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Six months after his partner was murdered, Rick Stone returns to Sydney trying to pull his life back together. While he was away, two more women were murdered, each seemingly unrelated to the others. When a third woman is murdered in the same way, and Rick gets caught up in the investigation, he becomes obsessed with finding a link between the murders.
Each night, Joy Stringer steps outside the quiet orderliness of her day job, and hangs out in bars and clubs in Sydney’s Kings Cross to gather material for a book she’s always wanted to write. After one of her main sources of information dies, she fears for her own safety.
When Joy and Rick meet in a bar one night, they discover that by pooling information and working together, they can help each other achieve their goal. That decision leads them into more danger than they could ever imagine, and to an outcome that nobody could foresee.
I walked away from the Woolloomooloo waterfront, took a left, and ended at the bottom of McElhone Stairs. Memories of how we used to meet at the top, smoke drifting above her head as the corner of her mouth curled in a sardonic smile. For a minute I stood there remembering those times. Could she be there, waiting at the top with her back leaning against the wall? I put my foot on the first step and almost started to climb before turning away. At the top of those steps lay the road to Kings Cross and a painful death. Even here I was vulnerable. Danger was never far away.
The frigid night air poured down the worn stone steps and worked its way into my skin. The full moon hit me like a spotlight. I moved into the shadows, leaned against the rough, moss-covered wall, slid a cigarette from the pack and placed it between my lips. My fingers trembled. Three times I tried to light a damp match, cursed, and tried again. There was a movement, then a metallic click beside my head followed by a blinding flash.
A flame moved to the end of my cigarette, and a familiar voice said, ‘You got one of those for me, handsome?’
I lit from the slim, gold lighter. ‘What are you doing here, Polly?’
‘On my way home.’ She took a cigarette from the pack I offered. ‘Not going to The Cross are you, Rick? I heard Ray Peterson is looking for you. Didn't sound good.’
I took a step away from the wall. ‘Your place is by the causeway, isn't it?’
Even in the dull yellow streetlight I could see a frown in her face. ‘It's the other side of the flyover. Why?’
‘I'll walk with you.’
She flicked the lighter, and let the flame burn between us for a moment, then she lit the cigarette, and said, ‘Will it get me killed?’
‘If anyone spots us, say you were turning me in.’
She let out a short, smoky snort, and looped her arm through mine. We walked west along Foul Street, away from the steps, away from Kings Cross.
‘Haven't seen you around for a while, Rick. Been away again?’
‘Just getting some sea-air. Are you still working shifts at The Dog & Duck?’
‘There and Ronnie's Place. That's where I've been tonight. I was supposed to finish at eight, but Meagan was late, as always. So here I am at quarter to eleven on my way home.’
‘You can use the overtime.’
‘Hah! You think Lennie pays OT? You're a funny man, Rick Stone.’
‘That's why I have so many friends.’
She seemed to think about that for a while before saying, ‘What happened to piss off Ray Peterson enough to want to kill you?’
I figured she'd know; all the Kings Cross regulars would have heard. Ray Peterson was chief enforcer for Gary Mitchell, who was a freelance underworld Mr Logistics. Mitchell took care of problems for Johno Brookes, who at that time was the Boss of the Cross. Ray always struck me as being borderline psychopath, or is it sociopath? Either way, he's not a guy I wanted to get wrong with. Ray commanded a small army of muscle on the street and was the most feared man in Kings Cross.
‘Ray thinks I might have dogged on him.’
‘And did you?’ she asked in a matter-of-fact way.
I shrugged, flicked the cigarette stub away. ‘You know me better than that, Polly. Ray's looking for someone to blame for that ecstasy bust in Pittwater. It was probably one of his own guys being careless with his mouth, and now Ray's taking heat from Brookes, and the cops are looking at him. It'll blow over. The truth always comes out in the end.’
‘And the truth is?’
‘The truth is I didn't know anything about it. I've never been mixed up in anything like that. I'm clean and running my own life. The word on the street is that I was talking to the jacks not long after being seen talking with Horse, who was one of those arrested, and is now in the safekeeping of our fine police force. Horse approached me about getting a van for him, the jacks wanted to know what I'd been saying to Horse.’
‘What did you tell them?’
‘The truth. I had nothing to hide. Horse thought I did a bit of work for Tommy Tucker, a small-time car dealer over on Parramatta Road. He thought I could get him a deal. Thing is, I haven't done any work for Tommy in ages, so told him go talk with Tommy yourself. And that was it.’
‘What are you going to do, Rick? You going away for a while until things cool off?’
‘That'd be the smart thing to do.’
She gave a light snort. ‘So you're staying?’
‘Sure I'm staying.’
‘I thought so.’
‘When was the last time we did this, Polly?’
‘You mean walk along the Woolloomooloo waterfront?’
‘I was thinking of late night strolling, enjoying each other's company.’
‘Let me think… oh that's right, it was a few days before you disappeared without so much as kiss my cute arse. Not a phone call, no postcard, nothing.’
‘Come on, don't get mad about that, Polly, it's not like we were an item.’
‘No, but a “see you round” would have been nice.’
We walked in silence for a while, then she said, ‘What were you doing there tonight — at the bottom of McElhone Stairs?’
‘Waiting for you to come and light my cigarette, Polly. What else?’
