After the evening meal, Jon and I joined Mad in the studio where she was rummaging in a large suitcase.
‘Ah! This is what I’m looking for.’ She held aloft a brown wig of short curls streaked with blond. ‘I never waste money on hairdressers. Wigs are best if you want to look glamorous. Try it on.’
The transformation was miraculous. My eyes deepened, mouth and chin grew smaller, nose bigger. ‘I fancy myself in this,’ I laughed. ‘What do you reckon, Jon?’
‘Sort of hippie-cute. Depends what you wear with it.’
‘Does it suit me?’
‘If you want to look like Harpo Marx with a huge honk. Certainly doesn’t hide your faults.’
‘Careful, Jon,’ laughed Mad. ‘Surely you know one’s lover has no faults?’
He shook his head in amazement. ‘You need glasses, Mad.’
I dragged him to his knees in a headlock.
‘It’s ideal for the purpose,’ Mad said equably, unperturbed by the fracas.
‘What purpose?’ he gurgled.
‘To make Peter look non-threateningly dippy.’
‘He already looks…aagh!’
‘Do you want a broken neck?’
‘Just kidding. You look scrumptious.’
‘Now, what about you, Jon?’ Mad mused. ‘That tawny mane has to go. What will it be? Skinhead?’
Protesting, but only from principle; most of us are glad of an excuse to change the way we look, Jon was shorn to the scalp. His eyes gleamed as he studied himself in the mirrors. ‘Brilliant! What do you reckon?’
‘It glows like a newly risen moon. Calls for tattoos, and lots of piercing through nose, lips and ears.’
‘Not to mention eyebrows and tongue.’
‘Don’t worry, we won’t.’
‘I’ll rub on some browning cream,’ said Mad. ‘Otherwise it’s obvious he’s just had it shaved.’
‘I reckon it was a mistake.’ My turn to cast doubt.
‘It does make him look rather criminal,’ Mad was pensive.
‘Mmm. I certainly wouldn’t have dragged him out of the drain if he’d looked like that the first time I saw him.’
‘But he does have an interesting head.’
‘If you’re into deformities.’
As with many charming, outgoing personalities, the reverse side of Jon’s character was deep insecurity. I caught his apprehensive frown and felt a rush of love. We reassured him with outrageous compliments and sorted through things to wear. I ended up in a white linen suit of Brian’s. It was a bit large but the bagginess added to the eccentric look. Cream walking shoes, steel-rimmed glasses and a slightly battered Panama hat completed the picture. Jon squeezed into skin-tight jeans, scuffed trainers, a multi-coloured waistcoat, and a choker of green glass beads.
‘One earring at least.’ Mad implored. Jon succumbed and sat, ears buried in plastic bags of ice while I prepared a needle, cork and flame. Mad looked in her trinket box for suitable jewellery and soaked them in alcohol. When he announced himself sufficiently numb, I held the cork behind his ear, sterilised the needle in the meths burner and plunged it three times into each ear. He hardly winced. Mad was ready and before he had time to protest, he was adorned with an assortment of rings, hooks and studs. As if in competition with the baubles, both ears turned bright red and began to swell.
‘The price of vanity, Jon. Dip them in antiseptic and keep the ice on. In half an hour you’ll have forgotten you were ever without them.’
Mirror sunglasses were almost gilding the lily.
‘I think I’m in love,’ he whispered half seriously, gazing at himself from every angle. ‘I’m irresistible. Isn’t there a danger I’ll be mobbed and raped if I go out?’
‘What do you reckon, Peter?’
‘I reckon we make a fascinating pair.’
‘Lucky we’re not trying to look like one.’
Wearing our disguises we joined the others. They were suitably impressed.
We had decided to start by spying because the only things we knew about MacFife were that he was rich, drove a Porsche, now owned the gallery, and had a canvas palace somewhere in the hinterland hills where he’d taken Frances for naughty weekends. Our plan was to spy on him while acting as though we didn’t know each other. That way we could watch each other’s backs. I’d earlier suggested dressing conventionally and trying to blend in, but Brian, an addict of crime fiction, had assured us that something completely different from normal would distract attention from any unconscious mannerisms that might otherwise give us away.
