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Authors: Peter Temple

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BOOK: Shooting Star
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There was no point in looking for Anne on Thursday’s security video because she was never in the store. Anne didn’t get to the end of the laneway, to the delivery door into TRIPLE ZERO! There was a vehicle in the lane. To reach the door, she had to pass between it and the wall. Perhaps the vehicle’s sliding side door was open. Perhaps someone came around the back as she was abreast of the door. Perhaps the person took her by the shoulders and pushed her into the vehicle. Perhaps there was someone else inside, someone who dragged her in, put something over her face, prevented her screaming…

I went back to Hayes & Cherry. Malcolm introduced me to James, a fair-haired teenager so clean and so dapper that he appeared to be genetically destined to sell aids to cleanliness and grooming.

‘Tall,’ he said. ‘And thin. Wearing a beanie and dark glasses.’

‘Beard? Moustache?’

‘Moustache, quite a big moustache. Dark.’

I said to Malcolm, ‘You said the driver had a beard, didn’t you?’

‘The one on the other days did. On Thursday, I didn’t get a good look at him. I was too enraged at the sight of the other one coming out of the vehicle.’

‘Moustache, definitely,’ said James. ‘Not a beard. He had a weak chin. It sloped back.’

‘How old?’

‘Thirty, perhaps a bit older.’

In the car, driving back to the Carsons’, I said to Orlovsky, ‘We may have to rethink this. They may have smart technology but these people are not A-list kidnappers, they would be lucky to get onto any list. Not without expanding the alphabet.’

‘Is that good or bad?’

‘Bad, very bad. The stupid are capable of anything.’

‘Unlike the clever, who are generally capable of nothing.’

‘Nothing this clumsy,’ I said.

‘On the other hand,’ Orlovsky said, ‘they may not be stupid. Perhaps they just don’t care very much.’

I didn’t want to hear that. I said, ‘Don’t say that. Not caring is much worse than stupid.’

The Express Post envelope arrived just after 10 a.m. the next morning, addressed to Tom Carson. The writing had been done with a ruler and the sender was a B. Ellis, who lived at 11 Cromie Street, North Melbourne.

There was nothing in the envelope except a Smartie box, a cheerful package, aglow with the colours of the sweet flat beans.

But it didn’t contain chocolate pills. It contained something wrapped in aluminium foil.

Two joints of a little finger, clean, odourless, fresh as chicken from the best butcher in Toorak.

LEANING FORWARD, elbows on the desk, chin in his hands, Pat Carson looked gaunt, shrunken, every minute of his age. He was breathing deeply but he seemed to sigh out more air than he took in.

With me in the study were Noyce and Orlovsky and Stephanie Chadwick. Noyce was clasping and unclasping his hands, swallowing a lot.

‘I’ve told Tom and Barry,’ he said. ‘They called Tom out of a meeting with the institutions.’

I looked at him. ‘Institutions?’

‘The big investors, super funds, that kind of thing. For the float. To sell the CarsonCorp float.’

Orlovsky was in his trance again, unwavering gaze on Pat Carson’s courtyard garden.

‘It’s the police now,’ said Pat Carson. ‘You were right, Frank. Should’ve bloody listened. Pigheadedness’s done a lot for this family, startin from the top.’

Noyce nodded rapidly. ‘I think that’s the course of action to follow, yes,’ he said. ‘We had no way of knowing this sort of thing would happen. And we let Alice’s kidnapping weigh too heavily on us.’ He looked at pale Stephanie, who was sitting near her grandfather. He coughed. ‘I’ll speak directly to the Chief Commissioner. Ensure they pull out all the stops.’

I didn’t say anything. I was scared about what I had to say, ashamed that my instinct was to go far away, and so I was thinking about waking in the Garden House, showering in the huge slate-floored shower room, putting on the towelling dressing gown, thick and soft and smelling faintly of cinnamon. Thinking about the three newspapers on the table in the hall and how somehow the kitchen knew you were up and breakfast came under cover on a trolley pushed by a kitchen hand in white: today, fresh orange juice in a tall, cold glass beaker, cereals, creamy scrambled eggs and thick-sliced smoked ham with grilled tomato. The server made sourdough toast in the kitchen.

