Side Window

My name is Kath and I regard myself as a new millennium woman. I live in Fountain Gate which is renowned for its shopping centre and the fact that we had the first Melbourne Krispy Kreme donuts franchise. I have a part time job at the chemist, and I lead a rich and fulfilling life as a mother to Skye Rose and Meaghan, and a grandmother to young Jack who looks just like his grandfather, God rest his soul.

Over the years, I’ve tried to keep myself young, or at least young-at-heart, with a good beauty routine; a daily walk with my Schmoodle. A romantic flirtation with Frank from bowls does wonders for the complexion and I also get my chakras aligned regularly which, according to my Skye Rose, is good for my karma. Or something like that.

I’m a woman who minds her own business – there’s nothing worse than a sticky beak. I do like to keep an eye out however, but only because it is my civic duty to my Neighbourhood Watch group. And I pride myself on the fact that if anyone in my street was broken into, I would be able to tell the police exactly whodunit. That’s if anyone was ever broken into. And if the police actually asked me.

Just the other day, when I was passing my lounge room window, I saw Rita from next door leaving home an hour earlier than she usually does for work. And while I might have wondered what she was up to, not being a sticky beak, I certainly wouldn’t have asked her or talked about it to anyone else, except for Giselle at the chemist who’s so discreet, it’s like she’s not even there.

Anyway, ten minutes after Rita left, a dark car pulled up to their house with a registration number that I noted down on my jotter, but I certainly didn’t wonder what those two rough-looking men were up to, visiting Rita’s lay-about husband, Bill. Hasn’t had a job since 1979. Always on about injuring his back when he worked on the docks – or so I’ve heard on the grapevine. Not that I take any notice.

My side window faces Rita and Bill’s front door and I have a very good view of what goes on. I went about my business, which luckily kept me on the left side of my house, the side closest to Rita’s. And I must say, I didn’t like what I heard –banging and yelling. I’m pretty sure the yelling was coming from the visitors, not Bill, whose voice was kind of raspy.

I set up my ironing board in the laundry and did a spot of ironing. Through the open laundry window, I heard a most interesting snippet of conversation. The two thuggish men demanded something from Bill – it sounded like give us the money and we’ll give you the tape. Bill sounded none too pleased.

All of a sudden, the two chaps stopped yelling and stomped down the hallway towards Bill’s front door. I quickly set the iron upright and made my way to the lounge room window. Bill’s front door burst open and the two scruffy-looking men hurried down the steps, out onto our street and jumped into their car. I checked the registration on my jotter; I had written it down correctly.

I strained my eyes to look into the darkened entrance way and I could see Bill, in the front doorway. His left eye was swollen and I was quite certain that one of the visitors had hit him. I made a note on my jotter of the time and wrote a detailed description of each of the men. The shorter of the two men looked vaguely familiar, and even though I wracked my brain, I couldn’t think where I’d seen him before.

I repeated all of this to Giselle at work last Thursday. Not to gossip, mind you, but rather to use Giselle as my sounding board. Skye Rose did a course at the TAFE on sounding boards. She says they’re the ‘must-haves’ of the new millennium.

Even though there were some mighty fine comings and goings next door, you could have knocked me over with a feather when Bill was found yesterday evening dead in the fish pond in their backyard by Rita – whose screaming and screeching could have been heard from Upper Beaconsfield.

I raced over in my slippers and dressing gown, a chenille one I’ve had for years that I would have replaced if I’d found anything remotely as good. I ran up their driveway and followed the direction of the commotion.

There she was, hysterical, trying to get poor Bill out of the fishpond by a limp arm. I ran to the other side of him and grabbed his other limp arm and together, we dragged him onto the path. He flopped like a dead weight, which I suppose he was; Rita jumped up and down, carrying on like a two-bob watch, while I tried to feel for a pulse. It’s times like this, I thank my lucky stars I’m a chemist’s assistant and spend my working days surrounded by posters on CPR. I pushed my fingers into Bill’s cold neck but I could feel nothing.

I quickly rolled him into the CPR position, and was about to tilt his head back when I noticed something that would render CPR quite useless. Bill had a bullet hole right in the centre of his forehead. Well, at least I assumed it was a bullet hole, having extensive experience in such matters being a huge fan of both CSI and CSI Miami. And I knew from my committed viewing that once someone was dead, they were dead – you wouldn’t catch Grissom CPR-ing a corpse.