She stopped, her unblinking eyes penetrated me for the truth. ‘She's gone, Rick. Katie's gone. You can't spend the rest of your life running away to sea, or moping around Woolloomooloo waiting for a ghost. It's been seven months now.’ She watched me, waiting for a response. When it didn't come, she said, ‘Did the cops find anything more about her murder, or have any suspects?’
‘No.’ I said with more edge than necessary, then turned from her gaze and continued walking. ‘Neither did I. I drew a blank at every line of inquiry. It was like she was murdered by a spirit.’
My jaw clenched in that familiar way. It always did when I thought about Katie, about how she was stabbed to death, and how there wasn't a trace of evidence. No leads. The killer got clean away.
I was lost in thoughts of loss and savage revenge when Polly said, ‘What will you do… about Ray?’
‘I've been thinking about that, and I'm going to front him. Tell him it wasn't me who dogged on him.’
‘Are you sure that's a good idea?’
‘No, but I'm going to do it anyway.’
‘I thought as much.’
When we crossed the deserted road and approached her apartment, she slowed and asked, ‘Have you eaten yet?’
‘No. How about you? Do you want to go and get something?’
‘It's a bit late for eating out, and I'm not getting caught in a restaurant with you. I'd be guilty by association.’ She was quiet for a moment before saying, ‘Do you fancy Indian takeaway?’
‘Sure, Indian would be great. I've hardly eaten all day.’
She unlocked the door to her apartment, stepped aside to let me in and said, ‘You better stay here. There's beer in the fridge. Make yourself at home.’
She pushed away the twenty-dollar bill I offered, turned back toward the street and said over her shoulder, ‘I'll be back in twenty minutes. Is Chicken Korma okay for you? You can have what you want, but the Korma is always good.’
‘Chicken Korma sounds great. And rice, lots of rice.’
I stood in the doorway watching her walk back across the road. I'd known Polly Sparrow for years. She'd always worked around Kings Cross, and for a while, so had I. For her it had been dancing, then bar work as she slid into her thirties. She was still attractive and kept herself trim, but dancing in clubs was for the young. We met during my brief spell as a club bouncer. But just as Polly abandoned the pole, I moved into a less physical life myself. We remained friends, bumping into each other in a club, or she'd serve me drinks in one of the bars she worked in. We were close for a short while, about eight years ago, but I never saw it as serious. Then I met Katie and my life changed. For the first time, I had plans for the future. Hopes and aspirations.
Seven months ago Katie's body was found lying in a shop doorway a mile from home, on Valentine's day for an extra cruel twist. I dropped everything trying to find out what happened, who had taken her life from her and her from me. When all I turned up after more than three months investigating and trying to work in with the cops was a fat zero, I didn't feel worthy of working as an investigator anymore. I'd failed the most important job I'd ever have.
I still had the licence, but had spent the last three months working around various waterfronts on the east coast. Anywhere I could earn enough to keep me in smokes and mooring fees. My boat was the thing that kept me sane… maybe the thing that kept me alive. It was where I could escape the internal accusers, the voices shouting “FAILURE” anytime I closed my eyes. I think lots of people expected me to come undone, to hit the bottle or lie around getting stoned. But I didn't. I stopped drinking altogether and hadn't touched bud for years. The only vices I had were isolation and cigarettes. I'd spend the days sanding hulls or rolling on anti-fouling paint for eight bucks an hour, and at night sit in the cockpit staring into nothing and crushing cigarette butts in a tin can.
In those first few months after Katie had been murdered, Polly was there as a friend, someone to listen, sympathise, and occasionally get pissed and sleep with. Despite that, I'd never been to her flat before.
The door needed a shove to close properly, the effect of years of neglect. I walked up the wooden stairs that were once painted green, but were now worn bare in the centre by a thousand tired feet.
I found the fridge, cracked a beer and flopped into an armchair. It wasn't how I would have imagined her place to be. There was a short bookshelf containing mainly crime thrillers and mysteries, a cluttered table with two hardback chairs.
I stood and looked around, curious about how she lived. The bathroom was behind the first door I opened. When I pulled the switch cord, a tired florescent buzzed and flashed twice before flooding the room with hard white light. The room was clean and orderly. Across the hall was the bedroom with pink curtains and bedcover, and like the bathroom, clean and orderly. All of it more feminine than I remember her being. Perhaps she was growing up, maturing. The small kitchen area was sparsely stocked. I figured she spent most nights eating out or hauling takeaways home. My curiosity satisfied, I took a copy of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty from the bookshelf, sat back in the armchair and started reading.
When an hour had passed and Polly still wasn't home, I left the apartment and went looking for her.
Flashing blue lights reflected in the windows of a house when I turned the first corner. Faces peered out from behind the glass. I stayed close to the wall and waited, expecting Polly to walk out of the shadows carrying a bag of food.
A host of scenarios ran through my head. Maybe it was a car crash, and she was a witness. Maybe someone had fallen, and she was there helping them.
These possibilities and more ran through my mind. But fearing it was her kept me leaning against the wall, wondering if someone had seen us together, and that she was lying damaged on the ground… or worse.
A man was walking away from the scene on the other side of the road. I slipped back around the corner, waited a ten-beat, then walked out and crossed toward him. As I drew level with him I said, ‘What's the rumpus?’
He looked at me for a second, shrugged and said, ‘Another prossie murder from the sounds of it.’ He walked on.
‘Wait. What do you mean, another?’ He glanced at me over his shoulder, but kept going.
