FOREWORD

 

Thump. Something hit the front door. That would be the paper I still get delivered in this technical age. I shoved Riki-The-Cat off the bottom of the bed and staggered out to retrieve it. It had landed on a box that must have been paced there overnight.

‘Kip Kelly’ was neatly written on the top of it.

I opened the box. A face grinned up at me. Or the remnant of a face. It was a black skull with wisps of hair on the top and eye sockets staring blankly. There was a card attached to it.

This is not an everyday experience for Social Workers. But I’ll get to that later.

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Another day at the office.

Just remember, secretary’s rule

But don’t follow their dress sense

Or take advice from them on your love life

 

“You can be anything you want to be – a brain surgeon or a banker, a jet pilot or a prime minister.” The career advisor’s voice was full of enthusiasm. The list of fascinating occupations was endless. Just name it and you could become it.

I’m Kip Kelly. What I became was a social worker, and I’m still wondering why. Social work never did get on the list of desirable high-flying careers. Generally, it is linked to bad jokes about Rottweilers or bleeding hearts. It’s also linked to a low income. As well as not having a glamorous occupation, we’re supposed to do it for the love of humanity. Not that humanity is always that lovable. We do, however, get more than a glimmer of the courage required to keep fighting against the odds, and the strength of the human spirit under pressure.

We also get to observe the tyranny of the weak, to despair at the destruction of humans who have had too much pressure applied, and at times to witness the sheer bastardry of which some people are capable. It’s a bit like a soap opera without the advertisements.                                                        

I work as a psychiatric social worker in the Children’s Clinic, which is an independent assessment service attached to the Children’s Court. Few happy stories walk through the Clinic door. Because the referrals are court ordered, the children and families children don’t have a choice whether they see me or not. Come to think of it, I don’t have a choice about whom I see. It would be nice for a change. I can just imagine it:

“Sorry Sunshine, you’ve been a naughty boy and I’m not in the mood today, so bugger off.”

Then there’s the court report, complete with a recommendation for the outcome of the case, which often leads to a court appearance. Facing a barrage of barristers is not exactly an ego-boosting exercise, but it does make you think about what you write – and what you wear.

A social worker always greets the day with a smile. That’s lie number one, or there-about. I was up late finishing a report so I was not enthusiastic about greeting anything. I shoved, Riki-Tiki-Tavi, off the bottom of the bed, staggered to the kitchen and flicked the kettle on. Riki yowled underfoot. I grabbed a tin of cat food from the fridge and spooned some glunk into his dish.

I grew up being told that dire things would happen if I didn’t eat breakfast, so after I poured a coffee, I spread some Vegemite on a piece of toast and looked at the news. A load of shock-horror crap as usual. I checked my stars. 

“Not looking good,” I mumbled, “Mars is aspected in Sagittarius. Try to dodge confrontational situations,” it concluded.

Oh great. The court system is an adversarial one, and I’m about to be confronted by every man and his dog. Riki jumped up on the table and sniffed at my plate. I glared at him. “Shove off hairy legs.”

He just looked at me and made a purring noise. I gulped down the last piece of toast, stood up, and drained the cup of coffee as I walked to the sink.

“You men are all the same. The chance of a feed or sex and it’s all pure love. Just one crack about the house-keeping and your neutered little arse will be out the door.”

A court appearance was booked for this afternoon, so it was a suit day for me. I shrugged into a fitted black jacket to match the slim-line skirt and pulled my blonde hair back into a roll. The outfit needed a lift. I picked out a pair of large gold hoop ear rings. My mood improved. I shoved the report in my brief case, handbag over my shoulders and grabbed the keys from the hook in the hall.

“See you tonight, Rik,” I called out as I shut the front door, and walked the four paces to the gate.

I live in a popular seaside suburb in Melbourne. My single-fronted cottage is in a row of old Edwardian houses, situated close to the street. I slipped into my small dark-blue hatch which was parked just outside my home. It was nick-named ‘the Flea’ by a four wheel drive colleague who came off worst in a race for a parking space, and the name stuck. As I drove along the Beach Road, with its line of palm trees, the weather was fantastic. The beachfront could be some exotic location, like Buenos Aires or Hawaii. The bay is always different. This morning the summer sun shimmered on the white caps. A cruise ship anchored at Station Pier made me dream of far-away places as I tapped on the steering wheel in time to the music on the car radio.

Caroline is the clinic secretary. She had her phone on speaker so she could continue her conversation about her love life while painting her fingernails. Caroline likes to be coordinated. Her colour for the day was purple. She was wearing a purple dress and shoes, accessorised with purple lipstick and ear rings. Very understated. I hated to interrupt.

I gave her my ‘boy am I glad to be here’ look, along with a cheery “Hi Caro. Here’s the report that’s due,” as I handed over last night’s effort.

“Hang on a sec, Bea,” Caroline interrupted her call.

 “Morning Kip. Your case has settled out of court. They accepted your recommendation. But there’s no rest for the wicked, today’s family is here early.”

Great. I don’t mind missing out on a court appearance, especially if they settle amicably, but they could have let me know before I paraded the suit. Caroline waved her fingernails to dry and picked up a file.

“Mum and the kids are in the waiting room. Dad couldn’t make it.”

She handed it over with a flourish.

“Anthony Wardon. This is your life.”

“Thanks. I’ll flick through it before I call them in.”

I headed down the corridor to my office. The desk is against the wall, with the chairs in front of it to remove a barrier between client and clinician. There’s an old stuffed bear sitting on a beanbag in the corner. All the kids love him, although he sometimes takes a beating. Some kids have strange ways of showing affection.

I had seen Anthony a year earlier. He hadn’t reoffended until just recently. I thought he was a success story. But here he was, after months of keeping out of trouble, back to his old tricks with a vengeance. He hadn’t just stolen a couple of cars – he took eleven in nearly as many days. Was he going for a record or what?

Anthony was sitting in the waiting room with his mother and little half-brother. She was dressed in neat black trousers with a cream shirt and tan jacket. She had gold earrings shaped like lizards dangling down from ears that stuck out in front of a severe pony-tail.  She leant forward nervously on her chair while Anthony was draped over the one opposite. He was dressed for the occasion. His baggy trousers hung off his bony hip protrusions and a black tee shirt covered his skinny 15-year-old chest. His hair was combed up in the front like a startled cockatoo.

As I walked over to the family, the toddler scuttled backwards on his bottom with a look of fear on his face. Mrs. Wardon hastily picked him up.

I usually start an interview with the young person, then see the parents individually, finishing with a family session. Anthony knew the format. He gave the baby a pat on the head and followed me down the passage to my office, walking in a shuffling motion. If he took too big a step, the trousers would probably give up on the proceedings. I shut the door and sat in my chair. Anthony slumped into the other one.

“So, what’s been happening over the last year, Anth?”

“Nuthin’.”

I picked up the charge sheet. “Looks like a couple of things have been going on.”

He grunted. I tried another tack.

“Things not too good at school?”

“It’s a waste of time. The teachers hate me – they’re always pickin’ on me.”

“Any particular reason?”

 “Because they’re pricks. They got nuthin’ better to do.”

“You got suspended. What happened?”

“That smart-arse Bolton. Thinks he knows everything. He deserved a smack in the mouth. It was his fault.”

“So you got suspended for fighting? How did your parents take it?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

I remembered the fearful response from the little brother in the waiting room when I loomed into sight.  I also remembered the affection Anthony showed him when he left the waiting room.

“Terry sure has grown up since I saw you a year ago.”

Anthony’s eyes softened.

“Yeah. He’s real smart. I’m teaching him stuff.”

Anthony was less complementary about his step-father, clamping up at the mention of him. I moved on to his offences.        

“You’d been going so well, then suddenly there’s this outbreak. What set that off?”

“It was me mate’s idea.”

“Mate had a gun at your back did he? That’s tough.”

“Fuckin’ sarcastic bitch.”

“I try, Anth. I try. I see the last car you took was a Porsche. What happened? You’re usually a Holden man.”

“You told me I could do better for meself.”

 If nothing else, Anthony had a sense of humour. There was a spark of something, if only I could reach it. I wondered if I could get him into a community course on car mechanics. Maybe work experience with a Formula 1 team. Ferrari would be rapt. But what was going on with him? Why was he reoffending at this stage?

Anthony’s mother wasn’t much help. She kept saying it wasn’t her fault and Anthony should just change his ways.

“Bert’s really angry with him. He says I spoil him rotten, that he needs discipline and that he’ll have to sort him out. Anthony just won’t take any notice.”

Whatever else was happening, Anthony was certainly bringing himself to everyone else’s notice. A few warning bells were ringing. I needed to know more. I wish he’d been placed on probation last time, instead of a good behavior bond. It seems he could have done with some support outside the home. I made a follow up appointment for next week. In the meantime, I need to find out more about the case. I had a sickening feeling that I was missing something.

I could say the same for my private life. It was going nowhere as well. Surely there had to be more. Caroline handed me a message.

“Serge wants you to give him a ring. He’s been working with a kid called Jack Lennox for the last three months. You’re down to assess him next week.”

Sergio Spinelli is a drug counsellor who works at the Clinic. He’s drop-dead gorgeous – chocolate brown eyes and a determined chin with just a hint of a dimple in it. He’s well over 180 centimetres tall with a six- pack that means he’s been using his gym membership. Not that I’ve had the chance of gazing at the corrugated wonder lately. He’s always too busy focussing on the teenagers he works with.

The relationship was, however, getting a bit warm at the last Clinic party. We’d slipped away from the centre of the action and escaped into the file room. Just when we got to the bit where clothes were about to become optional, his mobile rang.

“One of my kids is being questioned. His parents are unavailable. He needs someone with him,” He ran his fingers down my cheek and gave me a quick kiss.

“I’ll be back,” he added.

Yeah, and so will Arnold Schwarzenegger. Just remembering it made me feel like doing a bit of terminating myself. I took the memo from Caroline.

“Lucky me.”

“What for? Assessing Jack Lennox or because Serge wants you to ring him?”

“I’ll let you work that one out. Is all the paperwork in on Jack?”

“Of course. I’m not just a pretty face you know.” Caroline handed me the file.

Jimmy Bradford was standing behind me with court orders in his hand. Jimmy’s the new Clerk-of-Court. He’s barely older than the kids we deal with in the clinic, but he’s got all the confidence in the world. Gangly legs and wide-eyed innocence, he thinks girls are attracted to him. This is probably because they are. They want to mother him.

 “How’s it going Kip? Still saving the world? When are you going to save me?”

“I’m saving you for when I’m hard up, James.”  Jimmy grinned. I could see his brain racing. “Don’t say it,” I warned.

“I live in hope. By the way, one of your old cases was in court this morning – Angus Brethick. He put on a nice turn. Gave the Magistrate some anatomical advice related to chooks bums and what he could to them. Lucky it was McCafferty. Anyone else would have thrown the book at him.”

I could imagine it. I rolled my eyes. Cases come and cases go. Two new ones every week. The more grotesque ones, the extremely sad, or the bizarrely humorous, stick in your head, but the majority, in the interests of retaining some semblance of sanity, are forgotten when the report hits the court. Unless you’re subpoenaed. Then by necessity, they stick around a bit longer. Angus was one case everyone remembered.

“He’s amazing. He’s got the most extensive list of foul language of anyone I’ve ever met. It’s a talent. He should be in the Guinness Book of Records – or classified by the National Trust.”

Looked like I’d be getting a referral for an update on Angus soon, which left me speechless.

I rang Serge and arranged a meeting for early next week, then decided I needed some fresh air and a self-confidence boost. With Serge acting like a commitment phobe, I had started a relationship with Tom, a financial adviser. It wasn’t the longest relationship I’d ever had. I broke up with him last weekend. It was never going to work. He liked spending, particularly if it was other people’s money. This included my meagre salary – and he hated cats. It didn’t take a genius to work out what exactly he thought he should contribute to our relationship and I found out I wasn’t the only iron he had in the fire – or should that be fire he had his iron in? I finally decided that I didn’t want to live with a thirty year old version of my clients, so I ended up bouncing him out the door.

There wasn’t even a sniff of a replacement on the horizon and I wasn’t sure that I wanted one. It was time to shop. I needed some ‘fuck-you’ shoes. A girl has to boost her confidence somehow. I found them – shiny red and with heels to die for.

Back home, I parked the Flea, grabbed the file I’d taken home to finish for tomorrow, along with the new heels and headed for the front door. I kicked off my sensible work shoes and slipped into my sexy new ones. I poured a glass of red to match. Looking suave.

The phone rang. It was Mutti, which rhymes with footy.  I gave mum the nickname when I learned German in year seven. It’s about the only thing I remember apart from Achtung! Her real name is Desley.

Mutti looks like she couldn’t add up two and two. She’s got long brown curly hair with the occasional sparkle of a silver thread, big blue eyes and dresses like a flower child of the sixties. Not that she would admit to being alive then. How she ever stayed married to my conservative father long enough to have me, I’ll never know. Talk about opposites attracting. Mutti’s not stupid. She ended up with a good divorce settlement and my dad, Richard, ended up with a trophy wife, Madeleine.

Madeleine, is the perfect corporate partner, all hair and no brains. But there was a bonus in the break-up. Dad and Madeleine produced two kids, so I got a sister and brother. Madeleine is not happy that my 11-year-old half-sister, Emily, idolises me. She thinks I’ll lead her astray. As if. I’d kill anyone who touched a hair on that kid’s head. My half-brother, Matthew, is five. He thinks I’m cool too. It must be the ice cream I feed him.                                                                                                                      

 “Hello Kip. Just touching base, dear. How’s the new romance going?”

 “Well hello to you too, Mutti. How’s your day been?” I said, hoping to distract her. Mutti ignored my small talk and barged right in. “He seemed such a nice young man. I thought I might get some grandchildren at last.”

“Mutti. I’ve got a cat. I’ll send him over to you any time you’re clucky.”

“It’s not the same, dear. It’s time you settled down’’

So I thought Tom might have been Mr. Right, as I listened to his stories of how he was taming the corporate world, and how much he loved me. Let’s face it, everyone likes to be loved, but it didn’t take long to discover that the only person he loved was his mother’s son. I must have been out of my brain when I fell for his oily charm. I thought of my future children sharing his genes and shuddered.

“He was a taker, Mutti. He couldn’t even spell monogamous, and he didn’t even have a sense of humour. For Chrissakes, you can’t talk. You didn‘t exactly settle down to marital bliss.”

“At least I gave your father an heir. That has to count for something. Anyway, don’t do as I do, do as I say. After all, mother knows best.”

“Yeah, right. You gave him me. In his world, only boys count as heirs. But right now I’ve got no time for motherly advice. I’ve got another report due in the morning and it’s going to take up most of the night. If you want to be motherly, send me an apple pie or something. That’s what mother’s do.”

“Sorry darling. I’m pretty busy right now. I’ve got my column to write for the mag, then the boys and I are going bush to do some fishing for a few days. I’ll have my mobile on.”

I had to laugh. “See you Mutti.” I hung up the phone.

The woman was incorrigible. She’s giving me all the old settle-down-get-married -and-have-kids bit while she lives on cloud nine. She writes a horoscope column and makes a fortune gazing into her crystal ball for private clients. Her partner, Andy, is a carpenter. He’s a single dad. His teenage son, Jeremy, lives with them. Surprisingly, this strange threesome seems to work.

I flicked on the television news. A family altercation had occurred. A toddler had been bashed to death. The perpetrator was believed to be the stepfather. No names were mentioned. This was too much like work. I shuddered, put the new red shoes back in their box and reached for the wine.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

A court clinician’s work is demanding.

The weekend is needed for relaxation.

Curl up in bed with a good book,

Eat cheesecake, or

Dance on the table with a handsome partner,

-Then there’s the family.

 

I had only just arrived at the Clinic when the phone started ringing. It was like a punch in the stomach. Yes, it was baby Terry who was killed. The father was in custody. The mother and Anthony were both in hospital, albeit different ones. Anthony had been hurt trying to protect Terry. Mrs. Wardon had tried to commit suicide. Anthony was refusing to see his mother, whom he thought was also involved in the death. Neither would he see anyone else. He had lost the most precious person in his life.  Mr. Warden had not only killed Terry, but he had done his best to destroy two others. The case was now in the hands of the Department of Human Services, with the initial court case being postponed, possibly indefinitely. The health of mother and son, both physical and mental, was a priority. There would be no easy answers. How does one reconcile murder in the family? I had some reconciling to do myself. At this stage, matters were out of my hands. There was nothing I could do.                                                                                          

I desperately needed a distraction. The clinic had been given free tickets to see a Bob the Builder show. We passed them around among the families. There were two left over. I hate seeing things go to waste and my little brother is kinky about Bob. I figured I could manage to sit through something about a male who fixes things and is always happy. Bob sounded like my kind of guy. Besides, I needed to spend time with the sibs and, as I never got a better offer, this was going to be the highlight of my weekend.

Emily wouldn’t go with us even if I threatened to burn her best hipsters. Bob is not cool with 11 year old girls. She tells me she’s almost a teenager now, being nearly 12, if you count eight months to go as being nearly. She informed me that when you turn 12 you are in your thirteenth year.

I can’t argue with her math or her logic. The kid’s got a future somewhere. Still, nearly a teenager or not, she likes presents. I picked up some sparkly lilac eye shadow on the way home. It’s just Emily’s colour. It should match the glittery lipstick she was trying on the other day. Be prepared, that’s my motto. Well, sometimes.

I turned the Flea into dad’s driveway. He’s got a great house in a leafy bayside suburb. It’s a two story job, with the bay windows of the enormous lounge room overlooking the bay.

Dad wasn’t home, but Madeleine’s Volvo was parked in the driveway. Why do I let that woman intimidate me? She’s not much older than me and has the brains of a gnat, albeit a tenacious one. I sometimes wonder what dad sees in her. I guess it’s because she’s stacked like a Barbie doll and calls him her teddy bear. He clearly gets his intellectual stimulation elsewhere.

Their house is tastefully decorated. Madeleine got a professional in. At least she knows her limitations. Matt rushed out as I parked the Flea.

“Did you get the tickets? – I’ve got my Bob the Builder shirt on,” he garbled excitedly, opening his jacket to show me the tee-shirt underneath.

“Yep. I’ve got them right here,” I patted my handbag. “Is Emily around? I’ve got something for her, too.”

“She’s in her room. She won’t let me in.”

“She will if you’re with me,” I assured him.

Matt is pure sunshine. He took me by the hand and led me into the house. Madeleine was in the lounge, watching a soapie. She had on the full war-paint, complete with false eye lashes. Honestly, she must get up at the crack of dawn to get the face done up like that – and there wasn’t a wrinkle in sight. 

“Hello Madeleine. Looks like Matt’s all ready for the concert. Is it OK if I go up and say hello to Emily?”

Madeleine waved in the direction of the stairs. “Help yourself. I wish she would go to the concert, too. She’s been impossible lately.”  

I tried to pour oil on troubled waters.

“Oh well, she’s nearly a teenager now. That’s a difficult time.”

It was the wrong thing. I must have hit the ‘I’m not old enough to have a teenage daughter’ button.

“She’s just a little girl. You shouldn’t put ideas into her head,” Madeleine snapped.

With the niceties observed, Matt and I headed up the stairs. There was a large sign on the door.                             

KEEP OUT – THIS MEANS YOU

Underneath was a tasteful drawing of a skull and cross bones. I knocked on the door. “Does this mean me, Emily?” I sang out.

The door opened and a slightly smaller replica of myself hurtled into my arms.

“Kip. I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve got something to ask you.” She took a breath and looked at Matt.

“Does he have to be here?” she asked.

Matt’s hand tightened on mine. I gave it a squeeze.

“Of course. He’s my date today.” Matt gave a big grin. “You’d better finish your phone conversation or hang up,” I told Emily to get her back on track.

Emily put the phone back to her ear. “I’ve gotta go, Sash, my sister’s here. She’ll know the answer. I’ll let you know. Bye.”

I sat on the bed. “What’s the question?” I asked in my interested-big-sister voice.

“How big is a whale’s penis?”

Where did that come from? I searched my “Kip knows everything, general knowledge box.” Nothing.

“I’m not sure, Em. Now that you mention it, I haven’t actually seen one. What brought this up?”

“My friend Sasha says Onassis has a bar stool covered in leather made from a sperm whale’s scrotum. We looked it up. Like that’s his ball bag, isn’t it?”

I guessed she wasn’t talking golf here.

“That’s as good a description as any.”

“Well, if his balls are that big, his penis must be humongous, so we want to know how big it would be.”

“Well Blossom, it’ll certainly be bigger than your average male. I’ll see if I know anyone who can help me with the actual dimensions. In the meantime, why don’t you try googling it. Maybe on a science site or something. If you find out before me, let me know.”

“What’s an Onassis?” Matt asked.

“A short fat man who’s dead.”

He screwed up his little face. I could see him working out the next question and jumped in quickly.

“Matt and I have to go or we’ll be late,” I told Emily.

I pulled the eye shadow out of my bag and handed it to her.

“Here’s a little something I just picked up. I don’t think the colour suits me.”

“Thanks Kip. You’re just the best sister.”

I disentangled our arms, gave her a kiss on the head and a ‘see you later, kiddo,’ as Matt and I made our exit.

I couldn’t wait to start my research… like the next time I go to dinner with someone.

“How big is a whale’s penis?” should be a great conversation starter.

Bob the Builder was a hit with Matthew. He was also great on audience participation and soon had everyone yelling with excitement. I looked around. It was full of mums, dads and kids….and me. 

*****

Monday morning is bad enough at the best of times. One of the best ways to deal with a nasty case, is to get a new one. I’d just seen a family involving five kids and four parents, or was it four kids and five parents? Don’t ask me to provide a genogram. They all had attention deficit problems, including the adults. The children were a gorgeous looking collection, but spent most of their time at the clinic hanging from the light fittings. Poor old Smokey the Bear ended up with a detached arm. The interviews, given the need to keep various sections of the family separate from others, took about six hours. I had attention deficit problems of my own by the end of the session. Not having a lunch break didn’t help. I was stuffed. I made the mistake of mentioning this to Caroline. She was unsympathetic.          

“Probably because you spent all weekend hooning about,” she lectured. “It takes it out of you. Just ask me.”

I resisted the urge. There’s no way I was going to get into exchanging confidences. The weekend adventure with Bob the Builder and a five year old could ruin my image. Life was going nowhere, the recent case with the Wardens had left me dangling, with no way to respond, and my romantic life was practically non-existent. I needed to escape the Clinic.

“How much holiday leave have I got?”

“It’s like that is it? Just hang on and I’ll give you the gruesome facts.”

Caroline pulled up my HR file.

“You’ve got four weeks. If you don’t want them you can give them to me.”

“Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Anyhow, the place would collapse without you. I’ll just have to use them up myself. Well a couple of them, anyway.”

“What is it with clinicians? You lot are always travelling.”

“Getting far away from courts and clients preserves our sanity, and right now I need some sanity.”

Caroline handed me a leave request form “Where are you planning on going?”

 “The budget’s a bit dented, and there’s not an exotic conference in sight, so it’ll have to be somewhere cheap – that usually means somewhere in Asia.”

It helps that dad has an interest in a travel agency. I worked out when my last case was due in court so that I could clear my diary and get away, then I rang dad’s secretary. Sally has been working with dad for years. Secretly she’s got a thing about him. Well at least it’s a secret from dad. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t approve of Madeleine although she manages to keep her feelings about her under control. She has been known to call her HT, short for ‘hydraulic tits,’ when dad is not in the building.

“Hi Sally. How’s it going?”

“Great, Kip. Your dad’s out at the moment. Anything I can do you for?”

“Funny you should ask. I need something to look forward to.”

“What you need is a good sex life. Where do you want to go?”

“That’s the problem. I don’t know. I just want to get away to somewhere interesting.”

“I’ll look around. What’s the time frame?”

“Any time after the 20th. A couple of weeks is all I’ve got. I have to save some leave for emergencies.”

“I’ll find somewhere with lots of males. Maybe I can get you a seat on the plane next to someone eligible.”

“Thanks Sal. I remember some of your efforts at match-making in the past. Just a ticket will be fine – without any support troops.”        

It didn’t take long. Sal got back to me an hour later.

“I’ve got just the thing. Borneo. It’s exotic, it’s not far, and it’s almost in the same time zone, so you won’t get too much jet lag. What do you think?”

“Sounds good. I must admit I don’t know much about it, except that they’ve got orangutans.”

“I’ll send you some info. You know orangutan means wild man of the forest. Hopefully there’ll also be some other wild men around. And I’ll get you the family travel discount, so it won’t cost the earth.”

“Book ’em Sallo.”

 

CHAPTER 3

 

When things are beyond solving, chill out.

Give the universe time to do its thing.

Escape from the relentless drama of the courts,

Where the darker side of human nature exists

Alongside the tragic and the brave.

Explore a different world, where ‘fuck off’ is not

A conversational high-light.

 

I had cleared all the checks and was waiting to board. I looked around at my fellow travelers. There was a teenage boy sitting with his parents, trying to look as if they didn’t belong to him.  Something about him reminded me of Anthony. I wondered how he was coping with the loss of his little brother, the one gentle influence in his life. How does anyone cope with murder? I felt that I should have done something, but what? It had all happened so quickly. The image of the toddler cringing when I walked towards him, was still embedded in my brain. I shook my head to dislodge the memories. More than ever, I needed this trip.

I was seated next to a blond-haired man. He wasn’t bad looking as far as blond–haired men go. He had the mandatory blue eyes and chiselled chin, but who’s noticing? He gave a quick nod to acknowledge my arrival, then went back to reading the aircraft information card from the seat pocket in front of him. Oh well, maybe I wasn’t his type. The engine revved as the plane lumbered along the runway. Suddenly a large sweaty palm clutched my wrist.

“Do you think we’ll crash?”

What is this? The clumsiest ever hit on me or what? I tried to pull my arm away. He clutched tighter.

“I knew it. We’re doomed. What’ll I do?”

“You can let go of me for starters, or you’ll crash right out the window before we even take off,” I warned him. Luckily no flight attendants overheard me threatening to make a hole in their plane with one of their passengers. But what are the odds? Here I am trying to escape the madhouse I work in and I get to sit next to a hunk who barely acknowledges me, and then turns manic. It’s either Mr. Scaredy Cat, or Mr. Sleazy, who’s groping me before we even get air born. If Sally had anything to do with this, she made a big mistake.

“I’m sorry. I’m really frightened.”

He released me and clutched at the arm rest. The plane was gathering speed. If he had muscles on his knuckles they would be bulging. He was in danger of flattening the armrest like an old can. He really was scared. My worst instincts came out. I started to feel sorry for him. I handed over a mint.

“It’s moments like these…” I quipped.

He was having trouble unclenching his hands.

“Hanging on won’t help you. Stop your nonsense and put this in your mouth.”

I find my bossy side works in a crisis. And let’s face it, even when there isn’t one. I must have inherited it from my cat. He gingerly took the mint. His face was white.

“I’m Kip,” I tried to disarm him with fascinating information. “I’m going to Borneo,” which was obvious, as that was where the plane was going. His eyes lit up.

“I’m Spegal Thompson. I’m off to Borneo too. I’m going to Kuching. I’m a photographer. I’m interested in snakes.”

“Well, this is just great,” I thought. If there’s one thing I’m not interested in, its snakes, and here I am sitting next to Spegal the Snake Hunter for the trip. I was also going to stay in Kuching.

The plane reached cruising altitude. The safety demonstration started. I noticed where the exits were; that’s the number one survival rule. Then my eyes glazed over. If the damned plane ended up in the drink, I’d take my chances on remembering something from the days when I used to soak up the information religiously. The crew distributed orange juice and peanuts. I was doing my best to ignore Spegal. He fidgeted, reading everything in the seat pocket in front of him. He was about to read the sick bag when the cursed sorry-instinct kicked in again – along with a dose of curiosity.

“What sort of a name is Spegal?”

“My mother met this journo from a German newspaper with the same name – the paper, not the journo, except she never got around to spelling it right. I was the result of their relationship. She said I was a mirror image of him. By the time I was born he was off gazing into another woman’s looking glass.”

“Anyway, what sort of a name is Kip?”

“Mothers again. Mum was in her Indian phase. I was named Kipling, as in Rudyard.”

“That’s amazing. We’ve both got crazy names connected with writers. That means we’re practically related. We could be soul mates.”

He was gazing at me – the same way little Matt looks when he’s contemplating a bowl of ice cream. Matt’s cute. Spegal is not, although I suppose some people would think he was good looking if he didn’t have his petrified face on. The situation was getting out of control. Action was needed.

“Maybe the plane will crash. They do, you know. Or the back door might fly open and we’ll all be sucked out. You’d better hang onto the arm rest again, just in case.”

I felt like a heel, but it worked. His face went whiter. All thoughts of devouring me were vanquished. Luckily, the meals were being served so he had something to take his mind off his possible demise.

I don’t have many talents. Well, yes I do, but I’m being modest. One talent I do have is the ability to drop off to sleep at any time, in any place – especially on night flights. As soon as the meal tray was collected, I put the seat back, pulled the blanket over my head and shut out the world. Right now, I couldn’t cope with Mr Snaky Spegal.

It seemed only moments later when Spegal shook me awake. The pilot was making an announcement.

“Good morning. This is your captain speaking. The cabin crew will soon be serving breakfast. Shortly afterwards, we will be arriving on time at the Borneo capital, Kuching, where the temperature is a balmy 24 degrees.”

I found a toothbrush and comb and headed for the toilet. Spegal was momentarily distracted by breakfast. Then he remembered that the plane was about to land. He was sure this would be disastrous.

Despite his fears, the landing was a copy book job and the big plane docked smoothly. Passengers stood to retrieve their luggage from the overhead lockers. Well, most of them. Spegal was so traumatized that he remained sitting frozen in his seat. The crew might have to hose him out, but that was their problem. I made my way down the aisle to the exit. I even forgot to say goodbye.

I got through customs with a minimum of fuss, apart from the scrutiny for drugs by an overzealous customs officer. The patting down bit was disturbingly thorough.

“No madam, those bumps are not concealed packages of heroin, they are just vital parts of my anatomy,” I said. Actually, I didn’t say anything. I just thought about it. At last she was satisfied and I walked out into the clear Kuching morning.

Sally had arranged for a car to meet me at the airport. It was early morning as we drove into town, past the big statue of the cats that were on the front of her brochures. There are lots of other cat statues scattered around the city. Cats are special here. The word Kuching means cat in Malay. Maybe they have always had cats around the area. Or maybe it was named after the brown lychee nuts on the trees that line the Kuching River, which are said to look like cats’ eyes. It’s a funny thing though: Borneo cats have brown eyes like the nuts, yet all the cats in the statues have their eyes painted blue. Artistic licence, I suppose.

Kuching even has the world’s largest cat museum. Riki would love the idea of a special cat town. I wondered how he was going. My neighbours on my right are two elderly sisters, Winifred and Kezia Mahony, known as Win and Kez. They had promised to feed him and talk to him. Riki knows the oldies well and often goes into their place for a chat. But it won’t be the same for him. He gets lonely when I’m not there. That’s the worst thing about sharing a house with a cat. They make you feel guilty if their routine is upset.

We pulled up at the hotel. The concierge gave me a warm greeting. 

“Welcome, Miss Kipling. I’ve put you in room 204, overlooking the river. There’s a complimentary dinner tonight in the Indian Room.”

Dad must have some influence. I felt like an instant millionaire as I followed the bell boy through the foyer. I was worlds away from work, with its lost young people and the disaster of a dead toddler. I wondered how they could exist in the same universe.

I unpacked the important things; my bikini and the latest Brenda Bazooka novel. The Brenda novels are pure escapism. She has amazing adventures that are as far away from reality as I needed to be. Her stories make a mind-saving balance to an endless supply of factual court reports. My room had a full length mirror. I’m not sure if that’s always a good idea. Still, the image wasn’t too bad. A gauze sarong camouflaged some of the worst effects of a diet of vegemite on toast and take-away meals. Its pool time in the lovely Borneo sun, with not a court report or a troubled soul in sight.

I settled in poolside and immersed myself in the book. Brenda was causing her usual mayhem, dodging bullets, sending off a few of her own, in between being lusted after by two handsome men. Lucky Brenda.   

Then surprise, surprise. Spegal flopped onto the deck chair beside me. He had obviously recovered from the flight and had by now found his voice. There were not many hotels along the river bank, so ending up in the same one was not that strange. Arriving at the pool within minutes of each other was a different matter.  

“Hello Kip. What a coincidence. The powers must have decreed this.”

The powers – my fat aunt. He must have been watching for me.

“And look. We’ve got matching outfits, isn’t that another amazing coincidence?”

I looked at his electric blue shorts. Matching! Ecchh. Mind you, the figure was pretty impressive. If he wasn’t clutching at arm-rests or passengers on airplanes, he might be interesting. But I’m here for R and R and not to be disturbed by lecherous males. Well this one anyway. I gave myself a mental slap.

“Spegal, you will have to excuse me, but I am busy at the moment. I’m studying this book and must have it completed by tonight. I know you’ll understand.”

“Sure thing, Kippy, I understand the pressures of work. What are you studying?”

“Different ways to dispatch various types of hunters and collectors to a higher plane.”

“That sounds fascinating. Would you like me to explain what I’m studying?”

“Now that you mention it, no. And don’t call me Kippy.”

I focused on the book. Brenda was just about to be chopped up by a crazed mercenary on the Afghan border. I felt like doing a bit of chopping up as well.

“All right. Never let it be said that Spegal wanted to stop the pursuit of educational excellence. I’ll have a swim. Maybe later we can do some exploring together.”

Spegal leaped into the pool and I made a hasty exit. Back in my room I gazed out the panoramic windows overlooking the river, to the historic Fort Margarita in the distance.  I changed into a light cotton dress, slipped on some sandals and went for a walk along the shaded river bank, stopping for a cool drink in a small pavilion with a fan whirring gently overhead.  It was great being a lady of leisure. I felt like a reincarnation from colonial times, just lazing along taking in the scenery. No, I didn’t stop to think about the abuses of such a system. This is my fantasy and I’m enjoying it. Whatever jet-lag there was, faded into the distance, along with problems of reality.

Dinner in the Indian Room was a delight. I met the Manager, Khalid. He was a pleasant host and a delightful conversationalist. 

“Your father often stays here. You must give him my regards. He is an interesting man. I must apologize for not being able to serve you some bird’s nest soup. It is a specialty of the area, but unfortunately unavailable at the moment. However we have a nice crepe entrée you should enjoy.”