Before you could blink, our whole street was lit up with red and blue flashing lights; there were detectives everywhere and police in uniform unwinding crime scene tape across Rita’s driveway. There were other police officers in blue overalls with toolboxes of fingerprint powder and cameras like the paparazzi.

A detective with a kind face introduced himself to me as Sergeant Harley Eke. Nervous as I was, I checked his left ring finger for signs of a wedding ring and found none. A mother should never miss an opportunity. Skye-Rose wasn’t getting any younger, and Meaghan’s husband had left her for another man.

Sergeant Eke was a nice looking chap and he was courteous and clearly well brought up. I got the feeling that he was about to question me, and as much as that prospect had always thrilled me, the street was filling with curious neighbours, and I was in my dressing gown. Luckily, he led me by the elbow up the driveway and into my own house, away from prying eyes.

I asked Sergeant Eke if he would like to come in for a cup of tea and he looked relieved at the prospect of being indoors since the night was quite brisk. I sat him down at the kitchen table and busied myself with the kettle and tea pot. I popped a few shortbreads onto a plate and put them on the table. I didn’t bother with my visitor’s table cloth. I think that since I was now involved in a homicide investigation, I might be forgiven for forgoing some of my usual niceties. Not all of them mind; I used my best china tea cups – the Royal Alberts with the rose motif.

Sergeant Eke busied himself with a shortbread and I took the opportunity to break the ice. ‘I’m not really surprised Bill’s dead,’ I said, ‘though I never expected that he would go this way.’

'How did you expect him to go?’ asked Sergeant Eke, taking a sip of his piping hot tea.

‘Well, he was a coke addict,’ I said. ‘So I always expected –’

‘He was a cocaine addict?’ spluttered Sergeant Eke, scrabbling at his breast pocket for his notebook and pen.

‘Oh no!’ I said, smiling at his misunderstanding. ‘Coke – Coca Cola. He used to drink gallons of it, judging by the empty bottles in his recycling. Have you any idea what that much sugar can do to your arteries?’

Sergeant Eke’s breathing returned to normal and he took another sip of tea. ‘So how did you come to be in the backyard with the body?’ he asked.

‘Well, I heard Rita squealing like a stuck pig,’ I told him, ‘and of course, I went running over there. Nasty business, if you ask me.’

‘Hmmm,’ said Eke, writing my answers in his notebook. ‘And what can you tell me about Bill and his wife?’

‘Oh, not much,’ I said. ‘I’m no nosy neighbour! I keep myself to myself.’

 Sergeant Eke looked disappointed and flipped his notebook shut. ‘I’m afraid then that I’ve wasted your time.’

‘On the other hand,’ I said quickly leaning forward and refilling his Royal Albert, ‘I have a few things you might be interested in. Observations I’ve made over the years…’

Sergeant Eke opened his notebook again and leaned forward. ‘Yes…?’   

‘Well, Rita and Bill have lived next door for 34 years; they moved in on Sunday 6 May 1973. They were just newly married, a young couple filled with hopes and dreams just like any others. We all shared their joy when Rita found out she was expecting that September. I’d just had Meaghan, you see. Well, Rita lost the baby and even though they tried for many years, she never fell pregnant again. Twisted fallopian tubes, I think it was.’ I paused in my narrative to give Sergeant Eke time to catch up with his notes. I could see him mouthing the word ‘fallopian’ as if he didn’t know how to spell it.

‘Rita and Bill seemed happy even though they weren’t blessed with little ones. Then Bill did his back on the wharves in ’79 and of course, as my old grandmother always used to say: when money’s tight, love flies out the window. Rita had to get a job and Bill became a house-husband. Of course, they weren’t called ‘house-husbands’ in 1979 – they were called ‘lousy no-good layabouts’.

‘Anyway, it was around August 1981 I think it was – I remember, it was just after I’d had Skye Rose in the July – that Bill and Rita separated for a while. Of course, she was devastated, though I’m not sure why, him being a layabout and all. But some women have no sense when it comes to men. We invited Rita to spend Christmas dinner at our house. I felt sorry for her being in her own.’ I paused to refill both our cups.