More blue lights bouncing off the buildings as I walked toward the police cars parked at odd angles across the road. There was a group of uniformed officers and medics gathered around the open doors at the rear of an ambulance.
Yellow and black crime-scene tape stretched across the narrow road, holding back the small crowd of onlookers. I joined them, listening to the buzz of gossip. Another young woman… he's done another… must be the same one.
‘What's happening?’ I asked the middle-aged woman in a housecoat and slippers standing beside me.
‘Seems like another woman's been murdered,’ she said with more excitement than was appropriate.
She looked at me with mild disdain. ‘Don't you read the bloody news? It's been in the bloody news for weeks now. Both of them single women, both on their own late at night. Makes ya wonder.’
‘Wonder what?’ I said with a touch of anger.
She looked at me, then turned her attention back to the unfolding crime scene.
I pushed my way to the front, ducked under the tape and strode toward the ambulance. A uniformed police officer held his arm out to stop me. ‘It might be a friend of mine.’
Before I could protest, a familiar voice came from my left, from the group at the back of the ambulance.
‘What brings you here, Rick Stone?’
The uniform looked towards the plain-clothes detective. ‘It's okay, let him through.’
It was Alex Wilson, Detective Sergeant Alex Wilson of the notoriously corrupt Kings Cross Division. Wilson had been a cop at kings Cross as long as I'd been going there. When I first worked as a bouncer, he was a rooky constable walking the beat along the Golden Mile of Darlinghurst Road. In those days we had what you might call a working relationship with the cops. For instance, if a new face showed up looking to make a name for himself and upset the status quo, we'd load him up with a few grams and then give the likes of Alex Wilson a call. He'd get an easy arrest and conviction, making him look good, and he'd owe us a favour. It worked for them, worked for us, and worked for Kings Cross, keeping it free of the loose cannons and fly-by-nights.
‘The victim might be someone I know, Alex. Have you got a name?’
‘You know I can't release that information, especially to a bloody PI.’
‘Is it Polly Sparrow?’ I asked.
When his expression darkened, I knew it was her. I wondered if she'd died as a result of being seen with me? Maybe they'd tried to get my location from her and given her a beating when she wouldn't give it up?
‘How'd she die?’
‘Come on, Rick, I can't give you anything this early, you shouldn't even be here.’
‘But it is her… it is Polly?’
Before Alex could answer, a young detective said, ‘It looks like another. Same MO.’ He was walking towards us, chin tipped up and a confident stride.
‘Another what?’ I asked.
He looked down his long straight nose at me. ‘And you would be?’
‘Stone, Rick Stone. PI,’ I said, and held out my hand. He looked at it, then muttered, ‘DC Rod Blane. What's your interest?’
‘It's okay, Rod, I know him,’ Alex said. ‘Me and Rick go back a long way.’
When I turned back to face Alex, a flood of relief hit me as I saw Polly talking with a uniformed police officer fifty feet away.
‘It's okay, Alex, she's over there. I'll see you around.’ I clapped Alex Wilson on the shoulder as I walked to where Polly was speaking with the uniform.
I laid my hand on the small of her back, and said, ‘What happened?’
Before she could answer, the uniformed officer said, ‘Are you her husband?’
‘A friend. What happened?’
‘Ms Sparrow is helping with our inquiry. If you wouldn't mind waiting while I finish taking a statement, sir.’
Polly handed me the plastic bag containing our Takeaways, smiled, then turned back to the cop. He looked at me when I took a step back, as if he might have recognised me, but then continued questioning Polly.
We walked back to her apartment, her arm looped through mine, her head down, her face serious. I didn't ask her anything, just kept her close and walked fast. Listening to the last five minutes of her statement to the cops told me enough. She'd been second on the scene of a grisly murder with a blood spattered corpse behind a rubbish skip.
Back at her apartment, I zapped the food in the microwave, then half-filled a tumbler with Scotch and handed it to her. She took a large swallow. I put the food on plates and we sat facing each other in leather armchairs.
She took another slug of scotch, picked up her fork, and said, ‘This old guy walking his dog found her. Seems like the dog smelled the blood, sniffed around the back of the dumpster and found the body. Least that's what I heard the cops saying.’
‘Did you see the body?’
She scooped up some korma and nodded.
Her eyes held mine as she chewed and swallowed. ‘A lot of blood. Her clothes were ripped.’
‘Sorry. Sorry you had to go through that. I should have gone for the food instead of you.’
She nodded again, then lifted her glass indicating I should refill it, which I did. She wasn't doing anything in particular to make me feel guilty, but I did anyway. Had she gone five minutes earlier it could have been her lying in a pool of blood behind a skip.
‘Wrong place, wrong time,’ she said. ‘Story of my life.’
‘Did you touch her? Check for a pulse?’
‘No, of course not. Why?’
She took another drink, fumbled the glass spilling it down her shirt. Her face flushed when she looked at it, then she stood, pulling the shirt off as she walked toward the bathroom. I heard the washing machine start, then saw her cross naked to the bedroom. She came back into the dining area wearing a clean top and track pants. The events of the night had rattle her, and it was understandable.
Next morning I woke in Polly's bed. We'd downed a fair amount of Scotch the previous night, and she was shaken and in need of company. Staying with her also kept me off the street. Until I squared things with Ray Peterson, I was a target for any bounty hunter.
While she slept, I walked to the convenience store a block away, and bought some breakfast and the newspaper. There was a half-page report about the murder. I read it as the coffee brewed. There was no detail or name, just the usual uninformed speculation before the official police press release.