I had read about the soup. It is made from bird saliva and considered to be an absolute delicacy. It wasn’t easy, but I hid my disappointment at not being able to slurp down a bowl of bird spit.

The main course was a light dish of finely sliced beef and ginger, with crisp Asian greens. A delicate sweet, complete with a spun-glass sugar accent, topped off the meal. The major religion in the area is Muslim. In deference to my host, I accompanied the meal with green tea. Bladder loads of it.

Feeling much healthier already, not to mention sober, I said goodnight and headed to my room – and the toilet.

 

CHAPTER 4

 

Knowledge of exotic cultures provides

An informed world view for the enquiring mind.

Lack of local knowledge can, however, be

A deterrent in keeping ahead of the game.

Ignore anything you don’t understand,

Particularly if it looks a bit nasty.

 

Visiting the orangutan sanctuary in Semingok was high on my list of ‘to dos.’ I’ve got a thing about orangutans. They are one of our closest relatives and are only found in Borneo and Sumatra. They are just the greatest creatures.

I feel a connection with them. With their long lopey arms, their tangled red hair and soulful looks, they remind me of my first love. Jimmy Manders was the spunkiest six year old in grade one at the Merrigum Primary school. Jimmy knew how to read, which was more than most of us could do. He was also a great talker – he even talked when the teacher said to be quiet. He wasn’t petrified of her like the rest of us. Well actually, once he was. One day she lost her patience and yelled at him to be quiet. He had an immediate reaction. He wet his pants – right there in the classroom. That not only shut him up, it stopped the teacher in her tracks.

Eventually Jimmy got control of his bladder and he grew up to be a television star. He’s a regular in the soapie, The Awful Life of Gus. He even got nominated for a Logie. Now all the girls are wetting their pants when they see him. Jimmy’s still got that cute ranga look, but his publicity blurbs describe his hair as dark auburn and he has a private hairdresser to keep his locks dishevelled. I’m no longer in his orbit, but I only need to see a picture of an orangutan and a vision of him floats before me.

Ram was my guide. We went into the forest hoping to see one of these fabulous animals in its natural habitat. He pointed up into the canopy.

“Look, Kip, There’s an orangutan nest.”

 Well, what does he take me for? Nests are for birds. What does he want me to look for next, orangutan eggs? Luckily I kept my mouth shut.

“The orangutan builds a platform to sleep on. He lies on his back and holds onto overhead branches. Up there, he’s safe from predators like tigers,” Ram explained.

We headed deeper into the jungle. I was busy trying to keep my footing as we dodged around and over tangles of roots and vines which turned the little path into an obstacle course. Ram kept talking.

“When it’s the non-fruiting season, some of the orangutans who have been released into the jungle, return for a while to the feeding station to get something to eat. If we are lucky we will see one.’ 

“Kippy. What a coincidence.”

“What the…”

Mr. Snaky Spegal appeared through the thick jungle growth, waving an impressive looking camera.

“I came out earlier to take some photos. Guess what, Kippy; the guide thinks orangutans live in nests in the tree tops. What does he think they are? Birds?”

I couldn’t resist it.

“Well, Mr. Fruity Loop, everyone knows orangutans sleep upside down in nests in the tree tops.” That should shut him up.

A big grin came across his face. “Hey, Kippy. You do like me. You just made up a pet name for me.”

Where’s a bucket of cold water when you need it?  Was he stalking me? Not likely. He couldn’t have planned it. Coinciding in the jungle was too much of a long shot for the average stalker. Not that I’m an expert on the species.

“Shut up, Loopy. You’ll frighten the orangutans. And I told you not to call me Kippy.”’

He looked at me with his dopey grin and made a zipper-shutting movement across his lips. I was thinking about strangling him slowly with a wet vine when Ram touched me on the arm and pointed. We were nearing the feeding station. A ranger was placing food on the platform. Ram stopped and put his hand out. “Shh,” he whispered.

 We stood quietly. It was eerie. I looked around, although I didn’t know what I was looking for. Where would the orangutan come from if there was one? The ranger made a strange call that tapered off into the jungle. Everything was still. All I could see were trees. Then there was a faint rustle in the distance. The sun was filtering through the canopy. Was it wishful thinking or was something orange moving through the tree tops?

Yes. It was an orangutan. Pure magic. The tree tops bent with his weight until they touched another tree then he moved gracefully from one branch to the next. There was none of the energetic jumping that characterised his smaller relatives. This boy was smooth. We watched him as he landed on the feeding platform set up to help animals make the transition to living in the wild. He helped himself to the fruit. Then in an unforgettable moment, the magnificent creature made eye contact with me and then resumed eating. I was mesmerized.

Spegal broke the spell.  “Ram says you’re going to see a long-house next. We should go together. It’s less intrusive on the people that way.”

Ram agreed this was an excellent idea. Spegal looked pleased with himself for the suggestion. Less intrusive! What about intruding on me? I looked at Ram. He was definitely a non-violent sort of guy. He would not understand my chopping up a fellow Australian and boiling the bits in oil, particularly as said Australian was looking particularly innocuous.

“No problems,” I assured him, albeit reluctantly.

Spegal was grinning widely behind Ram. I gritted my teeth and summoned all my powers of restraint as I followed them out of the jungle, concentrating on carefully stepping over and around the twisted undergrowth. The concentrated effort to remain upright kept even more evil thoughts at bay.

Ram’s mini-van was parked in a clearing on the edge of the forest. I climbed in and sat down, placing my bag on the seat beside me. Spegal sat on the opposite side. Ram drove slowly along a narrow road that wound through rugged mountains. I hoped we would not meet anything coming the other way. Someone would have to back up or go over the edge.

Finally we arrived at Ana Rais, which was a traditional long-house village. These consist of a number of units built high up from the forest floor. Probably taking their cue from the orangutans. All the units front on to a wide communal walkway. It was made from bamboo and supported by long poles. When a young couple marry, they just extend the walkway and add an extra unit on the end. It’s a bit like a row of town houses on stilts. Some have as many as 30 homes in their complex. 

A young mother showed us around her home. There was a neat living area with a partitioned-off section for sleeping. This contained a double bed covered with a brilliant-coloured spread. She was holding a smiling baby, who gurgled away happily, waving chubby starfish hands. She had no English and I couldn’t speak her language, but somehow we managed to communicate. After a while I realised that the men had not followed me into the room. I turned around. I was on my own.

I nodded a thank you and walked back onto the walkway looking for Ram and Spegal. They were not in sight. I panicked and nearly tripped over a mangy looking dog. I looked up and Ram had materialized. He was at a turn in the walkway, near a set of steps that led to what appeared to be a turret, making a third level in the complex. He waved me over. As he did so, two hands appeared on the edge of the walkway nearby, followed by Spegal’s head and then the rest of him. He was climbing up some stairs from the ground below. He joined us.

“This is the Head House,” said Ram, pointing up the stairs. “It’s a bit like the chief’s club room. Luckily we have permission to enter it.”

We climbed up the steps to the inner sanctum. It was not very big, but had everything it needed. There was a padded area around the sides where the men could sit or even sleep. A fire in the centre kept things warm. Above the fire pit there were a number of shrunken heads dangling from the ceiling. It was the local custom to decapitate enemies and smoke the heads so they could be kept as trophies. There is nothing like having your enemies hanging around to remind you of your past triumphs. The rest of the body reportedly became the Sunday roast.

“Do they still chop off people’s heads?” asked Spegal, without a hint of embarrassment.

“As far as I know, none this year,” Ram told him with a straight face, “but you never know when people may want to revive cultural traditions.”

Spegal continued without a pause. “I’m impressed by the club room aspect. A man needs to have a place of his own.  It’s amazing. Even in the most primitive conditions, man makes sure he has some private space. That’s what’s wrong with modern society. Men have nowhere to escape the pressures of a busy world.”

“This is very true,” Ram agreed with him.

Well, this modern woman was trying to escape the pressures of a busy world and who kept getting in her hair? None other than modern man. I was feeling a bit uneasy about the cluster of human remains just above my head, which Spegal was busy shooting with his camera. The heat in the room was oppressive. I clumped down the stairs from the chief’s hut, leaving one alpha male in his floral Hawaiian shirt and one treacherous guide, to wallow in their manly reminiscences.

I was hoping in vain for some kind of breeze along the walk way. I watched where I was putting my feet as some of the gaps between the uneven bamboo slats were quite wide. I thought I heard a moan. I focused through a gap. There was a woman’s body on the ground below, near one of the supporting poles. I thought I saw her move slightly.

A figure of a male blocked my vision as he grabbed her under the shoulders and lifted her up. I found a wider gap in the walkway. Another woman came out from behind one of the poles to help him. She took hold of the feet. She glanced up in my direction, then quickly looked away. They carried the woman out of sight. Just before they disappeared, the man also looked up at me. Our eyes locked for a second. I shivered at his deranged stare.

I looked back towards the head-house. Spegal and Ram were climbing down the stairs. I called out “There’s a woman hurt,” as I pointed through the slit in the walkway. Ram and Spegal joined me and looked down through the gap.

“There’s nothing there, Kippo,” said Spegal. “The heat must have

got to you. Or maybe it was the smoked heads.”

“But I saw her. And there was also a man and another woman.”

Ram looked around. “I’ll ask a villager. They’ll know if anyone was hurt.”

He went over to a woman who was sorting pepper on a tray to dry. They had a short conversation. I couldn’t hear what they said, but the woman quickly shook her head and went into a room off the walkway. Ram came back.

“Well she wasn’t the friendliest, but she said there was nobody hurt in the village at the moment, and she would have known if there was someone under the house.”

I shook my head. “She must be lying. I know what I saw.”

“The heat plays funny tricks,” said Ram. “We can get some drinks at the kiosk, then it will be time to return. The air conditioning in the bus will help.”

Ram held the door open and I climbed in the mini bus, clutching a cool bottle of water, which Spegal nobly shouted me as I had left my pack in the bus rather than carry it around in the heat. I sat down beside it, making it clear that I wanted to sit alone. Spegal was busy continuing his discussion with his new soul mate about secret men’s business, but that was OK as it gave me time to think. I knew I saw a woman’s body and two people dragging her away. I was also sure they saw me. It couldn’t have been a hallucination – or could it? Maybe the heat was getting to me.

As we pulled up at the front of the hotel, Spegal remembered me.

“Hey, Kippo, What about having dinner tonight?”

“Gosh. I’d really love to, but I’ve got a date with Brenda Bazooka.”

Spegal looked impressed. “Anyone I know?”

It wasn’t worth explaining that she was my favourite paperback hero.

“Unfortunately not. Her hobby is shooting people.”

“She sounds like a dangerous sort of person.”

Back at the hotel. I threw the pack on the bed and changed for a quick dip in the pool. The river runs beside it. Dragon boats were practising for a big race in two weeks’ time. Their rhythmic yells echoed along the river as the oars hit the water with regular strokes.

I did a few languid laps, focussing on the tiles on the bottom of the pool. Slowly the tension washed away and the day’s events came into perspective.  They were right. I must have imagined the injured woman. The last rays of the sun were pleasantly warm as I towelled off. I wrapped my sarong around me so I wouldn’t offend the locals as I walked back into the hotel.

Dinner in my room and relaxing with more of Brenda’s adventures seemed like a good idea.  Chicken salad and a fruit platter was definitely a step up from vegemite sandwiches.

But first a shower. Just as I wrapped myself in the soft towelling bath robe that the hotel provided, the food arrived. The sun had just set and the sky was still a faint apricot colour. I ate dinner watching the light slip away. Bliss.

My lips felt dry so I reached around for the lip salve in the day pack. My fingers felt something odd – it was something hairy. This was strange. As I tipped up the bag, the contents rolled across my bed. Among them was a smoked blackened head. The face grimaced at me. The hollowed eyes stared into my own and seemed to penetrate my brain. A small piece of paper was jammed between the teeth, with the words ‘HELP’ printed in an uneven hand. There was something else underneath the letters but it was indecipherable.           

I stared at the skull, mesmerized, with the paper in my shaking hand. I thought of reporting it to Khalid, but remembered he was over at the Damai Beach Resort for a couple of days, overseeing renovations.  

“Think Kip, think. What would Brenda Bazooka do?”

But Brenda isn’t real. She’s just somebody’s fantasy. I’m probably dreaming and I’ll wake up soon. I looked down. The skull was still there, staring at me. The shrill ring of the telephone startled me. 

“Kippo. It’s me, Spegal.”

Never was I so glad to hear his voice. “S-S-S-Spegal,” I stuttered.

“I’ve just seen a Brenda Bazooka book in the hotel shop. Boy does she have a good set of bazookas.”

“S-S-Spegal,” I repeated.

“That’s me, Kippo.”

“S-Spegal.” I was starting to sound like a broken record.

Right now I needed another human and he was the first one available. Spegal was already spooky. He’d understand.    

“Spegal, I need you here. Room 204.”

“I’m on my way, Baby.”

He probably thought he was on his way to meet the real Brenda or have a close encounter with me. I was too stunned to tell him Brenda is a 60 year old woman whose real name is Mabel. And the bazookas must have been added for effect. She’s the same shape whichever way you looked at her, front, back or sideways – nary a bump of any sort. In fact the only use she would have for a bra would be as a rocket launcher.

I was still staring at the skull when Spegal arrived a few minutes later. I let him in. He was all smiles.

“You need me Baby?”

“Don’t get too excited. Look.” I held up the skull.

“You stole it, Kippo. You’ll get into terrible trouble. You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Don’t be bloody stupid. I didn’t know it was in my pack. Someone must have put it in there.” I handed him the piece of paper. “This was in its mouth.”

“Oh boy, Kip. We’re having an adventure together.”

My brain was thinking quick time. What the hell do I do now? As brains go, mine wasn’t being effective. I felt sick.

“I’ve got an idea, Kippo. Let’s have a drink and maybe we’ll think of something.” He opened up the mini bar. “Johnny Walker’s looking good. And don’t think Spegal Thompson is a sleaze. I’ll replace it tomorrow.”

I couldn’t come up with a better suggestion, so Johnny Walker it was. By the time I finished the third glass, I was getting quite attached to the skull. Spegal was also starting to look good. This was dangerous. I had to get rid of both of them before I did something I would be sorry for.

“In the wardrobe. That’s the answer.”

Spegal took a deep breath. “You’re a magnificent woman, Kippo, and I’d do anything you ask, but don’t you think the bed would be more comfortable?”

Bells rang as I removed his hand from my breast. 

“Not you, Spoogle. The skull,”

“You want to have sex with a skull?”

“No stupid. I want to hide it. I’ll think about it tomorrow.”

“All right Scarlet….come to Rhett.”

Well the rat must have watched the movie. I’ll never think of Scarlett and Rhett in the same light again. Reason struggled through the Johnny Walker warmth, but only just. But was it really just the Johnny Walker? It was time to take charge before I did something really stupid. I pointed to the door.

“Spoogle. You have to leave now. At once.”

 

CHAPTER 5

 

Laws are different in foreign countries.

Be wary of police involvement.

If something incomprehensible occurs

Pretend it’s just a bad dream.

If you’re lucky, it might go away.

 

It was a pleasant tropical morning. The sun hadn’t started to exert its presence yet, and I was feeling surprisingly good given the events of the previous evening. Ram pulled up in front of the hotel in the mini-van. I was off for a day in the jungle at the Bako National Park. It was no use trying to dodge Spegal, who had gone out earlier with his camera. We had arranged to meet up with him later.

The first stop was a little fishing village on the river, where it was a short walk to an ancient pier. It was a small step down to a small boat, which then pulled away and slowly chugged out through the mouth of the river into open water. Then the driver opened the throttle.

With the tropical wind streaming through my hair, I was speeding across the South China Seas. It was a fantastic feeling. The world’s worries, and mine, melted away. The boat slowed down as we passed the sculptured cliffs of the park and manoeuvred through the mangrove swamps. I clambered out of the boat and onto the rickety wooden jetty.

As we walked along the foreshore, Ram pointed out a proboscis monkey with a baby on its back.

“Hey. They look ugly in pictures, Ram, but in real life they’re so cute, hooky nose and all.”

“Photos never give the full picture of an animal,” he explained. “They don’t show its soul. That applies to people too.”

The monkey turned to look at me. Something jolted in my brain. It was the memory of the grinning skull in my room. Oh well, it was probably someone’s idea of a joke. We turned onto a board-walk that headed into the jungle. Ram was explaining the different plants and animals around us. I was only half listening. I hadn’t quite been able to dismiss the memory of the skull in the wardrobe.

“Ram. Yesterday with the smoked heads – don’t people want to get their relative’s bits back so they can give them a proper burial? Are there any head hunters still around?”

“Not as far as I know. During communist uprisings in the 70s, there were rumours of head hunters, but I can’t say for sure. The skulls are prized even today as they are war trophies and they cannot be replaced.”

I didn’t tell him that someone had parted with one recently and that right now it was hiding in my dirty underwear.

We came to the end of the boardwalk and moved into virgin jungle, walking along another little path that wound over and around the usual mass of roots tangled on the forest floor. A huge butterfly flew past. Its long narrow black wings were marked with brilliant iridescent green triangles. Its beauty was astounding.

“You’re very lucky. That’s the Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing,” said Ram. It floated around the bend. I followed it.

“Aaargh.”

“Kippo.”

These surprises were getting to be a habit. I thought we were meeting up for the return trip, rather than again tripping over him in the middle of the jungle. He grinned at me, as if he’d made a major coup.

“You’re early. What’re you up to?”

He waved his camera at me. “The usual – looking for snakes. They’ve got the greatest snakes here – like the mangrove cat snake and a dog-toothed cat snake. They’ve even got some great flying snakes. If we’re lucky one might come zooming past.”

“If I’m lucky, you’ll go zooming past and out of sight. What do you mean, flying snakes? Snakes can’t fly.”

“They really do get airborne. They pull their stomachs in so their fronts curve against their backs and their whole body curves around to form a circle like a bicycle wheel. Then they launch themselves off from a high branch and zoom down to a lower one. Fantastic, isn’t it?”

I turned to Ram. “Ram, he’s making it up, isn’t he?” 

“Well actually we do have these hoop snakes. They are quite famous, but enough of that. I want you all to be completely quiet and just listen. Jungles are really fascinating things. Everyone talks about the silence of the jungle. It is nothing of the sort.”

 He was right. I stood entranced, with the sounds drifting around me. It was awesome. There were hoots, whistles and grunts. Ram explained the different noises. I would have been overwhelmed with wonder if I hadn’t been worrying about the snakes. As I listened, I could hear it all. That is, all but the main sound I was listening out for – the whoosh of an attacking snake. The noise of all the other stuff would disguise it. I wouldn’t even know which direction they were zooming in from.

I tried to stand between Ram and Spegal, figuring that they would then get bitten first, and the yell would be a warning for me to move smartly in the opposite direction while the snake was preoccupied. We moved on. I felt safer now as we moved through the forest, having decided that any self – respecting serpent would get one of the tall males on either side of me.

We arrived back at the hotel just on sunset. I was tired, but full of the day’s experiences.

“About last night,” said Spegal with a thoughtful look on his face.

“Don’t remind me about that. I’ve still got to deal with some of it.”

“Which bit? Tell you what, I owe you some Johnny Walker. I’ll bring some up and we can deal with it together,” said Spegal, helper of damsels in distress.

He disappeared before I could tell him what to do with his Johnny Walker. I needed a clear head and an unsullied body to deal with the contents of my wardrobe.

A quick shower washed the day’s grime away. I combed my hair back while it was still wet, and shrugged into a comfortable slip dress. The doorbell rang. It was Spegal, with a large bottle.

“Spegal, tonight is strictly business. We have to decide what to do with the skull and no side tracking.”

“I’m at your command, Your Worshipfulness.”

I opened the wardrobe and pushed aside my underwear. Nothing. I turned to Spegal, with a black lacy thong dangling from my hand.

“Spegal.”

I was back to mind-numbing stuck-gramophone status.

“Spegal,” I repeated.

Spegal took the thong from my outstretched hand.

“This is very cute, Kippio.”

I snatched it back.

“Not that you idiot. Look in the wardrobe. The skull is gone.”

We were both on our hands and knees scrabbling among my washing. Still nothing. I sat back. Spegal looked as stunned as I felt. Then he grinned.

“You’re just tricking me, aren’t you? That’s alright. No one ever said Spegal Thompson couldn’t take a joke.”

It was too much. Did he think I made it all up to get him into my room? How dare he? I thought about doing the only thing a cool competent professional woman could do under the circumstances – throw something at him. It must have showed on my face. Spegal-the-hunter-and-protector kicked in.

“Don’t you worry, Kippy, of course I believe you. We need a drink while we think about it.”

He got glasses down from the top of the mini bar and started pouring. I took the glass he held out. If I’m in my own nightmare, I might as well soften the view.

Spegal was just starting to look good, when the doorbell rang. I walked to the door and opened it. A delivery man handed me an arrangement of dried flowers. They had been painted all different colours.

“For Miss Kipling Kelly.”

I took the bouquet, wondering who it could be from. Apart from on official documents, only my mother called me Kipling, and that was when she was annoyed with me. Admittedly it wasn’t very often, as she said it took too much energy from her cosmic consciousness.

“So who’s the secret admirer?” asked Spegal, as the delivery man left before I could ask him about it – or even give him a tip.

I opened the envelope attached to something black in the centre of the flowers.

“You have been warned. Do not interfere, or you will end up like this piece of jungle fruit.” 

I looked at the black stuff. Was this the ‘jungle fruit’? I dropped it. “Yuk.”

Spegal picked it up. He went white.

“Kip, this appears to be a body part – from a woman’s body. It looks like it’s been smoked, just like the skull. This is starting to spook the old Spegal, who can handle anything – except planes.”

“I don’t get it. If this is a joke, it’s going a bit too far.”

 “We need a plan,” said Spegal helpfully.

“I’ve got a good one. It’s probably not a real vagina anyway. Let’s throw it in the bin.”

Spegal refilled our glasses. “You’re right. This is Borneo. They probably think it’s funny to frighten tourists with smoked bits of fake anatomy. Here have another drink.”

I stared at the arrangement.

“Well if it’s real, the poor woman isn’t going to need it now.”

 I dropped it in the rubbish bin, swallowed the Johnny Walker and then started giggling. Spegal gently ran his finger down my cheek.

“You’re even cuter when you’re pickled.”

He refilled my glass. I needed to concentrate. Whisky can do that to you. I must have concentrated too hard. Snaky Spegal was starting to look like a cross between a spunky blond president who got himself assassinated and a sexy blond Highlander skirling his pipes as he strode manfully across the fields of heather. And the old world kept spinning.

I headed down for breakfast. I needed coffee and lots of it. Spegal was already there, having bailed out early after cleaning up the remains of our little party. Poached eggs on toast and a shot of industrial strength guava juice helped kick-start my engine.

A day at the Cultural Centre was planned. There was no use trying to dodge Spegal, as he’d turn up anyway, and he was getting kind of fascinating, so I invited him along. I finished off with a cheese Danish and another coffee. This was no time to think of the figure. Besides, I needed something to soak up last night’s alcohol.

The Cultural Centre was a fascinating place, designed as a traditional long-house, with the various units displaying artifacts and insignia from the different tribal groups. The stairs leading up to the four metre high communal verandah consisted of a huge log with steps cut into it. It would be really good for your deportment, balancing up the steps, lugging the day’s produce if you were a woman, or clutching your blow pipe with spear attached, if you were male. If you lost your balance, you would also lose the load you were carrying, in the quagmire below, where the chooks and pigs were happily rooting around. You might also join the menagerie below, possibly breaking your neck in the process. I climbed up carefully, maintaining an upright posture to keep my footing.

“Hold it babe,” sang out Spegal.

I turned around gingerly.

“What’s wrong,” I asked, twisting my head to look down at him. This was no mean feat.

“It’s a great photo opportunity.”

I could have strangled him. I was in danger of overbalancing and risking my life so he could get a leg shot.  I continued steadily upwards, hoping he would land among the pigs when it was his turn, and seriously damage his own blow pipe. 

We wandered through the various units, each displaying different forms of entertainment and education on local customs. In one there was a young man who was playing a haunting tune on a hornbill-shaped guitar. The next unit brought memories flooding back. It was decorated with blackened skulls. The guide explained that these were only monkey skulls. It was thought that hanging human skulls may offend tourists.

“I can see the difference,” Spegal joked. “This one looks like my Uncle Bill.”

I kicked him in the shins.

“You didn’t have to do that, Princess. The old Spegal is a model of discretion.”

A man came around the corner of the verandah. His face was European with a hint of the Orient. Our eyes met. I was sure it was the man I had seen dragging the woman under the long-house at Ana Rais.  He melded into the crowd in front as we moved on. It was probably just a coincidence.

There was a shop at the end unit. I picked up a few souvenirs, including a bamboo blow pipe for Matt and a chunky necklace for Emily. As I paid for these trinkets, a woman handed me a piece of paper.

“You dropped this Miss.”

The writing was scrawled. It looked like ring me and a telephone number. I was about to say it wasn’t mine, but she had already disappeared. I put the paper in my bag to dispose of when I found a rubbish receptacle.

My time in mysterious Borneo was coming to an end. I packed the extra goodies I had bought, including a seriously beautiful Indian outfit I’d found at the night market. I’d tossed up whether I’d give it to Mutti or keep it for myself. I imagined her wearing it. It would make a great picture in the New Day, above her astral predictions. It was no contest really. It looked like it was made for her.

It was time say my goodbyes and catch a plane. It had been a great holiday, skull jokes and all. That is, assuming they were jokes, albeit in seriously bad taste. In the meantime, it was time to start heading back to the real world, leaving all the exotica behind. Spegal was even acting normal as I said goodbye. He kissed me gently on the forehead, pushing a stray bit of hair back out of my eyes.

“I’ll see you back in Australia.”

I browsed through duty free and spent the remainder of my ringgits, which is the crazily named local currency. As I boarded the flight I looked around. I half expected to see Spegal swing from a vine to board the plane at the last minute. Nothing so spectacular happened. I was a bit disappointed. As the plane started its pushback, I caught a glimpse of him looking out from the airport window.

Flying has its downsides. When I got to Melbourne, all I wanted to do was get home, see Riki and have a sleep in my own bed. I separated the wooden articles for customs. An officer grabbed the blow pipe I bought at the airport for Matt.

“This is a weapon. Do you have a permit?”

I had thought it was an imitation, made out of a length of bamboo. Silly me. I repacked the clothes that were strewn all over the place. The unsmiling officer waved me through as he deposited the confiscated blow pipe in a container near his bench.

 

CHAPTER 6

 

Buying gifts is part of the trip.

Reciprocity theory notes that

The giver is in a power position.

If you forget someone. Buy locally.

That maintains a satisfactory status quo.

 

Back in St Kilda, the sun was shining. The dry heat was pleasant after the humidity of the tropics. Riki walked around wailing loudly at me. He was castigating me for my absence. We settled down to our normal rhythms, then it was time to return to work.

The first week back at the Clinic was relatively quiet, as cases had not yet built up. Thanks Caroline for that. Giving up the life of a lady of leisure was not easy, but it was helped by short deadlines which required a quick re-focus. This meant that it didn’t take long to slip back into the disciplined world of report writing, with the logical structure taming the facts. Well almost.

There was a supplementary report to write on a case that was returning to court for a three month review and a final disposition. It involved a 14 year old girl who had been on an extensive shoplifting spree. She had previously had a warning for theft, although not on such a grand scale. School reports described her as a good student who kept herself out of trouble. She had supportive parents who were beside themselves with worry about what they might have done wrong. All the goods had been returned, except the chocolates, which had been consumed.

Maybe she was just experimenting with life. Whatever the cause, it seems that the effect of the court appearance, when it finally came, helped her develop a different method of coping. Follow-up reports were positive. My report was short and recommended a Good Behaviour Bond.

There was also a subpoena for the following week. It was nasty. The Grindle family were a nightmare. The case was literally a stinker. Major bits of evidence found floating in the toilet had been a dead give-away. I was not looking forward to the cross-examination. I was, however, as up-to-date as I could be with the situation and would not be on the stand until after lunch, with nothing booked in that morning. This would give me time to do a last-minute review of the reports and my notes before I gave evidence. I did not need to take work home over the weekend. Bliss.

Every Sunday there is a craft market on the Esplanade. Normally I keep well away and leave it for the tourists, but I needed something for Auntie Lou’s birthday. Auntie Lou is my mother’s older sister, and a special person in my life. She’s confined to a wheelchair at this stage, but this does not deter her from harassing the world at large. Talk about sharp. She’s like a piece of walking razor wire.

Auntie Lou started trading insults with me when I was about five years old. She was minding me at the time as Mum was sick. I had just invented the ‘leap off the chest of drawers onto the bed’ game. I got cocky. On the second leap I slid off the bed and landed on the floor. Auntie Lou was not impressed by my entrepreneurship. She ignored my screams of agony and told me I shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place.

“If God had meant you to fly he would have given you wings like a bat to match your face,” was the sympathetic response.

I was so shocked I stopped crying.

“You’re an old poo bum,” I counter attacked.

We’ve been best friends ever since.

Auntie Lou has one child, my cousin Fred. Fred was a timid boy who was always being bullied, mostly by his mother, and then by me. Despite this treatment, Fred, who should have grown up to be one of life’s victims, somehow emerged as a charming well-balanced character, able to handle both his mother and me with ease, despite our best efforts to stunt his psychological growth. His work involved computers, and came with a decent pay packet. Measuring earthquakes came into it somewhere. He’s also available as a partner when I am desperate.

Auntie Lou and I have developed another game. We regularly exchange crass presents. Last Christmas she gave me a large plastic parrot on a swing. I responded with a fat, naked gnome for her garden. For my birthday I received a painting of the last supper on velvet in 46 glorious texta colours. Jesus even had his toenails painted a tasteful red. I was hoping to find something grotesque for her at the market.

It was a nice day for walking along the Esplanade watching the yachts bobbing out on the bay. It would have been really peaceful if there were not a million or so tourists wandering up and down cluttering up the footpath. Bingo. I couldn’t believe it. There was a stall selling carved chess sets. The pieces were not your average ones. The rooks were thatched huts, the knights were orangutans, the bishops were witch doctors and the king and queen were in tribal dress, what there was of it. And the pawns were shrunken heads. The whole thing was grotesque.

It was amazing. It was synchronicity. Here I was just back from Borneo where skulls had been a focal point, and I was confronted with a matching chess set. How could I resist it? I had forgotten to get anything in Borneo for Auntie Lou, so this would be perfect. And it was the very thing she really, really didn’t need. I bought it.

There were a number of other objects for sale, including ceremonial shields and carved blowpipes in various sizes. These were beside a pile of books giving the history of Borneo under the White Rajah, James Brooke. A young man was on the stall. I was about to move on, then stopped to look closer at a small blow pipe. He came over, hovering.

“I’m Melvin. Can I help you?”

“I didn’t expect to see Borneo things here.”

“The blow pipes aren’t real. They’re just for decoration. Everything here is a copy, because you can only sell locally made things. My Uncle Max gets stuff for me from Borneo. I use them for inspiration for my carvings. If you are interested in the real thing, he can help you. He can even get antiques.”

I thought importing the ‘real thing’ was a no-no these days. People liked to keep their own artifacts intact, as part of their visual history, and not have them purloined by wealthy first-world countries.

“Uncle Max can get you whatever you need,” he continued. “Are you a collector? Have you been to Borneo? Uncle Max has been everywhere. Maybe that’s because his wife’s Chinese or something. She helps him buy from the locals direct. He can get rare things like real blow pipes. They’ve got darts and spears and everything.” Then he took a breath.

Uncle Max sounded interesting to say the least, although the allusion to the ‘Chinese or something’ wife was a bit off. One thing that was mentioned on the cultural tour, was the importance of respecting and protecting the local Dayak culture. There were even signs at the airport about the illegality of removing artifacts. Right now I was smelling a rat as big as a hippopotamus. Maybe I should inquire further.

“There could be something that would interest me,’ I told him, “Where is Uncle Max’s shop?”

“Uncle Max doesn’t have a shop. His partner, Mike, does the selling for him. Mike works from his apartment, otherwise the overheads are too high, but he is very flexible. He can come to you or you can go to his place. Give me your number and I’ll pass it on to him. He’ll give you a ring in the next few days to arrange something.”

I gave him my mobile number.

“I look forward to it. I wouldn’t mind getting something for my little brother. And maybe something for myself, something really unusual.”

I walked back down past Luna Park, Melbourne’s major amusement centre. It was just opening for the afternoon session. Kids and their families were pouring in through the huge mouth. There was a crowd around a juggler on a unicycle, who was busking out the front. The sun shone and the world was a happy place. I picked up a carton of milk for my coffee and a tin of mackerel for Riki at the corner shop. As I walked in the door, he welcomed me with a loud ‘Waa,’ which doesn’t just mean ‘Hello, I’m glad to see you.’ It also means ‘Where’s the food?’

I’m on a health kick. I poured a glass of water from the container in the fridge, opened the can of fish and gave some to Rik. The red light was blinking furiously on the answering machine. I pressed the button.

‘Message one.’

“Hello darling, it’s Mutti. We’re just back from fishing in the Murray. I’m not in cooking mode – We’re going out for dinner tonight –How would you like to join us somewhere local? You won’t have to drive.”

‘Message two.’

Hi Kippo. Its Spegal There’s an exhibition of my photos at the Linden Gallery. I’m being hung. Can you come to the opening?”

I didn’t need to think about the first offer. As usual, there was nothing much in the cupboard and I needed to catch up with Mutti after the trip. The second message was a bit different. I looked forward to seeing Spegal’s photos of the trip, but there were mixed feelings. Spegal had gradually morphed from weird to cute, but it was a holiday fling. How would it translate to my everyday world? And the idea of Spegal being hung was strangely tempting.

I rang back Mutti and agreed to meet her at Chinta’s. I unwrapped the chess pieces and set them up on my side table. They looked really interesting. Even worse, I was getting attached to them. They were a bit grotesque, but not really bad enough for Auntie Lou – I’d have to get her something else. Besides, I didn’t even know if she played chess. I couldn’t take the chance on her really liking a present. It just suited my lounge room. Maybe I was developing a skull fetish. I wondered what Spegal would think about it.

 The phone rang. It was Spegal. Damn. He must have heard me thinking about him.

“Hello Princess. Did you get my message about the exhibition?”