We walked around, sat down, stood and chatted to each other and tried to behave naturally in front of the family so they could suggest ways of remaining inconspicuous. Recognising someone has as much to do with posture and the way they hold their heads as knowing their facial features. That’s why it’s as easy to identify someone we know from behind as from the front. I tend to stand stiffly erect and walk with confident strides while gazing down my nose.
When our critics pointed this out, I practised hunching my shoulders slightly, shuffling just the smallest bit, not difficult as my ankle was still hurting, and tucking in my chin so I appeared to look up at people. I also cultivated the slightest of frowns, as though I wasn’t sure what was happening. The spectacles were discarded. They were Brian’s reading glasses and made me dizzy. He also suggested we try to copy the speech patterns of whoever we were talking to, thus avoiding speech recognition.
Jon is fluid. If you’re not watching carefully you get the impression that instead of walking he melts down and reassembles himself further down the room. By trying to copy my usual gait he became awkward and gangly. Not that anyone knew Jon that well; their only contact had been to bash him around before hog-tying. Only Frances had ever looked at him closely, and she was dead.
It was late, it had been a long enjoyable day, so we all climbed gratefully into our beds - the Alconas to sleep, Jon and I to mull over everything that could go wrong before falling into an exhausted slumber.
Monday the nineteenth of August dawned overcast, thundery, windy and cold. After breakfast, Brian removed the stitches, pronounced me fit and healthy and left with the kids for work and school. Mad telephoned the local car rental company and within half an hour a small hatch-back, insured for multiple drivers, had been hired in her name and delivered to the front of the house. Meanwhile we practised our walks, stuffed cotton wool into my cheeks and under Jon’s top lip, giving him a slightly buck-toothed look, slung a small rucksack over his shoulder, filled both it and my baggy pockets with ‘could be useful’ paraphernalia, and our disguises were complete.
After a quick morning tea we were ready to go. It was too cold to wear only the waistcoat, so Jon put on a psychedelic windbreaker of Der’s, and I carried a plastic raincoat. It was just before ten o'clock when I stopped the car a few blocks from the gallery.
‘I’ll go in and distract whoever’s in charge. When it seems safe, you come in and nose around.’
Jon looked thoughtful, nodded slightly and said slowly, ‘I’ve been thinking about what Brian said – you know, bread and butter; bacon and eggs; drugs and prostitution. The things that go together. I know we’ve no proof of either prostitution or drugs, but the way they treated you set me thinking - and all this ArtWorks nonsense could so easily be a front for something illegal.’
‘So… I’ve no idea how I’ll act or what I’ll say till the time comes. Just don’t freak out. OK?’
‘For god’s sake be careful. These are mean people.’
‘There’s nothing to worry about unless you start laughing and give yourself away. I might just go in and out like a gormless galah, but then again…’
‘I promise to stay in character. But be careful!’
With an impenetrable wink, he let himself out of the car and I drove on. I almost didn’t recognise the place. The council had given up trying to stop the inevitable, so the piles of rubble had gone leaving a clear view of the new river, now over a hundred metres wide as it flowed between the still-growing island and the rocks below the rear car park. The gallery, perched only fifty metres from the edge of the cliff, was as imposing against the darkening sky as it had been in brilliant sunlight.
I parked on the road in front, expecting twinges of fear, but instead feeling as though I was simply going back to work. Inside, only six of Mad’s drawings and eight of Bill Smith’s paintings remained. No new works had been added to the few Jon and I had hung. In the chilly air the walls looked undernourished. I was the sole patron and, as no one arrived to harass me, I pretended to browse until an elderly woman, bright red ringlets framing a mask of powder and paint, tottered towards me. A thigh length split in her turquoise brocade sheath exposed varicosed legs on wavering high heels. Clutching with scarlet talons at a lurex-spangled shawl, she offered smiling assistance. At least I think it was a smile, her teeth were bared, but it could have been in pain.
I enticed the crone to the furthest point from the entrance with chatter that suggested an interest in both her and the display, and kept her simpering while Jon sauntered in, looked in the storeroom, under the stairs, and then the office. It was too easy. Mad had to take the rest of her drawings away immediately. The security was abysmal.