When I saw Polly stumble towards the kitchen, I folded the paper and tucked it beside the microwave. She sniffed the coffee, then sat heavily at the table wearing a long T-shirt and smudged mascara.
‘What time is it?’ she asked through a stifled yawn.
She peered at the clock on the oven, screwing up her eyes trying to read the small dial.
‘It's about nine,’ I said. ‘Are you working tonight?’
‘I'm supposed to be doing eight till close at The Dog, unless I call in sick.’
She gave a non-committal shrug. The percolator hissed, I poured into two chipped mugs and laid one in front of her. ‘Milk?’
She shook her head, took a scalding sip, then said, ‘How about you, Rick? You got anything happening today?’
‘Nothing that won't keep. It is Sunday after all.’
‘Do you want to hang out and watch a couple of vids?’
It was one of those things we used to do occasionally on a Sunday. Lazy breakfast, read the papers, then kick back and watch movies. I got the feeling that was what she wanted today. A reminder of a closer past, or a feeling of not being alone. She looked sad, perhaps frightened as well — vulnerable for sure. I owed her at least that much. If she hadn't bumped into me, and then gone for takeaways, she'd never have got mixed up in finding a bloody murder victim. Strange how things go.
I smiled and said, ‘Sure, that's a great idea.’
She seemed to brighten, stirred some sugar into her coffee and slid it across the table towards me. ‘What are you doing with yourself now you're back? Are you still going to work as a PI?’
‘I'm picking up bits and pieces,’ I said. ‘Nothing much, but it keeps me honest.’
‘Bits and pieces of what?’
She was looking at me with those scrutinising eyes I'd seen in the past. I hesitated then told her the truth.
‘I've picked up a small job which is why I'm back in Sydney. A client I worked for a couple of years ago gave me a call, said he needed me to take a look at something, said it had to be me because I already knew his setup. It was what I needed, but maybe not what I wanted.’
‘Who's the client?’
‘What? Can't tell me?’ She hard-eyed me, her small square chin tipped up. It was a challenge I'd seen and ignored before.
‘Do you want coffee, or not?’
Before she answered there was a hard rap on the door.
‘Shall I get it?’ I asked.
She gave me an ashen smile. ‘You get the door. I'll get dressed.’
When I tugged the door open, Alex Wilson looked at me with eyebrows arched. ‘Didn't expect to find you here, Rick. Is Ms Sparrow here?’
‘Sure, come in, Alex.’
By the time he walked into the kitchen, Polly was dressed and making a fresh pot of coffee.
‘Morning Ms Sparrow.’
‘Polly, please call me Polly.’
Alex looked a bit uncomfortable at first, but gave a tight smile and said, ‘Polly. How are you feeling this morning, Polly? Is it okay if I ask you a few more questions?’
‘Sure, that's fine.’ She turned her back to him, poured coffee into three mugs, then set them on the table, pushing a cup towards him as he sat. ‘Black or white?’
‘Black's fine.’ He sipped the coffee, made an appreciative noise then took a notepad from his jacket pocket and flipped it open.
‘Is it okay if Rick stays?’ she asked.
He looked at me, and the corner of his mouth lifted. ‘Sure. Rick's almost one of us anyway.’ He looked back to the notepad then said, ‘Could you tell me again what happened from the time you left the Bombay House restaurant.’
‘Like I told you last night, I walked towards home, then when I got near… there, the old guy was shouting for someone to call the cops, and pulling his dog away from the skip.’
‘Did you approach the body?’
‘No,’ she said, reaching for her cigarettes.
Alex pushed them towards her, then waited for her to light one before saying, ‘What about the skip, did you touch the skip? If you did, we'll need to fingerprint you to eliminate your prints.’
‘No, I didn't touch it.’
‘You're sure about that?’
‘Yes. Of course I'm bloody sure.’
‘And you didn't lean against it?’
‘After you left Bombay House, did you stop to talk with anyone?’
‘And you didn't see anyone behaving strangely?’
‘What's strange around this area?’
‘Somebody running, hurrying. A car or motorbike driving too quickly or too slowly?’
‘No. But I wasn't paying much attention, just walking home as I have a thousand other times minding my own business.’
For another five minutes he asked the same set of questions I heard the uniformed officer ask the previous night.
When he finished his questions, Wilson closed his notepad and slipped it back into the breast pocket of his jacket. He took another political sip of coffee, then stood and said, ‘Thanks for your cooperation, Polly. I'll see myself out.’
‘I hope you catch him?’ she said.
Alex smiled at her, nodded, then left.
When I heard the door close, I said, ‘You seem on edge. Is there bad blood between you two?’
‘No, I don't even know him. And I don't like cops asking stupid questions. What was it with the skip for god's sake?’
‘It's standard investigation practice. They ask all sorts of questions, often on a hit-and-hope basis. He would have known you were shaken up last night and not thinking as clearly as you could. In the morning when you're calmer, perhaps you'd remember something else.’
‘I guess I am still a bit shaken, Rick.’ She lowered her eyes, and I was reminded of the vulnerable side of her I saw in the past when she'd lower her tough-girl defences. Living and working around Kings Cross does that to you. You develop this shell that keeps others from seeing any weakness. Polly did it, I did, and so did the real tough guys like Ray Peterson and his sidekick Sonny Thaku. We all had shells.