“I’ve just got it. I’ve been out.”

“It’s not the Borneo photos. It’s an earlier shoot of snake pictures. The opening is at Linden tomorrow night. It’s just up the road from you, and there’ll be drinks and nibblies. I put you down as my special guest. I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”

The special guest bit got to me. 

“What time?” I asked, before putting my brain in gear.

“About seven. Thanks, Kippy, See you then.” He hung up before I could change my mind.

Dinner with Mutti and Andy is always interesting, one way or another. We went to Chinta’s and sat out on the footpath. It was a pleasantly warm evening. I looked at the plate of nasi-goring in front of me and was transported back to a trip Mutti took me on as a teenager to Penang. Here we regularly ate out at the Kampong Café, which was just a shack, situated a few metres back from Ferringhi Beach. The kitchen consisted of two gas burners and a chopping block on a small bench. A few mismatched tables and chairs were spread among the trees. With the limited resources, food arrived in dribs and drabs as it was prepared, but nobody minded the wait. Eventually everyone was fed, the food was great, and the little family that ran it always treated us like old friends, even on the first night. I was about to mention this to Mutti. She waved her chopsticks in the air.

“This reminds me of Penang,” she declared to the passing parade. “The wilds of St Kilda and the back blocks of Penang have much in common,” she added dramatically.

“You must be psychic, Mutti, I was going to say the same thing, although I must say getting our meals at roughly the same time and on matching plates, with no cracks or chips, has something going for it.”

“Well of course I’m psychic, darling. How do you think I write my column?”

“I thought you just made it up.”

“Kipling, how could you ever think it?”

Andy, the peacemaker, refilled our glasses. “Try some more of this excellent red, girls, and enjoy the present.”

That reminded me of Mutti’s present. I pulled it out of my bag and passed it over. Mutti tossed the scarf around her shoulders, looking sweetly exotic.

She swilled her drink around in the glass and gazed into it soulfully.

“You must be careful, Kip. I see tears and blood.”

“Now Desley, we don’t see enough of Kip. Only pleasant forecasts tonight please.”

“I’m sure it will be alright, Kip. I also see a number of men in your life. It is a little hazy. They are swirling around. They are reaching out trying to catch you as you leap off a trapeze. Two are tall and dark and another one isn’t. There is also a grandchild hovering, just waiting to join you when the time is right.”

I did some gazing of my own. I looked deep into the wine. Then I drank it.

 

CHAPTER 7

 

Quick immersion in the court processes

Re-orients a clinician back into the land of logic.

This is necessary for dealing with illogical behavior

Which underlies many of life’s tragedies.

Burning issues require a cool perspective.

Involvement in the community

Is important to achieve a work/life balance.

 

I downed two cups of coffee to kick-start the day. I needed a clear head. The Grindle case was on this morning. I also needed to look the part for the court appearance – it was shaping up as a complicated affair. I shrugged into a business like navy blue outfit, which was suitably sombre, apart from having a skirt short enough to make bending down a lesson in deportment. I added a chunky gold and lapis lazuli necklace and matching ear rings, to accent the pale blue shirt, and then slipped into mid-high black courts. These added a bit to the leg line but still enabled me to walk with a firm gait, so I could at least look confident. Riki was yowling for his morning dose of food. I opened the tin, splattered some gunk into his dish and gave him a pat. Then grabbing the relevant files and my bag, I played hunt the keys for a few minutes, and headed out the door.

I needed an ocean view to calm my mind this morning, so I took Beach Road again. It was an overcast day and the bay was a glassy grey colour. The sea merged eerily into the smoky grey of the sky, as if they were a continuation of each other. The cheeky white sail of a little yacht looked like it was Velcro’ d onto the grey backdrop. My mind remained focused on the forth-coming court case.    

 The Grindles are just your ordinary everyday complicated family – mum, dad, three children and mum’s boyfriend, Billy. Well there used to be mum’s boyfriend. He reportedly visited regularly, but he was now sitting in remand pending a court case. A few charges could see him devoid of freedom for a long, long time. And dad doesn’t visit anyone anymore either. Dad ended up in pieces in a rubbish bag in a dumpster on a building site. Mum looks like she might also be charged with a few things. Very messy.

Initially, Mrs. Grindle explained to the police that she had had a fight with her husband and he had left the week before his body was found. She said she did not know where he was. She added that she did not know where her boyfriend was either. He had also mysteriously disappeared. Fortunately, or unfortunately for Mum and Billy, the middle child, Charlene, told a Human Services worker she had heard them arguing over getting their story straight. It seemed Billy hadn’t quite vaporized.

The police tested some remains that were floating in the toilet. They discovered the aforementioned bits of Billy’s DNA. He was definitely not a disembodied spirit, and he wasn’t too far away. The DNA also matched some on the dismembered body. That should teach him to flush in the future, even if there are water restrictions.

Mrs. Grindle’s memory suddenly returned. She remembered what really happened. She acknowledged Mr. Grindle didn’t go too far after the earlier fight. She and Billy were having a barbecue when he returned. There was another slight altercation, during which Mr. Grindle had accidentally fallen on the grill. He ended up being the roast of the day. This is generally considered not a good thing to be.

Luckily the children were at Grandma’s at the time and didn’t witness the horrible event. Sadly, as the facts came to light, they were still left to deal with the gory death and the fact that the adults who are supposed to be the ones to protect them, were the ones responsible for all the carnage.

The children had been placed in foster care. Grandma was applying for custody of all three. The youngest child, Damien, wanted to stay with his grandmother because then he could see more of his mother for whom he was grieving heavily. Charlene was clear that she didn’t want to stay with Grandma under any circumstances. The oldest child, Marielle was torn between her siblings, but wanted to stay wherever Damien was so she could look after him. She was also angry at Charlene for exposing the family, and also for further splitting them up by refusing to go to the grandmother.

The Department of Human Services wanted the children to go into foster care as a group. On this occasion, I heartily agreed with them. Grandma worried me. She was herself in an abusive relationship. These children did not need any more violence in their lives.

The children, Grandma and the Department each had their own lawyers. Marielle’s lawyer was putting the case for all the children going to Grandma. Charlene’s lawyer, along with the one acting for the Department, was putting the argument for foster care. As expert witnesses, court clinicians do not have lawyers to represent them, but instead get battered by everyone. It’s like being the cheap fish on the menu.

The case had already been going for two days. I walked up to the court with my files just after lunch and sat in the waiting room. Smithy, the Salvation Army court worker came up to me.

“Hello Kip. You’re here for the Grindles are you? Poor little souls.”

Without waiting for an answer, she then went on to tell me about a family she was seeing and how hard things were for the poor young mother and her children. One thing was for sure, Smithy might rave on non-stop and bore the entrapped families out of their brains, as well as every worker within a hundred kilometre radius, but she would also make sure the families got assistance.

My name was called over the loud speaker. The case was in court three. I disentangled myself from Smithy’s hug which came with her standard ‘God bless you, darling,’ and entered the court with the required nod to the bench. I was directed to the stand.

“Raise the bible in your right hand, Ms Kelly.”

I picked it up and intoned the usual ‘My name is Kipling Alfreda Kelly. I am a psychiatric social worker with the Children’s Court Clinic, I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth,’ etc. etc.

 Jimmy Bradford was the clerk on duty. He had only just started working in the court room and it was the first time he had been present when I gave evidence. His eyebrows went up at the sound of the Alfreda bit. I cursed Mutti under my breath. I’ll give her King Alfred and his resurrection of the bloody English language. No one remembered him for that, just for burning the cakes. If she wanted to give me an historical name with dignity, she should have gone Arthurian. I quite like the sound of Guinevere. Although with my luck she would probably have chosen Lancelot instead.

The lawyer for Marielle was the first to attack. “Ms Kelly, you will agree it is important to keep the siblings together if possible?”

I responded to the magistrate. “Yes, Your Honour.”

“You will also agree that it is also in their best interests for them to remain with close relations if this is available?”

Luckily, giving evidence in the Children’s Court is flexible, allowing the occasional clarification to be attached to answers.

“Yes. As long as the relatives are suitable ones and can care appropriately for the children. These children have been through some horrific experiences, and need as calm and supportive an environment as possible.”

The lawyer went on to detail the virtues of Grandma and how she was damn nearly qualifying for a sainthood. He added that, furthermore, she had finished with the nasty boyfriend and just wanted to devote herself to the care of her dear little grandchildren.

He forgot to add that the children came with the promise of a considerable payout from the Crimes Compensation board. It’s amazing how attached adults are to children when they come with a hefty sum of money. The lawyer also forgot to mention Grandma’s own history of inflicting violence when upset.

Charlene’s lawyer was strongly putting the position that Charlene should not be forced back into the family. Lawyers for Grandma and the Human Services worker did their bit of cross-examination. The whole thing went on for hours.

The magistrate called a short break, presumably so he could empty his bladder. At this stage, some of us bit players also had some pressing problems. By the end of the day the arguments had gone round and round.  We were supposed to be looking for a solution that was in the best interests of the children. There is no best interest after a parent is murdered. What we were looking for was the least-worst outcome. Everyone had their own views and a number of vested interests were floating just below the surface.  A bit like Billy’s poo.

I was excused. ‘Thank you, Miss Kelly,’ said the magistrate as he dismissed me. I picked up my papers and left the court. Further witnesses were scheduled for the next day. It would possibly be two more days before the magistrate brought down his decision. I would hear the results later.

I walked back to the clinic. After a gruelling court session, the director, Dr. Penelope Mendes, was always good for a cup of coffee and a debrief. I was met by Caroline.

“Dr. P’s gone out,” she informed me. “It’s an emergency. An old clinic case is threatening suicide by blowing himself up and the Casino as well. She’s gone to talk him down from the atrium.  Anyway how did it go?” she added.

I’m sure Carolines a doozy at debriefing people. She could probably do the assessments by now as well, but I was not quite in the mood for her illuminations on life. Invariably the topic would get back to her love life, anyway, so I cut straight to the chase.

“It was OK,” I told her, “And how’s your love life?”

“It’s fantastic. I’m still with Charlie. It’s been four weeks now. He’s the real thing, not just chick bling.”

“I know I’ll be sorry for this, but…er, what’s chick bling?”

“A guy that’s just there for decoration. You take him at face value. He thinks his dick is a work of art – he’d stick it in a gold frame and have it hand painted if he had his way. He’s only good for one thing.”

I was right. I shouldn’t have asked. I shook my head and blinked a couple of times.

“What cases have I got coming up?” I asked to get back on safe ground.

“Angus Brethick’s back. I think he likes you. I gave him the appointment time with your name on it. He looked at it and said, “Oh good. I get to see Fuck Face again.”

Caroline picked up his file from her desk and handed it to me.

“Here’s a copy if you want to take it home – and get a good sleep – make sure it’s on your own. You look tired.”

I resisted the urge to tell her I was going to the opening of an exhibition of snake photos, by someone I had only just met in Borneo and that while I had a bit of a holiday fling, I wasn’t sure about the relationship back here in Oz. She’d have a field day with that information

I fed Riki and lingered under the shower. I needed to wash the day’s emotions away. My hair might be relatively straight but there’s lots of it. For work I usually pull it back into a neat pony tail or roll. Tonight I let it all hang out and fluffed it up a bit. I found a little number with shoelace straps and a lace bolero jacket to go over it. I didn’t want to get Spegal too excited, although he didn’t need much encouragement, but on the other hand, if Mutti’s tall, dark and handsome prediction was hanging around with the nibblies, I needed to be presentable.

Linden Gallery is on the next corner to my place. The building was a beautiful old mansion built in the 1800s. St Kilda is really only a small village. People know people. Mutti remembers when Linden was a boarding house for overseas students, owned by a Dutch family. I think she went to school with the daughter. People think St Kilda’s changed, but it hasn’t changed much. We still know our neighbours. Well, I know one side. There was a young couple in the other side, but they left a few months ago. The place had been empty while it was being renovated and a second story, which could not be seen from the front, was being added. I was dying to see what the inside was like – not that I could afford to get anything done to my place. The new owner had moved in while I was away.

 Win and Kez, who are the cat sitters who help out with Riki in my absence, would know all about the new neighbour. They had some sort of inbuilt radar that let them absorb information before it even happened. Win has never married and Kez has been a widow for years. She also outlived her only son. Kez says she’s the youngest one, but it can’t be by much. They both look about 90, but who would know? Win used to be an almoner at a major hospital. She‘ll give anyone advice on life, whether they need it or not. She still tries to look after her young sister, who she feels is in danger of being seen as a hussy.

Kez is the more outgoing one. She used to work as a receptionist in a big hotel. She assured me it was quite a genteel establishment. Win snorted at this. I saw a picture of the sisters taken when they were young. All red lipstick and long legs, accompanied by a couple of uniforms. I don’t think they were sitting home alone at that stage. Now they are back to where they were when they were children, sharing a home and still arguing.

Harmony between them is not helped by Kez still hoping to meet Mister Right. Poldi Petscharnig, a snowy haired Austrian widower who lives around the corner in Clyde Street, is currently in her sights. Poldi, who has retired, seems to spend most of his time riding his bicycle around St Kilda. Kez has also bought a bike recently and Win is beside herself.

“The silly fool. Doesn’t she know she’s too old? She’ll fall off and break her neck or get run over by a car.”

Kez ignores these dire warnings. Initially she was a bit shaky on the bike, but eventually mastered it, claiming it gave her a real sense of freedom. I’m not sure what Poldi thought about this. About the only place Kez rode was around the block past his house. I walked down the front step, just as Kez was wheeling her bike through her front gate. 

 “You’re all dressed up, Kip. And I must say you’re looking very pretty. Who is the lucky man?”

 “Nothing exciting, Kez. I’m just going up to Linden to have a look at a photo exhibition.”

Win popped her head out. “You should have a jacket on Kip, You’ll catch your death of cold.”

“I’ll manage, thanks Win. I’m not going far.”

I didn’t mention that it was a warm evening and catching cold was the least of my worries.

“Have you caught up with your new neighbour yet?” asked Kez. “I don’t know what he does, but he looks expensive.”

“Sorry Kez, I’ve been busy since I got back. I saw the furniture van drive off but I haven’t had a chance to meet him. I hope he’s nice.”

“He drives the French car,” she added, pointing to the sleek black machine, lurking two doors down.

“He must be a drug smuggler. He never seems to work regular hours but he seems to have plenty of money,” Win contributed. “He had on an Italian suit the other day and he had a shiny looking woman on his arm. She wasn’t wearing much at all. I think she’s a gangster’s moll.” 

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was possible the occasional expensive car owner earned an honest living, even if he was accessorized with an Italian suit and matching female.

“He sounds interesting,” I responded. Maybe a gangster’s moll would be a good career move. At least I wouldn’t have to write court reports.

“See you later, ladies,” I waved as I went out the gate.

 Linden Court was buzzing with beautiful people as I walked through the ornate entrance. Spegal must have been looking out for me. By the time I made it to the front steps he was there beaming. He motioned over a waiter with a silver tray of drinks, and handed me one.

Spegal took me on a guided tour of the photos. They were from an earlier expedition to outback Australia. I hated to admit it, but he was obviously a talented photographer. The photos were beautiful, even if they did feature snakes and lizards amongst the surprisingly stunning scenery. I mentioned that there were no spiders amongst the collection.

“The Spegal’s not into creepy things, Princess. I’m not a spider man. Snakes are different. They’re not cold and slimy like people think. They’re warm blooded. I can relate to them. Which reminds me, you’re looking beautiful, Kippo.”

His eyes widened. He looked like he was ready to devour me. I needed to put out the fire. I gulped down the wine and handed him the empty glass.

“I need some cold water,” I told him, “and don’t call me Kippo.”

“It is warm in here. Your wish is my command, Your Deliciousness.”

He scurried off. I didn’t tell him I didn’t want to drink it. I needed to throw it over him. 

So I drank it. A person has some manners. Before I could send Spegal off for something else, a dinner-suited official clinked his glass with a pen and the room went quiet. The following speech was all about what a genius Spegal was and how lucky the Western World was to have access to such talent and other modest statements like that. Spegal beamed. The assembled crowd then gathered around congratulating him and making suck-hole comments. The adoration was on the side of nauseous.

I eyed off the crowd. Where was the fascinating someone I’d hoped might be lurking around waiting to meet me? Then it dawned on me. Spegal was the best looking male in the room. This gave an idea of what the rest looked like. I was starting to look favourably at Spegal and I hadn’t even had a gulp of Johnny Walker. I needed a reality check. I thought of getting another glass of water and throwing it over myself. Then sanity prevailed. I reached for a glass of wine instead.

I was approached by the second best looking male in the room. He was thin, thirtyish and dressed in a tight black skivvy and ditto the pants. There was a gold hoop in his right ear, a gold chain around his neck and a leather glove on his left hand. To add to this tragic appearance, he was wearing a mullet which was tied back in a ponytail, with a black satin ribbon.

“Hello my dear, I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Quentin Makule.”

Before I could say, ‘No I don’t believe we have,’ and disappear, Quentin was rattling on about artistic integrity and cutting edge techniques along with dialectical something or other.

I wanted to say ‘for Chrissakes man, we’re talking snakes here. Get a grip,’ but Quentin never left even the smallest gap for any sort of retort. A waiter passed another tray of wine under my nose. I grabbed it thankfully and backed away, leaving room for an overdressed matron to collar Quentin. This nearly caused him to stop mid-sentence.

Then I was waylaid by a young woman looking very Victorian in a black velvet dinner suit, with a stunning gold cravat. White lace frothed out at the fingertips. I think she qualified as the third best looking male in the room.

“Jacqueline Gherardi, but you can call me Jac,” she introduced herself. “Arty types are so pretentious, aren’t they?” she continued.

“Kip Kelly, Jac. I take it you’re not in the arts?”

“Oh Lord yes. I’m a sculptor. I’m busy practicing my pretensions.  What do you do?” she asked.

“I’m a social worker.”

Her eyes glazed over. “That’s nice,” she said, “Someone has to look after all those poor people.”

There’s not much you can say after a line like that. I just stood there as she wafted off to talk to someone else.

I looked around the room. I didn’t think I’d even bother to look for the fourth best looking male. There did not appear to be a lot of hovering grandchildren amongst this lot that I would want to take on board for Mutti. It was about time to go. I pushed through the mob around Spegal and thanked him for the interesting evening. He eyes got large and devouring again. He was in danger of becoming endearing. I excused myself on the grounds that I had a hard day at work tomorrow. As I escaped, his voice followed me.

“I’ll be around to show you the Borneo photos.”

 

CHAPTER 8

 

The English language has many variations.

Familiarity with client speak

Is a prerequisite.

Animal companions speak all languages

They can sometimes assist

With local communications.

 

After the Linden experience, it was a pleasure to go to work and mix with people who vaguely speak the Queen’s English. Well I did say vaguely. It’s my lucky day. I had my old friend Angus Brethick to assess. He might be foul mouthed, but at least he isn’t boring. That kid has a brilliant mind. His command of the English language is so advanced they could write a whole thesis on him. Trouble is, the words he uses would burn up the pages they were written on. Most of them are obscene or related to anatomically impossible suggestions that make the Karma Sutra look like a Wiggles songbook.          

Angus arrived on time for his appointment, wearing his best Essendon football jumper. His hair, now presenting in a bright blond colour, was meticulously messy, to suit the occasion. Angus isn’t a nasty kid. It’s just that he can’t keep out of other people’s cars. His language adds to his problems. Some people take exception to it, especially when they decipher what he is saying. I’ve seen grown men go pale. The last time he was in court, the room was packed. In his own inimitable style, Angus told the magistrate that he shouldn’t have to see no ill-begotten Juvenile Justice Worker. He added that he was sure the worker spent his spare time violating the sexual rights of ferrets.

Angus went on to argue that he should not even be in court. Not only was he innocent, he was really a hero, and should get a medal. He was driving sedately around the Grand Prix track at Albert Park when two of the famous black swans, with their babies in tow, crossed the road. Being a humane sort of guy, he dodged around them. It wasn’t his fault the Ferrari had faulty steering and the accelerator jammed. The car, complete with Angus in it, ended up in the lake. However, he assured me the baby swans were safe.

And how was he to know the Ferrari was stolen? His mate, whose name temporarily escaped him, had informed him that he borrowed it from his grandmother. Her arthritis had been affecting her and she couldn’t drive it. The engine needed turning over, so he was helping out.

I left as he was explaining that it was difficult to be a public benefactor when you couldn’t get a driving licence under 18. Kids in New Zealand got one earlier, and didn’t His Honour think this was discrimination? Apparently His Honour didn’t quite see things Angus’s way. He suggested Angus get to know and love his Juvenile Justice Worker, to the point of having regular assignations, ferrets or no ferrets.

Now it was a year down the track, and Angus just happened to have found a vintage Lotus racing car on the streets of St Kilda. It had probably been abandoned, he thought. It was another fascinating explanation, once I waded through the expletives deleted. It was merely a case of self-defence. Angus had come across a visiting Kiwi rugby team in Fitzroy Street. He was educating them on football etiquette and why a rugby scrum should be the focus of a vice squad investigation, with all those footballers sticking their heads up each other’s bums. He accompanied his lecture with anatomical gestures for clarity. 

For some inexplicable reason, some of the footballers took exception to this. He thought this was probably because, as usual, he was wearing his Essendon Aussie Rules jumper. They charged at him. He jumped into the open Lotus for protection, and it miraculously pulled out from the curb.

I gently explained to Angus that His Honour would have to have rocks in his head to swallow that one. Angus made some elaborate allusions about my parentage, my love life and my shape, none of which were particularly flattering, and hopefully, not that accurate. I informed Angus that I didn’t have any magic. I couldn’t stop him stealing cars if that was what he chose to do, and if he kept on doing it he would end up incarcerated, which I would personally feel sad about, but maybe that is what he wanted to happen.

“You’re fuckin’ mad as well as stupid,” Angus informed me. “I’m not fuckin’ going in.”

“If you keep stealing cars you are. Just have a look at your record. You always get caught. You’re an intelligent young man. You can work it out. Keep doing it and you go in. It’s as simple as that. So if you want a paid holiday, accommodation and meals provided, just go out a steal some more.”

“Get a woolly bull up ya. You’re supposed to stop me from doin’ stuff. You’re supposed to tell me not to do it. You’re not supposed to tell me to go out and do more. What sort of a fuckin’ shrink are ya?”

“I’ve told you before, I’m not a shrink. If you know what I’m supposed to say, why don’t you say it to yourself and save me the trouble.”

I stood up and Angus heaved himself out of his seat.

“Think over what you want to happen and come and see me next week.”

“In your dreams, Fuck Face,” he told me as he went out the door.

“Same time next Wednesday,” I called out as he left the clinic. He gave a middle finger salute.

“See, I told you. You’re his favourite worker,” said Caroline as she watched Angus depart.

“I’m honoured, I’m sure.”

“Well, there’s always Serge,” she reminded me. “I think you’re his favourite worker too. He was asking after you earlier, but he was called out.”

Caroline turned back to her computer, and then remembered another message.

“And you left your mobile in the office. Some guy rang. He didn’t leave his name. Said he’d ring back.” She handed over the offending instrument.                        

It was probably some Human Services Worker. We’re always playing telephone tag. If he was desperate he’d ring again. In the meantime, I needed to get reacquainted with some sort of normality before I wrote up the interview with Angus. Feet up and staring at the telly might have something going for it. I called it a day. Peak-hour traffic had started to build up in Canterbury Road, so I turned down Kerford, and headed for the bay.

Melbourne is marvellous. Every day the weather is different, and the sea complements it with its changing moods. As I drove along Beach Road, the bay was like a clear blue mirror. There was a fine navy line delineating the horizon. I turned into Fitzroy Street and swung around the Upper Esplanade, then past the laughing mouth of Luna Park and left into Acland Street. I pulled into a lucky space, right outside my house, just beside a certain person’s car. Drug smuggler or not, whatever he does, it obviously pays better than social work.

I kicked off the shoes and placed some cat food in Riki’s dish. He must be still outside. Usually I would be tripping over him. I thought about sorting out my own dinner. I should have something healthy for a change. I poured a glass of red. It’s full of anti-oxidants and it’s made from fruit. That’s a step in the right direction. I started to unwind. Images of work faded gently away. I was ready for a quiet night.

There was an ear splitting yell from the street. It sounded like someone was being murdered. I thought about going to investigate, then took another sip. A few moments later, there was a knock on the door. I opened it to see something tall, dark-haired and incredibly handsome standing on the doorstep. This must be what Win and Kez were talking about. The neighbourhood sure is looking up. A surprisingly docile Riki-Tiki-Tavi was engulfed in a pair of well-defined arms. He looked like the proverbial cat that had got into the cream.

A long-haired young man in a pair of low slung hipsters was disappearing up the road. He was running with an odd bent-over action, emitting strange noises. Riki meowed softly and snuggled into his new friend’s chest. I looked up into a pair of steel grey eyes. If they were casting around for a new James Bond, he’d be a shoo-in.

“Hi, I’m Alex, your new neighbour. Is this cat yours?’ he asked. ‘He just attacked a young fellow trying to break into the Mirage. Clawed him in a place he won’t forget in a hurry.”

Riki started to purr.

“He’s a great cat. Reminds me of a mongoose I had in India.” 

My mind was racing but my tongue was not co-operating. I stammered something about coming in for a drink.

“Unfortunately I’m just on my way out, but I’d like a rain check on that.”

He handed over Riki as erotic feelings surged through my body. It was probably just as well he wasn’t coming in. Apart from having much too strange an effect on me, offering him the remains of a cheap bottle of wine didn’t seem a very clever move and there was nothing else in the cupboard, except for cat food and a packet of instant noodles.

As soon as the door shut, I plonked Riki down. He followed me into the kitchen. I picked up the noodles while I pondered the situation. A shopping trip was urgently needed to restock the place.  What was the adage about being prepared for a rainy day? Then I could pray for rain and for Riki to invite his new friend over for dinner.

 

CHAPTER 9

 

Finely honed investigative skills,

Are fine in the court setting.

Off duty, rather than resolving a dire emergency,

They may cause one.

 The adage that curiosity killed the cat

And information brought it back

has one flaw

Once the cat’s dead, it’s dead.

 

Twenty four hours later, I’m still looking hopefully at the sky for some prophetic drops of moisture. I picked up a variety of dips and crackers on my way home, and some fruit. I was tastefully arranging the apples, oranges, bananas and grapes on a platter when the mobile rang. I fished it out of the bottom of my bag. Hopefully my prayers were about to be answered. My neighbour wanted to use his rain-check.  Well, no such luck. He doesn’t have my number anyway. Memo Kip. Must give it to him for emergencies.

“Miss Kipling, it’s Mike Dawson here. You met my young friend at the Esplanade market. I believe you are interested in purchasing some Borneo artefacts.”

“Yes, I am interested in looking at a blow pipe if you have one, and maybe something for my young brother. Boys are always so hard to buy for.’

“I think we could have something for you. We have some very good deals available at the moment,” he added.

“My office is in Carlisle Street. I will be here until 8 o’clock this evening if you would like to come down. It’s number 37- the front unit on the right as you face it – unit two.”

 “I’ve just come in and have a few things to clear up. I could be there in about an hour. OK?”

“Certainly. I look forward to assisting you,” he answered and then hung up. 

What was I doing? This was not the call I wanted, I did not want artifacts, legitimate or not, and I definitely did not want to poke my nose into something just because it smelt a little fishy.

“No offence to you Rik,” I added as he sniffed around his bowl for more fish. Maybe I inherited my curiosity traits from him.

I changed into a pair of jeans and an old khaki t-shirt and slipped into a pair of comfortable flats. I didn’t want to look too affluent for my little foray. Luckily that wasn’t hard. The unit was in walking distance. Carlisle Street runs off Acland Street at the transport junction. Number 37 was only a short distance from there, just near the National Theatre. It was an old block that had been done up and sold for a mint when the area became trendy. Number two had a little courtyard out the front, with a side path to the front door, a mirror image to number one. He obviously wasn’t a gardener, as the weeds had taken over, poking through the cracks in the courtyard paving. I walked up the path feeling strangely nervous and rang the doorbell. A thin man, wearing something suspiciously like a safari suit, answered the door.

“Miss Kipling? I’m Mike Dawson. Come on in.”

His office was in the front room. The furnishings were minimal. There was a desk with a lap top computer on it, beside a display book. An intricate carving had Michael Dawson engraved on it, with the writing picked out in gold paint. A captain’s chair was behind the desk and a less ornate one in front. Some tall wooden carvings stood in one corner, and smaller ones were arranged on a side table. A number of boxes were piled against the wall. A hornbill-shaped guitar leant against them. Dawson beckoned to me to sit down and sat himself behind the desk. There was something vaguely familiar about him. I supposed that as he lived so close, it was likely that I’d seen him around.

“What sort of artifacts are you interested in?” he asked me. 

“I’m not sure, really. Just something attractive to have in my lounge. And I would like to get a present for my brother. Matt’s interested in weapons.”

I didn’t think this was the time to tell him that the weapons Matt was interested in were super-soaker water pistols that he can play with in the pool. Or that Matt was only five.

Mike opened up the display book.

“We have a fairly wide selection. There are a number of decorated masks and there’s this hornbill musical instrument.”

He picked up the guitar on the floor.

“The hornbill is the national bird,” he explained, caressing the carved horn on the top of the bird’s head from which it gets its name.

As I handled it, memories of Borneo flooded in.

“This would look great in my lounge,” I told him. “How much is it?”

“It’s not just a carving, it’s a real instrument. It doesn’t come cheap, but you won’t find anything like it anywhere else in Australia.”

Mike spun it around in his hands and caressed a couple of strings. I wasn’t just saying it. It would look great in my lounge. It was a lovely instrument. It’s just a pity I couldn’t play it – or any guitar for that matter. When I heard the price, I swallowed hard. It would be difficult to justify, considering my budget was already nudging the red line. He must have read the look on my face.

“If you would like something a little different, you might like some of these carved imitation skulls. They are always a talking point. We also have a wide selection of blow pipes that are quite authentic, and very difficult to get nowadays.”

“How much are the blow pipes?”

“They start from $300 but if you buy more than one I can give you a discount.”

“Where do these lovely things come from?” I asked, looking all wide-eyed and innocent, or so I hoped. 

“We have a very experienced buyer who visits Borneo regularly. Max knows the area very well.”

“I was only there for a short time on holiday, but I didn’t see anything like this on sale.”

“It would not have done you any good if you had. You have to have special permission to buy them and to take them out of the country,” Mike explained.

After my earlier experiences trying to get my imitation blow pipe through customs, I had a strong feeling that possessing an authentic one in Australia without a permit was illegal, no matter who bought it in. I wimped out and picked up the guitar again. I remembered the young man with the well-toned thighs playing one like it at the Cultural Village. Mutti would be good for a loan if I ran short before payday, and cousin Fred played the guitar in his spare time. Maybe I could lend it to him for a small consideration. That last thought left me feeling like a positive benefactor.

“I’ll take the guitar,” I told him. “Maybe later I can come back for something else.”

I pulled out a card and handed it over.

“I’m sorry, our margin is so low that we only take cash,” he told me. “There is an ATM just on the corner. It will only take you a minute to get it. If you like, I will get your receipt ready.”

I pressed the buttons and collected the wad of notes. This withdrawal would take me to the limit. It was a crazy decision.

My arrival back at the front gate coincided with a man coming out of Number One. It was amazing. It looked just like the man I had seen under the walkway in Borneo – the same chiselled face – European, with a hint of Asian. He caught my eye with a piercing stare and then turned away as he walked towards Acland Street. I opened the gate and went in. I shook my head. I was tired, I was spending money stupidly and my imagination was working overtime. What I really needed was a good night’s sleep, not a bird-shaped guitar.

Before I could knock on the front door, Mike opened it. He must have been looking out the window. He ushered me in to the front room again, where he took the money and handed me a receipt. He packed the guitar into a rather battered case and ceremoniously handed it over.

“Thank you Miss Kelly. If you would like anything else, just phone me.” He handed me his card. “We are always getting new material.”

Back home, I took the guitar out of the case and placed it in the corner. I’m not much of a detective. I didn’t really find out anything and I bought a guitar I could neither afford nor use. Riki was yowling again.

“Listen Rik, You’ve been fed. You don’t get more just because I walk in the door. It’s me that needs something to eat.”

 Rik gave me the ‘you-are-pissing-me-off’ stare and stormed over to attack the couch. I wished I could storm off and attack something every time I didn’t get what I wanted. I guess feeding my face is my equivalent. I grabbed an avocado dip from the fridge and ate the lot with half a packet of biscuits. I also put my imagination to good use, instead of seeing clones of strange men. I pretended that I was back in the little restaurant overlooking the Kuching River. Only this time I had Alex with me. I threw the empty dip container in the bin. At least I didn’t have to do the dishes. I picked up the guitar. It was indeed beautifully crafted and it appeared new. I plucked a few strings. It sounded good to me, but what would I know? Then the face of the man came back. What is it with him? I put the guitar down.

It was still early and there was nothing on television except another stupid reality show that had nothing to do with any reality I knew about. Something practical was required. I turned off the telly. Clinicians are supposed to keep up with the latest research. It comes in handy when you’re under fire in the witness box. There was an article in a recent Australian Journal of Sociological Research that Dr. P had recommended to all the clinicians. It was about foster placements, and the complications that could occur. Tonight would be as good as any to get it out of the way. It should also take my mind of irrelevant things.

After rescuing the journal from the bottom of my brief case and perusing the contents, an article on patients presenting in triage after vacuum cleaner misadventures caught my eye. Being allergic to vacuum cleaners, I thought I should check it out before dealing with the foster-care article that I was supposed to be reading. The life I save could be my own.

Most of the injured appeared to be male. I didn’t know the species were that keen on cleaning. Certainly the ones I’ve come across haven’t been. I read on, hoping for some tips on how to get a partner to wield the vacuum cleaner. I read a bit more. I don’t think so. These examples were gross. The injuries related to the dangly bits which in the interest of hygiene, should be covered during house cleaning. It appears that vacuum hoses have a magnetic attraction to the male appendage, particularly in cases where the owner has momentarily misplaced his clothes.

“I was just vacuuming the lounge when I tripped over the dog and my cock got caught in the hose,” explained Ian from Hawthorn. Yes Ian, that can happen.

“I had just been to the bathroom and was walking back to the bedroom, when the vacuum started up and the hose grabbed me and it got stuck,” said Benji of Balwyn. Right Benji, we understand.