‘What’s in here?’
Startled by the harsh nasal whine the woman spun round and snapped, ‘A staircase!’
‘Where’s it go?’
‘None of your business!’
‘Snappy old bitch,’ Jon ground out nastily. ‘They reckoned I could get some stuff here.’
‘Get out! Get out!’ she hissed, wobbling towards him. ‘Or I’ll call the police!’
‘Hey, hey, hey. There’s no need to be like that.’ Jon’s voice was silky, his mouth a leer as he removed his jacket, thrust his hips forward and caressed nipples and navel with his free hand until she was in front of him.
The woman’s mouth was a tight, twitching line.
Jon slid his fingers down the front of his jeans. ‘You don’t really want to call the cops. Not a good-time dame like you.’ He raised an eyebrow, gave a sardonic smile and rubbed suggestively at the bulge in his crotch.
She didn’t take her eyes off him. Neither did I.
‘A bloke at the pub told me to come here. Tough bugger.’ Jon described Scumble. ‘Told me I could get some stuff here. Said something about the… Arty display… or something.’
A flicker of doubt undermined the woman’s confident glare. ‘What do you mean… stuff?’
Jon closed one nostril and sniffed, ending with a leering wink and a repulsive clearing of throat as if ready to void a wad of phlegm onto the polished marble floor.
‘There’s nothing like that here,’ she snapped. ‘But if you don’t leave instantly I’ll go upstairs and get the owner.’
‘Yeah, you do that. Because the bloke also said that I’ve got something you guys want in exchange.’
Her sneer equalled his. ‘I can’t imagine someone like you would have anything to interest Mr MacFife.’
‘You reckon, do ya? What about these then?’ Unzipping his fly he flopped out an impressive penis with matching balls, before posing provocatively, hands on hips, mouth a mocking curl, slit eyes calculating.
‘I can’t imagine what you mean! I’m getting Mr MacFife,’ she said angrily, casting an apologetic glance over her shoulder at me.
I shook my head at the decadence of today’s youth and indicated with a conspiratorial nod that I’d keep an eye on the place. She scurried upstairs. Jon just as quickly zipped himself up and took off down the road.
She returned within a minute followed by MacFife, as suavely handsome as ever. The sight brought sweat to my back and armpits and a wave of nausea that threatened to undo me. Heart thumping, certain I was going to be recognised, shoved under a passing steamroller and crushed to death, I manoeuvred myself into an ill-lit corner.
‘He’s gone,’ wailed the woman, looking across at me questioningly.
My voice refused to function. The sides of my throat were so dry they’d stuck together.
‘He took off as soon as you went upstairs,’ I managed to croak with a helpless shrug before turning back to gaze with round-shouldered intensity at one of Bill Smith’s more obscure works.
MacFife barely wasted a glance on me. ‘Ian’s going to regret that big mouth,’ he snapped before dropping his voice. ‘That…. … a risk.’ I sidled closer, ears straining. ‘…time …..rid… …’ He swung round and started back up the stairs, stopping just out of sight. ‘Cherie,’ he called impatiently. She scurried over.
‘Would he be any good?’
‘Singing opera arias, you stupid bitch.’
Stung, she replied with hauteur, ‘Perfectly adequate. Rough and… disposable.’
‘He’ll be back. Send him straight up.’ MacFife disappeared.
The woman nodded and turned to me. ‘I do apologise. I can’t imagine what the dreadful young man was talking about. This is a respectable gallery.’
I smiled my sympathy.
‘The youth of today. I don’t know. No respect. No…sensitivity.’
I nodded sage assent.
‘A new exhibition is opening next week,’ she gushed, desperate to distract. ‘Come to the opening?’ Red-taloned claws proffered an embossed card.
I studied it. ‘Are you Cherie Culworth?’
‘Si, si,’ she simpered, pleased at my groaning recognition of the pun. ‘I’m the curator.’
‘Have you been with the gallery long?’
‘Oh… ages. I live upstairs – wonderful views. But enough of me, you handsome young man,’ she burbled coyly, laying a bony claw on my arm. ‘Is there any work here that interests you?’