When I'd told Polly I was back in Sydney to do a job for an old client, I wasn't lying, but it wasn't much of a job. Ed Mulloway owned a petrol station and auto repair shop. He'd been losing thousands in missing fuel and asked me to take a look at a couple of his employees. It was shit work, but it got my feet back on the ground and gave me a sense of normality.
Later that day Polly did call in sick. She lay on the lounge with her head hanging down and her hair touching the worn carpet, sounding all nasally and blocked up. It was a clever trick.
The day passed in a mix of movies, tea, and food, slipping into alcohol and cold pizza as the day grew dark. I stayed over again.
Tuesday morning I got up early, leaving Polly asleep. I dressed and left her apartment knowing she'd be mad when I saw her again. However, something made me want to go, as if I needed to shake myself free. It was understandable she'd be clingy after seeing a murder victim, but I didn't want to get into something which I had no intention of seeing through. Since Katie had died, I hadn't as much as looked at another woman that way. Spending the past two nights with Polly was different, we were close friends and I was comforting her. Sounds strange, I know, but that was how I rationalised it at the time.
The cab dropped me at the small marina on the edge of Five Dock, where I had my yacht, Sorceress berthed. The marina was low key, run-down and cheap, so fitted my needs well. It's not that I was dirt-poor, but I didn't like to be surrounded by fancy powerboats or million-dollar yachts. Few people came and went from there, allowing me to stay relatively anonymous, and I didn't have to be polite to people I didn't like.
The familiar smells hit me as I slid open the companionway hatch; a mix of oiled timber, diesel, and that obscure mix that says ocean going yacht.
After taking out the washboards and laying them behind the steering pedestal, I went below into the galley and put the coffee percolator on. As it heated, I checked the batteries were charged, and there was no water in the bilge. Sorceress was a traditional cutter with a gaff rig and long bowsprit. I'd owned her for seven years. It had been a dream of Katie's and mine to sail the Australian coast in her. But any thoughts of extended sailing were hollow now I was on my own.
The percolator hissed, I poured coffee, sat at the saloon table and pulled the Mulloway file from a shelf. Donna Bensco had been working the front desk of the petrol station for three years. She was considered a friend by Mulloway and his wife as well as being an employee. She wasn't one of those Ed Mulloway had asked me to investigate, but she was my favourite for the collar. A single mother with three kids and a taste for new clothes who was living well beyond her weekly wage of $450. Sometimes there's another explanation. She could have been doing two jobs, been giving private tuition, or mowing peoples lawns… but I doubted it. As with many of the cases I'd worked, it came down to something not fitting into a known or expected pattern.
The two guys Ed had given me were clean. Neither of them had a record, a habit, or shifty eyes the way Donna did. I sipped the coffee and read through my notes from the previous week.
Focus was a problem with work I considered tedious. It always had been. My mind kept drifting back to Saturday night and the haunted look in Polly's eyes, the blood on her shirt, and the attitude of the young detective working with Alex Wilson. What was his name? I couldn't remember, but I should have. I'd always had a good head for detail, it was one of the things that led me to the life of a PI. Crime fiction had been a big thing for me, and I'd always seen myself in that role, sifting facts, matching patterns and finding who did it… or who didn't depending on the case. Now here I was struggling to focus on a simple case of someone stealing fuel.
Rod Blane, DC Rod Blane; that was it. Something about him didn't fit either. That, or he had a bad attitude with me for no reason. I made a mental note to call Alex, to find out if they needed to interview Polly again. But what I really wanted, was to see if they had any leads. I also wanted to know more about the string of murders they suspected this latest one was related to.
Half an hour later I'd eaten, showered, shaved, and was locking the boat on my way out. I took the Mulloway file with me, but there was little chance of concentrating on it.
Parking was always a problem around the Central Library, so I took a cab and billed it to Ed Mulloway. After an hour of reading the main national newspapers, I was forming a picture of the three murders, and could see why the cops were linking them. All victims were females of similar age — 28 to 33. None of the three had been raped, beaten, or bound. Janet Bedloe and Wendy Maglock had died of multiple stab wounds in the Potts Point and Kings Cross area. From Polly's comments, I suspected Sonja Hartman died the same way. A taskforce had been set up, headed by an Inspector Daniel Crane, who I'd not heard of. Alex Wilson was mentioned in one article and quoted in another. There'd been three similar murders, with five weeks between each one, and so far the police didn't have so much as a suspect.
Pangs of guilt about getting Polly mixed up in it hit me again.
When I folded and dropped the paper onto the table, I got a stern gaze from a fussy looking guy in a tweed suit two tables away. My apologetic smile didn't cut it, so I coughed loudly, cleared my throat, and slapped open the Ed Mulloway file.
Ten minutes later, after skimming through the details one more time, I left the library to bust Donna Bensco.
Ronnie's was where some of the underworld figures hung out, and one of the places Polly worked shifts. When I walked in there the following night, Ray Peterson was sitting at his usual table with two other guys. His square jaw tightened when he saw me approaching, his dead eyes narrowed further. Ray's tough, and he likes people to know it. He said something to the other two men, who went and sat at another table close by.
Ray said nothing as I sat opposite him, but he gave me his trademark tough-guy glare, and waited for me to speak. Ray's fuse was always lit, always seconds from blowing. Although I wasn't exactly frightened of him, I'd go to some lengths not to cross him.
