A brief excerpt from Cerise Noire
Woolloomooloo - Saturday 12th September 1992
I walked away from the Woolloomooloo waterfront, took a left, and ended up at the bottom of McElhone Stairs. Memories of how we used to meet at the top; smoke drifting above her head as the corner of her mouth curled in that sardonic smile. For a full minute I stood and remembered some of those times, briefly wondered if she was sitting and waiting on that top step with her back leaning against the wall. I put my foot on the first step, almost started to climb before turning away knowing how stupid I was being. At the top of those steps lay the road to Kings Cross and a painful death for me if I was spotted. Even at the bottom I felt vulnerable, as if danger was close by.
The cold night air poured down the worn stone steps and worked its way right into my skin. The moon was full, and seemed to pointing directly at me, like a universal torch lighting me up for all to see. I moved into the shadows, leaned against the rough, moss covered wall, slid a cigarette from the pack and placed it between my lips. My fingers trembled, the matches were damp. Three times I tried to get a match to light, cursed and tried again. There was a movement, then a metallic click beside my head, followed by a blinding flash. A flame moved to the end of my cigarette, and a voice said, ‘You got one of those for me, handsome?’
I lit up from the slim, gold lighter, then said. ‘What are you doing here, Polly?’
She took a cigarette from the pack I offered. ‘Just on my way home. Not thinking of going to The Cross are you, Rick? I heard Ray Peterson is looking for you. Didn’t sound good.’
I took a step away from the wall, then said, ‘Your place is down by the causeway, isn’t it?’
Even in the dull yellow streetlight I could see a frown form in her otherwise attractive face. ‘Just the other side of the flyover. Why?’
‘I’ll walk with you.’
‘Will it get me killed?’
‘If anyone spots us, just say you were turning me in.’
She let out a short, cynical snort, looped her arm through mine and we started walking west along Foul Street. Away from the steps; away from Kings Cross.
‘Haven’t seen you around for a while, Rick. Been away again?’
‘Just getting some sea-air. Are you still working shifts at The Dog & Duck?’
‘There and Ronnie’s Place. That’s where I’ve been tonight. Supposed to have left at eight, but Meagan was late, as always. So here I am quarter to eleven on my way home.’
‘You can use the overtime.’
‘Hah! You think Lennie pays OT? You’re a funny man, Rick Stone.’
‘That’s why I have so many friends.’
She seemed to be thinking about that for a while, then said, ‘What happened to piss of Ray Peterson enough to want to kill you?’
I figured she’d know; all the Kings Cross regulars would have heard by now. Ray Peterson was the chief enforcer for Gary Mitchell, who in turn, was an underworld freelance Mr Logistics. Mitchell took care of problems for Johno Brookes, who at that time was the Boss of the Cross. Ray always struck me as being borderline psychopath, or is it sociopath? Either way he’s not a guy I ever wanted to get wrong with. Ray commanded a small army of muscle on the street, and was probably the most feared man in Kings Cross.
I said, ‘He thinks I might have dogged on him.’
‘And did you?’ she asked in a matter of fact way.
I shrugged, flicked the cigarette stub away. ‘You know me better than that, Polly. Ray’s looking for someone to blame for that ecstasy bust in Pittwater. It was probably one of his own guys being careless with his mouth, and now Ray’s taking heat from Brookes, and the cops are looking at him. It’ll blow over. The truth always comes out in the end.’
‘And the truth is?’
‘The truth is that I didn’t know anything about it. I haven’t been mixed up in anything like that in the past decade, not since I got my PI licence. And even back then I was only on the fringe. I’m clean and running my own life. The word on the street is that I was seen talking to the jacks not long after being seen talking with Horse, who was one of those arrested and is now in the safekeeping of our fine police force. Horse approached me about getting a motor for him, the jacks wanted to know what I’d been taking to Horse about.’
‘What did you tell them?’
‘The truth. I had nothing to hide. Horse heard that I did a bit of work for the car dealer, Tommy Tucker. Thought I could get him a deal. Thing is, I haven’t done any work for Tommy for ages. This’ll all blow over.’
‘What are you going to do, Rick? You going away for a while until things cool off for you?’
‘That’d be the smart thing to do.’
She gave a light snort and said, ‘So you’re staying?’
‘Sure I’m staying.’ We walked in silence for a while, eventually I said, ‘When was the last time we did this, Polly?’
‘You mean walk along the Woolloomooloo waterfront, or trade insults?’
‘I was thinking of late night strolling, enjoying each other’s company.’
‘Let me think… oh that’s right, it was just before you disappeared for a year without so much as kiss my cute arse.’
‘Come on, don’t get mad again, Polly. I thought we’d gone over that. I had no choice. And I came back didn’t I?’
‘Sure you did.’