Then there was the most unforgettable of all tragedies. Paul from Kew actually got his pride and joy stuck in the machine itself. Unfortunately there was a fan blade just inside the opening that really stirred up poor old Paul – or parts of him, anyway.

That does it. When I save up enough to have a housekeeper come in regularly, I’m employing a female. I mightn’t like vacuuming, but I don’t want my poor machine being sexually abused. It could hurt its feelings.

The foster care article was an anti-climax after that. It didn’t come up with anything new. It was looking at the difficulties in providing for long-term placements for children. Unfortunately, the ideal of a settled placement was more myth than substance. There are some great foster parents who should all get medals, but not all foster placements work. Many kids went from placement to placement and then, as teenagers, they tried to connect back with their original fractured families, with whom they have had little contact over the years. Adoption was seen as having similar problems, if not worse, for the adolescent population, often ending in further rejection, while giving the adoptee the message that the adoptive parents are good, but that the young person, along with his parents, is genetically inferior. As the recipient of assistance from the ‘good’ parents, there was an underlying need to be grateful. It reinforced the position that wherever children are placed, contact with biological family members should be maintained wherever possible.

I threw the journal on the table and tried the television again. I channel

surfed – still nothing worth seeing. Ditto for the new neighbour’s back yard. There were no lights on. I went back and played with the guitar. I could almost imagine myself being back in Borneo, in the long house. The chiselled faced man flashed across my mind.

My hyper-active imagination was working overtime again.

 

CHAPTER 10

 

A clinician should always present

In a neat and tidy manner.

Especially when doing something illegal,

Such as breaking and entering.

Excrement is not a pleasant accessory.

 

A home visit was scheduled for this afternoon. I dressed in a plain pair of navy slacks and a green shirt, and pulled the wild mane back into a pony tail. I added just enough make-up to make me look human.  A depressed mum, already battling with low self-esteem, doesn’t need a fashion plate on her door to emphasize the difference in our lifestyles.

I had spent the morning sorting out the report on Angus and contacting his probation officer, who sounded like a thoroughly pleasant man who was not likely to go around molesting ferrets or anything else. We discussed appropriate conditions to recommend as an attachment to the court order. Advanced driving lessons wouldn’t go astray, followed by a position as chauffer to some politician. If nothing else, it might educate the pollie to the realities of life. I thought that was enough fantasy for the day, so I took myself for a quick walk at lunch time. I needed to clear my head before the afternoon’s home visit.

Back at the clinic, I took out the Darden file and ran through the case notes to freshen up on the details. Mr. Darden had disappeared and the mother, Kathy, wasn’t coping. She had two children. She had not turned up for her clinic appointment and the Human Services Worker stated that she had reportedly not left the house for over a week. She noted her concern about Kathy’s level of depression.

The family lived on a housing estate. Some of the neighbouring properties looked bright and cared for, but not this one. I could have picked it without looking at the number. A cloud of hopelessness hovered over it – the garden had not seen a recognisable plant for years. Even the weeds had found it hard to survive. There was a blanket over the front window instead of a curtain and an old car in the driveway. I knocked on the door. No answer.

“Kathy, it’s Kip Kelly. I have to talk to you.”

There was some movement at the window. A pair of eyes looked quickly through a gap between the sheet that acted as a makeshift curtain and the window frame. They belonged to a child.

“Come on Kathy. Open up.”                                                                                                         

I went to the window and peeped through the same gap. The little girl moved back from it. I could just make out a woman sitting on a lounge chair. She seemed to be staring at the wall. The room was sparsely furnished. The girl walked over to the woman, who remained in what seemed a catatonic state. There was no acknowledgement as the child tugged at her arm. There was something eerie about the whole picture. Then some movement in the corner caught my eye. A baby was crawling on the floor, heading towards the mother and girl. I knocked on the window. The girl looked up at me and then disappeared.

It looked like I would need some help getting in. I pulled out the mobile and started to walk back towards the car. There was a scraping noise at the door behind me. This was followed by a banging noise. I walked back. I could hear the little girl’s voice,

“Mummy,” came plaintively through the door.

“Hello, I’m Kip. What’s your name?” I said to the closed door.

“Terry.” She repeated ‘Mummy,’ and then started crying.

Terry-Anne was the older child.

“It’s ok, Terry,” I said pathetically, as it clearly wasn’t. “Can you open the door for me?”

Terry tried unsuccessfully to open it. ‘Won’t open,” she wailed.

“I’m going to try and get in, Terry, and then I can help you.”

I tried the door handle. No luck. I walked to the lounge window and tried to open it. It was shut tight. I walked around the back of the house. The back door was tightly locked. There was a small window nearby, relatively high up. It must be the laundry. I gave a shove. It opened up a bit. I shoved some more, making a gap just big enough for me to get through. Now I just had to find a way to get up to the ledge.

I looked around. There was a rubbish bin near the door. I moved it into position and scrambled on to it. I got my head through the narrow opening and tried to push the window up a bit higher with my back. I managed to wriggle most of my upper body through, followed by one leg, which dangled in the air, not finding anything to gain purchase. I was struggling to get the other leg through when everything gave way and I landed face first onto a heap of dirty washing.

I am grateful for the year’s supply that must have been piled under the window, but did it have to be so dirty? And did it have to include soiled disposable nappies? I surveyed the damage. Everything seemed to be in working order except for a few grazed bits of the anatomy. I flicked something unsavoury off my cheek and quickly washed my hands and face at the trough, which was full of clothes. I headed out into the hall, to be met by Terry. She grabbed my out-stretched hand.

“Mummy won’t wake up,” she told me as she pulled me towards the lounge.

‘Mummy’ would be the thin woman I had seen through the window. She was staring endlessly at the wall. This was not a good look. I had a sinking feeling. The situation was getting complicated. The baby grabbed hold of the edge of his mother’s chair and pulled himself up. He was covered in jam and other things that probably aren’t on the gourmet delight’s list. To add to the picture, the stench of a full nappy rose to greet me.

“Dougie cried, so I fed him,” said Terry proudly.

Bless her. She had been resourceful enough to feed her baby brother, even if it was from a jar of jam.

“Make Mummy wake up now.”

I looked around the room. There was a glass and an empty packet of tablets beside the mother. I looked at the staring eyes and felt for a pulse, knowing that I would not find one. Her skin was cold so it must have been a while.

“Mummy needs a doctor,” I told Terry as I got out the mobile and dialed 000.

I gave the details and then rang Human Services to notify them of the children’s situation. Terry was unfortunately picking up on the details. I needed to distract her.

“You are doing such a good job with Dougie, can you tell me where there might be some nappies?” I asked her.

“In Mummy’s room. The door’s shut. I can’t open it,”’ she told me.

“Where’s mummy’s room?”

She took my hand again. We turned down the passage. She was right. The door was certainly stiff to open. I turned the handle and gave a little push. Then I wish I hadn’t. There was a body sprawled on the bed.

As I took in the scene, I dry-retched. It’s not that I’m particularly prone to nausea, – it’s just that getting confronted with a naked body is not an everyday occurrence. Particularly a body in the state this one was in. I didn’t need to take a pulse to know he was dead. A bloke with a 20 centimetre blade sticking out from the middle of his Adam’s apple and enough blood around to start a blood bank, was not going to be very healthy. Blank eyes were staring at the ceiling and his mouth was half open in permanent surprise. I didn’t need to let little Terry see what I was seeing. I quickly shut the door.

“There aren’t any nappies in there,” I told her. “We’ll have to think of something else.”

I looked into big eyes that would soon have to face any number of horrible things that no little girl should have to deal with. Her little brother was all she might have left to hang on to.

“Let’s see if we can find something we can use as a nappy for Dougie.”

Eager to please, she ran into the kitchen and pointed to a rather greyish tea-towel that had seen better days. At least it was dry. Looking around, it seemed the best thing on offer. I had already checked out the bathroom. Not a skerrick of a towel.

Babies are OK. In fact I quite like them. I was a dab hand at changing Matt when he was little. But Dougie was a different proposition. I had one old, tattered tea-towel, with nothing to anchor it, and a baby that had a very soiled nappy. The contents had leaked out of their confines, so that his legs, and bits of the floor were literally painted with poo. How to pick him up was a problem. I gingerly took hold of him under the armpits, trying not to breathe too deeply.

“Laundry here we come,” I told Terry, as we trooped to the back of the house.

The stench in the laundry was as bad as Dougie. By now, I was probably not much better. I waded through the pile of clothes on the floor, placed Dougie on them while I emptied another lot clothes out of the trough and dumped them with the rest of the detritus. The trough was deep enough to bathe one infant. I half-filled it with luke-warm water, then managed to remove Dougie’s disposable nappy. He tried to squirm out of my grasp as I plonked him in the make-shift bath.

The encrusted remains of his last few meals, jam or otherwise, loosened their grip. Dougie was not very happy about the general proceedings, and protested loudly, but at least now I was holding an almost clean infant. I looked around the floor. The cleanest object appeared to be an old skirt. 

“Pass me that skirt please, Terry?”

She was a great little helper, and I was hoping it would take her mind off her mother, as well as deflecting her attention from what was behind the bedroom door. It helped take my mind off the whole scenario as well.

I managed to dry Dougie with the skirt and then hooked the towel around his now pink bottom. I tied it in knots at the side. It wasn’t elegant, but it was the best I could do. I also tried, albeit not very successfully, to remove some of the worst bits of Dougie’s outgoings which were now clinging to me. Just as I finished, the ambulance turned up, with the police arriving immediately behind them.

“Hi, I’m Kip KeIly. I’m a social worker with the Children’s Court Clinic. I am here to do an assessment on the family for the court. I found the mother as is.”

I pointed the ambos in the direction of the lounge. Two young police officers, one male and one female, followed them.

“There’s another surprise for you in the bedroom,” I informed them. “I just opened the door and closed it again. Nothing has been touched. I’ll take these two into the kitchen and see if I can keep them out of the way. I’ve rung Human Services.”

As they opened the bedroom door, I tucked Dougie under one arm, and shepherded Terry towards the kitchen. I very soon understood why Terry was feeding Dougie jam. The selection in the fridge was limited and some of it made jam look like a five-star meal. In the cupboard I found a tin with some hardened powdered milk left inside. I searched for something to boil water in.

The female of the two uniforms popped her head in the kitchen.

“We’ve secured the site for forensic. We’ll need your fingerprints too,” she informed me, “and probably a DNA check.” 

“What about the children,” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“You will have to stay until Human Services arrive,” she informed me.

Great. Human Services never arrive in a hurry if they know the children are safe. They are under-staffed and too busy with emergency  cases. I thought two dead bodies and a couple of hungry kids was an emergency.

“Could you give them a ring and see if you can hurry it up,” I requested. “There’s nothing in the house and these kids need something to eat, clean clothes, and their immediate future secured.”

I didn’t want to be sleeping here for the night, and apart from anything else, I was supposed to be meeting my friend, Julie-Baby, after work. Just then, Dougie demonstrated that my make-shift nappy was less than adequate. The policewoman disappeared quickly back to her corpses as Dougie’s gift to the proceedings dribbled out of the tea towel and onto my slacks, with more stench to match. Damn. I would have to ring Julie-Baby. I was in no state to be going out. I was frazzled and I smelt like a sewer. I headed back to the laundry with the poor little fellow. At last two Human Services Workers arrived and I was free to go.

It was dusk as I pulled up in front of the house, just behind a Saab convertible that had a dangerous-looking red-head sitting at the wheel. Alexander the Great was just coming out of his house. I could have died. Here I was with a suspicious looking brown stain down the front of my slacks that the most frantic sponging had not been able to remove. I looked and smelt like a demented pole-cat. Bits of hair had escaped from the scrunchie and there was a bruise the size of an apple on my leg. This caused me to walk with an odd limp – and not even a sniff, if that is the right word, of make-up.  Alex was of course beautifully groomed in an off-hand sort of way.

“Hard day at the office,” he commented as we passed each other at our respective gates. I mumbled something through tight lips. He jumped into the passenger side of the convertible.

“Princess,” rang out across the street. Spegal had parked opposite and was walking across the road. I heard the woman give a peal of laughter as she put the convertible into drive and swung out from the curb, with Alex ensconced beside her.

“Bitch,” I muttered, hoping that they would crash at the next corner.

 

CHAPTER 11

 

Ongoing contact with holiday friends

Can be problematic.

They are intrusions from a different time-warp,

 Rarely meshing successfully with the realities of a busy life.

This can distort normal cognitive behaviour,

 With reactions ranging from puerile fantasies

to paranoid perceptions.

 

“Now Princess, that’s no way to greet the old Spegal. Looks like you’ve had a bad day.”

“Spoogle, if you say one more word about how I look, I will kill you on the spot.”

“My lips are sealed, Princess. I don’t suppose I can mention smell?”

I am an anti-violence advocate, but there comes a time when there is no other satisfactory response. I picked up a pot from the verandah and threw it at him. The plant was dead anyway, so it was no loss when he failed to catch it. It bounced off his outstretched arm and smashed on the path.

“Truce, Tiger,” said Spegal with one hand in the air and the other holding a shopping bag. “I’ve got the Borneo photos and I’ve brought some dinner to help with the viewing.”

He followed me in like a puppy and put his parcels on the coffee table in the lounge. And then took out a bottle of wine from amongst them.

“You go and freshen up Kippo and let the old Spegal get some dinner ready.”

Food was the last thing on my mind at the moment. I got a change of clothes from the bed-room and headed for the shower. Removing all traces of Dougie was a number one priority. I covered myself in shower gel and felt the foam caressing my body as it slid down. The restorative aspects of the warm scented water enveloped me. I rinsed off and reached for the towel, threw on a caftan, ran a comb through my hair and ventured out to face up to whatever Spegal was planning.

Two plates were set up on the dining table which is in an extension off the lounge, just at the end of the hall. A plate of chicken and a bowl of salad flanked the black forest cake in the centre of the table. Spegal had found two matching glasses, which is an achievement. He started to pour some wine. Today had put me right off the thought of food, but this meal looked fantastic.

“This is scrumptious. You’ll make someone a great wife one day,” I told him, as I started on the chicken. Spegal positively beamed.

Memo: Kip. Don’t get too grateful.

Spegal got up and took the dishes over to the sink. He brought back two small plates and cut two generous pieces from the black-forest cake. It was a great layered creamy, cherry and chocolate confection. I looked at his lean body and thought of knee-capping him. How come men can eat so much and still stay thin? I knew I was going to regret pigging out, but could not resist.   

Another memo:  Kip. Gym at 6.30 am for a week.

I attacked the cake as Spegal refilled our glasses and then pulled out an album.

 “This is for you, Kippo, I got doubles.”

The pictures were all neatly sorted and labelled. My photos mostly just clutter up the computer and the iPhone. It’s rarely that I get around to doing anything with them, apart from the occasional nod to social media. When I occasionally do get around to doing something, like printing them out, they tend to just lie around among all the other junk in the house.

“Spegal, that’s terrific. It’s so well organized. You’re positively anal,” I told him.

His face went pink with pleasure.  “I love it when you talk dirty Kippo,”

“Back to the paces,” I reminded him.

His photographs were good. There was a beautiful one of a mother orangutan with her baby, and another magnificent shot of a male orangutan swinging through the jungle. It brought it all back to me. I could even hear the jungle noises and feel the heat enveloping me. On second thoughts, put that last bit down to the wine.

The pictures of the long-house at Ana Rais gave a wonderful panoramic view. He had taken three pictures side by side and joined them together. It was rather spectacular. It showed the wide bamboo walkway and the doors to the individual units. He had also captured the steps up to the head house where the chief had his own private entertainment area. There was a man at the edge of the photo. He was out of focus. I looked closer.

“Spegal, that’s the man I saw with the woman underneath the walkway.”

“It could be anyone, Princess. He’s not even in focus.”

“I just know it’s him,” I argued.

Spegal turned the page. Some of these photos were taken at the Cultural Centre. There was a shot of me climbing half-way up the steps cut into the plank. It was the one where I nearly overbalanced because he wanted my legs in focus. I have to admit he was right. I looked good from that angle.

The next page showed a group of tourists looking at the monkey skulls hanging from the ceiling of the replica head-house. Behind the group looking up at the heads was definitely the man from the real long house.

“There he is Spegal. That’s him again,” I squeaked.

“Are you sure Princess?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Go back to the other one.”

Spegal turned back a couple of pages. He pulled the photo out of the album, then returned to the last one. He placed them side by side.

“You could be right Kippo, although his image is quite blurred,” he said as he pointed to the man at the edge of the triptych photo.

“I know I’m right, Spegal. Look! He’s wearing something on a chain around his neck and also in this one.”

“I can get this one blown up. Then we might be able to see it better. But what does it mean? At one stage he’s with a local tribe and the next he’s in with a group of tourists. It’s probably just a co-incidence. And lots of Asian faces look the same to us.”

I didn’t tell him that I also thought I saw the man in St. Kilda. He would be sure I was hallucinating. And maybe he would be right. He filled the glasses and took the empty bottle over to the bench. As he turned around, he spied the chess set, which I’d set up on a side-table last night.

“Hey Kippo. You like chess too.” He produced a bottle of Drambuie and two liqueur glasses out of his bag.

“Let’s have a game and here’s a night cap to go with it.”

He brought the set back to the table. He picked up the king and then a skull-shaped pawn. The theme hit him. He let out a whistle.

 “Borneo eh? It looks like a nice set. Did you bring it back with you?”

I explained about Auntie Lou and her presents, and how I was lucky enough to find the set down the Esplanade Market.

“You should have told the old Spegal. I could get you a nice stuffed snake, very realistic. She’d love that.”

“I might take you up on that. I’ve decided to keep the set.”

“Borneo sure made an impression on you.”

Then he picked up the hornbill guitar.

“This is a nice piece of work, Kippo. It’s like the one we heard at the cultural centre. Was this down the market, too?”

He twanged a few strings, then put it down.

“No, but it’s linked. The seller put me on to a man who sells artifacts from Borneo. He just lives around the corner. I couldn’t resist it.” And unfortunately, despite my resolve, I added that I thought I saw the strange man from the long-house coming out of the same building.

“What’s with the skull and strange men appearing all over the place? I get it now. I suppose it’s all a joke. I bet you bought the one in the wardrobe in Borneo to trick the old Spegal – and that crazy delivery.”

So he thought I caused it all. I wanted to throw something at him again.

“I can’t believe you would think that. The joke was played on me, not by me, thank you very much. I didn’t plan anything. And I’m not imagining the man. I did see him,” I yelled.

“Now Princess. Don’t get upset. Tell you what. I’ll check him out in the photos and we’ll try to track him down. It’ll all be OK.”’

“Now you’re patronizing me. I don’t need that either.”

“Wow. Someone’s a bit fragile tonight.”

“Well so would you be. I did a home visit and there were these two little kids with a dead mother, and when I looked in the bedroom there was a nude man with a knife sticking out of his throat and a lot of blood around, and then the baby shat on me. Then you start making up stuff. What do you expect?”

“Point taken, Princess. No wonder you’re upset. But I’m not sure about that job of yours. It doesn’t sound healthy, what with dead bodies and knives and things. Not to mention the smell. Of course I believe you. It must have been the drink.”

Spegal put his arms around me. I guess there’s a time when everyone needs a hug. Dead bodies can do that to you. He was strangely comforting. The day had suddenly became too much. I blew my nose on one of the paper serviettes he had provided with the meal and snuggled against his chest. Slowly the memories of the days misadventures started to fade away. Spegal led me gently to the bed.

I know I slept, but it wasn’t restful. I woke up remembering some of the nightmare images that had played through my mind for the better part of the night. One was of the dead man complete with the killer knife in the neck. A blackened skull was superimposed on his body. Then I picked up Dougie, who was covered in a combination of poo and jam. He smiled at me and then his face turned into the face of the strange man from the long-house.

So much for not taking your work home with you. I needed to get a debriefing when I got into work. Riki yowled. I put the kettle on and clunked some food in his dish. I looked around. There was no trace of Spegal, or last night’s meal. The dishes had been washed, dried and put away.

 

CHAPTER 12

 

Debriefing is necessary after a disaster.

Although the secretary may be willing,

A fellow clinician can be helpful.

Friends and family can also lighten the load

by providing a distraction –

Or complicate matters.

 

It didn’t feel like morning. It felt like it was time to go back to bed and have a good night’s rest. I gave the Beach Road a miss, and took the Lakeside Drive option. It was really peaceful, with the golf course on one side and Albert Park Lake on the other. The water was calming, with the occasional jogger lapping around the lake and the famous black swans, some with their bums up in the air and others floating along serenely, completing the picture. I’d never seen it looking better. Except when the swans had their babies. The majestic birds would wander across the road with their grey fluffy offspring waddling along importantly after them, while the traffic waited patiently. There was never even a hint of an aggressive horn as the occupants gazed affectionately at the little families, rightly deeming it an honour to be able observe these iconic birds so closely in the middle of a major city. 

All too soon I was back in peak traffic, heading for the legal district in the city centre. I drove into the underground car park, grabbed my briefcase and headed into the clinic. Caroline kept a row of pot plants lined up along the front counter. She was justly proud of them and tended them religiously. I noticed there were some new additions. Today, every second one was a cactus. There were a number of ‘cross of thorns’ plants amongst them. Their wicked looking stems, covered in serious barbs, snaked out from the pots. I tried to look cheerful.

“Morning Caro, Having a good day?”

“Don’t ask. Some right little turds have been smashing up my lovely plants. This should fix them.”

“Where’s Dr. P? I have to run a couple of things past her.”

“She’s busy intimidating a nasty father at the moment. She’s already eaten two Human Services Workers and a lawyer. I’d wait until she settles down if I were you.”

I took the hint. Dr. P is a small delicate looking woman who is amazingly calm and patient in most situations. The exception is when someone attacks her staff or her clientele. Then she’s like an unleashed tiger. Never mind her size, grown men quake before her. About the only exceptions she makes are for stroppy teenagers. She says being obnoxious is their natural state. A man was backing out of her room apologising. She dismissed him with a nod. Then gave me a wave as I walked passed.

“Oh Kip, I’ve been wanting to catch up with you about your case yesterday.”

“You must be psychic,” I told her. “I was wanting to talk to you about it.”            

“I leave the psychic elements to your mother. How is she, by the way?”

Dr. P went to school with Mutti. Now that’s intimidating. They were known as the Year 10 terrors. No wonder Dr. P. forgave teenagers their crass moments. She’d been there, done that, with my mother in partnership. I believe that the only thing that stopped them from being thrown out was the fact that Dr. P was the top English student, followed by Mutti, and vice versa with mathematics. Now one of them was running a show advising on the future of families before the court and the other was predicting futures for the readership of a popular magazine. When they get together, their arguments are horrific. Just when it looks like the end of a long and beautiful friendship, they pour another wine and toast the efficacy of all-girl schools in nurturing the best brains in the business. It has the effect of making me head for a cheap red cask and a vanilla slice.

“Let’s go around to the café. They’ve got some nice coffee scrolls and we can be comfortable there.”

The Torts and Tarts Café is just around the corner. It specializes in great snacks and odd corners where people can discuss cases without being overheard. It is one of Doctor P’s favourite places if she thinks a clinician needs more than debriefing and sage advice. This usually involves the aforementioned coffee scrolls. 

Dr. P summed up the case as we were demolishing the best pastries this side of the Black Stump, and also the other side.

“At least you won‘t have any problems deciding on a recommendation for the court. There are no relatives, so alternatives aren’t available. The children need to be under the care of the department until a permanent placement can be found for them. They will also need a lot of support to cope with the effects of the terrible events in their life. The loss of a parent is never easy for a child at the best of times, and this must be one of the worst.”

She paused for a second.

“Now about yourself. It must have been a great shock. I want you to feel free to talk to me about it at any time. You will have to appear at the Coroner’s Inquest. It won’t be for a while yet. I’ll go with you of course. I’ve been talking to the police. It appears to be a murder suicide. They believe that after the mother killed the boyfriend, she then killed herself. Reputedly the boyfriend was a brute and, while they don’t condone sticking knives in people’s throats in general, apparently he was not exactly a loss to humanity.”

The healing powers of coffee scrolls are amazing. I was feeling better all ready. We walked back to the clinic and into Dr. P’s office. In forensic work, the bottom line is that there is always another case, and Dr. P already had another one picked out for me.  Maybe this is Dr. P’s way of taking a clinician’s mind off a really bad experience.

“Now I think you’ve had enough of all this ghastly stuff for a while, so I’ve found a case that looks like the family just needs a bit of organization and assistance. It should be fairly straightforward. The mother apparently walked out on the family and the father is having trouble coping. Apart from that, there is not much information. It’s not an urgent one as the Human Services Worker asked for extra time to complete his assessment regarding the mother.”

Dr. P picked up an almost empty file from her desk and opened it to where she had made a few notes. “The children remain with the father. There are two little ones and a teenage daughter from the father’s previous marriage. The mother’s whereabouts are unknown.”

I took the folder and went into my office to peruse it. There was little evidence about why the case was before the court apart from what Dr. P had already told me. The worker involved had not had time to prepare a report before bringing the matter to court for the first appearance. He had given oral evidence and the magistrate had made an interim order for a Clinic assessment, with the children remaining at home in the care of the father.

I rang the worker. He was in a meeting. I left my number. He returned my call when I was at lunch. I returned his call. He was out on another case. After a decent stretch of telephone tag, we connected. He told me what he knew about the Mangan family. He was a bit concerned about the mother. He wondered why she had not at least taken the younger children with her when she left. He was reluctant to leave the children on their own with the father, as the man had a history of violence. The mother had twice appeared with bruises that ‘just miraculously appeared,’ on her face. The excuses of falls and walking into doors just didn’t seem to jell. 

All the children were adamant that they wanted to remain at home with their father. They were not talking about their mother except to say they didn’t know where she was. The worker, a very experienced guy, felt that something was definitely not quite right, although he wasn’t sure what. Alarm bells were ringing. His gut reaction was not something to dismiss lightly.

I marked in an appointment for the family and went back to finish writing up a previous case, which was a difficult one. Although it had seemed uncomplicated on the surface, it ended up being one of the worst kinds when it came to making a recommendation. It was borderline every way you looked at it. When you walked to the door, it seemed clear that the children needed to be taken out of the home. When you walked back, it seemed that the lesser of two evils was to leave them where they were, and put in some assistance. An early lecturer had impressed on us, ‘when in doubt, don’t.’ I took her advice and suggested that the children stay at home, with supports and conditions, including a report back to the court in three months’ time. I noted my difficulties in making the recommendation, and that I was not particularly confident that the outcome would be successful, no matter what action was taken.. Thankful that I had finished it, and didn’t need to take it home with me, I handed the report to Caro and called it a day.

I stopped at the supermarket on the way home and picked up a few essentials, which included a copy of the New Day to read Mutti’s column. I was looking forward to a quiet night in, hoping, as usual, that Alexander the Great might need to borrow a cup of sugar or the odd cat. I took a frozen dinner out of the fridge, stabbed it a couple of times and threw it in the microwave. Who says I can’t cook? I put some fish and some dried food in Riki’s bowls. He daintily wolfed the fish down, then crunched on the dried food. The microwave dinged. I retrieved the meal and peeled back the plastic, dodging the steam. It smelt surprisingly good. Riki jumped up on the chair beside me, and watched disapprovingly as I demolished my fish in mushroom and white wine sauce without giving him any. I washed it down with a glass of ginger ale. How’s that for gourmet dining?

“That’s that”, I told him as I rinsed the fork under the tap, dried it and threw it in the cutlery drawer. He watched as I threw out the container, then went back to licking his paws. The phone rang. It was my friend, Julie-Baby, reminding me about the St Kilda festival tomorrow. She lives a few blocks away. Last time she was over, she had sighted Alexander the Great. She informed me that if I’m not interested, she will be pleased to act neighbourly towards him.

Thanks Julie-Baby.

The St Kilda festival is a yearly event. The streets are closed off to traffic and there are lots of bands and buskers, along with an amazing array of food and drink stalls. My house was practically in the middle of it. Julie-Baby was coming over as threatened. Her name is Julie, but when Matt was a toddler she thought he was so cute she called him Mattie Baby. Next time she met Matt, he got a bit mixed up and called her Julie-Baby. She’s been Julie-Baby ever since.

Julie-Baby works as a District nurse. Talk about overworked and underpaid. What is it with the helping professions? Do they think we do it for love and don’t need to eat? Some fat cat in banking can lose everyone’s money, and get paid millions to do it. Then he gets paid millions to stop doing it. His pay is justified because it is ‘what the market will bear.’ The market obviously favours robbing the lowly-paid worker to give to the rich, over helping the downright impoverished.

I thought about tidying up my front room, which I laughingly call my home office, while I was waiting. I have my desk facing the window so I can watch the endless stream of people walking past. People-gazing is a good substitute for working – or for tidying. The population was on the move, wafting past in all shapes and sizes. Some of the dressing was fantastic, some were like fancy dress and a few were like ‘Omigod, what were they thinking?’ Riki was curled up on the chair beside the computer. He thinks he’s helping me. There was no way he was going out in the middle of the festival crowd.

Kez and Win had set up two chairs on their front verandah. Kez was applauding the spectacular dressing and Win was counting off the ‘hussies’. As usual, they were often commenting on the same person. The noise of the bands floated through my window. As I looked out between the cumquat tree and the straggly vine that decorated the side fence, Alex came out his front gate.

“Hello ladies, how are we today?” he sang out warmly to the blister sisters.

“Good thank you, Alex. I see you’re looking fit,” said Kez, perhaps remembering her younger days.

Win looked disapprovingly down her nose. She wasn’t going to give Alex an inch. She was sure he was a drug smuggler. Me, I was damned if I knew what he did. He always looked gorgeous and dressed beautifully, accessorized with the sleekly understated black car. He wasn’t pulling unemployment benefits, that’s for sure. I’d love to give him some comfort or whatever, if I only had the chance. Unfortunately he was still just the good neighbour, despite my fantasies that placed him in a different role.

The road was blocked off, but locals had permits to come in and out. Alex didn’t get into his car. He prowled down the centre of the road like he owned it. Damn. I couldn’t blame Kez for looking longingly. He had gorgeous shoulders and a bum that would automatically get him a gold medal in a diving competition, before he even hit the water.

I watched him go past the window and on down the street. He never gave my window a blink. Then he was out of sight. There was no way I was getting anything done with that vision seared into my brain. I half-heartedly checked the emails and turned off the computer, just as Julie-Baby turned in the front gate.

“You haven’t been working this morning have you?” she queried.

“Not really. Just gazing out the window watching the passing parade.

Speaking of which, Alexander the Great just went past. It’s enough to put me off my food.”

“Which way did he go?” asked Julie-Baby, “I’m drastically in need of an appetite suppressant myself, and that’s one man I’d starve for.”

“‘He disappeared into the mob.”

“Well grab your bag, girl. What are you waiting for? We may as well head in the same direction. We might accidentally bump into him or there might be more like him out there.”

We joined the crowd. I must admit we were looking good. Julie-Baby was wearing white hipsters with a tight mustard coloured tee shirt that glinted in the sun, accessorized with a white Gucci fun bag with gold alphabet writing that matched the tee. A white sports visor was threaded through her mop of dark curly hair. And never mind the starving. She has a figure to die for and never diets. It must be all that roller blading she does in between throwing patients around. I was in black pants with an equally tight black singlet. Colourful elephants were sprinkled around the neckline with gold dangly bits hanging off the elephants ears. I left my hair hang loose under a black visor and threw a Hill Tribe bag over my shoulder. It was basically black, covered with bright coloured braid and more elephants.

Acland Street was packed. We threaded our way through the mob. The local chemist had a table outside his shop. They were selling off cosmetics at unbelievably silly prices, which meant there were some that we could afford.  We pounced on a few little treasures for ourselves as well as buying some extras for presents. The sun was shining and a jazz group was serenading the happy crowd. Another stall had sarongs and long scarves along with a selection of wooden necklaces and carvings. There was a heavy Balinese influence mixed up with all sorts of other exotica. I picked out a shimmery red and gold scarf. I could channel Mutti when I wore it and maybe cast the odd spell on someone.

Some of the restaurants had set up tables and chairs in the middle of the road. We sat down to listen to a nearby Cajun band. Baked cheese cake was on offer. Who could resist? We ordered skinny lattes. Everyone knows that skinny lattes are slimming and that they balance out cheesecake. We checked over our purchases and watched the passing parade. The passing parade also checked us out.

“Hello my favourite woman, and who is this gorgeous creature you are with?”

I looked up into two clear blue eyes in a freckled face under a thatch of curly ginger hair.

“Julie-Baby, let me introduce my almost-brother – this is Andy’s son, Jeremy.”

“Not quite a brother but almost a lover. Ladies, toy boys are in and I am offering my services. You’ve got to go with the flow you know.”

He turned to the rather speechless young man next to him.

“This is my mate Rob. He’s into older women too. Aren’t you Rob?”

Poor Rob did a sort of shuffle and muttered a strangled “Yes.”

“Your mum gave me the Borneo t-shirt you got me. It’s real bad. I’ve been meaning to thank you. So let me buy you two lovelies a beer. I’m in the money. I sold my bike now I’m old enough to drive. Dad’s giving me lessons.”

I shuddered at the thought of my delightfully scatty, almost-brother being let loose on the roads. Andy’s a braver man then me.

“That’s a very kind offer, Jeremy, but I think we’ll stick with our coffee.”

“No accounting for taste. Mind if we join you for a while? It looks good for us to be seen with you two wizards.”

Julie-Baby was looking a tad bemused.

“What is it with you and adolescents?” She asked.

“Enough of the adolescent stuff my good woman. You are talking ‘bout the man.”

Julie-Baby rolled her eyes. Luckily Jeremy got distracted. He nudged Rob.

“There they go back down the street. I don’t think they saw us. Let’s follow them.” 

His long lanky legs unwound from the chair on which he was sitting back to front. With a ‘see you ladies’, he was gone. The hapless Rob followed him, tripping over a chair on the way and knocking over my latte, which splashed onto the ground as well as onto me. It’s just lucky I was wearing black.

“What was that all about?” said Julie-Baby.

“If I’m reading it right, Jeremy is trying to pick up a young woman who just went past and he has Rob in tow as a wing man.”

“You mean we’ve been dumped by a pipe cleaner with ginger fuzz and his side-kick with two left feet.  And why didn’t I smack him in the mouth for thinking I needed a toy boy and then running off before I had time to mull it over? It could have been the best offer I’ve had all week.”            