Before he had time to speak, I said, ‘Word on the street is you wanted to see me, Ray. So here I am.’ When he remained silent, and the frozen glare endured, I said, ‘Horse approached me a couple of days before he and the others got busted. He said he'd heard I worked — or did work — for Tommy Tucker, and could I find him a van through my connection with Tommy. I told him no, I had nothing to do with Tommy anymore, go talk to Tommy yourself. That was the end of it. That night the jacks pulled me over and wanted to know what was between Horse and me. Nothing, I told them. Just a guy I knew saying g'day.’
‘A van? He wanted a van? What the fuck for?’
‘Hell I know, Ray. I know he's one of your people, but to be honest I never liked or trusted him, so even if I could have found a van for him, I wouldn't have. I didn't want to deal with him. No disrespect, Ray.’
‘No, it doesn't sound like it.’ He looked towards the bar, and said, ‘I already knew it wasn't you who dogged.’
He didn't look back at me, and I wasn't sure if I should leave. After a long pause I said, ‘So we're cool?’
He didn't answer, but from his attitude, and the fact I wasn't being hauled away, I guessed I was in the clear.
Pushing my luck a bit further, I said, ‘Who was it?’
When his face darkened, I thought I'd gone a step too far. Then he took a breath and said, ‘A dead man.’
Instead of scurrying off like someone who'd escaped with their life, I went to the bar, lit a smoke and waited for Polly to serve me. It was partly to show I had nothing to hide, the I was back in town after being away for a few months, and also to try to satisfy my curiosity about who had the stones to dog on Ray Peterson; and as a side effect almost got me killed.
Another thing that nudged me into the bar that night, was that Polly had called me a couple of times since I'd left her apartment the previous morning, wanting to meet. Meeting her at Ronnie's while she was working gave me an easy out. Something kept me from wanting to get involved with her on more than a superficial level. Some gut feeling was telling me to stand back. It was nothing tangible, just a feeling of walking into something that would be hard to get back out of, like being waist-deep in honey.
‘Who's the dead man?’ I asked her when she stood a scotch tumbler in front of me.
She scrunched her nose as if trying to understand. ‘What?’
‘When I asked Ray who the dog was, he said it was a dead man.’
She looked around, checking no one could overhear her. ‘What I hear, is it was Nick Miller. But don't bloody tell anyone I said so.’
‘The barman at the Saracen?’
‘Him and an American woman he'd hooked up with. Nobody's saying much, but what I heard from Rhonda is the Federal police, and a joint Customs and DEA squad showed up almost falling over each other to get the bust. Top bets are the American was an undercover DEA agent, and poor old Nick got dragged into it, then had a change of heart and called the Feds.’
‘Shit. Quiet, unassuming Nick Miller? And who's Rhonda?’
‘Shit'd be right. It seems like Nick was a dark horse. Rhonda's that short skinny blonde who hangs here Friday nights… close to Tony T, one of Ray's guys, always sits on a bar-stool at the far end.’
‘Oh, right… used to dance at The Tunnel.’
She nodded. ‘And to add another layer to the plot,’ she looked over her shoulder again, then leaned on the bar putting her face close to mine, ‘they both died when the boat they were getting away on exploded. According to the papers, the Coastguard said they'd reported a fire on the boat, but my guess is someone blew it up to get rid of them.’
She arched an eyebrow, moved away to serve at the far end of the bar, and I stood wondering about the strangeness of life and death.
I didn't know Nick Miller other than as a barman at The Saracen on Darlinghurst Road, and as far as I knew, he wasn't part of the criminal underworld for whom Ray Peterson was chief enforcer. So how did he get involved in a multi-million dollar ecstasy deal with an undercover American cop? Moreover, who would draw attention to it by blowing up the boat? Something didn't make sense, but with Ray on the warpath, I kept my curiosity in check. It was another reminder that you never know who you're dealing with; never know what's going on below the surface.
I drained the whiskey tumbler and wondered if they'd drag the bodies of Nick Miller and the American woman from the water, or if they were gone and living the good life some place warm.
Polly came and took my glass, refilled it and stood it on the bar. ‘Don't go asking questions, Rick. Whatever Nick Miller and the American did is not something to concern yourself with. You'll end up in the same place as them.’
‘Where is that?’
‘Best to leave it alone,’ she said, gave me a hard look then walked away.
Best to leave it — I'd heard that often.
I remembered my brother Vincent telling me the same thing one night when my father hit my mother after a big night of playing poker and losing. Best to leave it, Rick. Except I wasn't a leave it kind of guy… then or now.
I was sixteen, Vincent fifteen. It wasn't the first time he'd hit her, but it was the first time I'd hit him in anger. I stepped in and shoved him back with the heels of my hands on his chest. His wild, arcing swing missed me by a mile. I stepped inside it and put everything I had into an uppercut that landed under his ribcage. I felt a rib yield and crack. Ironically, it was him who'd made me take boxing lessons from the age of twelve. Said it would make a man of me. Something he'd never be.
He looked at me incredulous, trying to hide the pain. Vincent stood to one side, mouth open in disbelief. My mother tried to put herself between me and her husband. When his fist balled and raised again, I didn't know whether it was for me or her, neither did I wait to find out. I took one step to the right and hit him square and hard in the hinge of his jaw, then took my mother's arm and left him slumped on the threadbare carpet.