‘The butter’s from Normandy,’ he’d said. ‘It’s very good.’ He went away and came back with coffee in a stainless-steel vacuum flask.

Orlovsky had come to the table wearing only his own towel, a sad threadbare thing, drank a glass of water and made himself a grilled tomato sandwich. ‘It starts with food,’ he said darkly.

‘And ends as food,’ I’d said, having no idea what he meant. ‘Live a little.’

‘Frank?’ Pat was eyeing me. ‘When Graham’s talked to this fella whoever he is, you deal with the cops on behalf of the family. Okay? No offence, Graham, Frank knows the set-up, knows how the buggers work.’

‘Fine,’ said Noyce, nodding vigorously, not happy, ‘that’s fine, that’s a good way to do it. Right, Frank? No time to lose either.’ He started to rise.

‘If that’s what you want to do,’ I said.

Orlovsky came out of his state, turned his cropped head slowly. Noyce sat down.

‘That’s what we should do, not so?’ Pat Carson said. He was on to me, his chin was out of his hands, up, his head tilted, twenty years off his age.

I tried to work out the best way to do this, to be truthful and to escape. I couldn’t. ‘It’s your decision,’ I said.

Noyce said, ‘On Saturday evening, you said…’

Time to say it.

‘And on Thursday and on Friday,’ I said. ‘Today’s Monday, Graham.’

‘Don’t understand,’ said Pat, eyes crinkled. ‘What’s all this? We shoulda done it, we didn’t, now we do it.’

‘It’s too late,’ I said.

Orlovsky was studying me like some strange object in a gallery, a curious piece of sculpture perhaps, judgment held in check only by fear of not quite getting the point.

Pat sat back, put his hands on the desk, spread the fingers on the silken mahogany, lowered his chin. I hadn’t done him any good. In his eyes and his hands and his shoulders and his chin, you could see the resentment. I heard the round snick into the breech, waited for the bullet, wanted the bullet.

Stephanie leaned across and put her left hand on her grandfather’s right hand, kept it there.

Sack me. I willed him to say the words. I wanted to be away from this grand house, back in my own life, such as it was.

Anne Carson’s face in the Portsea photograph came into my mind. The schoolgirl screwed by her driver. The girl who opened the holiday house gate for grown men, drunk men with breath as pungent as woodsmoke. The girl in the back of the yellow van with the cocky locksmith.

There was something in her face, something in the eyes, the look of a child wanting praise, wary of displeasure.

A girl with only a stub for a little finger. It would be bandaged now. By what crude hands? Perhaps they had given her a painkiller. Perhaps they had given her a shot of something before. Before and later. Heroin was as easy to buy as aspirin, easier in some places, an excellent painkiller. And they could keep doing that, she’d do a bit of projectile vomiting, then she’d be relaxed, she wouldn’t feel too bad about the whole thing.

‘Tell me, Frank, tell me.’ Pat Carson’s voice was soft. He was still sitting back, chin almost touching his chest, shaggy eyebrows raised.

The old man didn’t want to fire me. He wanted me to tell him what to do. He didn’t know that I didn’t want the responsibility, that I was scared of having it, that the idea of telling this family what was best for the safety of the girl made me feel sick at the stomach. To carry the bag for them was one thing. I was just an expensive courier. But to shoulder the weight of a girl’s life, a girl lying somewhere, probably in the dark, terrified, in pain…

‘They’ve had her for more than seventy-two hours,’ I said. ‘Keeping someone hidden, it doesn’t get easier. These people are sweating, they’re under the gun. And they’ve lifted the stakes, they’re trying to pump us up to something. It’s too late for the cops.’

Pat was moving his jaw. He still wasn’t sure what I was saying.

‘They told you not to bring in the police and you didn’t,’ I said. ‘If you had, the newspapers, television, the radio, they’d have co-operated with the cops for a while. Media blackout. But the media won’t keep quiet for long. Seventy-two hours, that’s about it. Then it’s just a question of who goes first. I’m assuming that the kidnappers know this, that they’ve read about other kidnappings.’ I paused. ‘In particular, about your other kidnapping. They may be those kidnappers. I doubt it very much, but it’s possible.’