I stood up to shake some of the latte off my thighs and to make way for the waiter who was collecting bits of glass off the ground. I looked straight into the bemused eyes of Alex.

“Hello ladies. Can I join you for coffee? You look like you could do with another one Kip. You’re supposed to drink them, not wear them.”

Damn. Every time I meet him, I appear to be cursed with being covered in some sort of goo or worse. Alex was dressed in black pants with a black tee shirt that caressed an unbelievably taut torso. He pulled up a chair and sat down with the grace of a 190 centimetre cat. No wonder he gets on with Riki.

“Who was the callow youth who bathed you in coffee? At least it’s better than what the last lot dumped on you.”

“He was offering to be Kip’s new toy boy, or maybe mine, I’m not sure,” said Julie-Baby helpfully.

“How very kind of him,” said Alex, “But isn’t there an age limit these days?”

“This is my friend Julie,” I informed him as Julie-Baby kicked me under the table.

“This is my neighbour Alex,” I introduced back unnecessarily, as if Julie-Baby hadn’t been drooling over him ever since she coincided with him coming out his front gate as she was coming in mine. Then I explained Jeremy – or tried to.

“Jeremy’s a sort of step-brother – the son of my mum’s partner. His mum died when he was a baby. He’s lived on his own with his dad for years and now with my mum on the scene he’s not sure how to handle it. He feels a bit left out.”

“If your mother’s anything like you, I can imagine he is.”

He gave a nod to a cruising waiter and ordered a light ale and a salad, along with an extra latte. I didn’t know how to take that last comment, but again I felt an incredible surge of heat starting from the groin up. I searched for something intelligent to say. Zilch, nada, nix. Me – the mouth from the south – am struck dumb. Julie was also unusually silent. Alex the Great filled in the gap.

“I see you have been purchasing. What a lovely scarf. It has a real Indian influence.”

Our orders arrived. “Cheers,” Alex said as he raised his glass. “Enjoy the festival.”

I looked at the obscenely huge piece of cheesecake on the plate in front of me and wished I hadn’t ordered it.

“Have some cheesecake,” I offered lamely, knowing it was the wrong thing to say as the words were coming out of my mouth.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” said Alex as he patted a tight six pack. “I need to keep in shape.”

He paused for a minute, then added “Lucky you two girls don’t have a problem in that respect.”

I sucked in the stomach. Mental note; the gym and swim regime definitely starts up again tomorrow. Alex finished his beer and left a few wisps of lettuce on his plate.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have to catch up with some people.”

He uncoiled his long legs from the table without tipping it over, and with a pat on the shoulder and “I must have you over for a neighbourly drink one evening,” he prowled off. He stopped a few metres away to talk to someone standing in the crowd around the band.

I was still admiring the taut and terrific back view, when the face of the man he was talking to, came into focus. Our eyes met. Then he moved and Alex’s body covered it from view. I was stunned. It looked just like the Borneo man in the photo.    Maybe my imagination was running amok. I was seeing him everywhere. This thing is getting to you girl, I told myself. A one-second glimpse of a man in the crowd and you’ve dreamed up some wild conspiracy theory. Elvis isn’t dead and Diana was expecting twins when she died, and that wasn’t the mystery man.

“Enough of the coffee,” said Julie-Baby, waving to a roving waiter. “What we need is a real drink.”

“Sounds good to me.”

 

CHAPTER 13

 

Younger sibs may have issues

they can’t discuss with parents.

Clinicians may have issues

They can’t discuss with anyone.

Respond sensitively to the sibs.

Some people have a strange sense of humour.

Do not respond at all.

 

I woke early. It was a relaxing morning. My new case wasn’t booked in until ten, and I only had to drop off a completed report, so I could enjoy a sleep in followed by a leisurely breakfast.  I was tossing up between toast and vegemite and toast and marmalade. I opted for the marmalade. It was made from a designer recipe, involving cumquats and brandy. I had picked it up at the farmers’ market. You never know when a neighbour might want to pop in for breakfast. Or stay till breakfast, come to think of it. I got hot and bothered just thinking of it.

‘Thud.’  I heard the sound at the front door

I shoved Riki aside and staggered out to explore. There was a box on the front door step. ‘Kip Kelly’ was neatly written on the top. Nothing else. I picked it up, stuck it on the kitchen table and turned on the kettle. I opened the box to find a face grinning up at me. Or the remnant of a face. It was a blackened head with wisps of hair on the top and the eye sockets staring blankly up at me. There was a card attached. I opened it.

You can run but you can’t hide

cos one day you’re gonna be fried’

It was Borneo revisited. The questions all swirled around in my brain. What the hell was this about? The head was like the one in the wardrobe in Kuching which had strangely disappeared. It had to be related. Was it connected to the incident in the long-house and what I had seen underneath the walkway? But they had convinced me that it hadn’t been real. I’d just imagined the dead body and the frightened woman. And, after so long, why here in Australia? Why now? And the strange man? Was he involved? Was it him coming out of the unit next door when I was buying the guitar? Was it him yesterday talking to Alex at the festival? Or was it just my imagination again? I’m certainly not imagining this bizarre object, complete with threat. Maybe it was another joke? Maybe Spegal thought it would be a fun thing to do. It had better not be. If it was a joke, I wasn’t laughing.

Something like this could really ruin a person’s day. I closed the box and placed it neatly in the top cupboard in the kitchen. It would be safe there until I could think what to do with it. In the meantime, the court was waiting for my report. Try telling a magistrate you couldn’t provide a report because a shrunken head was dropped on your front doorstep. I could imagine the reply.

“Ms. Kelly, we are not interested in your domestic life. Just get your report in here and try keeping your head on your shoulders for a change.”

The phone rang. Who would call me this early? I put down the unopened marmalade jar and picked up the phone. It was Emily. 

“Kip, Help. I’m in real trouble.”

Emily is at times prone to the dramatic. She watches The Young Detectives religiously each afternoon when she comes in from school. She’s planning on filling in for any of the actors if they get sick, and has got every role down pat. I’m sure she could carry an episode on her own. Her ‘real trouble’ could be normal pre-teen angst, but you never know. This time it might be serious.

“What’s up, Possum?”

I was expecting the worst.

“I forgot my science project. We have to have a progress report in by today.”

“What’s it about?” I asked, hoping a show of interest was all that was needed.

“I have to have something on spiders. I forgot about it. Mum says it’s my own fault and I will just have to get into trouble. You don’t know Miss Stuckey.”

“She can’t be that bad, Emily.”

“She is. She’s worse. She’s a demon in a person body. You’ve got to help me, Kip. Please, please, please.”

“It’s a bit late. Apart from putting a silver stake through Miss Stuckey’s heart, which is probably slightly illegal, what can I do?”

“I thought you could grab me a book on spiders and meet me at the school gate. I could show it to her and tell her I was researching it.”

“Where do I find a book on spiders at this time of morning, Emily? I’m not superwoman.”

“Bookers in Acland Street have everything. They open early. They’ll have something there. Please darling Kip. My life depends on it.”

Emily was already learning that flattery will get her places. How could I resist?

Most of the worst mess from the festival had been picked up, but the street still looked a bit seedy. That’s the price you pay for living in an area haunted by tourists. I picked my way through discarded MacDonald’s wrappings. The car was parked half a block away. It would be quicker to walk down the street.

Sure enough Bookers was open. With miraculous luck, I found a book on arthropods, covering assorted insects and spiders, on a throw-out table in the centre aisle. It almost leapt out at me. I grabbed it, passed over a few dollars and hurried back to the car, hopped in the Flea and raced off to Emily’s school. Luckily it was not too far away and I was driving against peak traffic. I made the school gates with about two minutes to spare. Emily was looking out anxiously. I handed over the book as the school bell rang.

“Thanks, best big sister,” Emily flung over her shoulder as she ran to join the morning line-up.

Saving the life of a young sister before breakfast is no mean feat. I felt like I had earned my place in the world. There was no time to go back to St Kilda, so I went straight on to work. I would get a coffee when I got into the clinic.

I was booked in to see Phillip Ridout and his parents. The charges, surprise, surprise, involved a significant number of car thefts. I skimmed through the available reports. He had no prior history and he came from a solid middle-class family. Mr. Ridout worked in a managerial position and the mother stayed home. Phillip went to a well-known private school. Not the usual profile of a recidivist car thief.

I looked at the offences again. What is it with young males and cars? Cars must be the most potent symbol of manhood in our society, particularly for those who don’t have much else in the way of achievements or possessions. Young males are generally lacking in access to both, just when their identity is most in need of defining. It’s no surprise that automobiles regularly feature in adolescent misappropriations. Not that that’s any consolation to the car owners.

 There was something different about this case. The offences had all happened within a period of two weeks. Phillip had stolen seven cars and done stupid things with them. Most of them had been crashed in some way. One expensive one had ended up in the Elwood Canal. He had stolen the cars on his own. There were no mates involved, so it didn’t look like he had taken them for a joy ride or to show off. It seemed like he had not even tried to cover his tracks.

Phillip and his family were in the waiting room. I went out and introduced myself, and then brought Phillip back in with me. He shuffled along behind me and sat down gingerly on the edge of the chair in the office. He kept his eyes on his feet for the first half of the interview. Getting him to open up was painful. I spent much of the time either talking out loud to myself or to the top of his head. If I came up with anything that was relevant to him, he would let me know by a slight raise of his head and a nod. It was a hard slog which did not produce much information from a very frightened boy.

I gave Phillip a Sentence Completions form to fill out and sat him down in a spare office. The Sentence Completions is what it sounds like – an exercise where the beginnings of sentences are written down and the people doing the test then complete the sentences, hopefully with the first thing that comes into their head. There is nothing magic in it, but it is often helpful for picking up themes that kids might be concerned about. It also gives them something to do while I talk to the parents.

Back out in the waiting room, I asked Mrs. Ridout to come in first. Mr. Ridout was not happy that his wife would be seen on her own. He stood up, towering over me.

“We should be seen together. We do not have any secrets from each other,” he declared loudly.

“Of course not, Mr. Ridout. But I do want to get some initial information on Phillip’s physical history, including his birth and developmental milestones. I find that women feel more comfortable talking about these issues on their own to another woman. After these details are out of the way, I would like to hear your assessment of the current situation.”

He grunted as his wife stood up to follow me out of the waiting room.

I started with mundane form-filling, to give Mrs. Ridout a chance to settle. The birth history was physically normal, but the timing was not. The mother had had three miscarriages and then, at six months of age, the first live-born child died. It was diagnosed as a cot death. Phillip came next. Mrs. Ridout stated that when he was born she was petrified something would also happen to him, and so she spent most of her waking life trying to anticipate his needs, whilst expecting disaster to strike at any time.

The father then joined us. He did not want to be seen individually, so Mrs. Ridout remained in the room. It seemed that Mr. Ridout was also severely affected by the earlier deaths and was similarly overwhelmed with the birth of Phillip. Both parents were petrified that this precious baby would also succumb to some disaster.

With this history, it was not surprising that the mother became over-protective and the father poured all his energies into making Phillip into the perfect human specimen. The trouble was that Mr. Ridout’s expectations were so high, Phillip had no chance of meeting them. He could never be good enough. The end result was a bright young man who always felt a failure. Mrs. Ridout’s hyper-protective behavior added to Phillip’s feelings of incompetence.

Despite having achieved their ambition of having a healthy child, it looked like the parents own feelings of failure from their earlier deep losses were wrapped around their hearts, squeezing them dry. Each one was fighting for Phillip in his or her own way, and as they took their own paths, they were undermining each other, thus harming the child they most wanted to protect. Phillip never got to enjoy life and they never got to enjoy him.

“He’s always been a quiet boy,” Mrs. Ridout said, through her tears. “He’s a good boy.”

“You’ve spoilt him, that’s what you’ve done,” said Mr. Ridout angrily. I guessed tears were not far from the surface with him either, as he got stuck into his wife.

“He’ll never manage if they lock him up,” Mrs. Ridout sobbed.

“You should have made him more responsible,” Mr. Ridout yelled.

More accusations and crying followed. Damn. It looked like World War Three was about to break out in my office. I wondered how often Phillip put up with this.

“Stop,” I said, dramatically holding up both hands.

They paused for a breath and stared at me.

“I know you both care very deeply about Phillip. We can’t change what has passed. What we need to do is work out where we go from here.”

In the back of my mind, an Alaskan cruise was looking good. I could put in a short report.

“Your Honour, regrettably, this clinician has succumbed to the call of the wild and is sipping pineapple daiquiris rugged up warmly on the deck of a cruise ship watching polar bears frolicking on an iceberg, and hence has not been able to provide any assistance to the court or the family in this case. Yours respectfully, Anonymous.”

“We’ve tried everything,” said Mr. Ridout. We’ve taken him to psychiatrists, the school counsellor, the local minister. Nothing works.”

“If he’d only tell us what’s wrong we could fix it for him,” chimed in Mrs. Ridout. “I’ve told him we’re always here for him, if he’d just talk to us.”

Phillip would have heard this on numerous occasions. It is even likely that it has been the parents’ main topic of conversation with him over the past few years. I could also imagine what would happen if he did tell them what he was worried about. Their verbal skills were much higher than his. He would certainly  drown in their answers.

And, just maybe, he didn’t know what was wrong.

I needed time and help. It is moments like these that the lovely Serge, drug counsellor extraordinaire, comes to mind.  He has been known to work miracles with teenagers. And now I come to think of it, those liquid brown eyes work miracles with parents as well, not to mention numerous other people when he gets up close and personal. But Phillip wasn’t into drugs. Damn. I’d have to find someone else. I made a follow-up appointment for the family for next week, and a mental note to track down a Serge-alternative.

All in all, I had accomplished quite a bit today. I had saved a young sister from a fate worse than death and I had half-completed an assessment. Well the easy part of it. I had got to the stage where I thought I knew the problem. The hard bit, finding a suitable response, was unhappily elusive. While Serge wasn’t the answer in this particular case, he did spring to mind, which is a trifle distracting. Serge could maybe even make me forget about Alex. Bugger. I just remembered him, too. OK, I’ll think about both of them.

I needed some fresh air, so I drove home via the beach, with the windows down. The wind in my hair reminded me about the boat trip through the China Seas off Borneo, then the fantasy changed to zipping along in a convertible, maybe driving through Paris. It was my fantasy, so I also imagined I was not alone.

 

CHAPTER 14

 

When things are spooky and likely illegal

It is not the time to get inquisitive.

Travel quickly in the opposite direction

Or seek professional help –

Perhaps involve the local police

Or dial a friend.

 

I arrived home to be greeted by one hungry cat. Oh well, it was better than going home to an empty house. Which reminded me, the house was not quite empty. I had a head in the cupboard. Riki sat pointedly in front of the fridge. I fed him and then thought about feeding myself. While I was thinking, the mobile rang. It was a woman.

“Miss Kelly. My name is Vera. You were in Borneo. I need to speak with you. This is urgent. I will be on the St Kilda pier at seven o’clock tonight – near the penguin fence. Please meet me. It’s urgent.” She hung up before I could reply.

Who was she and what did she want with me? Why didn’t she give me more information, and why did she hang up so abruptly? Was she the one I saw under the long-house veranda? Or the one who slipped me the piece of paper with the numbers on it? Perhaps it was related to the skull – or all three? One thing was for sure, I would not be going down the pier to meet some strange woman.

Alright, so curiosity got the better of me, and just maybe, I would get a few answers. I grabbed a light jacket out of the wardrobe. It was a fairly warm evening, but you never know what it will be like out on the pier. There was always an on-shore breeze. Maybe it was a hoax call and no one would be there. Still, it would be much healthier than sitting in front of the idiot box. At least I hoped it would be.

I have always had an affinity with the pier. Mutti said this is understandable. She used to go out onto the pier with my dad in the early stages of their marriage. They would have a drink as they watched the sunset and admired the native water rats swimming about. Then after watching the penguins return to their nests in the rocks, they would take a leisurely walk home, bringing their empties with them so they would not disrupt the wildlife. Apparently I was conceived in the afterglow of one of these forays. I suppose I could consider myself lucky that she didn’t call me Rakali, which is the real name of the fluffy little water rats – which are more beaver-like than rat – and are particularly active at dusk. Probably preparing to do whatever it was the parents did shortly afterwards to get me.

Couples and families were walking along the pier, making me feel  alone. I wouldn’t have minded sharing the pier with someone. Someone, or two, came to mind, which distracted me a bit. The gentle clink, clink of the anchored boats filled the warm air. I looked across the bay to the central business district of Melbourne. It was like a magic city from this direction, and surprisingly close. I skirted around the kiosk and moved onto the breakwater. There was not a solitary woman in sight. I sat down on the rocks and looked out across the bay. 

She came up silently behind me.

“Miss Kelly?”

I turned. She would have been beautiful if she was not so worried looking. I couldn’t be sure, but she seemed familiar. She was like the one I had seen under the Ana Rais walkway, helping to drag the unconscious woman out of sight. 

She put a finger to her lips and climbed down amongst the rocks in front of me, motioning me to follow. We clambered down until we were just above the water line. She sat down on a flat rock and I found another one nearby. She was wearing a simple white, short sleeved blouse and a plain gathered skirt in a dark green material. As her arms moved, part of a tattoo on her upper arm became visible. It was a traditional marking that would signify which clan she belonged to in Borneo.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. “My name is Vera.”

“How did you find me?” I asked her.

“Max Montaigne is my husband. I saw you visit next door to buy some things from his partner. I recognized you from Borneo. Max uses Michael, for a front. Michael sells artifacts which Max imports for him. I found your phone number on the docket. I have been trying to leave Max for a long time, but he watches me very closely.”

“You could go to a women’s refuge.”

“I can’t. He would track me down. He’d kill me. I know too much.”

I didn’t really want to know any more. But old habits die hard. I interrogate people for a living. “Like what?” came out of my mouth without thinking.

“He’s smuggling in heads. Most of them are fakes, constructed from orangutan skulls, but he also has some real ones. He shows them to prospective buyers and then he replaces them with monkey skulls. People don’t check to see if the heads are real when they have a bunch of them hanging from the ceiling. Especially as it’s illegal to have them anyway. But it’s even worse. He gets people to cooperate by having the heads removed from the people who don’t. He has even been known to have added their heads to his collection.”

It was all sounding a bit too bizarre to be real. Vera continued with her story.

“My brother tried to protect me. He died. I know Max was behind it. He has killed before. Because Max has built up a reputation as an honest dealer in artifacts, he gets away with it. Also, he is involved in drugs. He hides heroin inside of some of the skulls, then he plasters over it. He is very clever.”

“‘What do you want from me? I don’t see how I could help. You should go to the police?”

“He knows some of them. It’s too dangerous. I would not know who to trust. You work at the court. You must know some honest person who is not involved, and who can protect me.”

I thought of the police officers I came in contact with at the court. They deal with troubled young people and their families. I get to see the after-effects of drugs and homicides, but I didn’t have a lot to do with the police who specialized in these areas. I was feeling out of my depth.

“Off hand, nope. Can’t think of anyone I know who works in that area. I could ask around, I suppose. And while we’re on the subject, what do you know about the skull that landed on my doorstep? The one with the threatening note?”

She went white. “When did this happen?”

“This morning.”

“It must have been Max. He must know that you know people.”

She looked around agitatedly, then stood up.

“I have to go. Please find me someone safe to talk to. I’ll be in touch.”

She climbed back up and then disappeared down the breakwater. I waited for a few minutes, looking out to sea, then gingerly headed back up the rocks. I walked slowly along the pier. The magic of it was now lost to me. My meeting with Vera was swamping my senses. What did she mean? Knew what people? I was deep in an uneasy thought. It was highly unlikely that this was all an elaborate hoax. Things were getting a bit too serious.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I got back inside my house. Riki came up to me. He didn’t squawk for his dinner like he usually does, but rubbed against my leg. I sat down on the chair and flicked the television on. Riki jumped up on my lap. I rubbed his head. It was no good, I told him. Nothing was working. I couldn’t work out what was going on.

I rang Spegal and told him I needed to discuss some serious problems with him.

“Princess, you can always rely on the old Spegal. I’m on my way.”

The world is turning weird. Spegal was right. I was getting to rely on him.

He materialised before I had much time to ponder, as usual, complete with sustenance.

“I thought you might be on a health kick, so I bought you these,” he said with a flourish, as he parked a box of sushi rolls on the table. Then he pulled out a bottle of Chardonnay to accompany them.

“They’ve just discovered that a glass of wine helps you live longer,” he added. “So here’s to our health.”

“Ta daaa.” He did a drum roll and produced a mud cake and a box of strawberries. “They’ve also discovered that chocolate has amazingly healthy qualities. If you eat it with something from another food group, it counteracts the calories.”

He was positively beaming. He got down three plates and arranged the sushi and the little sauce containers neatly on the centre one. Then, pushing aside the box on the shelf, he got a couple of glasses and poured the wine. He even put a roll in Riki’s dish. Riki couldn’t have liked the flavour. He turned his tail up and walked off. 

“Now eat up, then tell the Spegal your problems and he’ll fix them.”

“It’s happened again. That box up in the cupboard. It’s another head. It landed on my doorstep this morning.”

Spegal lifted it down and opened it up. A whistle escaped through his teeth.

“I don’t understand. Is this a joke?”

“Don’t start that again. I don’t make those sort of jokes. I even thought it might have been you.”

“What! I don’t do jokes. ”

“And I wasn’t imagining things in Borneo. I’ve had a call from Vera. She’s the woman I saw under the verandah. She asked me to meet her down the pier.”

“You mustn’t go, Kip, You know that don’t you? That woman sounds dangerous.” His face looked serious. I noticed that he called me by name without any embellishment, which was a first.

“I already have,” I told him.

His face paled.

“You what?”

“I met her.”

“I don’t understand. Your work is supposed to be logical, yet your life is just the opposite. Sometimes your actions amaze me. What did she want?”

“She said she wants to escape from her husband and that he was importing fake skulls as well as real shrunken heads and heroin.”

“And how are you supposed to help her?”

“She thought I might know someone in the police force that could protect her. I told her I didn’t. When I asked her if she knew about the shrunken head on my doorstep, she seemed to panic and hurried off.”

Spegal was uncharacteristically quiet as he started cutting the mud cake and serving up the strawberries. He refilled the wine glasses. When we had eaten more of the cake than was good for us, he put the remainder in the fridge, gathered up the plates and took them over to the sink, still in an unusually thoughtful mode. He turned around.

“Let’s have another look at that head.”

I didn’t want to look at it again. “Help yourself,” I told him.

He opened the box and took out the note from between the teeth. 

“I’ll tell you what, Kippo. This is getting much too bizarre. Have you told the police yet?”

“No. I haven’t had a chance. I wanted to talk about things first.”

“Quite right. Better let the old Spegal handle it. I think I might know a policeman I can get to help us. I’ll take the note with me.”

Spegal put the lid back on the box and returned it to the cupboard.

“Now don’t respond to any more calls. I’ll let you know how I get on,” he added, and then hurriedly left.

I didn’t even get time to thank him for dinner.

 

CHAPTER 15

 

A new love interest,

 is a great motivator to improve fitness.

This also induces feelings of well-being.

Doctors should find a way to bottle it.

Interaction with teenagers can wreck

Both love interests and fitness.

Doctors should find a way to throttle it.

 

I felt miraculously light now that Spegal was taking care of the head, so I decided that this was the day I was going to get it all together. I would kick-start the old get-fit program that somehow got lost in all the drama. I headed for the local sports and aquatic centre in time to catch the early aqua aerobics class. I was feeling pure about my early morning activity, until I saw the group of kids who were leaving the place, having completed their swim training before heading off to school.

The music pumped out and we all started exercising madly. All ages and all shapes, from the sublime to the ridiculous, were going at it, with water surging around us like the death throes of the Titanic. Some of the ridiculous were working more energetically than some of the sublime. A quick shower, change into slacks and matching top, and I was ready for the day. I was feeling good. Mental note: Repeat daily.

It was an unusually quiet day at work. The exercise hormones were still coursing through the recharged body as I quickly cleared the back-log of phone calls and emails that had started to build up. Caroline popped her head in my office.

“I meant to tell you, Kip, there’s a message from your friend Spegal. He said to ring him because he has information. He didn’t say what about.”

I had a good idea what it was about, but I wasn’t sharing it with Caroline. I could just imagine her response and could do without it. I got it anyway.

“He sounds really charming. I just had a thought. Maybe you could marry him and be Spegal’s beagle,” she announced all in one breath.

“Wash your mouth out with soap. If I hear one more word in that direction Caro, you won’t be having any thoughts at all – you’ll be exterminated as my gift to humanity.”

Then I had a thought myself. Maybe she was closer to the mark than I wanted to think. I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with either of the other two charmers, and somehow Spegal was changing from being a nuisance to being a comfort. I quickly stopped thinking.

“Well, what’s happening with the lovely Serge? You could merge with Serge if you played your cards right. He doesn’t even look at anyone else.”

“The lovely Serge is busy working, and so am I, and as for merging, we don’t even seem to coincide lately.”

“Well, you’re about to. He wants to see you about one of your cases. He’ll be in after lunch.”

She waved a piece of paper with his mobile number on it.

“Ring him if you are not going to be here.”

I took the paper, but I didn’t need to ring. I’d be around. I can cope with having a deep and meaningful conversation with Serge. Unfortunately, his ‘d and m’s’ usually involve discussing some pimply faced youth rather than hot and heavy panting, with or without conversation.

I realised it was a long time since breakfast, which was a tub of skinny yoghurt that tasted, well, skinny. I was still trying to eat healthily, so I had brought my lunch ­to work – a frozen diet meal of curry chicken and rice, and a bottle of home-made lemon juice. I dug them out of the fridge in the Clinic kitchen and threw the meal into the microwave. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. I looked at the juice and decided to have a coffee first to keep my strength up.

There were the usual collection of dirty mugs littering the sink and bench. Just under the sign that says

Your mother does not work here. Wash your own mugs.’

I have yet to work in a place that doesn’t have a similar sign, and God knows why, because they don’t work. I have my own mug which I hide at the back of the cupboard. I dug it out and spooned in the coffee. I looked longingly at the sugar. With superhuman effort, I finally managed to ignore it. I splashed in a bit of low-fat milk.

Jenni walked in. Jenni is one of the psychologists at the Clinic. She lives with her teenage son, Toby. Jenni was just a teenager herself when she had Toby. The father was also young and couldn’t cope with the responsibility of a baby. So Jenni raised Toby on her own, as well as working her way through university.

“Justifiable homicide. That’s what they’d call it.” She burst out as she came through the door, dumping her lunch box on the table.

“Bad case?” I asked sympathetically, as I walked over to the microwave to rescue my lunch.

“No. It’s that kid of mine. I spend my life dealing with people who can’t cope with teenagers, and then I go home to one that I can’t cope with.”

I looked through the chicken and rice meal for the chicken. Surely there would have to be some chicken in it? Maybe instead of calling it fat-free chicken, they should be calling it chicken-free chicken.         

“You’re talking about Toby the wonder kid, I take it. What’s he done? Robbed a bank?”

I kept searching for the chicken. Then I found a bit – two bits in fact. Mind you, they could have been someone’s discarded wads of chewing gum or some blue-tack gone grey – but I preferred to think of them as chicken. I stabbed one determinedly with a fork.

“What’s he done?” she spluttered as she unwrapped her salad sandwich. “He’s just ruined my life, that’s what.”

I looked at her. One hundred and eighty gorgeous centimetres, with curly dark-auburn hair surrounding an alabaster face. She could get work as a model any day. She was wearing a flappy dress that gracefully covered a pair of legs that made mine look like rejects from a sausage factory. Jenni successfully combines working full-time and raising her son, who is the light of her life. This had to be serious. I lent a sympathetic ear as I settled down to eat the rice, which was basically what was left of the meal after I had eaten the two offending pieces of whatever. 

“You know Jean-Pierre, that lovely French-Canadian photographer I met. He came around for dinner. Everything was perfect. Toby was staying over at a friend’s house. Jean-Pierre brought some fantastic wine, the lights were dimmed, we were just getting to the interesting bit. I could see my future stretching before me. No more dealing with recalcitrant teenagers and meeting court deadlines. I’d be the face of some fabulous product and wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. Jean-Pierre’s images of me would make me famous. Also, he’s the best sex I’ve had since I split up with Toby’s dad – well actually, he’s just about the only sex I’ve had since then.”

I shovelled up some more rice.  “And?”  

“And now it’s all gone. Toby walked in. Well, he staggered in. He’d broken off with his girlfriend and got drunk. He came home instead of going on to his mate’s place. He told us we were too old to be carrying on, that we looked ridiculous without our clothes on, and then he tripped over the table, knocked the wine on the floor, farted and walked out. The stench was horrible, the mood was broken and Jean-Pierre went home to his teenage-free apartment. I could murder that boy.”

She had a point. Teenagers can wreck any romance. Not that I live with any, but I do have Jeremy, the almost step-brother.

“Never mind,” I consoled her. “He’ll leave home within the next 20 years if the statistics are correct. You can try again then.”

“That’s what I love about this place,” Jenni said as she threw her empty sandwich packet into the bin. “The unqualified support keeps me going. Anyway, how’s your love life?”

“Well it never gets interrupted by horrible teens anyway, mainly because it basically doesn’t exist.”

“What about the neighbour I keep hearing about?” she asked.

I was trying not to think about Alexander the Great. I hadn’t seen him around for a couple of weeks. Maybe he was away on assignment, standing in for James Bond or something. He’d asked me to collect his mail. I‘d been regularly bringing in the junk leaflets and the few odd bills. Nothing of interest. I checked carefully for the perfumed envelope in vain. Not a sniff.

“It’s a lost cause. I think I’m doomed to be a singleton for life.”

“Well there’s always Serge. A girl could wile away a few hours there with ease, and he’s always looking at you like a cat watching a vat of cream evaporate.”

“You’re sounding like Caro. The problem is, and you may not have noticed this, but he also comes with teenagers. Stacks of them and none of them are very savoury types.”

“Speak of the devil.”

Serge’s voice could be heard from the front office. He walked into the kitchen, looking very Serge-like. That is, just your average everyday gorgeous-looking drug counsellor – dark tousled hair framing the aforementioned pair of long-lashed brown eyes on top of a body that commanded attention. Alexander the Great became a distant memory. This one was touchable, even if he did do the disappearing act now and again.

“How’s it going, girls?” he saluted us as he reached for a mug and gave it a rinse before spooning in his coffee. No one was telling Serge that ‘girls’ was no longer politically correct for anyone older than ten.

“Hi Serge,” said Jenni. “You don’t want an extra teen by any chance?”    

Serge poured the hot water into his coffee. “Anyone I know?”                                           

“Yes, Toby the rat.”

“You don’t mean Toby, the epitome of all that’s good about the adolescent creature – that high-achieving, clean-living, lovable teen that lives with you and just happens to be your son? What’s he done – armed robbery?”

“You lot have one-track minds. It’s worse. He’s been blighted in love, got drunk and then wrecked my love-life as well.”

Jenni peeled the lid off a mango yoghurt and threw the lid in the bin.

“Couldn’t you place him in a boys’ home for me?  And keep him there for the next ten years?”

“Now Jen, You know you’d be lost without him. And the bloke must have been a dipstick if he let one young teenager put him off,” countered Serge.

“If I didn’t know better, Serge, I’d swear you’d never met a teenager in your life. Anyhow, speaking of which, how’s your love-life?” she asked.

“I’m thinking about it. Now that you mention it, it does seem to suffer from teenagers, too.”

He turned his big browns on me and I started to melt.

“By the way, Kip, I’ve got a bit of info about a family you’re due to see. The Mangans – but you might want to see them first to get your own impression.”

“I’ve got them in the morning. I should have something put together by Wednesday. Any time from then on.” 

“Sounds good. I’m in Wednesday. How about 10.30?”

He looked at his watch.

“Damn. I have to go. But more importantly, I’ll be down your way this evening. How about a drink at the Dogs Bar after work? And I promise not to talk shop.”

The Dogs Bar is only a block from my place. My senses told me that I should say I’m busy. Hot chocolate eyes or not, and all this work-focus and caring and sharing attitude aside, there was something a bit daunting about the lovely Serge. Perhaps he was not quite as innocent as he looked.

“Ok,” I answered meekly. “Come past about seven.”

Serge gave his usual thumbs up salute and a quick “See ya girls,” and he was out the door. He didn’t bother to wash his mug either. I washed mine and left Serge’s dirty one in the sink. I needed a lunch-time walk to keep the adrenaline from over-flowing. Jenni came with me. We covered a few quick oxygen-free blocks, then once around the Flagstaff Gardens, before circling back to the clinic.

The afternoon went quickly with some half-hearted report writing and a few games of telephone tag with a social worker and a psychologist from the Crisis Assessment Team, fondly known as the CAT team. Both had been involved with ongoing cases, but nothing was urgent, so I gave up and headed off early to beat the traffic. Well that was my excuse. Because I live close to the city, peak traffic was not really a major problem. What to wear to meet up with Serge was a different matter, and one that should not be taken lightly. 

I solved the what-to-wear problem. Casual was the way to go. White hipsters with a light green gauzy top was definitely not Clinic dressing. Serge did not need any reminders of work. I let my hair hang loose and fluffed it out around my face. I was ready to take on all comers – well at least one of them. The Dogs Bar was its usual crowded self, but Serge still managed to find an outside table overlooking Luna Park, with a few palm trees softening the view.

As well as a couple of degrees in psychology, Serge has a knowledge of good food, which people think he developed from being brought up in an Italian home.   

“That’s all rubbish,” he corrected. “If they did their research properly they would know that Mum was too busy trying to build a life for her family in a new country and cope with the unfamiliar language. Cooking was the last thing she thought about. We were looked after by Nonna, who didn’t think teaching grandchildren to cook was part of the game plan,” he explained. “I learnt my skills from a mate I roomed with when I was at uni. He was a chef’s apprentice and would bring home food from the restaurant he was working in. Then he got me a part-time job there. One day we’re going to start a combined restaurant and counselling business. We’ll call it ‘Roma Therapy,’ if some bastard doesn’t pinch the name first.”

Serge ordered a plate of anti-pasto and two red wines from the bar. He brought back a bottle of water and two glasses, poured out the water and sat back.

“I have to hand it to you, Kip. You look angelic in your shimmery outfit with the setting sun shining on your hair like a halo. No wonder you go so well in court.”