Initially, Vincent stayed with the old man, but joined us a few days later when he woke to the fact we weren't coming back. It was the beginning of the divide between us. We were never truly brothers again. He blamed me for the family break-up, refusing to see what an arsehole our father was. My gut told me he'd inherited more of our father's genes than I had, and he would end up being like him.
Things came to a head three years later when I learned he was working for a small-time hustler and debt collector named Kelvin McGee. We fought. Literally had a punch-up in the street. It was the last I saw of him other than when I'd occasionally catch sight of him in a club or bar. He'd be spaced-out, his head bouncing in time to Jimi Hendrix or Pink Floyd.
A year ago, 1991, I heard he'd scarpered from Kings Cross to save his hide. I was neither surprised, nor upset. Word on the street was he'd been running baggies and got caught skimming and was now lying low out in the western suburbs with a small-time crime family named Reed.
My mother had died a decade earlier, two days before my thirtieth birthday, and as a result of smoking two packs a day. I hadn't seen our father since the night I decked him. There was no one to look out for Vincent.
Polly was still busy at the other end of the bar. I tipped back the whiskey, raised a hand in salute, then slid off the stool and left. She signalled me to wait and tried to break away from the customer she was serving.
When I stepped out onto the street, I turned my collar up against the cold rain, and headed east towards The Saracen, where the recently departed Nick Miller used to be the manager.
I hadn't been in there for a while, but was familiar with the young woman behind the bar. Stella had been working there for years and knew a lot of the regulars, and as a result, much of the street gossip. I'd always stayed in touch with her, partly because I liked her, but also because of the information I could glean from her. She had an almost innocent quality that hid a street-wise interior. People trusted her, and would often tell her stuff they should have kept to themselves. She was cute, too, and was as much to do with why guys wanted to prop up the bar and talk to her as anything else. She was a good listener, quiet by barmaid standards, bordering on being introvert, and had a razor sharp memory.
‘Hi, Rick, long time no see. What can I get you? Your usual?’
‘Thanks, Stella. Have one yourself, too.’
‘And water, please. How are you doing? Are you running this place now?’
She looked me in the eye. ‘What makes you ask?’
‘I heard Nick had gone sailing.’
‘I heard you'd gone sailing as well.’
‘But I came back.’
She laid the drinks on the bar, and said, ‘Mark's running the bar again now. Me… I'm still just a barmaid.’
‘You'll never be just a barmaid, Stella.’
The familiar shy smile bowed her mouth. ‘Can I get you anything else?’
‘A pack of Camels, and one of those little books of matches.’
She squatted and opened a cupboard door, then straightened and laid the cigarettes in front of me. Without looking, she reached out and took a book of matches from an oversize martini glass, and laid them on the pack of cigarettes beside the tumbler. She took the twenty I laid on the bar and came back with change.
‘What's your interest in Nick Miller?’
I opened the cigarette pack, slid one out and said, ‘Just curious to learn why I almost got bumped for something I didn't do. You would have heard about that, wouldn't you?’
‘I heard Ray was looking for you. Seems as if you've got it straightened out.’
She watched passively as I tore one of the cardboard matches from the book and lit up. She blew away the small spirals of smoke that rose from the match when I dropped it in the glass ashtray.
I said, ‘I heard there might have been a fire on the boat. What's your take on what happened?’
She picked up the cellophane wrapper I'd dropped on the bar, and said, ‘Are you working on a case?’
‘No. Hell no. Just curious about what happened. To me, Nick was the guy who ran this bar, and someone I'd seen on the water a couple of times. Never sailed with him, but you know how it works, you know someone who knows someone who knows him. Last time I saw him was in here about… six or seven months ago.’
Her face softened, knowing that was the time Katie died.
‘Some things are better left alone, Rick.’
Leave it alone. It was the second time that night. If I'd had strong survival instincts, any survival instincts at all, I would've.
Other than almost taking the fall for the Pittwater drugs bust, I couldn't say what made me so interested in the apparent demise of Nick Miller and an American, who, according to the Telegraph, was Lt Stacia Black. Perhaps it was the yacht connection, and the likelihood that if a foreign yacht was involved, they probably used the boat to bring in the drugs. Whatever it was, the thoughts occupied my mind on and off throughout the next day until Polly called late in the afternoon.
The phone was lying on the chart table. It was the early days of mobile phones that fitted in your pocket, before that, they were the size and weight of a house brick. I'd hung out as long as I could without one, but working as a PI had forced my hand. Clients expected to be able to contact me wherever I was. I hated it. When I answered and heard Polly's voice, I felt uneasy.
‘Hi, Rick. How's things? I thought I might have seen you before now. Have you been busy?’
She sounded as if she was back to normal, but I felt obliged to ask. ‘Are you feeling better now, Polly?’
‘Not bad while I'm busy, but still having trouble sleeping.’
‘Have a couple of stiff drinks before you lay down, then put your nose in a book. You'll be off in no time.’
There was a long pause before she said, ‘The cops came to see me again. They said they needed my fingerprints. I told them so many times I hadn't touched anything, but they kept going on and on about elimination. So in the end I gave in and went to the cop shop this afternoon and did it. Felt odd though.’
‘They do that to lots of people who've been at a crime scene. Once the case is closed, they'll destroy your prints.’
‘That's what Alex Wilson said. “We'll destroy them, unless we find you're the murderer.” The prick thought that was bloody hilarious.’
‘Alex is alright. He might have a twisted sense of humour, but as far as cops go, he's okay.’
