There had been a moon earlier on. A scimitar moon, Pete Davis had once heard it called. A curved blade of white light on a bed of black velvet.
Black velvet. Jesus.
Now the only light came from the watch lamps which Manny and Forensics had laid out: a fat, yellow squadge of light that ran down the bank from his car and settled on the dark water at the lake’s edge. Manny – Manolis Papa – was his work colleague, and the only real friend Constable Pete Davis still had in this dump.
The lamps lit the area where the bundle had been found, snagged on some reeds. A young couple had been out walking their dog, taking in the sunset, and they’d Triple-0’d on the boy’s mobile. Manny had been first to the scene. By then it was chaos, he said. The girl’s black labrador was chasing ducks all over the shallows, the blue shawl in which the bundle was found had been partly unwrapped, and the girl had vomited on the fucking thing. Un-be-lievable!
His first instinct, Manny said later, had been to rip into the girl, but she’d already seen the anger in his face.
‘We rang you,’ she’d said, retreating before him. ‘It’s not our fault we found it.’
It was dusk by the time Davis got there. Manny had finished staking out a crime scene and salvaging what evidence could still be salvaged. The cold was rising off the water and Manny was shivering from splashing about in it for the previous hour. When the station Commander arrived and ordered Manny home, it didn’t take a genius to work out who was going to draw the short straw. The night watch. Yet again.
Still Davis could hardly complain. Manny was a family man, after all. He had a wife, kids, a hot shower and dinner waiting for him at home. While stripeless Constable Pete Davis had barely started in on his punishment.
‘Never know – maybe sumpin I c’n do for you, eh?’ the black girl at the counter had suggested. After she’d told him what he could do for her.
Pete Davis had still been a Senior Constable back then. He’d come to this place on the back of a promotion, hoping to make Sergeant in three, maybe four years, and then get posted on somewhere decent. All he had to do in the meantime was keep his nose clean. How hard could that be?
‘It’s already in the charge book, luv,’ he’d told her. ‘I can’t do anything once it’s in the book.’
That wasn’t true, it wasn’t in the charge book. It should have been by then. It would need to be by the end of his shift. He looked at the large black and white clock on the Station House wall behind her.
He knew her, of course. He’d spotted her the first day he arrived in town. She was in the supermarket, buying lollies for a mob of kids, who were milling around her, their long fingers plucking at her dress. How old was she? Seventeen? Eighteen? Christ, it was hard to tell. She could be anywhere, he guessed, between eighteen and twenty-three. He’d seen her a few times after that first day and always smiled at her. She’d never smiled back.
She was smiling at him now, though. From under black brows. One thonged foot twisted this way and that on the linoleum floor. The smile, the twist of her foot, her leg, her hip, could be signalling shyness. Something told him otherwise.
Not long after he’d arrived in town, he’d stood in a queue in the Post Office behind her. Her shoulders were bare. Usual thongs, cheap cotton shift, spaghetti straps, no bra. He’d breathed in, letting the smell of her sweat and the cocoa butter in her skin come to him. And along with it had come a sudden painful rush of childhood. A swarm of small creatures, boys and girls, running wild on a station – different breeds, different colours, white, black, yellow, brindle, the five slanted, tawny kids of the Malay cook and the two Chink kitchen maids all mixing together, teeming like bush rats though the homestead, the outbuildings, the kitchens, the stockyards, the blacks camps, sharing everything, scents, skins, sweat, germs and, above all, games.Games riding stock animals, games by the river, swinging on ropes out over the water, secret games of show-and-tell – and show-and-don’t-tell – games that kids in towns and regular schools never got to hear of. Until the day he turned eleven, and his mother, without warning, blew the whistle. Sounding full-time on all their games. His. His father’s.
He’d hated town, Toowoomba, school. In his first year he’d run away three times, but they always knew where he was headed and dragged him back.
The girl had shuffled forward in the queue at that moment, breaking into his thoughts. He’d looked around quickly, wondering who’d been reading his mind. The Post Office clerk behind the counter, a pimply boy of eighteen, met his eye. Might even have winked at him. He kept his own eyes off the girl after that, simply breathing.
‘Heaps of them yellas round here,’ the pimply boy had bragged. To the newcomer in town, when Davis had finally made it to the counter, and the girl had gone.
‘That right?’ he’d said back, and frowned. He handed the boy a form – his details, Christine’s, the two boys’. ‘I’m just here to organize the delivery of mail.’
‘Some of them still camp out,’ the boy had gone on, ignoring his frown. As if some connection – some kind of complicity even – had been established between them. ‘By the river, or on the old Reserve.’
‘You don’t say.’ He’d fixed his gaze coldly on the boy until he blushed and was forced to look away.
‘In the charge book, or not,’ now it was the girl who was offering helpful advice, ‘you could jus rip it out, cou’nt ya?’
The yella wasn’t right, either. On a school tour of Government House he’d once seen gifts presented by the Queen. One was a smooth metal dish, so smooth it begged to be touched. Plate gold, the card in the glass case said. Even today he couldn’t say exactly what colour plate gold was, but it wasn’t yellow.
‘Every page is numbered. You can’t just tear one out.’
Her eye broke from his. She dropped her head. A pink thong pivoted and squealed once on the resistant linoleum surface of the floor. There was no one else in the office.
‘’Portan man,’ he thought she said. To the floor. ‘Police can do anything he want.’
‘Look, there’s nothing I can do. He was speeding, and he was drunk,’ he began to tell her again. But she wasn’t finished.