I looked at Orlovsky. He was interested in his hands. I looked at Noyce. He’d got the point, didn’t necessarily agree with it. So had Stephanie, who recrossed her legs at the ankles and bit her lower lip. She looked like someone who slept badly, never felt rested, feared the small hours. I knew that feeling.

‘Mr Carson,’ I said. ‘My fear is that the police won’t even get a ten-minute media blackout now. It’s too long after the event. And the force leaks. Too many people are involved. You can’t keep it secret. That’s why they have to go to the media and beg them not to print stories like this.’

‘Yes? That means?’

‘It means the kidnappers will assume that you went to the police straight away and the police arranged a media blackout. On Thursday. That you disobeyed instructions from the start. Like Alice again, Mr Carson.’

Noyce held up a hand, like a schoolboy in class. ‘Mr Carson,’ he said, a pressing tone of voice, ‘I think we need to talk to Tom about this.’

Pat looked up, looking at me not at Noyce. He blew out breath, a sad sound, half sigh, half whistle. He leaned forward, put his forehead on his clasped hands, closed his eyes.

We sat there, not looking at one another, for a long time. Finally, Pat spoke, voice barely audible.

‘In your hands, Frank. We’re in your hands.’

Hands.

Without thought, dread making a ball rise in my stomach, press against the solar plexus, I looked at my hands lying between my thighs, palms upward. My mother’s voice was in my head, the sharp intonation, the pauses:

We will fall into the hands of the Lord, and not into the hands of men. For as his majesty is, so is his mercy.

I didn’t have the hands for this kind of thing anymore, not the hands, not the heart. The ability to take responsibility for the lives of others had gone from me in a few horrible moments, left my being and floated away. I hadn’t known that then. Learning it took time. Much too much time.

Weak at heart, I said, ‘I want to talk to the girl’s mother. And to take the calls from now on. I want them diverted to me.’

That done, that leaden step taken, Orlovsky and I walked back to the Garden House in silence. Inside, hands in pockets, he stood looking out at the garden, patches of sunlight falling on it, drifting like memories, not warming anything.

‘I know the money’s nice,’ he said, ‘but are you out of your fucking skull?’

I was sitting in an armchair, an armchair stuffed with horsehair, firm. ‘I didn’t walk when I should have,’ I said. ‘I wanted the money. They call the cops now, it’s on the radio this afternoon, TV tonight. She’s dead. Dead today. I had to tell them that.’

Silence. He didn’t look at me. The phone beside me rang.

‘Calder.’

‘What’s this crap about talking to Christine? Whose idea is this?’

Tom Carson, gruff voice.

I waited a few seconds. ‘You don’t want me to? That’s fine with me. I’m happy to take leave of the Carsons now. This second.’

Tom’s turn to pause. Then he said, no change in tone, ‘What I’m saying is, isn’t there anything more useful you could be doing?’

Orlovsky was looking at me, a little cock of the stubbled head.

‘In these matters,’ I said, ‘what’s useful is pretty much a matter of judgment, usually retrospective judgment. I’d be pleased to leave the judgment to you. And to give you a partial refund.’

Another pause, just a second, then Tom said, ‘You sound like a lawyer. Except for the refund. Tell Noyce to arrange the chopper.’

THE HELICOPTER landed on an expanse of mown grass a hundred metres from the complex of modern buildings. Its rotors blew away grass cuttings in all directions, a violent cuttings storm that caused the two people waiting to turn their backs and put their hands to their faces.

I waited until the noise stopped and the blades stopped before I got out, walked out from under the drooping swords and shook hands with the tall middle-aged woman and the younger and shorter man. She was wearing a white polo-neck shirt and black pants. He was in a dark suit, white shirt, striped tie.

‘We haven’t seen anyone from the family for quite a while,’ the woman said. She was English, could talk while exposing horse teeth and pink gums.

The man looked at her, their eyes met. ‘No criticism intended, of course,’ she said. ‘We understand how busy people are these days.’

I didn’t say anything, nodded at them.

The man smiled at me like a doorman at a five-star hotel. ‘We absolutely do,’ he said. ‘Do understand. Now Mrs Carson’s not in a terribly receptive mood, Mr Calder. Her doctor will give you a full briefing.’

BOOK: Shooting Star
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