Barely controlling an urge to slap her down, I constructed a collage of the best excuses I could remember for not buying anything, and shuffled towards the exit. As I opened the door, she repeated her invitation with a fluttering of mascara, and I assured her I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Jon was stamping his feet to combat the chill drizzle when I picked him up. We sat in the car with the heater on full blast.
‘A tough old bag,’ he said quietly.
‘The idea of drugs on the premises didn’t appear to astonish.’
‘Wasn’t too astonished by my dangly bits, either.’
‘I made up for her. Did you find anything interesting?’
‘There’s a display unit in the storeroom with about twenty of those kitsch paintings you told me about, so they’re obviously going ahead with whatever that scheme was. Nothing else. No bloodstains at the foot of the stairs, no sign of Patrick. Unless he’s up on the roof?’
‘Unlikely. I can’t imagine even a brazen turd like MacFife would keep him at the gallery.’
‘What happened when he came down? Were you nervous?’
‘Thought you would.’
‘One of these days I’ll beat the shit out of you.’
‘If only. No, seriously, do you think he recognised you?’
‘Didn’t take a second look. Mind you, I don’t suppose he was expecting to witness the resurrection. I tried to eavesdrop, but all I understood was something about a risk, he was mad at Scumble and they had to rid themselves of something. Could be Patrick, could be a poorly toilet-trained dog, could be Scumble. Then when he’d forgotten I was there, he asked if you’d be any good at it.’
‘And what did she say?’
‘Adequate – and disposable.’
‘Damned by faint praise. Chilling, though.’
‘Indeed. He said to send you up when you came back. That was some display, by the way.’
‘Wanna talk about it?’
‘Later, when I’ve had time to think.’
We drove into town through curving streets flanked by slumping, desolate, vandalised canal homes. The depressing sight didn’t, however, prepare me for the main shopping and business district. When the river mouth became plugged by debris, the entire flow had been redirected through the canal that ran under the entertainment complex and between the gigantic shopping centre and Kmart car parks. Within minutes it had burst its banks.
Towering apartment blocks on the foreshore had dammed the waters for nearly a day before their foundations collapsed and the resulting gigantic piles of rubble diverted the flow south along the main road, turning it into a swiftly flowing river until it burst through the dunes at the old sports ground. Then, blocked by a new island of debris, the torrent followed the coastline past the gallery before swinging out to sea after colliding with a rocky headland further south.
We parked on the top floor of the only remaining multi-story car park, got out and gazed; speechless. Scattered islands of twisted metal, fragments of walls and roofs, bits of cars, telephone and electricity poles and thousands of unidentifiable lumps, reared through a stinking mess of sand and mud - a swampy plain fringed by stagnant pools and sluggish turbid streams. Judging by the smell, no one had been able to isolate the sewage lines and a chunderous effluvium lingered.
I’d imagined a clean sweep. A grand flushing out of the old, decaying and cluttered entrails of commerce. But it was never going to be like that. This nauseating bog would take generations to recover anything resembling ecological health.
Gaggles of goggle-eyed tourists wandered. Barriers, detour signs and one-way systems jostled with notices directing potential and previous clients to the temporary offices of such and such establishment. They were going to be temporary for a mighty long time as far as I could see. Directly below, two workers in red overalls were loading a plastic body bag into the back of a van.
‘I wonder if all these people die of natural causes.’
‘You mean drowning?’
‘It’s certainly a great chance to get rid of the nagging wife.’
‘Or abusive husband.’
‘Or gormless kid.’
‘Or shaven-headed flasher.’
A few minutes were enough. Awed by the devastation and chilled by the wind, we returned to the relative warmth of the car.
‘When did you decide to flash the family jewels?’
‘As soon as I was sure the ugly old witch didn’t recognise me.’
‘Do you know her?’
Jon squinted out the window as though wondering whether to go on, smiled to himself, sighed and continued. ‘There are a couple of things I haven’t told you about my life in Brisbane. When I was sleeping rough with other street-kids, CC used to cruise around with a couple of heavies and offer some of us jobs.’
‘What sort of jobs?’