“Well thank you, Serge. For your information, I don’t wear shimmery outfits to court, and I don’t have the sun shining on my hair when I’m on the stand. If I did it would mean the roof had just been blown off. Have you ever thought I just might have some talent?”

“You’re right,” he grinned. “I stand corrected. Forgive me. Of course it’s your talent, not your tresses.” The wine arrived. “Here’s to sharing talent,” he proposed, lifting his glass. 

“Which reminds me, I know we were not going to talk about work, however you brought up the subject. I’ve got a small problem. If you had a hypothetical lad that had never committed a crime and then went on a spree that was so blatant he must have wanted to be caught, and everyone in the family was miserable, what would you do?”

“I’d need a lot of time to think about that. What I would probably do would be to go away for the weekend with the hypothetical lad’s clinician. Somewhere like a house boat on Lake Rubicon where we would not be disturbed. We could clear the air by hiring a couple of jet skis and hooning around. Then after a leisurely dinner, we could turn our minds to other things, like what to do with said hypothetical lad.”

I gazed into the sunset. “That case plan certainly has merit. What to do with mobile phones could be a problem.”

“You would remind me,” he groaned. “In this case plan, mobile phones would be switched off in case they disturbed low-flying aircraft or something. Maybe we need some practice.” He pulled out his phone and turned it off.

By the second glass, Serge’s eyes were two molten volcanoes ringed by smoky dark lashes. His fingers were softly caressing my skin just above the neckline of my top, gradually moving lower. There were no more case discussions. It was a long twilight. As the sun finally set, we meandered back to my place. At least this time I was prepared. Toast and marmalade and orange juice for breakfast would be fine.

But first things first. Serge and I had other things on our minds.

 

CHAPTER 16

 

Low expectations protect against

Unseemly excitement.

Try to remain optimistic.

Distress calls from a sib who distressed a teacher,

May adversely affect your outlook.

When communications focus on

More penis fixations than Freud could poke a stick at,

The result would doubtless leave even him

Grabbing himself with excitement.

 

Light filtered into the bedroom. I looked at the handsome profile nestling on my shoulder, quietly moved a possessive arm and got up to prepare breakfast.

“Good morning Angel,” said a sleepy Serge. “Now I know I’m not dreaming.”

He looked at his watch.

“Oh shit. I’ve got an early morning meeting. I’ll only just make it.”’

Serge hit the floor running. He gulped down the orange juice, leaving me with the toaster on and the still unopened jar of designer marmalade in hand. He headed out the door with a quick kiss that landed somewhere near the mouth, a ‘catch you later re the Mangans,’ and he was gone.

That’s it. No leisurely breakfast and sharing a shower. Just wham, bam, thank you Ma’am, and he rode off toward the horizon wearing a white hat. This guy is married to his job. If I had the odd neuron still working, I would run the other way every time I saw him. Riki yowled for his breakfast. I slammed down the marmalade, got out his tin and threw a glob of mashed fish into his dish.

“And don’t you bother speaking to me either,” I told him as he made a slight thank you ‘murr’ and started on his breakfast.

By now I’d lost my appetite. I remembered that I also had a job to do. The home visit to the Mangans was scheduled before heading into work. I needed to see them in the home setting. There was still no information on what happened to the mother and there was some concern about the three children remaining with the father.

I dressed down in a pair of navy slacks with a teal blue shirt. I had sensible ankle high boots on my feet, with only a slight heel. I still remember the home visit where a small boy with an attention deficit disorder managed to channel his attention long enough to drop a brick on my foot. Literally. Don’t ask me why a four year old had a brick to play with. Probably short on puppies. At least he could make it sit when he wanted it to. Unfortunately he made it sit on my little toe. It’s a wonder I hadn’t taken to wearing steel caps.

Fifteen year old Felicity met me at the door and invited me in. The house was tidy and sparsely furnished. The two little boys, Jack, six, and Jonathon, four, were sitting in front of the television watching a video. They were both neatly dressed. I asked Felicity where her father was.

“He had to go to work. It isn’t easy to get work now.”

“What does he do?”

“He works on building sites. They ring him up when they’ve got something for him. He’s a good dad. He really looks after us.”

“How are you managing since mum’s been gone?” I asked.

“We’re managing OK. Gretel’s not my mum anyway. She’s the boys’ mum, and she hasn’t been a good mother to them. She just up and left them and that’s that. They don’t miss her. Would you like a cup of coffee?”’ she added, changing the subject.

I looked at the thin girl before me, desperately trying to be the woman of the house.

“Thank you. I’d love one.”

She invited me to sit down at the kitchen table. I opened the file and told her the usual bit about having to provide an assessment and recommendation for the court, that nothing was confidential, and that I would let her know my final recommendation before she went to court. I also explained that the magistrate would also like to know what she thought was best for herself and her young brothers, and that I would report her views on this to him.

“I know what’s best for them. Just leave us alone. We’re OK,” said Felicity as she brought two cups of coffee over to the table and sat down beside me. 

“You can tell him we don’t need no help. You can see the house is clean and that the boys are alright. Dad’s looking after us real good. We shouldn’t have to be punished because Gretel left. I’m glad she’s gone. She just drank too much and fought with dad. She didn’t care about us anyway.”

“What about school? What year are you in?”

“I’m in year ten, but I’m finished now. I need to look after the boys. I can go back to school when they grow up.”

“It’s a big job for a 15 year old.”

“It’s not so young. My mum had me when she was 15.”

“Your mum must have had a pretty hard life. Do you have any contact with her?”

“No. She left dad years ago. She was always off with someone. I don’t remember much about her. And now this one’s gone.”

“Mother’s don’t seem to stay long in this family. That’s pretty sad for you all.”

“None of us miss them. You can talk to the boys. They’ll tell you.”

She carried our empty cups over to the sink.

“I’ll go and put the washing on so you can talk to them on your own.”

I had to remind myself that this child-woman was only fifteen. Felicity went to the door and called the boys in from the lounge where they were watching television. She introduced me as “the lady from the Court – you can tell her what you want,” and then she left the room. Two wary pairs of eyes looked at me.     

“Hello. Which one is Jack and which one is Jonathon?’

“I’m Jack and I’m the biggest and Jon and me want to stay with Flick and Dad because they look after us good. You can’t take us away.”

“I’m staying too,” piped up little Jonathon, “and you can’t take us away. You mustn’t take us away,” he implored in a desperate little voice.

I felt a little desperate myself. “Dear God, why do I do this job?” Kids shouldn’t have to be this fearful.

“Sounds to me like Dad and Flick are very important to you.”

“Yes and they are very good at looking after us. And Dad never hits us or Flick.”

“Dad never hits us,” Jonathon parroted softly.

“You’re really worried about getting taken away from Flick and Dad.”

“No I’m not,” said Jack. “I’m not leaving and that’s that.”

“Me too,” echoed Jonathon.

I got some paper and coloured pencils out of my folder.

“I know you really want to stay with your dad and your sister. Now how about drawing me some pictures.”

I gave them each a piece of paper and put the pencils on the table between them.

“You can draw a house or anything you like. I’ve got lots of paper.”

Jack chewed the end of the pencil for a while, then he started drawing a square for a house with a pointed roof on the top. He put in the windows like two circles. There was a door but no handle on it. He drew a fence that surrounded the house.

“That’s very good, Jack. Can you draw me a tree as well?”

Jack thought for a minute and then meticulously drew two lines for a trunk, then choosing a green coloured pencil, he added a curly mushroom top on it for the leaves. 

“Look at mine,” said Jonathon, holding up his paper. It was covered in different coloured squiggles.

“That’s beautiful, Jonathon. Tell me about it.”

“This is my house and this is Jack and me,” he pointed to some black squiggles, “and this is Dad.”  His finger moved quickly over to some red circles. “And here is the blood,” he added.

“What is the blood for,” I asked.

Jack quickly moved into the conversation.

“That’s not blood. He means tomato sauce. Flick spilt the sauce. She made a joke and called it blood.”

“I forgot,” said Jonathon looking worried. “It’s sauce. Don’t take me away.”

I looked at Jack. “What about your mum?” I asked. “Do you know what she’s planning to do?”

“No. And I don’t want to know. She’s gone. We don’t want her back, ever.”

“No,” echoed little Jonathon, “Not ever.”

Felicity came back in with a pile of washing still warm from the drier. She dumped it on the table and started to fold it.

“It’s a lot of work, Felicity, running a house. I’ll see if I can get someone to help you.”

“I don’t need no help. We’re managing just fine, and Dad doesn’t like strangers in the house. It makes him angry.”

“I’ll need to see Dad. I’ll ring tonight to arrange another time. I can come after hours if it makes it easier for him.”

“I’ll tell him,” Felicity told me. “But he won’t like it.”

“He mightn’t like it, but I do have to interview him for the report. It’s a court order.”

I thanked her for the coffee and told her I thought she was a good big sister and then headed into work.

I got to the office and started to put my notes in order. I was left looking at young Jonathon’s picture. I certainly needed to talk to the father, but he was in no hurry to talk to me. Reportedly he wasn’t a very friendly soul, and it was highly unlikely that he would cooperate, but I had to try. I’d ring tonight and arrange something. In the meantime, lunch was well overdue.

Caroline put her head in the door, “How was the home visit?”

“Interesting, but I only saw the kids. The father wasn’t there. He had the chance of a job which is not easy to come by these days. I’ll try and arrange a time for an evening appointment with him, but he doesn’t seem too keen on meeting me.”

“Well, don’t make it tonight. There’s a young lady hoping you’ll pay her a visit. Emily rang. She said it’s really, really, really, really urgent. Actually there were a few more really but I stopped counting. I got the general idea.”

“I’ll call in on the way home. Hopefully it won’t be too disastrous. Last time she was upset about a boy at the swimming pool who flicked her with his towel, and then I think she was angry because he didn’t do it again. There was also a school project problem, and the time before that it was querying the size of a whale’s penis. For some unknown reason it’s called a dork. This gives a new meaning to the ‘dorky’ kid at school. Does it mean he’s as thick as a whale’s dick? I never did find out the exact measurements.”

“Actually she mentioned something about penises. You clinicians are all the same. Fascinated by them. Did you know that Rasputin, the mad monk in Russia, who had it off with the Tsar’s wife, had his penis preserved in a jar? It was 29 centimetres long, which would frighten the average whale. That would give Freud a bit of the old penis envy.”

“Too much information, Caro, I’m trying to dodge that subject. That’s Emily’s specialty.”

There is no stopping Caro once she starts.

“There’s a tribe in Africa in which the male member is so long, the owners tie it in a loose knot when they are walking so they won’t trip over it.”

“Caro, right now the last thing I am interested in is penises – or is it penii?”

She waved a telephone note.

“There was another call. Spegal was hoping you were in. He said he’ll catch up with you at home.”

“All of a sudden, an evening with Emily looks good.”

In the meantime, back to the case notes. I thought about the two littlies, Jack and Jon, and the big sister trying to look after them. What was the stuff about sauce and blood? Where was the absent mother? And what about Felicity’s own mother? She had just disappeared out of her life too. And what were Felicity and the boys so frightened of? Why was the father having trouble keeping appointments?  Was he a frightened dad who had been deserted and was now fearful of losing his children as well? Or was there more? As usual, I had the questions. Unfortunately I didn’t have the answers.

The phone rang. It was Caro.       

“Emily’s back on the line. You forgot to ring her back.”

Damn. There’s nothing like mysterious vanishing women, a distressed little family, shrunken heads, and a night with Serge to make you forget your family duties.       

“Hi Emily, I was just about to ring you.” This was a bit of an exaggeration, but it beat saying I had forgotten.

“Kip, you’ve got to rescue me, I’m being persecuted,” said Emily in a rush, “Please, please, please, can I come and live with you? I’m desperate.”

Whatever I might think of my loving step-mother, Emily was well cared for and more than a little spoilt compared to the youngsters I was generally dealing with. It was hard to imagine her being persecuted.

“What’s happened?” I asked her.

“It was my assignment on spiders. That book you gave me was really cool. It told how red-back spiders stab their partners with their penis, which is called a pedipalp because it comes out of their heads, then when they finish doing the nasty, it stays in and the male uses it like a high-jump pole to do a somersault over the female. He lands on her fangs and then she eats him. Cool. I drew pictures of the spiders having sex and the male getting eaten at the end of it. Miss Stuckey said it was disgusting. I told her it’s science. Then I told her I bet if someone stuck her with a pedipalp, she’d eat them. And she said I’m depraved and she told mum. Now I’m not allowed out forever.”

It just poured out. Emily hadn’t even stopped for a breath.

“She’ll calm down in time. Mind you, it wasn’t very nice saying that to Miss Stuckey.”     

“Well it’s true. She’s a real witch. And now I am going to be locked up forever, and everyone’s going to this birthday party on Saturday night and I’m not allowed to go.”

“What’s the party for?”

“It’s Miranda’s big brother. It’s his birthday. Everyone will be there but me.”

“Well you could get Miranda’s parents to ask your mum to make an exception for the party and maybe you could miss out on something else.”

“I can’t.”

“Well what if I speak to them?”

“You can’t.”

Somewhere a little bell was ringing.

“I take it the parents are not going to be at the party?”’

“No. They are going away that weekend. But it’s going to be a perfectly proper party. You know you can trust me.”

“Of course I trust you possum. It’s just that I don’t trust a mob of teenage boys having a party with no parents present. I’m afraid I would have to agree with your mum on that one.”

“Thanks a lot. You’re all the same,” Emily informed me as she cut off the call.

I looked at the phone in my hand, then slowly put it back on its cradle. I wasn’t winning any awards, that’s for sure. I had a lover who bailed out at the crack of dawn, a case I couldn’t work out, a young sister who slammed the phone down on me, and some mysterious left-overs from what was supposed to have been a relaxing holiday. Just your ordinary average day, I suppose. And the night ahead was looking pretty average too.

 

CHAPTER 17

 

If your neighbour bonds with your cat

Instead of you, 

And you’re short of answers

for a case or two,

Food helps.

Or immersion in work.

Avoid sieges and sudden deaths.

They are rarely helpful

In attaining a life well-lived.

 

I looked at the clock. I had slept in. Usually Riki woke me early, demanding to be fed. I looked around. Where was he? He wasn’t on the end of the bed where he usually slept. I called out to him. No answer. I looked around the place. Nope. No cat. I put on the kettle. This was strange. Riki was as regular as clock-work. I always joked that I didn’t need an alarm clock with him around. If I didn’t get up when he called, he’d jump up on the furniture and knock something over. Bad cat – but it always worked. I put some food in his empty bowl and called out to him again. Still no answer. I made the coffee and gulped it down.

Damn. I was just about out of time. What could have happened to him? I went out into the courtyard. Nothing. I could see Win through the decorative grill in the dividing wall. She was watering her pots.

“Have you seen Riki, Win?” I asked. “He’s always here in the morning.”

“No dear. He often comes to visit after you go to work. Sometimes I give him a drink of milk. He was here yesterday. I haven’t seen him today, but it’s a bit early yet.”

Where was he? I was starting to get seriously worried.

“Good morning Kip,” came from the yard on the other side. I looked through the opposite grill to see Alexander the Great. He was perfectly groomed as usual and holding one purring cat.

“He came to visit me,” he explained.

Oh my God. I was still in my comfortable – read daggy – pyjamas, I had a head full of sleep and hair like a haystack. Why did he always have to see me at my worst? And how had Riki got out? I always locked the doors at night, including his cat flap, to keep out nocturnal visitors, such as possums. I was sure I locked it. I tried to think. The back door was at least closed, even if it wasn’t locked. Maybe I should check the windows.

But right now, I am confronted by Mr. Gorgeous with one wayward cat. Riki did not even seem like he was in a hurry to return home to me, his adoring owner, and provider of regular sustenance.

“Thank you Alex. He certainly does enjoy your company,” I said as brightly as I could. “Pass him over and I’ll get him some breakfast.”

“I hope you don’t mind, Kip. But I was eating some tuna and he asked ever so politely, so I gave him a bit.” He placed Riki on the top of the dividing wall.

“I’m late for an appointment. Have a good day,” he said as he turned back into his house. Riki sat on the wall looking longingly after Alex.

“Don’t you dare look at him like that,” I told him. “If anyone is going to look at him like that it’s me, and anyway, I’m your main person.”

Riki jumped down into my small yard and marched inside the house with his head up. He might have dined earlier on tuna, but he still managed to scoff down the chicken loaf. Then he went and curled up on the sofa.

I didn’t have time to ponder over how he escaped. I threw myself under the shower, towelled off, stabbed a tube of lipstick in the general direction of my face and pulled my hair back behind my ears, anchoring it with a couple of flowered clips, letting most of it fall onto my shoulders. It was a client-free day. The only appointment was with the lovely Serge, and while I’m regrettably a bit late, I’m not dressing up for him. Well, OK, maybe the blue shirt does bring out the colour in my eyes, but that was pure accident, and I was only wearing my new hipsters because they were the first thing I could lay my hands on.  I checked that all the windows were shut, grabbed my satchel and headed out the door. I had a big day ahead of me, trying to make sense of the Mangan case as well as finishing the Ridout report, noting that some intervention was urgently needed for the family – but what?

Phillip Ridout attended a private school. Well he used to – but not anymore. At this stage he wasn’t welcome back. A school report was enclosed with the court papers. Phillip had a reputation as a quiet, average student, so he might have got another chance if he had shown the slightest bit of remorse. Unfortunately he remained quietly defiant throughout all their questioning. To make matters worse, his father was not exactly the staff-room pin-up boy. The school had put up with Mr. Ridout telling them where they were going wrong for quite some time. They were only too pleased to suggest that as they did not meet his particular requirements, he might like to take his son elsewhere.

I thought again about getting assistance from Serge; the God of adolescents. But it was not a Serge-type case, and at this stage, Serge looked like he was not a me-type case either. There must be somebody else – for both of us.

I wrote up as much as I could. A pattern was emerging. It seemed clear that I needed a bridge between Phillip and his parents, and probably between the parents and the world in general. Any adolescent, or I suspect, anybody else, would have difficulty living with them. Whatever Phillip did would not be good enough. They could be clinically described as suffering from being real pains in the arse. Telling them that, however, would be unlikely to improve the situation. I had the feeling that they already had a sneaking suspicion that the world regarded them as a pile of haemorrhoids. Finding a solution for this lot would be simple. All it needed was your common or garden variety miracle. Unfortunately my name isn’t St Kip.

I searched my mind for saints. They seem to be a bit light on the ground in this day and age. I needed some inspiration. Well actually, what I needed was lunch. I walked into the office to let Caroline know I was going out. Jenni was just writing a follow-up appointment for the family she was seeing.

“Hang on a sec and I’ll be with you,” she offered as she headed back to her room. “I’ll just get my bag.”

Caroline was photocopying reports in the corner.

“Have a drink for me while you’re at it,” she said. “The kids have driven me mad this morning. The waiting room has been packed with the most hyperactive bunch of monsters and there wasn’t just one parental fight going on, there were two. I could have done with a cattle prod or a bucket of water, or both.”

We walked up the road to a little bistro called Pobblebonks. The owners are frog fanciers – not as the Plat du Jour, but as pets. There is a large frog tank at the front of the room, and they know every amphibian in it by name.  They specialise in a breed called Pobblebonks, hence the name of the café. The name itself, and I hate to think what demented genius thought of it, was inspired by the sounds of the frogs. They made a bonk noise all through the day. According to the owner, they also accompanied their sounds with the appropriate action. Last week she had removed about 400 eggs that were floating in a fairy floss of pink slime.

I settled for a quiche and Jenni had the spanakopita. We shared a small carafe of white wine. The clinic could have been miles away, except that we both had cases on our minds.

“I’ve decided that saints are damned near impossible to find in this day and age, so I’ll settle for an angel. You don’t happen to know any, do you?” I asked Jen.

 “Well actually I do. She comes in every week and gives a hand with the housework.”

“I could do with one of those too, but right now I actually want a different sort. I want someone to adopt an impossible family and at the same time, heal a kid who thinks he’s a failure.”

“I take it the lovely Serge is out of the question?”

“I have to see the not-so-lovely Serge about a different case this afternoon. Apart from the fact that drugs are not involved, so it’s not his demographic, Serge has his hands full at the moment.”

“He could have had his hands full of me if he’d played his cards right, but all he does is look at you, even if I do detect a slight note of cynicism.”

“You’re right. He’s off my list. I couldn’t compete with his job. Now be serious and think.”

“This calls for another glass. I’d better make it water. I’ve promised my old supervisor from uni that I would talk to a bunch of students. I’m reasonably sure she’d like me to be sober when I do it. But I do have an idea. What suburb does your little darling come from?”

“Albert Park.”

“I’ve got a friend, Moshe. Albert Park’s near his territory. Actually everywhere is near his territory. He married a girlfriend. I thought she was mad at the time, but it works for her. He suffers from some of Serge’s problems. He over-commits. He’s a huge bear of a man with a sandy beard. He went to a top Jewish school – head of his class. He could have been anything. Instead he spends his time trolling the back streets of the city, looking for lost souls. I don’t know how he does it, but he really relates to kids. If you can get him to take your boy on, he’ll work something out without getting the parents offside. I’ll give you his number when I get back.”

“You’re a doll Jen. I owe you. Has Toby settled down yet?”

“He’s chasing something else at the moment, so I guess unrequited love has dimmed. The only problem is this new girl is a gymnast. She always seems to be up the wrong way whenever I come into the house. Maybe it’s the new mating dance of the adolescent. Yecch.”

I finished off the wine in the carafe. I wasn’t going to be dealing with students. I would only be dealing with Serge. I hoped his information on the Mangans would be good. It might redeem him a little. I still felt like pushing him under a moving tram. Jen and I walked back to the clinic.

I was in the main office looking for parental consent forms for the release of a report. Serge bounced in as if nothing had happened between us.

“Kip, you look fantastic as usual. I’m heading for coffee territory. Do you want me to make you one before we start? Milk and none?”

Damn. He remembered, and a girl can’t have too many coffees. I followed him down to the kitchen. He did his coffee making bit, then we carried the mugs back and settled down in my office.

Serge opened the file.

“I’m seeing a young fellow called Jason Tully. He’s a good kid who just got mixed up in something he shouldn’t have. He’s also got girlfriend problems. The girl he’s really keen on is Felicity Mangan. Jason said her father has stopped Felicity from seeing him. He reckons Felicity is petrified of her dad and there might be strange goings-on.”

“He wouldn’t be the first father to warn his daughter about going out with a drug-user,” I reminded him.

“Jason’s low on the offending scale. He only just started on dope after he split with Felicity. Then he began mixing with a rough group. He’s basically a pretty good kid who doesn’t fit in with the rest.”

“Felicity seems determined to stay with her father. She’s very protective of him.”

“Jase reckons the father doesn’t want Felicity to see anyone. He wants her for himself. It seems a bit sinister. He says she’s given up on protecting herself. She’s worried that if she doesn’t do as her father says, she’ll lose her little brothers.”

“What’s the story with the mother?”

“The mother doesn’t seem to feature in this family at all. She was always just a little shadow in the background. Jason said he doesn’t know why she left. He was surprised when he heard about it. He didn’t think she had the guts to do it.”

“What does the worker think happened?”

“He also said he’s amazed that the mother left. He says he thought she was too scared of the father to leave. There was a time when he thought she’d been beaten up by him, but she covered it up and said she fell over. At the time he offered her assistance if she needed to get out, but she declined. He wanted the kids removed while the situation was assessed, but they all pleaded to stay with their father. I still haven’t met him. I’ve made an appointment for a home visit after work.”

I told him about the blood in Jonathon’s picture.

“Seems like there’s some bad gut feelings all round about this family. You be careful, Kip. You should take someone with you,” he advised as he leant uncomfortably close with his eyes dripping with concern.

I wanted to say “thank you for offering and I’d be delighted to have your company,” but guess who didn’t offer?

“I’ll be careful,” I told him, and stood up with my coffee cup to end the session before he did. A girl has to have some pride. And besides, activity might remove the huge longing I had suddenly redeveloped for the weasel.

Nevertheless, I was a bit apprehensive about the appointment with Mr. Mangan. Not that I would admit that to Serge.

I found a parking space a few doors away from the house and walked down to be met by Felicity at the front gate.

“Dad’s not feeling well. He’s not in a good mood. You should come back another time,” she warned me.

“I really do need to speak to him,” I told her, as I stepped through the open gate. “It’s important that I let the court know I’ve seen him and heard what he has to say about the situation,” I explained.

Just then, Mr. Mangan burst through the front door. Felicity instinctively moved behind me.  He still had his coffee mug in his hand. I introduced myself.

“I’ve got nothing to say to you,” he informed me.

“It’s a court order, Mr. Mangan. The magistrate would really like to hear your opinion.”

He proceeded to tell me what his opinion was, in no uncertain terms.

“You lot will never learn. Can’t you get the fuckin’ message? My family is my business, and no one else’s business. I don’t want no fuckin’ social workers in my house, so fuck off.”

With this, he threw his coffee mug full force, aiming at my head, then turned  back to the house. I dodged the mug, but unfortunately, this exposed Felicity who was standing behind me. It hit her hard in the forehead. She went down in a heap, with broken pieces of crockery around her. Mr. Mangan slammed the door as he went inside.

The situation was not optimal. Having been hit with a coffee mug that was meant for me, Felicity was unconscious at my feet. I was also feeling very scared. Any moment the door could open and her charming father could reappear and put me to sleep next to her. I punched in 000 on the mobile, requesting ambulance and police, then looked to see what I could do for Felicity. She was still breathing. At least she was alive. I put my jacket under her head to try and make her more comfortable. As I pulled my hand away, I noticed there was blood on it. It was trickling down from the wound on her temple. I pressed the palm of my hand over the wound to try to stop the bleeding. Luckily the ambos arrived quickly to take over, shortly followed by two police, a man and a woman.

Felicity’s head wounds were dressed. She regained consciousness as she was being placed on the stretcher. The police were loudly knocking on the door. Felicity struggled to sit up.

“Stop…. The boys….”

The ambos tried to comfort her. The door opened slightly, with the security chain still in place. Jon’s face appeared in the opening, with Mr. Mangan right behind him.

“You’re not taking my boys,” he yelled. “I’ll kill them first.”

The policewoman tried to calm him. He was not listening.

“I’ve got a gun.” He raised it slightly so that it could be seen. It was pointed at Jon.

“One wrong move and he’s dead, now move away from the door.”

Both police moved back. The male called for support. Felicity was distressed. Her face was ashen as she sat up.

“He’ll do it. You don’t understand. He’s mad.”                                        

She wanted to go back in. I spoke quietly to her, trying not to let my own fear show. I told her the boys would need her when the police got them out.

The police moved all of us further away from the house. Special operations, and a professional negotiator. The place was surrounded. I put a call through to Human Services.

Five hours later, we were still waiting. The negotiator had some success. Jack was let out the front door. Then it slammed shut again. A police woman quickly grabbed Jack and took him over to Tim Kowalski, the Human Services Worker involved, who had also arrived. Tim took Jack to Felicity who held him tight as they huddled together in the back of the ambulance. Unfortunately Mangan kept Jonathon inside the house.

The negotiations continued. Then a shot was heard and there was a scream. It sounded like little Jon. The chill I felt would be nothing to that felt by Felicity, who was deathly white as she hugged Jack. The police crashed through the door. I felt helpless, fearing the worst. Then the policewomen emerged cradling a forlorn little figure. He was making guttural noises as he sobbed, with his face pressed against her body.

“Jon looks like he’s OK,” I told Felicity, as the policewoman handed the distraught child to Tim. The father had blown his own head off.

My first response was relief that Mangan had taken his own life and spared his children, rather than taking them with him. But they were still left with the awful memories of a parent threatening to kill them and then suiciding in front of them. And God knows what else they had witnessed. The two boys then went off with Felicity in the back of the ambulance.

It was the early hours of the morning by this time. I went home, feeling numb. Riki was still waiting to be fed. I automatically put some food in his plate and sat down. The evening’s events started to wash over me, swirling around in my mind.

The doorbell rang. Who on earth would call at this time of night?  I looked through the peep hole. It was not someone very tall, but right now I didn’t need tall. It was Dr. P. She walked in and deposited a sleeping bag and an overnight bag on the couch.

“I thought you might need company. I’ll put the kettle on,” she added, as she made herself at home.

“How did you know?” I asked. It wasn’t the first time I thought she was as psychic as Mutti. It must be something they put in the water in the old days.

“I got a call from Tim Kowalski. I worked on an inter-departmental program with him. He’s got a lot of sense that boy. He put me in the picture.”

Thank God for Tim and Dr. P.  We talked till it was nearly dawn, then I helped her convert the couch into a bed. She informed me that she had left a message at the clinic saying not to expect us to come in until the afternoon. I headed off to my room to try to get some sleep.   

Dr. P is not above telling the odd porky. I don’t even know if she slept at all. I woke to find a note saying that she had fed Riki and would see me after lunch at the clinic. When I got in, I found out that she had arrived at the clinic before the courts started at 10am.

I roughed out the court report. It was not a difficult one as far as placement of the children went. Mangan had removed himself from the proceedings when he removed his head. This action also removed him from some other court appearances. It turned out that he had savagely beaten the boys’ mother, which resulted in her death. Jonathon was right. It wasn’t tomato sauce. It was blood that was all over the floor – his mother’s blood. Mangan may not have meant to kill her, as he had beaten her up a number of times before, and she had always recovered. This time she didn’t. Her body was found, tightly wrapped in black plastic in the boot of his car.

With no known relatives, there was only one reasonable outcome. All the children would be placed in care and kept together. The children would also need to have long term assistance to deal with the tragedies that had occurred in their short lives. Unfortunately, writing about it reinforced the events for myself. I was left with an indelible memory I could do without. But it was nothing compared to the legacy Mangan left for his children.

Mangan had also been sexually abusing Felicity for some time. Can a child, or even an adult, ever reconcile a pot-pourri of murder, sexual abuse and violent suicide, to list a few of Mangan’s nefarious activities? I wasn’t sorry the gentleman had taken himself off the planet. I just wished he had done it before he wrecked so many people’s lives. I know I’m supposed to be filled with compassion for humanity, but I wouldn’t have minded if he had suffered a bit before he did himself in.

After the turmoil of the last couple of days, an early night was required. I found an empty parking spot not far from my front gate, nosed the Flea into it and headed for a quiet night in front of the television. Or that’s what I thought.

 

CHAPTER  18

 

Teenagers in step families

Have their own set of unique problems.

A calm clinician can calm a difficult situation.

When problems are too close for comfort

And disturbingly bizarre,

A calm clinician needs her own calm clinician.

Or a mother.

 

There was not much choice on the television. It was a toss-up between another ‘Who’s the Biggest Fool Contest’ and an Aztec Documentary. I think the Aztecs won. I settled down with Riki purring on my lap. For once he was being affectionate, although it could have been that I was sitting on his chair and this was the closest he could get to it. The doorbell rang. I pushed Riki aside and went to answer it. Riki immediately claimed the empty seat. My visitor was Jeremy. He was standing at the door, clutching a back-pack.

“Just passing,” he informed me. “I thought I’d pop in and see my almost-sister.”

His freckles were standing out in a whiter than normal face. His ginger curls added a slightly demented look. It was a while since they had seen a comb. I wondered what had happened to cause him to be ‘just passing’ my house.

There went the quiet evening. What else could I do but invite him in?  The normally bubbly Jeremy sat uneasily on the couch as I made him a cup of coffee. He twisted his long legs around each other, biting his lip. What on earth could be wrong? Had somebody died? For once he was speechless.

“What’s up Jeremy? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I don’t know where to start. It’s horrible.”

“You’d better tell me. Just start anywhere.”

“It’s really bad. It’s embarrassing.”

So that was it. Someone had to have a sexually transmitted disease or be pregnant, and it wouldn’t be Jeremy if it was the latter.

“You can tell me. I promise I won’t be embarrassed.”

Jeremy swallowed and then blurted it out.

“I’ve got this friend. He thinks his girlfriend is pregnant, but she hasn’t said anything to him about it.”

I was right about the pregnancy bit. I let him keep the traditional ‘I’ve got a friend with a problem’ line.

“How does your friend know his girl is pregnant if she hasn’t told him?”

“He overheard her talking to his father about it.”

This was not the answer I had expected. A bit of clarification was needed.

“Why would she talk to his father and not him?”

“I suppose she didn’t know how to tell him.”

This still wasn’t making sense, but then a lot of Jeremy’s conversations are a bit weird. Even so, if a girl is pregnant, it would be unlikely that the girl would go to her boyfriend’s father for advice, and if I was right in thinking that Jeremy’s ‘friend’ was really Jeremy himself, it made even less sense. I needed more information.

“Think, Jeremy. What exactly did your friend over-hear his girlfriend saying?”

“We’d better tell Jeremy about the baby,” he quoted as the friend ruse slipped away.

“Jeremy, you’re talking about you and Andy,”

“I know. It’s horrible.”

“It mightn’t be that bad. I’m sure your dad and Mutti will help you out, although your girlfriend should have talked to you first of course.”

“You don’t understand,” he wailed. “It’s not my baby.”

Things were starting to get even more complicated.

“Well it can’t be that disastrous. Who is the father?”

“Dad. Tanya’s pregnant to Dad.” 

“That can’t be right – not to your dad. You must have got it wrong, Jeremy.  Are you sure it’s not yours?”

“Yes. I’m sure.” He stared at the floor.  “I’m really sure. We haven’t done it,” he muttered with his face nearly as red as his hair.

“Oh Jeremy. I am sorry.”

Then the ramifications slammed home.

“But it can’t be Andy. What about Mutti? She can’t know about this.”

I thought of my magical little mother. She’s so much in love with Andy. It would be too much for her. She couldn’t cope with something like this.

“She doesn’t know. But she’ll find out. It’ll be disastrous. She’ll go

away. I won’t have her for a mother anymore. And I won’t have you for an almost-sister. My life’s wrecked,” he added tragically.

He didn’t look much older than Matt. His pain was palpable.

“Jeremy, I promise I’ll be your ‘almost’ no matter what happens,” I reassured him. “We need to think about this – I need to know a bit more.”

“I don’t even like thinking about them and I don’t want them telling me about it. Can I stay here for a while till I get somewhere else?” he pleaded.

“Help me make up the couch,” I told him as I went to the linen cupboard for the sheets and the spare doona.”

He stood up and started unfolding the couch.

“My girlfriend is going to end up being my stepmother and my almost-mother will hate me and I don’t want a baby anything, and….”