There was an awkward silence, at least I felt awkward, as if she was waiting for me to say something, to invite her out, or to the boat. We both started speaking at the same time, so I said, ‘Go ahead.’
‘I wondered if you're doing anything Friday night. I've got the night off, and Maggie & Ben are coming over; thought you might like to round the numbers up.’ There was a brief silence, then she added, ‘Be nice to see you, too.’
‘You mean at your place?’
‘Yeah, but don't worry, I'm not cooking.’ When I hesitated she said, ‘If you don't want to, it's okay.’
There was hurt in her voice, but I couldn't tell if it was affected or real. There was another stab of guilt.
‘No, I'd love to, I was thinking if I had any work that night. I'm still tying off loose ends on that job I mentioned to you. Sounds great. What time?’ I was saying too much trying to cover the bullshit and wondered if she'd noticed.
‘Maggie's arriving around eight, but come as early as you like. I'll be home all day.’
‘Great. Do you want me to bring anything?’
‘Just yourself and a bottle. It'll be fun.’
‘Great,’ I said again. ‘So… I'll see you Friday.’ I flipped the phone shut, turned it off, and put it in a drawer.
The book I'd been reading lay open on the sofa. I slipped a bookmark between the pages and put it back on the shelf. I tried to shake off the feeling of being controlled, but the taste remained. Polly had always seemed cool in the past, but since Katie's murder there was something about her behaviour that caused me to keep a distance between us. Somewhere between needy and controlling. Manipulative would be a bit strong, but if I was honest with myself, I'd have to admit to a feeling of being subtly manipulated. Perhaps it was me. Perhaps it was both of us growing older and changing in different directions. Years ago, I thought she might have been my type, and as I said, we were close for a while. But then when Katie came into my life I realised Polly, and women like her, would never have been a good fit for me. Life with Katie felt effortless. Neither of us needed to change who we were or what we did. Sailing was something we both loved, and wanted to do more of, and together we researched and discussed what boat would be right for us, eventually buying the forty-two foot gaff cutter Sorceress. The day we became her owners was still vivid in my mind. There was no hesitation, no holding back. We untied the dock lines, motored away from the marina, then hoisted the big gaff-headed mainsail, and sailed out of Sydney Harbour. By nightfall we were out of sight of land.
I looked around the empty saloon, at the seat that was hers, where she used to curl up with a book. She'd sit there and plan where we'd go when we finally shook free of the bonds of our city life and cross oceans to tropical islands most people won't even read about. Now we'd do none of that, and there was no we.
At some point each day I'd relive the disbelief of being told she was dead. Mistake. She couldn't be. Wrong. Sick joke. Twenty-four hours later when the cops took me to the morgue to ID her body, I had the urge to kill. Why her? Why not one of the worthless burn-outs who lurk around the backstreets of Kings Cross hustling for a dollar? Katie shouldn't have been on her own that night, it was me being lazy, telling her “I'll wait for you at home”. If I could roll back time, there are so many things I'd do differently.
Months later there were still no leads, no arrests, and the case was going cold. A deep melancholic introversion smothered me. I left Sydney and lost myself in menial work among strangers, working my body to a standstill, while my brain remained numb. Acceptance was still a long way off.
The chronometer on the bulkhead above the chart table struck four-bells — six o'clock. Reluctantly, I took the mobile phone out of the drawer, slipped it into the back pocket of my jeans and left.
By eight o'clock I'd eaten too much spaghetti carbonara at Bill & Toni's, washing it down with a couple of cold beers. I didn't want to go home to Sorceress and wasn't keen to go to Ronnie's in case Polly was there. My head was filled with mysterious deaths. Katie, Nick Miller and his American girlfriend, and the murder victims of the past couple of months. Six dead, and I was no more than one person removed from at least four of them.
Patterns — the bugbear which made my brain hum with thousands of different scenarios. Were the murders linked? If so, how? What was the common thread that bound them together?
As I walked to Darlinghurst Road, I felt the loss of Katie more strongly than ever. She understood this side of me and shared that same trait. If she were still alive, we would have sat up all night playing ‘what if’, get into heated discussion, then make love as dawn broke.
I needed to contact Katie's mother. It'd been a couple of months since I'd called her. When I'd visited her before leaving Sydney to tell her the case had gone cold, there was little else to say other than how much we both missed her. Katie's brother had left Australia many years before and hadn't stayed in touch, so other than an elderly sister in Queensland, her mother, Hazel, was on her own like so many of us. Alone. That's how I was in reality. There'd always be people like Polly who needed, others like Ray Peterson who controlled, but when it came to having someone in my life who I wanted there, there was no one. The killer had taken that from me, effectively killing me at the same time.
And what about the others? Janet Bedloe, Wendy Maglock and Sonja Hartman? They all had people who loved them, mothers, fathers, lovers, and siblings. There was a common thread between them, I felt it in my gut, but finding it and proving it was another thing. The more I thought about losing Katie, the more determined I became to get back on the case.
I turned into Darlinghurst Road, and into the cold, hard heart of Kings Cross.
The Dog & Duck was quiet, even for a Wednesday night. Polly was leaning against the bar smoking a cigarette. When she saw me come in she straightened, crushed the cigarette into an ashtray and reached for a tumbler from a high shelf. Her eyes stayed on me as she held the pose a moment too long with her midriff bare and small chest pushed forward, an easy smile curving her glossy red lips.