‘And it’s not like we were an item.’
‘No, but a “see you round” would have been nice.’
We walked in silence for a while, then she said, ‘What were you doing there tonight… at the bottom of McElhone Stairs?’
‘Waiting for you to come and light my cigarette, Polly. What else?’
Her unblinking eyes penetrated me for the truth. ‘She’s gone, Rick. Katie’s gone. You can’t spend the rest of your life alternately running away to sea, and moping around Woolloomooloo waiting for a ghost. It’s been seven months now.’ She watched me, waiting for an answer. When it didn’t come, she said, ‘Did the cops find anything more, or have any suspects?’
‘No,’ I said with more edge than necessary. ‘Neither did I. I drew a blank at every line of inquiry. It was like she was murdered by a spirit.’ My jaw clenched in that now familiar way. It always did when I thought about Katie; thought about how she was stabbed to death, and there was not a trace of evidence.
I was lost in thoughts of loss and savage revenge when Polly said, ‘What will you do… about Ray?’
‘I’ve been thinking about that, and I’m going to front him. Tell him that it wasn’t me that dogged on him.’
‘Sure that’s a good idea?’
‘No. But’ I’m going to do it anyway.’
‘I thought so.’
When we crossed the almost deserted road and approached her apartment, she slowed and asked, ‘Have you eaten?’
‘You going to invite me in?’
‘It’s a bit late for eating out, and I’m not getting caught with you in a restaurant anyway, I’d be guilty by association.’ She thought for a moment, then said, ‘Do you fancy Indian takeaway?’
‘Sure, Indian would be great. I’ve hardly eaten all day.’
She unlocked the door to her apartment, stepped aside to let me in and said, ‘Make yourself at home. There’s beer in the fridge.’ She turned back toward the street and said over her shoulder, ‘I’ll be back in twenty minutes. Korma alright for you?’
I answered with a tip of the chin, then stood in the doorway watching her walk back across the road.
I’d known Polly Sparrow for years. We were close for a while, about eight or ten years back, but our lifestyles didn’t make for a normal relationship. She’d always worked around Kings Cross, and for a while, so had I. For her it had been dancing, then bar work as she slid into her thirties. She was still a looker and kept herself trim, but dancing in clubs was for the young. We met during my brief spell as a club bouncer. But just as Polly abandoned the pole, I moved into a less physical life myself, and we drifted apart. We remained friends, and she still called me up every couple of weeks while I was in Australia. The rest of the time I was ocean sailing and well out of reach of phones.
The door needed a hard shove to close properly, the effect of years of neglect and too much paint. I walked up the wooden stairs that were once painted green, but were now almost worn almost bare by a thousand tired feet.
I hadn’t been there before, but soon found the fridge, cracked a beer and flopped into an armchair. There was a short bookshelf containing mainly crime thrillers and mysteries, a cluttered table with two hardback chairs. I stood again and looked around, curious to see how she lived now. The bathroom was behind the first door I opened. When I pulled the switch cord there was the buzz of a tired florescent that flashed twice before flooding the room with hard white light. The room was clean and orderly. Across the hall was the bedroom; again, clean, orderly and more feminine than I remember her being when we lived together. Perhaps she was growing up, settling down. Maturing. The small kitchen area was sparsely stocked. I figured she spent most nights eating out or hauling takeaways home. From the bookshelf I took a copy of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, sat back in the armchair and started reading.
When an hour passed and she still wasn’t home, I left the apartment and went looking for her. After crossing the road as she’d done an hour before, I followed the dimly lit street that I knew would end up on Bourke Street.
Flashing blue lights reflected in the windows of a house as I turned the first corner. Faces peered out from behind the glass. I stayed close to the wall and waited, expecting Polly to walk down the road carrying a bag of food.
A host of scenarios ran through my head. Maybe it was a car crash and she was a witness, maybe someone had fallen and she was there helping them.
All these possibilities ran through my mind, but what kept me leaning against that wall was fearing it was her, wondering if someone had seen us together, and that she now lie damaged on the ground… or worse.
There was a man walking away from the scene on the other side of the road. I slipped back around the corner, waited a ten-beat, then walked out and crossed the road.
As I drew level with him I said, ‘What’s the rumpus?’
He looked at me for a second, shrugged and said, ‘Another prossie murder from the sounds of it.’ He walked on.
‘Wait. What do you mean, another?’ He glanced at me over his shoulder, but kept going.
More blue lights bounced off the buildings as I walked toward the police cars. There was a group of uniformed officers and medics gathered around the open doors at the rear of the ambulance.
Yellow and black crime-scene tape stretched from one side of the narrow road to the other, holding back groups of curious residents. I joined them, listening to the buzz of gossip. Another young woman… he’s done another… must be the same one.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked a middle-aged woman in a housecoat and slippers.