‘Well, Bill was back not long after that; tail between his legs, begging for her to take him back. Of course she did. But something had happened while he was gone. Not that I knew Bill well, but he looked different. He’d grown a moustache; his hair was longer, and he’d taken to wearing jewellery. My husband, God rest his soul, had an opinion about chaps who wore jewellery. It doesn’t bear repeating, but you get my drift. Not that I thought Bill was a gay person. No indeed; he had too much chest hair.’

For a moment, my reminiscences had gotten away with me. I was lost in the 1980s and had to mentally shake myself back to the matter at hand. I quickly told Sergeant Eke about the two shifty men who had come to visit Bill last Thursday. He asked me to describe them, which I did. When I finished, he asked if I had anything else to add. I was on my third cup of tea by this time and to be honest, the only thing left on my mind was a rather urgent need to tinkle, and I thought it might be rude to admit as much to a Homicide detective. I said I couldn’t think of anything else and he got up from the table, I saw him out the front door. I hurried to the loo, wondering idly if Sergeant Eke might have liked the registration number of the car the two men were driving.

At work the next morning, Giselle couldn’t believe the goings-on in my street. She was very impressed that I’d been interviewed by a Homicide detective, and at morning tea, we both scurried to the newsagent and bought a Herald Sun to see if the murder was in the papers. It didn’t make the front page because a teary politician had resigned after his scallywag son crashed the family car.

Giselle and I hurried back to the lunch room at the chemist and spread the paper on the formica lunch table. Pages 2 and 3 were more pictures of the politician taken from lots of different angles, looking distressed. We both stood leaning over the paper, taking turns to flip over to the next page. Nothing. Nothing. Finally, on page 12, there was a small story with a little headline: Man found dead in fish pond. Underneath were four paragraphs:

Yesterday evening, a Fountain Gate man was found dead in a backyard fish pond.

Homicide Detective Sergeant Harley Eke said that the cause of death looked suspicious, but refused to confirm any other details pending a full autopsy.

Neighbours said that a woman had been heard screaming shortly before police were called.

Sergeant Eke said the identity of the victim would not be released until all relatives had been notified.

‘It doesn’t really tell you much,’ said Giselle.

Even I know more than this article,’ I scoffed, before repeating my shooting theories to Giselle. ‘It’s well-known to every CSI viewer that when a person is shot in the head, it’s called an execution-style hit,’ I explained, patiently. (Giselle was more of a Dancing with the Stars kind of person.) ‘So I think that Bill was probably killed by the Mafia.’

‘Do we even have Mafia in Australia?’ asked Giselle in wonder.

‘Of course we do,’ I snapped. Sometimes I marvel at her ignorance, and vow to find myself a more intelligent sounding board. ‘They’re the ones who kill fruiterers – or they used to. I think now, they kill lawyers and other Mafia types.’

‘Huh?’ said Giselle, clearly slow on the uptake. I didn’t bother explaining the shenanigans in the fruit markets, mostly because I didn’t know what they were. We spent the rest of the day, in between serving customers, snatching whispered conversations about the Mafia and how they might have done in poor old Bill.

Just before closing, who should arrive tearfully at the counter, but Rita from next door. Imagine my surprise when I saw her from across the shop and I slipped over to Giselle and whispered in her ear, ‘That’s her!’ Giselle immediately manoeuvred herself into a good possie, while I went over to serve Rita. She smiled faintly at me. I could see she’d been crying – her eyes were red and her face was puffy. Death was clearly the enemy of the complexion.

‘I’ve been to my doctor,’ she said in a voice that included the kinds of hiccoughs that you get when you stop crying, ‘and he prescribed some sedatives…’ Her voice trailed off and I nodded understandingly. ‘It’s to help me sleep tonight…’ Rita sniffed and looked like she was about to cry again so I took the prescription and told her it would be around ten minutes. I showed her to some comfy chairs we have for people who are waiting. She sank into one and stared, unseeing, at a nearby shelf of discounted haemorrhoid creams.

As soon as I left Rita, Giselle headed me off at the pass, giddy as a schoolgirl. ‘Are you going to ask her if Bill had connections with the Mafia?’

‘Giselle, do you know nothing?’ I paused, hardly expecting her to admit it. ‘You don’t just come out and ask something like that. You have to be subtle.’ 

I waited for the pharmacist to fill the script so I could get another chance to talk to Rita. As soon as he popped it in the little plastic basket, I grabbed it and headed off to the counter.