“Jeremy, you’ll always be part of my family. You don’t get rid of us that easily. Have you had anything to eat?” I added as an afterthought.

“I couldn’t eat right now. I’m in crisis.”

Things must have been bad if Jeremy couldn’t eat. His stomach usually resembled a bottomless pit.

“Well I’m going to have some baked beans on toast and suggest you have some too.”

He reluctantly agreed. The evening dragged on. There was not much I could say until I got the story from Mutti. We half-heartedly watched television. Eventually I gave up.

“Right now I don’t have any answers, Jeremy. I’m not even sure I know what the questions are. I’m off to bed. I suggest you do the same unless you want to watch the television. We’ll sort it out in the morning.” 

I gave him a hug as he shucked off his sneakers without undoing them, and with a quick ‘good night,’ left him to his thoughts.

This left me with my thoughts, which were racing through my head without a logical connection. It seemed like only a few minutes later when the morning light shining through the window opened  my eyes.  Again Riki didn’t wake me up. This was the third time in a row. The first one with Alex, the second one, Dr. P. fed him and now I go out to the lounge to find him curled up in bed with Jeremy. I should have known Riki would pick up the vibes that Jeremy needed comforting, and that he was the closest thing in the house to a teddy bear. The role of comforter can only be taken so far, however, and as soon as he saw me, Riki jumped down and came over and sat in front of the fridge, yowling for some food.

I fed him and then looked around to see what I had in the cupboard to feed Jeremy. There was the usual choice. Toast and vegemite or toast and vegemite – and the gourmet marmalade. I put the kettle on and woke him up. I know there are 18 year olds in the world who are doing some amazing things, but they are in the minority. Today, 18 is the new 15, and Jeremy is today’s young man. That is, he needed a bit of bullying from his almost big-sister. He had just finished school and had a holiday job in a jeans shop before starting university. I reminded him he had to keep up his job while he was staying with me, family disasters or no, so he’d better get out from under the doona and have some breakfast.

Jeremy settled for the vegemite, informing me that he didn’t do marmalade. After scoffing it down, he waved a brush in the vicinity of his hair. Wearing the same clothes from last night, he informed me he was ready. I dropped him off in the city, and told him I’d see him that night, with advice to forget about his problems for the day and to keep his mind on his work. Not that I expected he would take any notice, but it seemed a sisterly sort of thing to say.

I almost looked forward to my work, hoping that the same would apply to me. It didn’t. I started worrying about the situation. My poor little Mutti. Here she was, at last, in a meaningful relationship with the love of her life, and the rat had made his motherless son’s girlfriend pregnant. It might as well be another Clinic case. One thing is for sure, I wouldn’t be discussing this case at work. 

I said a quick ‘good morning’ to Caroline. She took a while to respond as she had her mouth around a chocolate éclair. She disentangled from it long enough to explain her breakfast choice.

“It’s perfect. It has all the major food groups in it – chocolate is from cocoa beans and beans are one of the most important vegetables, and then there’s calcium in the cream and custard to protect my bones and carbohydrates for energy,” she explained. I shuddered. Jenni arrived and had a similar reaction.

“Even looking at a chocolate éclair at nine in the morning is a bit much for me.” 

We headed for the kitchen.

“How’s everything?”

“Fine thanks, Jen. My mother’s boyfriend has just got his son’s girlfriend pregnant, and now I’ve got a teenager living with me and my mother doesn’t know,” I blurted out, forgetting that I definitely would not be discussing this at work.

“Well congratulations on the teenager – every household should have one, even if you are a bit young. The rest sounds like a right cock-up. Would you like to run it past me again?”

“Jeremy overheard Andy talking to his girlfriend, Tanya. They were discussing telling him about Tanya being pregnant.”

“They were probably talking about her being pregnant to Jeremy. They should tell him if he’s going to be a father.”

“That’s the problem. You heard right the first time. Jeremy’s not the father. His father is?”

“You’re not serious.”

“Unfortunately, I am.”

“What does your mother think of all this?”

“Mutti doesn’t know yet. If she did, I would have heard about it. She’d throw Andy through the nearest window without opening it.”

“She must know. Women always know, and she’s psychic, remember.”

“Well this time it couldn’t have worked.”

Jen looked at the wall clock, and then took her coffee cup to the sink.

“I’d better go. I need to read up on this morning’s case. I’ll bet you lunch she knows.”

Somehow I got through the day. I have no idea what I wrote. I kept thinking of poor Mutti being duped by Andy the Rat. I had thought he was such a nice guy and how good they were together. It just showed that you never could tell about people.

One thing did take my mind off the problem for a while. I had another home visit to do. At least this was not a scary one. I left work early to drop in on Krysta Mannheim and her children on my way home. I visit the family regularly, under a court order, trying to time it so that I can see Krysta by herself, and then see the children when they come in from school. At the end of the three months interim order, hopefully the final report gets provided to the court.  

Krysta and her two boys had been deserted by the father, but remained in the beautiful house in Kew, without a cent to their name. This would be worse than being down and out in a poor suburb. At least there you would be among friends. In Kew, Krysta was on her own.

Her husband had gone off with his accountant, Jane Smith. Jane was a vivacious woman who made sure everyone’s accounts were up to date. She specialised in wearing skirts that could only be described as wide belts, slung somewhere below the navel and just above the Brazilian. I guess she had to compensate for the name and the occupation. She gave a whole new meaning to the ‘I’ve got to see my accountant,’ memo.

Krysta was a slim dark-haired girl who had put all her energies into being a corporate wife. Her reward was a stick-thin figure, two delightful children and a heavy load of depression. She was left sitting in a house full of antiques and nothing else, except the children and a handful of pets that were as out of control as the kids were. The husband, bless his lying little heart, reported that all of a sudden he had no visible means of support and was staying free at his new girlfriend’s luxury flat.

The first home visit was an eye-opener. At this stage, the situation was a major disaster. Since the day her husband moved out Krysta had stopped doing housework, including the dishes. Most of the expensive dinner set had been either smashed or piled up in the sink. The animals roamed free and, as they were not house trained, odd bits of their faeces decorated the floor in unusual places. Actually it was slightly more than the odd bit, as I found out when I tried to cross the floor, and with each step, had to search for a shit-free spot to place my feet.

Somehow from this chaos, the children reportedly emerged well-dressed and daily attended the private school where the fees had luckily been paid in advance.  It was somewhat ironic that I, not exactly a shining star where housekeeping is concerned, needed to inspire a woman to get better revenge than destroying herself with rampant neglect. Maybe I was just lucky that Riki was too fastidious to leave his droppings around.

“How’s it going, Krysta?” I asked as she led me into the kitchen.

Krysta put on the kettle.

“I’m getting there,” she replied, picking a couple of dirty cups out of the sink and rinsing them under the tap. I tried not to notice the pile of dishes, with encrusted breakfast cereal and sundry other meals still attached. It was a bit like an archeological dig. You could see what the family had eaten since my last visit, and quite a few visits before that.

“The kids have an after school session, so they’ll be late home.”

I tried to find a seat to sit on that wasn’t covered in God knows what. I shifted a pile of clothes off a chair, placed it on the pile on the one next to it and sat down. I could have done with surgical gloves, but if the kids could live in it, surely I could exist for a few minutes. Krysta handed me a cup of black coffee. She apologized for the lack of milk. For once I was grateful that there wasn’t any. I hated to think what state it would be in if there was. I sipped the hot coffee tentatively.

“I really am making an effort, Kip, but it makes me so mad knowing he’s trying to get me to leave so he can move back into the house. And I know he’s got money.”

“We can get someone in to clean up the place, but the animals are going to have to be kept out.”

“I can’t keep them out. They just come in through the broken pane in the back door.”     

“We can get someone to put a new pane in the door. It will be safer for you if it is fixed, and you will be able to keep the animals under control. You can make up some bedding for them on the back verandah.”

“I can’t do that to the kids. The animals are all they’ve got now that their father has gone. They need them for company at night. They aren’t coping very well and things have got so bad I don’t even know how long I can keep them at the school.”

“No, that’s not what they need. They don’t need a house full of uncontrolled animals for company. If the situation doesn’t improve, they’ll lose them completely, and they’ll lose you and this house as well. I know you’re angry at him, but if things don’t change, he’ll win. He’ll get everything and you’ll lose your kids. Is that what you want?”

Krysta collapsed into tears.

“I’m so lost, Kip. I just want him back.”

“I don’t know if that will ever happen, Krysta, but I do know that the best chance you have of getting him back is to make a success of your life without him.”

I hugged the drooping figure.

“I’ve arranged for Ted the Tidy to come in tomorrow. He’ll get the place fixed up and we’ll see about some regular help until things have stabilised a bit. There’s a self-help group for women that need to get their dignity back and have a bit of fun at the same time. You might enjoy it. It’s full of bright women like yourself who are getting their act together.”

I gave her a card with the group’s number. Don’t ask me why, but I rinsed out my cup and put it on the sink with the dirty dishes.

“Thanks for the cuppa. I’ll drop in the same time next week. If there are any problems, give me a ring at the clinic – and don’t forget to contact that support group. It’s important.”

I left, breathing in the clean outside air, and drove home via the bay. I had forgotten to give Jeremy a key. He and Riki were sitting on the front step waiting for me when I got home.

I was going to start on my new health kick and had stocked up on tuna. Unfortunately that was all I had stocked up on, apart from the usual cat food and the historic jar of marmalade. I took out a couple of tins. Jeremy took one look.

“A person needs soul food when they’re distressed. I could ring up for pizza,” he offered magnanimously.

He’s right, I thought. Wonderful though it may be, tuna isn’t really soul food. Well, not for a distressed Western teenager. I handed him the phone. He knew the number by heart. It was not long until the doorbell rang.

“At last,” Jeremy mumbled as he headed for the door. I was thinking how quick it was.

Jeremy opened the door expectantly. It wasn’t the pizza delivery. He was confronted by Mutti. He shut the door again, looking around desperately.

“It’s no good, Jeremy. You’ll have to open it,” she called through the closed door. As he did so, the pizza delivery man came up the front steps. Mutti paid for the pizzas.

“Carry these in for me will you, Jeremy,” she announced calmly as she passed the packages across to him, and then followed him in.

“I thought I might find you here. Perhaps we should get some plates down before the pizzas go cold,” she suggested as she sat at the dining table.

I didn’t have the heart to say we’d planned on eating off the cardboard platter the pizzas came on. I placed the plates on the table and arranged the knives and forks. Mutti served out pizza all round. Jeremy and I were eating in silence.

“Now, Jeremy. You should have told us if you weren’t coming home. We’ve been worried about you.”

She was so calm. She couldn’t know about Andy’s behavior yet. I wondered when would be the right time to tell her. I guess there is no right time to tell your mother that her boyfriend has got his son’s girlfriend pregnant. We kept eating in silence.

“Andy’s asked me to talk to you about Tanya being pregnant.”

My mind went numb. My poor deluded little Mutti. She must still be supporting that rotten Andy.

“I know all about it. You don’t have to tell me anything.”

“But I do, Jeremy. Tanya is in a terrible state. She hasn’t told her parents and she was also worried about telling you. I know it’s hard but it would be really good if you could talk to her.”

Jeremy’s mouth fell open, exposing some half-chewed pizza.

“That’s not a good look, Jeremy. Please close your mouth when you’re eating.”

I jumped in. “But Mutti. What about Andy?”

“Andy’s already spoken to Tanya. He told me she was really worried about hurting Jeremy’s feelings.”

“Well I should think she would be. This is a terrible situation, Mutti. I don’t know how you can be so calm.”

“I know Tanya’s very young, but I’m sure she’ll manage beautifully with some assistance. It’s not that uncommon. I should think you would be used to these situations in your job.”

“Not in my own family I’m not.”

“Tanya’s not exactly in our family, although of course that should not make any difference.”

“But Mutti. What about Andy?”

“Of course Andy thinks we should help her out too.”

“I should think he would. And what about your feelings, Mutti? It must be terrible for you.”

“What are you talking about, Kip?”

It was clear Mutti was not facing reality. I would have to be blunt.

“Mutti you don’t have to be brave about this. You should tell Andy to go.”

“You are not making sense, Kip.”

“But Mutti, you can’t stay with a man who gets his son’s girlfriend pregnant.”

“What!”

 “You can’t stay with Dad,” blurted out Jeremy. “He’s got Tanya pregnant.”’

“Have you both lost your minds?”

“I heard them talking.”

“You’re both quite mad. I don’t know what you heard Jeremy, but you never got the whole picture. That often happens when people eavesdrop.”

“But…”

“Tanya discovered she was pregnant after she started going out with you. The father was her old boyfriend. She didn’t know how to tell you.”

“You mean it’s not Dad’s? We’re not having a baby?”

“No Jeremy, if you’re referring to your father, we’re not.”

“Maybe I should marry her?”

“Remember that four legged monstrosity you bought home, promising faithfully to walk him every night? You know the one – old what’s-’is-name – the slavering beast your father and I take for a walk every night because no one else seems available. While your offer is very noble, marriage might require an ongoing commitment that just at the moment, may be more than you could cope with. And frankly, it would be more than your father and I could manage. Anyway, Tanya’s going back to the baby’s father. She hopes you won’t be too upset.”

“Upset? That’s the best news I ever heard. Now I can keep you and Dad.”

“Jeremy. You were never in danger of losing us, but that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. Perhaps we should forget to mention this little misunderstanding to your father.” 

Jeremy wolfed down the last of the pizza with relief… or perhaps that’s how he always does it.

“When you’re ready, Jeremy, perhaps you would like to come home with me.”

“I’m ready Mutti.” He stood up, having used the familiar name for the first time, and turned to me.

“Thanks for having me, Kip. I’ll miss Riki, but breakfast leaves a lot to be desired. And I have to walk my dog.”

Mutti shook her head as he bounded through the door.

“I’ll ring you later dear, you look like you could do with a rest.”

The house seemed strangely empty as the front door closed. I was suddenly overwhelmingly tired and found just enough energy to slink off to bed. It was not a restful sleep. I had a horrible nightmare about giving birth. Serge, Alex, and Spegal all featured in it. They were hovering around the bed, waiting for the baby to arrive. Mutti, Andy and Jeremy were also there. At last the baby miraculously appeared. Everyone crowded around to see it. I screamed. It was a recurring theme. The baby had a shrunken head.

 

CHAPTER 19

 

Elderly neighbours often need assistance.

This may disrupt a perfectly good weekend,

Designated for stocking up the food cupboard.

In case other neighbours need solace.

Good deeds should be their own reward,

but occasionally bear other fruit.

 

I woke up, happy to find an empty house, with no babies, no Jeremys, or anything else messing up the place, which was comparatively tidy, given my recent experience visiting Krysta and Co. Even better, it was the weekend. I staggered out of bed, fed Riki, grabbed the paper and a cup of coffee, and planned the day. I skimmed the news and did the puzzles. By then the coffee cup was empty. I pondered, which is another of life’s pleasures, whether to have a shower or another cup of coffee first. The shower won. It was a warm morning, so I slipped into a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. I was ready to tackle the shopping.

There was a loud banging on the door. My neighbour, Win, was calling out.

“Help Kip. Help!” I rushed out to find her quivering on my doorstep.

“It’s Kez. She’s hurt. It’s serious.”

I had visions of Kez having a heart attack.

“Where is she?”

“She’s on the footpath. She crashed. I can’t get her up.”

I hurried out the gate. Sure enough, there was Kez and her bike, both spread-eagled over the footpath.

“Good morning Kez. Are you alright?” I asked the age-old superfluous question, as I gazed at the 80 year old, clad in lycra shorts, decorating the footpath.

“She was going too fast,” said Win.

“I was riding very responsibly. It was that stupid dog. He rushed at me. He wasn’t on a lead. There should be a law against them. It’s my arm.”

“There should be a law against old fools tearing around on bikes with hardly any clothes on,” piped up Win.          

“Exercise is what keeps me young. You should try it” retorted Kez.

“You weren’t even thinking about exercise. You were after that Petscharnig man.”

Kez was going red in the face. They needed a referee. “Now, now, ladies. Let’s see what the damage is.”

I knelt down and checked for breaks. Kez was in surprisingly good shape for her age. Unfortunately her right arm had taken the brunt of the fall and I suspected it was broken. At Kez’s age, even though she is a tough old bird, she was going to need medical attention and possibly hospitalization. I pulled out the mobile, punched in the emergency number and requested an ambulance. A young couple came past and offered to help. I suggested picking up the bike and standing it up against the fence.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” Win started scolding Kez.

Luckily the ambulance arrived before she could get into full flight.

“I couldn’t find Poldi, Kip. Will you let him know what’s happened to me,” Kez asked as they helped her into the ambulance.   

“There’s no fool like an old fool,” Win snorted. “It’s his fault. If you hadn’t been chasing him, this wouldn’t have happened.”

I ignored that last shot from Win. “Of course I will,” I told Kez, “Now don’t you worry. You’ll be OK.”

The ambulance pulled away and I turned to Win. She was trying to get the bike up the front step and tears were pouring down her cheeks. I helped her with the bike, lifting the back wheels over the step.

“It’s that Poldi’s fault. We got along quite well until he started sticking his nose into our business. Kez doesn’t need someone like him. Now look what’s happened.”

“Kez will be all right. She’ll be back annoying you before you can spit. And don’t worry. She’s just having fun with Poldi. She’s not going to run off with him or anything.” I tried to comfort her.

She wiped her wet cheeks on an embroidered handkerchief.

“You are funny, Kip, as if I would spit. I’ll make a nice cup of tea. That will make us feel better.”

I resisted the urge to say that what would make me feel better was having a care-free cruise through the Caribbean with someone who attended to my every wish and didn’t disappear before breakfast or make best friends with my cat and ignore me. But I know when I’m beaten.

“That would be nice,” I said as I followed her up the front step of her little house.

From the outside, the houses all looked similar, but when you stepped in through the front door, each place had taken on the soul of its owner. It was like I was in a different world. In Win and Kez’s house, the kitchen and bathroom looked like they were updated in the fifties. While the toilet had been moved inside, all the rest of the original features seemed intact.

There was a plump floral lounge setting, with lace doilies on the head rests, an antique book case filled with interesting looking leather backed tomes with gold scrolled titles, and a crystal decanter and glasses set out on a silver tray on a polished cherry-wood sideboard. The decanter was half full with something that looked like sherry. I sank into one of the chairs while Win put the kettle on. She emerged with a tray, loaded with two delicate looking china cups and saucers, a matching sugar bowl and a small jug of milk. It was not long before she returned again with a tea pot and started filling the cups.

“I do wish you would talk to her, Kip. She’s gone mad – dangling after a man at her time of life. She won’t take any notice of me. She thinks I’m old fashioned. I’m sure she’ll listen to you.” 

I didn’t like to inform Win that I was the last person to give advice to an 80 year old woman with man-problems. I couldn’t even sort out my own. I finished my cup of tea and left Win with a promise to drive her in to the hospital to see Kez later in the day. I headed down the street to do the shopping. Jeremy was right about my breakfasts, not to mention the rest of the meals, although criticism from him was a bit rank. He’d live on pizza seven days a week if he could. Sorting out my pantry was a priority.

The first stop was the paper shop to get my Tattslotto ticket. OK so the odds were about 80 million to one, and yes I was not going to win, but a girl could dream for a few hours until the numbers rolled, and that was worth something. I walked on towards the shopping strip, passing a sign for the Farmers’ Market which is held once a month, and today was the day. It’s just one street back from the shopping centre, next to the Community Gardens. That would be a healthier option than the supermarket. Organic vegetables might even impress a neighbor who looked like he never even knew what a cheesecake was. I turned down a laneway that took me through to the gardens.

The market was set out on the edge of the local sports oval. I picked up a punnet of strawberries and a pretty bottle filled with balsamic vinegar. I was feeling healthier already. Then I found a stall selling panforte bars. One variety was made with ginger and assorted nuts, fused together with a rich chocolate fudge. The stall owner offered me a sample.

“These are divine for the discerning diner. You serve them in tiny slivers to accompany the coffee at the end of the meal. Would you care for a taste?”

Never mind waiting till the end of a meal, it was scrumptious on an empty stomach. It would be rude of me not to buy a bar or two after such a grateful offer, especially as I planned on being a discerning diner.

As I turned around, with the taste of fudge still lingering and the remains of one of the bars clutched in my hand, I bumped into Jacqueline Gherardi, the sculptor from Spegal’s snake show. She was resplendent in tight black pants and a black top adorned with a large silver sheriff’s badge. A matching silver buckle was a feature of the low slung belt around her hips. She was wearing a black cowboy hat on top of her short black hair.

“Kip, isn’t it?” she asked. “I’m Jac,” she re-introduced herself. “I met you at the Linden Gallery. Nice to see you. Are you still feeding babies to Rottweilers or whatever it is you social workers do?”

“Basically yes. Are you still carving up the countryside or whatever Sheriffs of sculpture-land do?”

“I’m at the artists’ studios at the back of the gardens. You must pop in and get your soul renewed.”

“Stuff my soul, right now I’m trying to get my body into gear.”

Jac looked at the panforte bar in my hand.

“Eat enough of them and the only gear you’ll get into will be a tent.”

“You certainly know how to flatter a girl, Jac.”

“Us sheriffs shoot from the hip. By the way, How’s Spegal?”

I’d forgotten she knew Spegal. I had wondered why he hadn’t got back to me, but I wasn’t going to let her know that.

“All right, I suppose. We’re only friends you know.”

“That’s not quite how Spegal thinks. But I mean how is he since his accident?”

“What accident?”

“You haven’t heard? He got bitten by a snake. I think he was photographing it. But I’m not sure of the details. I believe it was deadly poisonous. He’s lucky he’s still around. Now don’t forget to call in sometime – second studio on the left as you go up the path. Got to go.”

Jac waved and darted off before I could ask her for more details. Poor Spegal. No wonder I hadn’t heard from him. I thought for a minute, then took another bite of the chocolate panforte. I patted the side of my jeans, expecting a muffin-top to sprout instantly. I put the remainder of the bar in the bag. All in all I’d had enough shopping for life’s little staples. I headed home, stopping only to get a small barrel of ‘Holy Goat’ cheese as I left the park.

Win must have been watching for my return. She met me at the front gate.

“I’m ready to go whenever you are, Kip.”

Damn. I’d forgotten I had promised to take her in to the hospital to see Kez.

The only empty space in the car park was as far away from the hospital walk-way as possible.  Win shuffled along slowly, with me shuffling impatiently beside her. OK, so I’m doing my good deed for the day. Nobody said I had to be overjoyed at the privilege. Half a lifetime later, we arrived at the ward. Kez was sitting up in bed with her arm in plaster. I said hello to her and then left the two sisters together.

“I’ll see you in the coffee shop when you’re ready, Win. It’s on the ground floor – turn left when you get out of the lift.”

Reading a magazine over a cup of coffee would be more productive than making a third in the ward, so I left the sisters to snitch at each other in private. I was nearly at the coffee shop when Spegal came past with a bandage on his arm.

“Hello Princess. Talk about serendipity. You’re just the person I wanted to run into. If you’re helping the afflicted, you can wipe my fevered brow.”

“Bad luck, Spegal, I’m a social worker, not a nurse. We don’t do fevered-brow wiping. What happened?”

“An unfortunate accident when I was photographing a very fine specimen for a magazine. These stars are all so temperamental. Maybe I was taking his bad side. Thankfully the old Spegal’s tough. Even a bad-tempered snake can’t keep me down. Mind you, I deflected the bite so he did not get a clean strike or it might have been a different story. I’ve just got the all-clear from the hospital. You’re not sick, I hope?”

“Just visiting. I’m going to have a coffee break if you want to join me.”

Spegal looked around uncomfortably.

“Unfortunately, my lift’s just arrived, and I’m running late for my appointment. I’ll be around soon about that other little matter. See you.”

With that, he was off. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I felt something wasn’t quite right. Oh well. It was Spegal, after all. I shrugged off the odd feeling and turned back into the coffee shop to wait for Win.

By the time we got home, Saturday was just about over. All the things I had meant to do, like the washing, and the odd bit of vacuuming had not been done. It’s not fair. Brenda Bazooka doesn’t do housework. I decided that neither do I. It was Saturday night and I was home alone. What sort of a life is that? I wouldn’t have cared so much if it was a Wednesday. On impulse I had bought caramel ice-cream on the way home from the market this morning, thinking it would be good for emergencies. I decided this was an emergency. I got it out of the fridge. I‘d share it with Riki as we watched the lotto numbers being drawn.

I turned on the television. A film was just starting. It was about pirates. As the credits rolled, a large flag with a skull and crossbones filled the screen. What with the general murder and mayhem that had lately been surrounding me, not to mention pregnancy mix-ups and geriatric pile-ups, I had forgotten that I had my very own skull until I ran into Spegal. No wonder he hadn’t got in touch with me. Getting poisoned can upset the best of intentions.  

 

CHAPTER 20

 

If strange things happen

And things mysteriously disappear,

This is not a normal situation.

A sensible clinician would stage

Her own disappearance.

 

Daylight streamed through the window. Riki must have forgotten to wake me up again. I was about to leap out of bed, do some exercises, have a healthy breakfast and get ready for work, not necessarily in that order. Then reality hit. It was Sunday. I’d start the get-fit stuff first thing tomorrow. Mondays are designed for that sort of activity. In the meantime, Saturday had been a bit of a wash-out so I planned to make up for it.

My usual Sunday morning indulgence is not that different from Saturday – reading the papers in bed with a cup of coffee. A quick check on the news, read the stars, check out the weekend magazine and the sports page. Then I settle down to do the puzzles. The next couple of hours were sheer bliss. Well I guess if sex is off the menu, a morning spent idly reading and sipping coffee, is high up on the list of life’s pleasures that you can indulge in without getting your clothes on – or off.

I got a coffee refill. The answering machine was blinking. When did the phone ring? I never heard it. It must have been last night sometime. I pressed the button. I did not recognize the male voice.

Message One – Curiosity killed the cat. Have you seen yours lately?

If you know what’s good for you, you won’t contact the police.’

I looked around frantically. Riki hadn’t harassed me for breakfast yet. Where was he? What had they done to him? Who were ‘they’? This was all too spooky. I raced through the house calling his name. No answer. I raced out the back door. I don’t know what made me look up. A gnarled old lemon tree graced the dividing wall between Alex’s and my backyard. Hanging from a branch was one limp cat. I rushed over. He had a pair of my knickers tied around his neck and looped over the tree branch, strangling him.

I screamed. A loud primordial noise was tearing out of my body. I loved that cat. Who would do such a thing? I unhooked Riki from the branch and cradled his lifeless body. Suddenly Alex was beside me. He had climbed over the wall. He took Riki’s body from me and loosened the lacy knickers from around his neck. Alex put Riki up to his face, then he started CPR. How do you do it for a cat? His lungs are so small. I watched Alex breathe softly into his mouth and then press gently on his skinny exposed chest. Was I imagining it? Riki was starting to breathe.

“He’s alive.” I also drew breath again. I barely controlled myself from falling on Alex and hugging him.

“I think he will make it, but he’s still in shock. He needs to be kept warm. You can give him a little milk,” he advised me. “Luckily the strangulation was slow or he would have been dead. He must have been there for a while. How did this happen?”

I did not want to tell him about the message, or that Riki hadn’t accidentally got tangled in the washing. Alex was from my dreams, and should not be mixed up in my nightmare.

“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully.

“You must be careful about leaving clothes around for him to get tangled in,” he admonished.

The injustice of the suggestion that I was to blame left me speechless. Still carrying Riki, Alex followed me inside. Maybe he interpreted my silence as the result of feeling guilty over my negligence.

“Let me make you a cup of tea while you get him some milk,” he said as he passed Riki across to me.

“I only have coffee,” I informed him.

“That will have to do then, but you must have sugar in it. You’ve had quite a shock.”

I couldn’t tell him about the phone call and the threat. I sat hugging Riki who was still looking quite fragile.

Alex took charge, putting on the kettle, getting a cup from the drainer beside the sink and spooning in coffee and sugar. He went to the fridge and got out the milk. He poured some in a saucer for Riki and some into my cup. He brought the coffee over to me, gently removed Riki from my clutches, and put him in the corner of the lounge, with the saucer propped up beside him. He walked back over to me.

“I have to go. You and Riki both need a rest. I’ll call tonight and see how you are,” he promised. Then he left.

What is it with the men in my life? They keep running off just when I need them. I had to talk to someone. I tried to think. I should have rung the police when the head first arrived, then none of this might have happened. Now it was too late. Whoever was responsible for the call must have been watching me. Worse still, the person had been in my house while I was asleep. How else could he (I’m assuming it was a he, as it was a male voice on the answering machine) get my knickers? And there was that other time. Was it an accident that Riki was outside? Had the caller been in the house then? Just thinking about it sent a shiver up my spine. I felt completely vulnerable.

Even if Alex had stayed, how could I tell him? I didn’t know what work he did, but it had to be something high powered. It was not going to make me look a particularly attractive neighbour if I started telling him about shrunken heads, deliberately strangled cats with attached phone messages, a mysterious woman, an even more mysterious man and heroin deals inside orangutan skulls. I thought about calling Serge. Same problem there. He would probably wonder what I was on and arrange a detox session.

On this subject the only one I could talk to was Spegal – but he’d been poisoned by a snake – just when I needed him most. That man was so thoughtless. Anyway, he said he’d practically recovered. I started punching numbers.

Spegal arrived promptly, looking characteristically cheerful, despite his bandaged arm. He was holding up a brown paper bag.

“Good morning Kippo. This is the first time you’ve called me for breakfast. I’ve brought some fresh croissants and jam. Raspberry and apricot, so you’ve got a choice.”

Spegal put the bag on the table and looked at Riki lying quietly on the couch.

“That cat’s always sleeping. Shouldn’t he be outside catching mice or something?’ He went to move him up so he could sit down.

“No. Don’t touch him. He’s not well. He’s just been strangled.”

Spegal moved back from him.

“What do you mean?”

I explained about Riki’s narrow escape.

“First there was a message on the answering machine. Listen.”

I went across to the machine and turned it on.

 

“Message One – Curiosity killed the cat. Have you seen yours lately?

If you know what’s good for you, you won’t call the police.”

 

“That message was there when I woke up. I must have slept right through the call – or maybe it woke me up. Then when I looked for Riki I found him strangled in the lemon tree. He would be dead if Alex hadn’t seen me out there and helped me rescue him and I know whoever did it can get into the house, even when it’s locked. He used my undies to tie Riki up. And about a week ago, Riki somehow got out at night when I know I locked him in. Alex found him that time too.”

Spegal shook his head. He patted Riki.

“Run that by me again. Riki got out of the house and Alex used your knickers to rescue him. That sounds a bit strange to me, Kippo.”

I took a deep breath and went through everything slowly, like I was talking to a five year old.

“You’re lucky you have such a good neighbour. How come he just happened to be around when the cat’s being strangled, and how come he found Riki the first time? It all sounds too coincidental, Princess. It’s not good. Come and stay at my place until we find out what is happening.”

“No, I won’t be frightened out of my own place. I’ll get the locks changed and get some bars on the window.”

“But then you’ll be living in a prison. It won’t work, Kippy. This is getting really serious. Perhaps you should report it to the police.”

“But the message. It said not to. And then there is Vera. What do I do about her?”

“She doesn’t seem like a healthy woman for you to knock around with Princess. Tell you what, Kippy, I’ve been thinking. Someone must know your movements pretty well – and it doesn’t have to be an enemy you know – it could be a client – or maybe a friend.”

It was an eerie thought. I shuddered. 

“I don’t know what to do.”

“You’re right. You can’t go to the police. I think maybe you should get rid of the skull. Disguise it in something and put it in the garbage.”

“No. I think the quicker I go to the police the better. I should have done it right at the beginning.”

“Perhaps you’re right. I haven’t had a chance to show your note to my friend yet, what with getting distracted with snake bites and all. Perhaps it is time to do that.”

Spegal went over to the cupboard and opened it. He pushed some glasses aside.

“Where is it?” he asked.

“Where’s what?”

“The skull.”

I looked at him.

“You know, Kip. The head – the thing that you keep in the cupboard – the cause of all this trouble.”

“Nothing. I never touched it. I just put it up there and left it.”

“It’s not here.”

“Don’t be silly. Of course it’s there.”

“Look for yourself. It’s not here.”

“I don’t believe it. It can’t be gone.”

I walked over to the cupboard, frantically pushing glasses aside. He was right. It was gone. What is this with disappearing heads? Someone was trying to mess with my brain. And they were succeeding. I tried to make sense of it. I just stood there with my mouth open. ‘Think Kip, think,’ I admonished myself. I shook my head.

The next thing I knew, strong arms were around me. No. This was not supposed to be how it happened. It was supposed to be Serge or Alex. This was a dream, right? Things get mixed up in dreams. Spegal was not supposed to be in my dreams. He was my practical man

“The problem is you haven’t had any breakfast. That can mess with a person’s head. You sit down, Princess, and let Spegal fix up a croissant and make you some coffee.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Alex had made me coffee not that long ago. An extra never goes astray. As I munched on the croissant, he watched me like an anxious mother hen.

“I’ll sort something out and be back later. You can rely on the old Spegal. In the meantime, stay inside, keep your feet up and read a book. Maybe Brenda Bazooka will cheer you up. Just don’t go out today,” he repeated.

Then he left. At least he had that in common with the other two.

 

CHAPTER 21

 

When a situation gets

Downright scary,

Contact the police.

That’s what they’re designed for.

Don’t get sidetracked

by eruptions in the vicinity.

Good company and a bottle could help.

Or conversely, they could complicate matters.

 

 I surprised myself. For once I was taking advice that under the circumstances seemed relatively sensible. I was staying in. Actually, it was a good day to be indoors. It was one of those stinking hot days Melbourne throws in every now and then, just to keep up its reputation for variable weather. My little house with its high ceilings and brick walls was amazingly cool given the outside temperature. I read for a while, which can make a person hungry. I wandered out to the lounge and ate the remaining croissant for lunch. Then I decided to wash the kitchen floor, thinking it would be a mind-numbing occupation. Unfortunately it was not mind-numbing enough. The brain refused to concentrate on the job. It kept returning to shrunken heads and the mystery man and woman. I couldn’t believe I’d let the whole thing go on for so long. I didn’t have a lot of faith in Spegal’s promise to sort things out. I had dithered too long. I needed to take action. I would contact the police as soon as Spegal returned.