‘Seems like another woman murdered,’ she said with more excitement than was appropriate.
‘Another? I asked.
‘Don’t you watch the bloody news?’
‘I’ve been away for a while.’
‘You must’ve. It’s been all over the bloody telly for weeks now. Both of them single women late at night. Makes ya wonder.’
‘Wonder what?’ I said with a touch of anger.
She looked at me then back at the stationary ambulance.
I ducked under the tape and strode toward the ambulance. ‘I think it might be a friend of mine,’ I said as a uniform held his arm out to stop me.
Before I could protest, a familiar voice came from my left, from the group at the back of the ambulance.
‘What brings you here, Rick Stone?’
The uniform looked towards the plain-clothes detective who nodded. ‘It’s okay, let him through.’
It was Alex Wilson, Detective Sergeant Alex Wilson of the notoriously corrupt Kings Cross division. Wilson had been at kings Cross as long as I had. When I first started working there, he was a rooky constable walking the beat along the Golden Mile. In those days we had what you might call a working relationship with the cops. For instance, if a new face showed up looking to make a name for himself and upset the status quo, we’d load him up with a few grams and give the likes of Alex Wilson an easy lift, and in turn he’d owe us a favour. It worked for them, worked for us, and worked for Kings Cross, keeping it free of the loose cannons and fly-by-nights.
‘The victim might be someone I know, Alex. Have you got a name?’
‘You know I can’t release that information, especially to a PI.’
‘Is it Polly Sparrow?’ I asked.
When his expression changed I knew it was her, and wondered if she died as a result of being seen with me? Maybe they’d tried to get my location from her?
‘How’d she die?’
‘Come on, Rick, I can’t give you anything this early, you shouldn’t even be here.’
‘But it is her… it is Polly?’
‘It looks like another,’ said a young detective before Alex could answer. He was walking towards us, chin tipped up and a confident stride.
‘Another what?’ I asked.
He looked at me with barely hidden disdain. ‘And you would be?’
‘Stone, Rick Stone. PI,’ I said, and held out my hand. He looked at it, then shook briefly and muttered, ‘DC Rod Blane. What’s your interest?’
‘It’s okay, Rod, I know him,’ Alex said. ‘Me and Rick Stone go back a long way.’
When I turned back to say something to Alex, a flood of relief hit me as I saw Polly talking with a uniformed police officer about fifty feet away.
‘See you around,’ I said, and clapped Alex Wilson on the shoulder as I walked toward where Polly was speaking with the uniform.
I walked over, laid my hand on the small of her back and said, ‘What happened?’
Before she could answer, the uniformed officer said, ‘Are you her husband?’
‘A friend. What happened?’
‘Ms Sparrow is helping with our inquiry. If you wouldn’t mind waiting while I finish taking a statement please sir.’
Polly handed me the plastic bag containing our Indian Takeaways, smiled, then turned back to the cop. When I took a step back, he looked at me, as if he might have recognised me, but then continued questioning Polly.
We walked back to her apartment, her arm looped through mine, her head down, her face serious. I didn’t ask her anything, just kept her close and walked fast. Listening to the last five minutes of her statement to the cops told me enough. She’d been second on the scene of a grisly murder with a blood spattered corpse behind a rubbish skip.
Back at her apartment, we zapped the food in the microwave, and I half-filled a tumbler with Scotch and handed it to her. She took a large swallow. I put the food on plates and we sat facing each other in leather armchairs.
She took another slug of scotch, picked up her fork, and said, ‘This old guy walking his dog found her. Seems like the dog smelled the blood, sniffed around the back of the dumpster and found the body. Least that’s what I heard the cops saying.’
‘Did you see the body?’
She scooped up some korma, and nodded.
Her eyes held mine as she chewed and swallowed. ‘A lot of blood. Looked like her clothes were ripped.’
‘Sorry. Sorry you had to go through that. I should have gone for the food instead of you.’
She nodded again, then lifted her glass indicating I should refill, which I did. She wasn’t doing anything in particular to make me feel guilty; I did anyway. Had she gone five minutes earlier, it could have been her lying in a pool of blood behind a skip.
‘Wrong place, wrong time,’ she said. ‘Story of my life.’
‘Did you touch her? Check for a pulse?’
‘No, of course not. Why?’
‘There’s a smear of blood on your shirt sleeve,’ I said nodding toward her left arm.
Her face flushed when she looked at it, then she got up, pulling the shirt off as she walked toward the bathroom. I heard the washing machine start, then saw her cross naked to the bedroom. She came back into the dining area wearing a clean top and skirt. It’d rattle her, and was understandable that she’d want to get rid of all traces and wash away the memories of such a horrible event.
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