‘C’n have anything he wants.’
Her eyes came up to his again. Black. Not smiling no more. He felt the blow of her look in the centre of his chest.
‘Everybody want sumpin, eh?’
He stood, breathing again, and spread his fingers on the counter.
‘What’s your name?’
‘That your real name, or your town name?’
‘Real name.’ A quick smile. That was shy this time. ‘Same like water lily, eh?’
‘Lily, did your father tell you . . . did he ask you to come?’
She shook her head.
The clock behind her loudly ticked away the minutes to the end of his shift.
‘Scratchim name outa charge book, nobody gonna know then, eh?’ She wasn’t going to accept no for an answer. Or believed that he wasn’t.
‘But, Lily, people do know. I know. You know.’
‘Me?’ her astonishment was genuine. ‘I not tellin no-one. Bout anythin.’
Twenty-three, he guessed. It was the outfit, the gestures, that made her seem much younger. The downcast eyes, the twisting of her whole body on one ankle, the girlish pink thongs.
‘Jus goin now,’ she said. And stood. The best part of a minute passed before he spoke again.
‘Dunno. Down the lake nice now, eh?’
‘The lake? Why the lake?’
‘Dunno. Fishin. Swimmin maybe.’
Water washed over gold plate. As he looked on.
‘Swimmin, n’ things.’
Every hour or so someone checked on him. About nine a patrol car cruised by – Watts, his colleague, the Station’s other junior constable – bringing coffee, a cold burger and chips. Standard police issue for a vigil. At ten, then again at midnight, he was checked on again. On his car radio this time.
‘You weren’t sleeping out there, by any chance?’
‘Like a baby.’
He caught the swift intake of Manny’s breath, followed by a silence while they both weighed what he’d just said. Without intent.
‘You understand something like this, Pete?’ Manny’s mood had shifted down. ‘How people can do something like this?’
Manny’s own family was Greek. Everything revolved around family for him. His mother, father, his wife Helen, his kids.
‘Pete?’ he said again. When there’d been no answer.
‘People feel they’re in a corner.’
‘Yeah, but there’s always a better answer than this. There’s gotta be. . .’ For a time there was only radio static between them. ‘Pete?’
‘Yeah, mate, I’m here.’
‘I’m finishing up now. You want me to swing by? Bring coffee or something?’
Manny and he were still close. Not as close. For a while after it had all happened he’d continued to swing by their place for a beer, a coffee, coming off shift. Or on a weekend, after he’d dropped the boys back to Christine, and an empty night was opening up in front of him. Manny understood all this. Helen was okay too, always greeted him with a brightish, ‘Hi, Pete’. Set out chips and nuts if he and Manny were having beer, olives if it was a glass of wine. It was what she didn’t say that counted. Didn’t ask about. Didn’t reminisce about. When the four of them had once been so close. He knew she kept up with Christine, but never mentioned the fact, and after a while – when there were more and more things not to mention – he stopped swinging by. Manny would still ask him in for a beer if their shifts coincided and they were sharing a ride. But it was a formality, not a offer he could accept. They both understood that.
‘Nah, mate, I’m okay. It’s after midnight, Helen’ll be expecting you home.’
‘Watts said he brought you something.’
Junior Constable Watts. Nineteen. A raw kid, just starting out. And now his equal, and – who knew? – a future rival. It wasn’t the kid’s fault. He was just trying to fit in, be accepted as one of the team.
‘Yeah, coffee, a burger. I’m sweet.’
‘You didn’t take a thermos?’
Their conversations these days had as many holes as a used target. For a stake-out, a night-long watch, Christine had always made sure he was properly kitted out. Sandwiches, a blanket, a thermos of hot coffee. A stack of his favourite music disks to keep him company.
‘I got a lakeful of water out here, remember?’
‘Okay,’ Manny laughed. He wouldn’t press it, his laugh said. Days were, Pete would always be pressed to eat, drink, take a plate of something. It wasn’t hard to imagine the conversations, the quarrels that must have gone on in Manny’s home – Helen feeling awkward, divided, Manny protesting, defending him but in the end wanting peace. Still, imagine it, a Greek not pressing you to stay. To have a drink, a bite to eat.
‘So, what do I put in the book – No incidents? Nothing to report?’
‘Just me and the ducks, Manny, minding our own business.’
Manny laughed again. Then was quiet. He’d be writing, updating the report sheet.
‘There,’ he said when the notes were finished. ‘I’ve spared them the ducks.’ He was about to switch off.
‘This made the News yet?’
‘Not yet. Coroner’s suppressing it till the morning. He wants to see the site first before the next lot of labrador elephants trample all over it.’
‘They say what it was?’
Manny cast about. For the point of this question.
‘A girl. Six, maybe eight days. Why?’
‘The blue wrap. Made me wonder if it was a boy. You get to thinking, sitting on your arse out here all night. You know?’
‘You sure you don’t want company?’
‘Nah, mate. Get home.’ He was the one moving to switch off now.
‘Don’t forget,’ Manny warned him. ‘Coroner will be out there at sparrow fart. Six sharp, he said. You know what the bastard’s like, so set your watch in case.’
‘I’ll be awake.’
‘Set it anyway.’
‘Appreciate it, Manny.’
‘Say hi to the ducks for me, will you?’
This is an extract from ‘Vigil’, a short story that appears in Six by John Clanchy, published by Finlay Lloyd, 2014. This extract has been published in Verity La with permission from Finlay Lloyd and John Clanchy.