I heard a noise next door. There was yelling. This was strange, because the sisters were always quiet. It was Win’s voice. It must be serious. Win only raises her voice in dire emergencies. She generally considers loud displays of emotion to be unladylike. Maybe she was being attacked or robbed. Or both. I picked up the Borneo guitar from the lounge and went to her assistance. As I reached the front door, it became clear that she was not being assaulted. She was doing the assaulting. She was yelling at Poldi Petscharnig, who was standing cowering on her doorstep. I didn’t blame him. I slithered back behind my door, and I wasn’t even in the line of fire.

“It’s your fault. Kezia could have been killed. You’re too old to be riding around on bikes, and who do you think you are, Casanova? You are depraved. You should leave women alone at your age.”

“But…but…” Poldi spluttered.

He never stood a chance.

“But… but… nothing. How dare you say anything after what you’ve done – and don’t come around here again. Kezia doesn’t want to see you ever again,” Win yelled as she slammed the door in his face.

I closed my door quietly, and put the guitar back in its corner in the lounge. At least it was safe. I don’t know what I was thinking about. It would have been an expensive exercise if I had broken it over a robber’s head. Mental note. Buy a baseball bat for attacking intruders instead of grabbing an exquisite musical instrument that is only kept for its looks. A few seconds later, there was a knock on my door.

I opened it to find Poldi standing there with a worried look on his face. His bike was resting against the side fence. Poldi would have been a handsome man in his day. He was about 180 centimetres tall, with a wiry body and a shock of silver hair. He was still good-looking although his face was currently lined with worry.  He stood awkwardly, shifting from one foot to the other.

“Good morning Miss Kelly. I’m sorry to bother you. I’m Poldi Petscharnig. I know you are a friend of Kez.”

He had a thick Austrian accent. The silence that followed was deafening. He just stood there, looking utterly lost. Whatever he wanted to say next, it just wasn’t happening. If I didn’t want us both to turn to salt staring at each other, I would have to be pro-active.

“Yes I know. Come in.”

He followed me down the passage to the lounge and then stood there awkwardly clutching his bike helmet.

“Have a seat,” I directed. “I’m just making a cup of coffee.”

I switched the kettle on to make the statement true. “How do you have yours?”

“With milk, thank you.” He nervously twisted the helmet in his hands.

He sat on the edge of the chair, still looking like he was wondering what to do next. If we were going to get anywhere, I would have to help him out.

“You’re worried about Kez, aren’t you?”

“I heard about her accident. Her sister won’t tell me anything. I have to know how she is.”

“She’s all right. She broke her arm and they are keeping her in hospital for observation, but she’s ok. In time she might even be able to ride her bike again.”

“What hospital is she in – do you think I could visit her?” he asked all in the same breath.

“She’s at the Alfred. I think she would love a visit,” I told him. “Just make sure

it’s not at the same time as her sister.”

He was starting to relax.

“Ja. That is a good idea. She does not love me, the sister.”

That might have been the understatement of the year. There was a flash of lightning and the distant rumble of thunder. Maybe the Gods were agreeing. Or maybe Melbourne’s warm weather was about to end abruptly in one of its spectacular summer storms.

Poldi put the empty cup back on the table and stood up.

“Thank you for your help. I must go before the storm hits.”

I walked with him to the door. He wheeled his bike to the gate and waved as he threw his leg over the bar and rode off under the prematurely darkened sky.

The dark storm clouds continued to roll in. The rain would bring some relief from the oppressive heat. True to his word, Spegal arrived back just as I switched on the evening news. He had an overnight bag with him, and a green shopping bag. 

“Now don’t think the old Spegal would take advantage of a fair maiden in distress. I’m here to help and I’m going to stay here until we sort out what to do. I’ve brought dinner as well.”

Spegal pulled a hot chicken out of the bag with a flourish. He placed a pre-packed bag of mixed salad greens and a bottle of wine beside it, then went to the cupboard for the plates and cutlery. He set the table, adding two glasses for the wine. The smell of the roast chicken hit the olfactory nerve. I was suddenly very hungry. Spegal pulled my chair out.

“Your dinner is served ma’am.”

I sat down as he poured the wine into one of the glasses. There was another knock on the door.

“I’ll get it,” said Spegal, heading down the passage with the bottle of wine still in his hand. He opened the door. I looked up to see Alex  standing there. He also had a bottle of wine in his hand. They stared at each other. Alex was the first to recover. He looked up the hall.

“I just called to see if you and Riki were all right after your nasty experience this morning, Kip. I can see you’ve recovered nicely. That’s good. Call me if you need any more assistance,” he added, handing the bottle of wine to Spegal. Then he left. Spegal just stood there holding a bottle in each hand.

I don’t believe it. I have waited all my life for this man to call around with a bottle of wine. And what happens when he does? He finds me ensconced with another male and a bottle of wine, and the table set for an intimate dinner for two.

I wanted to turn into a female version of Riki and claw the sneer off Alex’s handsome face. I wanted to kill Spegal. I wanted to cry with frustration. It was the only realistic option. As Spegal put Alex’s bottle of wine on the bench, my eyes teared up. Spegal did not notice. He looked like he wanted to do some killing himself.

“Princess, I have to wonder why that man is always around when something goes wrong for you. Do you think he’s involved in some way?”

I blew my nose. “Don’t be silly,” I replied, but he had planted a thought.

The weather outside was ominous. The storm hit. The thunder and lightning were almost simultaneous. The wind was whistling, trees were bent nearly double and loose bits of debris were flying past the window. Then the rain started bucketing down. The noise level was so high, it was hard to hear the television. The temperature had been 36 degrees and humid. Now it had dropped to an astonishing 17 degrees. I shivered, and it wasn’t just the weather.

I didn’t want to think Alex might be involved in any of the mess I had found myself in, but Spegal was right. There was something mysterious about him. He managed to turn up at all the right, or maybe, all the wrong times, and I still did not know what he did for a living. Then I remembered that I had seen him talking with someone who looked like the man from long-house at the festival. It didn’t bear thinking about. A person looking that gorgeous couldn’t be shady.

I thought back over everything that had happened since I went to Borneo: the shrunken head on the doorstep, the man from the long-house, the meeting with Vera, the cat catastrophes, and the threatening message on the phone.

“I’m definitely going to call the police,” I told Spegal. 

Spegal poured out some more wine.

“I agree, Princess. You should have done that at the beginning.”

“Now you agree. Where do I start?”

“Just tell them what happened. Tell them that someone threatened you with a shrunken head and tried to strangle your cat. And you’d better tell them about meeting the mysterious woman.”

The wind was still wailing furiously. Then the electricity went out. It was still not sunset time, although it was hard to tell as the sky was black outside. Luckily there was enough light to find my candle supply and the box of matches I kept for emergencies.

“This is romantic, Kippo,” Spegal told me with his face shining in the candle light. I drank some of the wine. I was starting to lose the horrors.

“I’ve been thinking, Spoogal.”

“I love it when you do that Princess,”

“My thinking is not that unusual, if you don’t mind.”

“No, no, Kippo. I’m talking about you making up pet names for me.”

“I’ve told you not to call me Kippo,” I reminded him. “Now, I’ve been thinking…”

“Go on.”

“I’ve been thinking what the police will say when I ring up and tell them that someone left a shrunken head on my doorstep. They’ll ask to see it. Then I’ll have to tell them it disappeared.”

“That could be a worry, Princess. You aren’t going to tell them about the one in Borneo are you? And that it disappeared too. That could confuse them a bit more.”

“Then I could tell them about the cat being strangled.” I looked over at Riki. He looked like he had never had a near-death experience in his life.

“I haven’t got any proof that it wasn’t an accident.”

“You’ve got the phone message. That’s something.”

“Yes. They should be able to track down where it came from.”

I went over and pressed the replay button. At least the phone was still working.

You have no messages,” chimed the answering machine.

I felt sick in the stomach.

“What! The message is gone too,” I exclaimed in horror.

“Are you sure?” Spegal asked unhelpfully.

“Of course I’m sure. You heard it. It said there are no messages. The message was there wasn’t it?”

“You must have accidentally erased it, Princess. You’ve been pretty stressed,” he added. “Or maybe it was the storm.”

“So now I tell the police about a message that is no longer there. Do I tell them about Vera who just materialized and that I don’t know really know who she is or where she came from or where she went?”

I started to laugh and it was not with happiness. It was all I could think to do. It was probably a marginally better option than screaming my head off.

“They’d think I was a raving lunatic.”

“I tell you what Princess. Things don’t look so good. You don’t seem to have evidence for anything. I think you should let the old Spegal stay around for a while and work out what is happening.”

He poured me another glass. By the time I finished it, the panic was receding. 

“But it just doesn’t make any sense. I give up. I’m going to bed,” I told him, walking out of the room with as much dignity as I could muster. “You can stay, but you have to sleep on the couch. I need to sleep.”

I didn’t even bother thanking him for dinner and his support.

 

CHAPTER 22

 

The media informs about

Dangerous climatic events

That require evasive action.

Immediately report disasters and

Assist in identifying victims.

This washes away responsibility.

A warm shower also washes away a few things

– or not.

 

I woke up feeling seedy. I heard Spegal in the kitchen and it all came back to me. I staggered out to find him showered and dressed. He was pouring two cups of coffee. The morning newspaper was neatly folded on the table. Pictures of the storm were front page news. The television was on. The morning show was replaying images of the damage that had occurred overnight. Roads were awash, trees were down and power was still out in a number of suburbs. St Kilda had felt the full force of the storm. The news dominated our coffee drinking. Luckily our electricity had been restored. In some of the metropolitan areas it was still out. Spegal finished his coffee and took his cup over to the sink.

“I’ve got a meeting with my agent this morning, Princess. I’ll be back this evening. Drive carefully. The roads are a mess. They’ve been warning people to take care.” With a quick peck on the cheek, and a “Don’t worry, we’ll get everything under control,” Spegal was out the door.

Some control was definitely needed. It was about time I got my life sorted out, but right now I did not have time. I had to get ready for work. Work is the one thing you can be sure doesn’t disappear. The storm had passed over, along with the summer warmth. The television was still focusing on the damage that resulted. It was unseasonably cold. I slipped into the shower then found a pair of black slacks and a tan skivvy. A black vest with large bronze buttons completed the outfit. I scraped my hair back in a stern pony tail, added a splash of light-coloured lip gloss and that was it. This was not a day for dressing brightly. Maybe work would take my mind off the disasters that had been occurring around me. Dealing with other people’s problems can do that.

At the clinic, everyone was talking about the storm. Jenni’s kitchen had flooded and she’d been up half the night using every towel she had in her cupboard to mop up the mess. At least my place had remained weather proof.

The family I was booked in to see was a ‘no-show.’ They had rung in to cancel the appointment. The street near their house was flooded. I rescheduled them for two days later and made some attempts to contact a Human Services Worker about another case. She wasn’t in, courtesy of the storm. A tree had come down on her car. There was nothing for it – I plugged away at a report until I thought I could reasonably leave. Everyone seemed to have had the same idea. The place was just about deserted.

The damage was wide spread, making the drive home along Kerford Road painfully slow, with traffic bumper to bumper and water splashing up everywhere. Kerford Road Pier had been destroyed and lots of trees were down. A number of houses had been damaged. I could not remember a storm of such ferocity. Was this the extreme weather we were being warned about as a result of global warming? I shivered in the unseasonably cold aftermath. 

As promised, Spegal returned. Again he bought food. He seemed determined to look after me, or maybe he was wary of my cooking. This time it was some Rogan Josh and rice from Balas, the Indian take-away around the corner, and a bottle of white wine.  He was kindness itself, but I was too pre-occupied to be appreciative. I needed a plan of action, but the appearances and disappearances were all too crazy. How could I get someone to believe me? We ate the meal in uncharacteristic silence. Even the wine failed to lighten the atmosphere.

“I always watch the movie on Monday night,” I lied, hoping it would be something interesting that would be a distraction and remove the need for conversation. I switched on the television and got the end of a current affair program. The interviewer was winding up the segment with the usual in-depth questioning.

“Tell me,” he asked confidentially, “Did you murder your husband?”

For some unknown reason, the interviewee chose not to make a full and frank confession on prime-time television. There was a trailer for the following night when the program would again be posing the hard questions without fear or favour. Then a movie started. Just my luck. A war story was about the last thing I wanted to see. Spegal got excited. 

“This is great Kippo. We have the same taste in movies.”

“Yeah, right,” I thought. At least he would be entertained without my input. I needed some thinking time. At the end of the first ad break, a news flash came on.

 

The body of an unidentified woman was found in the Catani Gardens, just near St Kilda Beach. Last night’s storm brought down a number of old cyprus trees. The woman’s body was trapped beneath one of the falling branches. No missing person reports match the woman’s description. She is of Asian appearance, approximately 160 centimetres tall. She has a distinctive tattoo of an interwoven motif circling her upper left arm.”

 

A police photo-fit of the woman showed the clothes she had been wearing.

 

If anyone can help identify this woman, they should contact the following number,” which was flashed up on the screen.

 

I looked at the picture. The top was different, but the skirt looked similar to the one Vera was wearing when she met me on the pier. And there was the tattoo. There was no doubt it was Vera. I went cold.

“Spegal,” I clutched his arm. “It’s her. It’s Vera, the woman from down the pier.”

The movie resumed. The hero was getting hot and steamy with a local in some obscure Asian village.

“I shouldn’t think so, Princess. What would a Hollywood actress be doing in St Kilda.”

“I don’t mean her, you idiot. It was shown during the ad break. It’s Vera. The mysterious woman I met. I told you about her. She’s the unidentified woman that was found dead in the storm. They’re asking if anyone knows anything about her.”

“Are you sure, Kip? It was only on for a second. I didn’t take much notice of it. I’m good at ignoring ads.”

“I’m one hundred per cent sure. Particularly with the tattoo. I must contact the police. I didn’t get the number.”

“You’ve been under a lot of stress. Someone else is bound to know who she is. Perhaps you should wait for morning. You could ring the local police and see if they have identified her by then.”

He was right. The police would probably think it was the wine talking if I rang them tonight. Spegal poured us both another glass of wine, which finished the bottle. It also nearly finished me. Maybe I could deal with everything after a good night’s sleep. I was going to relegate Spegal to the couch again. I looked at his worried face and relented. I went to sleep wrapped in his comforting arms. Unfortunately, this didn’t mean I got a good night’s rest. I had more nightmares. I dreamt I was trapped under a huge tree. I was calling out, but no one could hear me over the screaming winds.

At last it was morning. Spegal put his head through the door.

“Good morning, Princess. Coffee’s ready,” he said cheerfully as if the world were normal. “I have to go out for a short while. Hopefully I won’t be too long. I’ll be here when you get back from work.”

I fed Riki, then drank the coffee as I flipped through the morning paper. There were lots more pictures of the storm but nothing about the mysterious woman. It was the early edition, so I guess they had not had time to report it. Besides it was already stacked with bad luck stories and lucky escapes. I  certainly had to ring the police, but a little bit of procrastination would help me get my thoughts in order. One shouldn’t do anything on an empty stomach. I needed to eat something. I grabbed the Weetbix packet, placed a couple of the biscuits in a bowl and poured over the milk.

Yes Mutti, the power of positive breakfast works. I rang the local police before I lost my nerve.

“It’s Kip Kelly here. It’s about the woman who was killed in the storm last night. Has anyone identified her yet? I think I know her.”

“Your assistance would be very helpful, Ms. Kelly. Could you come down to the station while we take a statement?”

“I’ll call in after work,” I promised.

I had done it. I had finally contacted them. The whole charade would soon be over. I finished the coffee and then started getting ready for work. I stepped into the shower and turned it on full. The water was invigorating as it hit my body. I swayed slightly, enjoying the luxury as the steam filled the shower recess, giving it the effect of a soft, warm blanket enveloping me. I felt nearly human again. Somehow I felt lighter, as if the whole nightmare was washed away. I would tell the police everything. Whether they believed me or not, it would no longer be my problem. I turned the shower off, reached for the towel and wrapped it around me as I walked out into the lounge.

“Good morning, Miss Kelly,” said a soft voice.

 

CHAPTER 23

 

When faced with someone intent on killing you,

Keep the killer talking.

This gives time for rescuers to arrive.

But good guys don’t win all the time.

You need a lot of luck.

Or an attack animal.

 

There was no doubt about it. It was the man from the long-house in Borneo sitting on my couch. He was looking very relaxed, with one leg crossed over the other. This was certainly no fantasy. He was real. I clutched at the towel as I tried to put my brain into gear. Every nerve in my body screamed danger. My strongest urge was to keep silent while my brain tried to work out what was happening. It was thinking time. Eventually I found my voice. I needed to engage with him.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“Max Montaigne, my dear. I’ve come to visit you.”

“How did you get in?”

“It is not difficult. You must know it is not the first time.”

“What do you want?”

“You have unwisely involved yourself in my affairs. I have warned you a number of times not to interfere, but you could not help yourself, could you?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“I think you do. You have had plenty of hints to mind your own business. Some people never learn. But then your occupation is all about giving advice, isn’t it? Not taking it.”

“What do you want?” I repeated.

“Your cooperation, of course. It’s been fun, playing hide and seek with skulls. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, but it is now time to put this little farce to an end. We can do this the hard way or the easy way. The choice is up to you.”

Montaigne pulled out a small blow pipe dart from a pouch.

“I don’t know anything. I think you have the wrong person,” I told him, still trying to keep my voice as normal sounding a possible.

“But I think you do know something, Miss Kelly. You have an unhealthy habit of snooping around . Even in Borneo you were taking an unwarranted interest in things that did not concern you – and then here. And I know about your little meeting with Vera. It didn’t do her any good, and it won’t help you, either.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I told you. I’m going to put an end to your involvement in my life. But don’t worry. I’m not an unkind person – you won’t feel a thing.”

He waved the dart in the air.

“The tip is loaded with curare. You will just have a nice little sleep.”

My stomach curdled. The realisation hit home with a thud. This man was mad. He intended to kill me. It was bizarre. I was standing in a room, wet and naked except for a towel draped around me. I was not in a position to dry myself off, and he was cold bloodedly discussing killing me – in the nicest possible way – with curare. A chill went through my body. I needed some more time to think. I’d heard killers like to talk about themselves and air their knowledge.

“What do you mean, curare?”

“It’s just a generic term, my dear, for the poisons the South Americans use on their blow darts. Different plants are used, but the most common is a brew containing poisons from the bark of the strychnos tree. Often it gets mixed with other things, including the venom from a number of snakes. They also have variations of these poisons in Borneo. Fascinating stuff.”

Montaigne was dressed in an expensive suit and spoke perfect English. His eyes glittered above finely chiselled cheek bones. It was a chilling effect. “Keep him talking,” kept playing in my head.

“Are you referring to strychnine?”

“A common mistake my dear. People often confuse the two. Strychnine is made from the African variety, Strychnos nux-vomica. That can also be deadly for humans, but the reaction is different. Strychnine is a convulsant poison. While asphyxia is the final cause of death, the victim first suffers convulsions of all the voluntary muscles. You won’t have any of these symptoms, only a complete paralysis prior to asphyxia. You will, however, unfortunately know what is going on until the point of complete loss of consciousness is reached.”

The soft voice could be giving a lecture. The horrifying thing was that he was describing my imminent death.

“I still don’t understand. Why me?”

“You were getting just a bit too close my dear. I tried warning you, but you are an inveterate sticky beak. Really it will be a pleasure to dispatch you.”

“Vera’s death wasn’t an accident, was it?”

“Vera certainly met with an unfortunate accident – the result of a cataclysmic event.”

“You won’t get away with this.”

“Oh I think I will. I tested a blow pipe dart out on Vera. They are incredibly efficient. And the tiny mark from the dart cannot be seen among all the scratches from the pine needles of the cyprus. That storm really was a godsend.”

“If I die of curare poisoning, the police will immediately look for people with Borneo contacts.”

“If they do, they will find you have plenty in your own right. It is not so long since you were there on holidays. But I take your point. An overdose of heroin should not be too difficult to stage once the curare has taken effect.”

I tried bluffing.

“Your plan won’t work. I’ve already rung the police about my suspicions. They should be here to interview me shortly. If you leave now you should be able to get away safely.”

“Nice try. I don’t believe you. But we are wasting time. I am looking forward to our little experiment.”

He stood up and started to move towards me. I shrunk back against the wall, petrified. The door opened. Spegal walked in.

“Max, stop,” he yelled.

Montaigne turned around. “Keep out of this, Thompson.”

Spegal was holding a gun. It was pointed at Montaigne.

“I’m serious.  Keep away from her.”

Montaigne grabbed me by the hair and held the dart to my neck.

“Put that gun away and don’t be stupid, Thompson.”

“I’ve never been less stupid in my life. Drop the dart.”

Was I going mad? Spegal knew him. He called him Max. Montaigne was the Uncle Max that was attached to the Esplanade seller, the man from the long-house and Vera’s husband. It was not just my imagination that he was here in St Kilda. He was real. What was this all about and how was Spegal involved?

“You are stupid, Thompson,” Montaigne repeated, shaking his head. “You could have made a lot of money. Interfere now and you blow your own cover. She’s nothing to you.”

“On the contrary, she’s everything to me. Drop the dart.”

Montaigne held his ground.

“I can get her with the dart before you can get me,” he threatened. “And this doesn’t just have curare in it, it also has denrobates pumilio, from the poison-dart frog. It is very quick acting. Similar to some of your deadly snake poisons, which I’m sure you are familiar with.”

His eyes glittered madly. I had the strange feeling that he was enjoying himself.

“Drop the dart,” Spegal repeated. “You’ll never get away with this.”

“Oh yes I will. You’ll never have the guts to shoot me, and if you say anything you’ll only incriminate yourself.”

There was a flash of fur. It was Riki. A fly had flown passed him. He can’t resist them. Catching flies is one of his favourite pastimes. He leapt at it. Both men were momentarily distracted. Spegal stepped towards us. Max yanked my hair as he pulled me in front of him. At the same time he threw the dart at Spegal, hitting him in the shoulder.

Almost simultaneously, Spegal fired at Montaigne. The bullet grazed my arm and caught Montaigne in the side. He lost his grip on me and grabbed at the wound. Spegal staggered and then straightened himself up with a superhuman effort.

“You bastard.”

He fired again, hitting Montaigne in the chest. As Montaigne went down, Spegal slumped to the floor, clutching at the dart sticking out from his body. I rushed over to him.

“I’m sorry Princess. You’re safe now.”

He pulled the dart out and it fell through his fingers onto the floor.

“Don’t touch it Princess, it’s lethal.”

“Don’t worry, Spoogle. I’ll get an ambulance.”

“I love it when you call me names, Princess. And I love you. Don’t worry about the ambulance.”

I quickly dialed 000, stating that a man had been shot. That should get all the emergency services here as quickly as possible. I tried to make Spegal comfortable. He was fading fast. I cradled his head in my lap. My tears started to fall on his face.

“Tears for me Princess? You do care for the old Spoogle after all.”

“Yes Spoogle, I do. You must hang on. The ambulance is coming. You’ll be alright.”

But I knew he wouldn’t be. I patted his face helplessly. His life quietly slipped away, leaving me holding his lifeless body. The door opened. Alex walked into the room.

“Is there a problem?” he asked superfluously as he stood looking at one dead male in a pool of blood on the floor and one dead male in my arms. “I heard shots.”   

I couldn’t answer. Ignoring Montaigne, Alex looked at Spegal.

“I don’t think you can help him now.” He gently removed my arms from around Spegal and laid his head on the ground. He led me over to the couch. “You’ve been hurt,” he added.

I looked at my arm. There was blood on it. I clamped my hand over the wound. Blood poured out through my fingers. The adrenaline from the injury was starting to fade, and the hurt was setting in. So was the hurt to my heart. Spegal had died to save me.

Alex grabbed a towel off the rack beside the kitchen bench and tied it around the wound. Then he grabbed my doona from the bedroom and placed it around me as I started to shiver. I was having trouble focusing on him…. and reality. Suddenly the room was full of police and ambulance officers.

 

CHAPTER 24

 

When recovering from

The odd bullet wound,

Sympathy from relatives and friends is comforting.

But nothing beats a declaration of undying love.

Unless it’s delivered at the point of dying,

Which just adds to the tragedy.

Heaping pain on pain.

Plan a holiday as soon as possible.

 

I woke up in hospital. Mutti and Andy were beside the bed. Mutti was in a flowing caftan, wafting around like a flowery spirit.

“I had visions, Kip. I knew there was trouble. You should look after yourself better.”

“Oh Mutti. Spegal’s dead.”

“Yes dear, he is, but he does not want you to worry. He is at peace. He was caught up with some strange people. If he had lived, his life would have been a disaster. He’s now an angel. He’s safe and happy and he’ll always look after you.”

Mutti is in her own world. It’s a long way from mine, but somehow, her words were comforting. Spegal annoyed the crap out of me a lot of the time, yet he was always there for me, and I had come to rely on him. I had only just begun to realize how important he was to me. He died saving my life. Now we are linked forever in some strange cosmic way.

“I also had good visions. There are two tall dark-haired men who are hovering around you. One of them turns into a panther. It’s strange. I don’t know what the panther wants. It is possibly benign, but it is not clear. I don’t think it will hurt you.”

“Too much information, Desley,” said Andy. “You mustn’t frighten Kip with your visions. She’s got to concentrate on getting better and getting out of here.”

“You’re right, darling.” She patted his arm. “Now onto practical matters. I can be practical you know.”

She paused for effect, or maybe she was looking for an argument.

“I got someone in to clean up the flat after the police removed the…..” she looked over at Andy who shook his head… “people. The neighbours are looking after Riki. And Jeremy sends his love.”

“Have you rung work?”

“Yes dear, that’s all been taken care of. You just lie here and get better.”

Mutti gave me a pat on the hand, a kiss on the cheek, and a ‘see you tomorrow’ as she whirled Andy away in a whiff of her favourite rose-petal perfume.

Kez and Win arrived not long after Mutti cleared the room. They brought in a bunch of flowers from their little garden.

“Alex is feeding Riki. He’s not fretting at all,” said Kez. “He said to give you his regards.”

Well that was no consolation. What has the world come to when a person’s cat doesn’t even fret when a person gets shot and is in hospital. Or was it Alex that wasn’t fretting. And another thing. How come every old lady in a fifty kilometre radius knows this person is feeding my cat and now thinks he’s perfectly wonderful. He seems to have an ability to turn up at odd times – and, and, and… It’s too spooky. Spegal was right. It seems like I have more questions than answers about the charming Alex. What is it with that man?             

Win broke the chain of thought. She was still highly suspicious of one man, and it wasn’t Alex.

“You won’t believe what that Petscharnig man has done now,” she informed the ward at large. “He’s brought Kezia a new bike. What does he want to do? Kill her?”

Kez jumped in. “Kip doesn’t want people talking about killing, Win.”

They were still arguing when they left, stopping briefly to say goodbye.

I was exhausted from listening. I started to doze. A large shadow came over the bed. I looked up. Alex had come in after all.

“That seemed like a nasty bunch you were playing with, pretty lady.”

“Well,” I thought, “and how are you too?”

This was not the conversation I had in mind when I imagined him rushing to my side and leaning solicitously over the bed. But at least he had come in.

“I’ve got a few police contacts. I thought you might like some information on the game you busted in on. There was a bit of drug dealing happening, along with a nice line in stolen artefacts – the real thing, as well as some counterfeit stuff. Some of the supposedly authentic skulls he was selling weren’t human, they were orangutans.” I didn’t tell him that I knew about it.

“But what about Spegal? How was he involved?”

“Spegal had an incredible knowledge of snakes and their poisons. That’s why he went to Borneo in the first place. Montaigne made his acquaintance because of his own interest in them, especially the poisoning bits. He used Spegal as a courier for some of his artifacts and then hooked him into heavier involvement. It must have seemed like easy money to Spegal at first. Then he fell in love with you and desperately wanted to get out. Unfortunately, that didn’t endear him to his playmates. They would never have let him escape their clutches. After you, he was next on the hit list.”

“But why me? I wasn’t involved.”

“But you were. Apart from having contact with Vera, who was about to blow the whistle on Montaigne, you became involved with Spegal – or rather, Spegal became involved with you. With the effect you had on him, you became a serious threat. You made an honest man out of Spegal without even knowing it, but Montaigne did. Honest men are dangerous to the Montaignes of the world.”

Alex was speaking like a voice-over in a commercial or a TV soapie. It was like Spegal wasn’t a real person, and he was. He was very real. He might have been flawed, but he was my flawed Spegal. Tears welled up. Maybe Alex got the message. He took another tack. 

“Max Montaigne and his partner, Michael Dawson, were the major players. Montaigne was an ex-nuptial descendant of Roger Brooke, the white Rajah who ran the place in the 1800s. Roger had an affair with a local girl. That line was never recognized, however it left Montaigne with delusions of grandeur. Mike Dawson was a distant relative. Montaigne hooked him in.”

“Vera. The woman in the storm. Montaigne killed her. You have to tell the police.”

“They know. She was his wife. She was also trying to get away. It’s a pity she called on you for assistance. Along with his well-developed psychopathic tendencies, Montaigne was highly paranoid at the best of times. Her contact with you added to his suspicions that you were a danger.”

“But I wasn’t. I don’t even know why Vera contacted me for help.”

“It was probably coincidence. In Borneo, she thought you were someone who could help. There was something about a body under the walkway of the long house you visited. She lived there with Montaigne. Then she found you here, right when she was desperate.”

“He said they wouldn’t find the dart marks because of the scratches from the cyprus needles.”

“They found no evidence of blunt trauma, which would have occurred if she had been hit by a falling cyprus branch. The autopsy report said she was already dead when she was placed under the branches of one of the fallen trees. It would not have been long after her death, however, as the branches had left numerous cuts and scratches on her body. Among these scratches, they found a small cut that went deeper than the others. It was commensurate with that of the fine darts used to poison someone with a blow-pipe. The presence of strychnos was also found in the toxicology report.”

“But Spegal…”

“Spegal evened the score for Vera and saved your life. Montaigne is dead. Dawson is in custody. He wasn’t a killer, but he knew what was going on. He won’t be causing any problems for years to come.”

“When I went to Borneo, all I wanted was a short break from work. Poor Spegal, I can’t believe he was a criminal.”

“Some criminals have a nice side. After all, he loved you,” said Alex with a gentle smile. I was about to start the tears bit again when he continued.

“And there’s someone else who does, so get better really quick. He’s missing you.”

My heart bumped. Was Alex declaring himself.

“I thought having his picture might cheer you up. Take care, pretty lady.”

He handed me a small silver frame with a picture of Riki in it, patted me on the hand and left the ward.

Other visitors came in thick and fast. Dad brought in Emily and Matt. Emily had forgiven me for not supporting her in her efforts to get to the party. She heard it turned out to be a disaster. The boy she liked was with someone else all night and acted stupid. I didn’t know if that was because of his being with another girl or some other activity. Emily wasn’t saying.

“I’m so totes over him. Like he’s a dung beetle. I don’t even want to talk about him. I’ve met this really zoomy boy now. I know you’ll like him.”

Dad joined in before she could elaborate.

“Madeleine hopes you are better. She hasn’t quite got over the spider penis episode,” he said with a twinkle, “but Emily’s over that phase now, aren’t you Emily?”

Emily looked uncomfortable. Matt jumped to her rescue, handing me a box of chocolates.

“We bought these for you. Are you going to open them?” he asked. “They could go bad if you leave them too long.”

Thank God for small boys.

“They look lovely, Mattie. You open them for me.  Then you’d better offer them around. And have one yourself,” I added as an unnecessary after thought.

Matt did his best to distribute them; however a decent percentage disappeared into his mouth during the procedure. As they were leaving, Matt handed me the nearly empty box with a chocolatey grin.  

“I saved some for you,” he said, obviously pleased with his self- restraint.

I was choosing which of the three remaining species I would pick, when Serge arrived with a huge bunch of flowers from the clinic.

“There’s a herd of clinicians coming in later,” he warned me. “It’s not every day somebody from work gets shot. You’re quite a celebrity now.”

“Thank you Serge. You’re a real comfort to a girl. If I’d known my getting shot would have made such a welcome diversion, I would have arranged it earlier.”

He blushed. Probably for the first time in his life.

“I didn’t mean it that way, Kip. You’ve had a really terrible time and we all miss you.”

He hesitated for a moment. “I’m sorry about Spegal,” he blurted out. “I know I was a bit jealous of him, but underneath he was a decent fellow – in a strange sort of way.”

“Yes he was.”

“Maybe going on holiday isn’t good for you. Maybe you should stay in Australia. You’re a trouble magnet when you’re away from work. Maybe I should move in to look after you. Maybe you should marry me.”

His mobile beeped. Someone had sent him a text message. He quickly scanned it.

“I have to go, Kip. There’s a kid I know at the police station. I’ll be back. Don’t go away.”

I don’t believe it. I think I’ve just been insulted and proposed to, in the same sentence, and he’s running off before I can answer him. So much for looking after me. And anyhow, he shouldn’t have his mobile on in the hospital. He gave me a quick kiss on the forehead and a pat on the shoulder.

“It’s an emergency Kip. You understand.” I watched the beautiful Italian body go out the door. Unfortunately I think I do understand. I could scream. Well, actually I didn’t, because the next visitor would tell me off if I indulged in any dramatic behaviours. It was Auntie Lou.

“Hello Kip. Your mother told me you were in hospital. I suppose it’s all those criminal types you mix with at work. You should look after yourself better. You can end up not knowing what is normal.”

“I don’t have to work with criminal types to get confused about normal. I just have to look at my relatives,” I told her.

“No need to get hoity-toity, Miss. There’s nothing wrong with your family. It’s that job you do, whatever it is. Still, I hear you are very good at it.”

She turned to Cousin Fred, who was standing behind her holding a large parcel. He gave me a conspiratorial wink.

“I’ve brought you a nice present to cheer you up.”

She beckoned Fred forward.

I knew it would be another of her awful, bizarre presents. I was right. It was possibly even kinkier than she knew. Totally unbelievable. It was synchronicity at its worst. Fred undid the wrappings to expose a fish tank. It came complete with grotesque plastic flowers. Coloured rocks lined the bottom, along with a miniature wrecked ship and a castle. It was filled with water, and two goldfish were swimming around one of the major features, which was a laughing white skull with green plastic seaweed sprouting out the top of it.

“Fish are very calming, I hear,” Auntie Lou told me proudly.

I groaned. She had excelled herself without even knowing it.

There was no doubt about it. I needed a holiday.

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