‘The first time, for fifty bucks I was taken to a large, empty room in an office block, and we set up a few fake pillars and curtains, scattered plastic-covered mattresses over the floor and changed all the light-bulbs to red. The second time, she asked me if I wanted to earn an additional hundred. I nodded as though I didn’t care one way or the other - it’s dangerous to seem too keen if you’re desperate - so she told me to strip off. When I baulked, she got impatient and said it was just to check I wasn’t covered in scabs and lice because she was organising an ‘Ancient Roman’ theme party for some rich people, and needed a ‘slave’ to hand round drinks and savouries. I’d never seen a hundred bucks all at once, so dropped my gear, was pronounced ‘adequate’ and one of the heavies fixed a fake collar and chain round my neck. Felt a bit stupid, but shit – a hundred bucks!
Some girls came and got into skimpy costumes, then half a dozen middle-aged blokes arrived, stripped off, wrapped sheets round their paunches, were introduced to their ‘slave-girls’ and sprawled on the mattresses. The heavies, dressed as slave drivers, served the meal. I was a drinks waiter. The ‘Romans’ drank too much, watched a strip tease, groped their girls and made a lot of noise.
After the food they got down to sex. The girls were all good lookers but the men! Fat, pasty, unhealthy-looking bastards. Made you chunder to look at them. Each time I went out to the kitchen, CC would tell me what to do next. Like… there was one idiot who wanted to be looked at, so I had to stand beside him and gawk as though I was interested while he dipped his wick. One of the heavies laid into one of the blokes with a fake whip while he screwed. That sort of thing.’
I stared at Jon with renewed respect. ‘Spicy.’
‘You aren’t shocked?’
‘Of course not. It sounds harmless.’
‘That’s what I thought, so I became a semi-permanent fixture at these… orgettes.’ He looked away and chewed on a thumbnail before continuing. ‘One night she told me to strangle a bloke while he was pumping away at his tart. Not really strangle, but pretend to. Apparently it makes for a more earth-shattering orgasm. CC said it was safer if I did it, because the girls sometimes got a bit carried away.’
‘That could pose a few problems.’
Jon grunted. ‘Yeah, but I hated straddling him and clutching at his fat, sweaty throat, watching his blubber quiver over a nice looking girl. But I wanted the money and it just seemed kinky, not evil or anything. But the last time, it was evil. There were hardly any lights and the girls were chained to rings in the floor or up against the wall.
They giggled a bit, I know they didn’t like it, but it paid double. The blokes were decked out in leather harnesses and spikes and carried whips and other instruments of torture – all fake Hell-Fire Club. I was given a pathetic little whip and told to flick here and there to spice things up. Lashing at their repulsive flab was almost pleasurable – pity it didn’t hurt.
‘Then one of the girls got hysterics and seemed to choke. They’d all been putting on an act, screaming and moaning and so on, but this one made your hair curl. CC rushed over, but the girl was dead. The fat prick had clubbed her head in with the butt of his whip as he orgasmed. I don’t know what happened then. We were hustled out, given a double pay packet and warned that we’d also end up dead if we told anyone. I believed her and made bloody sure I never saw her again.’
We sat in silence for a minute.
‘C. C. - Cherie Culworth.’ I showed him the invitation. ‘But surely she would’ve recognised you?’
‘That’s why I came on so aggressive at the start. I thought so too, but she didn’t have the faintest. Why should she? It’s a couple of years ago. I was a long-haired young innocent from the bush. She must have gone through dozens of blokes and girls since then. We weren’t people to her, just bodies she could market.’
‘But you must agree it’s a hell of a coincidence.’
‘I read once that during our lives we meet a relatively small number of interconnected people. I knew Max. Max was in business with Frances. Frances knew MacFife. MacFife knew Cherie who traded in street-kids. After my brush with Frances, I became a street kid – it’s not so strange.’
‘You reckon she’s continuing her career?’
‘You saw the professional interest when I flashed my cods.’
‘Why did I do it?
‘I don’t know. Bravado? Making sure it really was her – she’s aged a lot– and the germ of an idea.’
‘I don’t like the sound of that.’
‘Suppose she still organises orgies, for MacFife. If I was there, I might learn something useful.’
