach is a lurid purple black mass. “I was attacked last night—”
Heavy footsteps bounce up the back stairs. A male voice yells, “Pam! I need a hand with the tractor.”
I know that voice. It's Jane's voice but without the poise or polish. I feel dizzy and have to sit down. The woman joins the man outside, their conversation fades as they move further away.
Jane helps himself to another fag.
I tell him, “That man. Last night… He was there…”
Jane walks over to the balustrade, ashes over the edge and says, “I’m guessing you’re here 'cause you’re hoping I’ll give you something… Something to keep the boss happy?”
“Well… Yeah. He was pretty clear about the role he’s hoping you’ll play.”
Without humour, Jane laughs. “Okay. Here’s what we’ll do.” With something of his old effortless authority, he asserts, “I’ll give you an exclusive… Something no one else has. And..." He stares at me. "In return, you forget about what happened here.”
“You mean you’re bribing me so I won't write about your son… Adam…”
Jane walks over to the table. “Dana. Be sensible. Let it go.” Like flint on stone, his eyes strike mine.
“But women are being hurt. And my friend Red. Remember her? She was hurt too.”
Jane sits down and offers up a feeble smile. "I can help you… An overseas post? London? New York?”
I stare unflinchingly into Jane’s eyes and his gaze falters and falls. Holding out his hand, he pleads, “Dana, please. It’s my son... My family...”
"I can't." As I walk out, I pass Jane’s granddaughter asleep on the floor, soft toy wedged under her cheek.
Outside Jane's gate, a brown ute is waiting. It follows as I drive back to the hotel. The dust thrown up by my wheels prevents me from seeing who's inside. I park by the entrance and make a dash for the front door. The ute squeals to a stop and Tim jumps out. He catches me and holds me tightly in his arms. For a small bloke, all sinew and bones, he's deceptively strong.
I struggle. "Let me go!”
He shakes me. “Dana. Listen to me. You need to leave. Now.”
“What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you later. But please. Leave.” He lets me go. “I’m sorry about Red."
I scream at him, “She’s dead. She killed herself because of what happened here."
His face twists, his eyes grow wet.
I take his hand. "C’mon,” I tell him. “Let’s go."
We head out of town in the Datsun with a rapidly rising plume of dust at our rear. We turn onto a bitumen road and drive a short distance then pull off to hide behind a clump of trees. The black sedan from yesterday speeds past.
"That's them," mutters Tim.
We turn into a narrow rutted track and bump along until we reach the highway then head south.
Tim rolls a cigarette with shaking hands and strikes a match. "There’s a gang of six boys, ever since high school... Rapes, robberies, beatings..."
“Is that what happened to Red?”
“Yeah. They were there that night, when you were there at the pub. When I heard the 'Oi, oi, oi’ — I knew they targeted someone... I didn't know who...” His face hardens. "Had I known it was Red, I wouldn't have let her out of my sight.” Tim winds down the window. Warm air blasts in, reeking of oil and roadkill. “I found her outside at the back of the pub, crying in the rain, her legs and arms bleeding. They’d held her down on the sharp gravel... I wanted to stay with her but she wanted to be alone. But I waited outside in the dark anyway until I saw you return."
“She never said anything about it."
“She was ashamed… Said it was her fault... For causing such a stir at the pub."
There's a roar of acceleration. Tim swings his head around. A car overtakes us. Inside are two sunburnt young women with carefree grins, Pink Floyd blaring from the open windows.
"Why were you following me?" I ask him.
"I heard you've been asking questions. I figured they might be after you. Then I saw your car outside the white house and, well, I was just about to come in when you drove out."
"Yeah. He's the worse. Ever since he's returned from uni, more have become involved... I've no idea how many.... There's something about him that makes people want to follow him." He nervously checks the side mirror. "And ever since that woman died... The whole town's more scared than ever... No one's been game to speak out."
“So why are you now?"
“Seeing you made me think of Red. She... She was so sweet... I— I...," his voice breaks. "I can't live like this anymore.”
Once we reach Townsville we stop at a cafe. I pull out my Remington and type up an article. Though Tim supplies numerous quotes, he has no information to share about the murder. He hadn't even met Maria. I'm puzzled as to how she fits in given there's no evidence of rape. No new information has emerged other than Maria's sister reports Maria planned to leave her husband.
We fax the article through to Brisbane from a post office and Tim's face gentles with relief. Then I ring the office from a pay phone and, for the very first time, the secretary puts me straight through to Mallard.
“Hello Dana," he says. "Ahh... I got your fax... It's... It's not quite what I expected... And what about Eustace Jane? He doesn't get a mention. Only this Tim kid.”
“Yeah. Well, I guess Jane can't always be the hero.”
“No. Guess not." After a long pause, Mallard blurts, "Good work," and slams down the receiver.
The article was published the next day, prompting many women to come forward and lodge formal complaints. Adam was charged along with another nineteen men, including two policemen. But as to the murder of Maria Lattanzi, the men denied having anything to do with it but no one believed them.
Inspired by events in Ingham, Queensland.