‘Names of people whose arms we could twist, who might be prepared to grass on him to save their reputations. I could sow dissent amongst the troops… I don’t know… Anything.’
‘You’ve started well, dumping Scumble in the shit.’
‘He’s going to get more than that,’ Jon said quietly. ‘When he told me you were dead… When you told me he murdered Max… ’
In the safety of the Alconas house it had seemed simple. Find Patrick and incriminate MacFife. But of course nothing was simple. I was out of my depth, sinking fast, and took several deep breaths to ward off panic.
‘Do you still like me?’
‘Don’t ever doubt it. But I don’t want you taking risks. Forget the orgy.’
He gave a relieved nod then perked up. ‘But you haven’t told me what you thought of my act.’
‘Was it an act?’
He grinned. ‘That’ll keep you on your toes. Maybe I’m really in league with MacFife and it’s an elaborate plot to involve you so deeply that you’ll end up a sex-slave of the organisation for the rest of your tortured little life.’ He uttered a spine-chilling cackle and I almost believed him.
‘How’s the expense account?’
It ran to fish and chips and a can of fizzy sugar-water, as far from the stench of the muddy mausoleum as possible.
There had been no listing under MacFife in the phone book, I had no idea where any of Max’s other properties were situated, and we had no real leads. Where to begin? I telephoned Hank and gave him Cherie Culworth’s name. He said he’d find out what he could about her.
As to the whereabouts of MacFife’s mountain eyrie, as it was obviously an architect’s one-off, he suggested a land agent. I spruced myself up and entered one of the few up-market-looking real estate agents left in town. An overweight and over-scented young man thrust a soft hand at me.
‘Aaron Hawky!’ he brayed. ‘At your service.’
‘I’ve been looking at the destruction - I had no idea the flooding had been so severe,’ I effused. ‘It must have been terrible for you!’
This brilliant conversational gambit spared me further effort, apart from occasional gasps of admiration as Aaron recounted his involvement in the recent horrors that proved him to be the bravest and most resourceful of men. When the wellspring of conceit finally dried, I confided that I was an architect from Melbourne, keen to see the Sunshine Coast design sensation that had astounded the architectural fraternity a few years previously. His ears pricked and I had merely to utter the words “canvas palace with flags, on hills overlooking the coast,” to set him jiggling with excitement.
‘I know it! My boss reckons it’s a monstrosity, but I like it. Just wait till I tell him it won awards. My wife loves it too!’
‘I could tell you had good taste the minute I walked in the door,’ I gushed. ‘I suppose you have to waste most of your time on those sad little brick and tile tombstones littering the land.’
Heaven-turned eyes accompanied a magnificent shrug of frustration. ‘That’s the way of the world.’
‘Perhaps when they rebuild the washed-out areas there’ll be a little more artistry?’ I ventured.
He lowered sorrowful eyes to mine. ‘Only if it’s the cheaper option.’
We smiled in mutual dismay at the tyranny of profit.
‘Would it be possible for you to give me directions to the house?’
He whipped out a photocopied map of the area, dragged a transparent yellow line along the roads we should take, placed a cross at the spot we were heading for, and handed it across. It was as simple as that. Pride left no room for concern that we might be invading another’s privacy, and I made a mental note never to employ him as an estate agent.
Jon followed at a discreet distance and we met at the car. He was champing at the bit, having had a policeman frisk him for drugs and ask his business, and a skinny girl of about fourteen ask him if he wanted a fuck. Only twenty bucks.
‘Were you tempted?’
‘To chuck her in the river.’
‘You never know, you might get to like it.’
‘Might get lice and all the rest as well.’
‘So that’s why you refused?’
‘Of course. Why else?’
‘Everyone ogling my body?’
‘Ogling’s fine. It’s when ogling becomes abuse that I worry.
‘Me too. Let’s swear to defend each other to the death.’
He grinned, let out a loud whoop and shouted, ‘You’re on! I’ve always wanted to do this.’ He opened his pocket-knife and nicked his thumb just above the nail. I held out my hand and he did the same to me. We squeezed out a few drops and licked each other’s.
‘For ever,’ we whispered earnestly before bursting into laughter at the absurd, yet profound sincerity underpinning the schoolboy pledge.