‘Here it is, love,’ I said in my kindest voice.

‘Thank you,’ she said gratefully.

‘So, have the police got any theories yet on what happened to Bill?’ I kept my voice carefully sympathetic.

‘What…?’ Rita looked at me as if she was coming out of a daze. ‘Theories…?’

‘Yes,’ I was persistent. I was doing her no favours to let her wallow. ‘Was it the Mafia, dear?’

‘Mafia…?’ From her dazed eyes and slightly slurred speech, Rita had clearly taken something already – she was no stranger to the prescription counter.

Out of kindness, and also because she wasn’t making any sense, I gave Rita her pills and let her go on her way. I too had things to do.

Three days after ‘the fish pond shooting’, as I was now calling it, I rang Sergeant Eke. He’d kindly left me his police card with his phone number on it.

‘Hello Sergeant Eke,’ I said, ‘this is Kath – Bill’s next door neighbour – you know, Bill from the fish pond–’

‘Oh right, Kath! How are you? Thanks for the cuppa the other night. It was just what I needed.’ His voice was as nice as I remembered.

‘I was just wondering if you would like the number plate of the car that those two rough-looking chaps were driving – the ones who visited Bill.’

‘Um, that’d be great! Really great,’ he said, suddenly excited.

I read out the registration number, and then told him that I’d remembered where I had seen the shorter man before. His name was Morris Wiggs and he was a customer at the chemist. I didn’t think his medical details were relevant so I didn’t pass them on to Sergeant Eke – a man’s erectile dysfunction is his own business – but I did pass on Morris Wiggs’ address which we had on record. Sergeant Eke said he’d get right on it. After I hung up, Giselle made me repeat the entire conversation word for word. Sometimes I think that girl needs to get out more.

Given the recent shenanigans in Fountain Gate, I wasn’t surprised at all when I watched the news that night and one of the top items was a story about a double shooting not far from here.

The camera showed a neat brick veneer with the same car parked in the driveway as I had seen outside Bill and Rita’s. Both doors were opened and plastic covered what were clearly legs sticking out both doors. The reporter stood down the road a bit: According to police, the two male victims were shot execution style. The bodies were discovered when police visited on a routine enquiry… Sergeant Eke stood in the background. I quickly dialled Giselle’s number and told her to turn on the TV.

‘Gee,’ she said, ‘those Mafia people sure get around.’
   

The next day at work, and only because Giselle wouldn’t let up, I rang Sergeant Eke and asked if the two men were the same men I had seen. He sounded weary, and said that they probably were. ‘One of them was your Mr Wiggs,’ he said, ‘and the other was a guy by the name of Magnus Burns. Both have form.’

Having watched more cops shows than most people had hot dinners, I knew that ‘having form’ meant that the men had police records. Goodness me, in my day, ‘having form’ meant wearing a Playtex Cross-Your-Heart Bra.

I rang Sergeant Eke again the next day, again at Giselle’s insistence. She certainly was proving to be a sticky-beak, that girl. ‘Any news?’ I asked him. ‘We’re all dying to know what you’ve found out.’

‘We?’ he asked.

‘Well, me and Giselle from the chemist.’

‘I really can’t share information from an investigation…’ His voice was polite but stern.

‘Oh dear me,’ I said, flustered. ‘I’m sorry. I just thought since I fished Bill out of the fish pond…’ I heard Sergeant Eke sigh on the other end of the line.

‘What did you want to know?’ he asked, cautiously.

‘Giselle wants to know if the same gun was used to kill those two men as the one that killed Bill. And I want to know if you’ve got any suspects!’

‘Yes and no,’ he said, wearily, ‘and that’s all I’m giving you.’

It was so exciting to be in-the-know. I passed on Sergeant Eke’s rather cryptic message to Giselle and we figured that he meant that yes, the same gun had been used in both killings and no, they had no suspects.

From then on, I rang Sergeant Eke often – I kept remembering things that I though he might find useful. I also told him my Mafia theory. I think my persistence wore him down and little by little, he told me things. He said that nothing could be ruled out at this stage. He also told me that the bullets were from a 9mm Smith and Wesson pistol, but they didn’t match any police had on record.

In another of our conversations, Sergeant Eke told me that the police had investigated Wiggs and Burns and apparently they were into blackmail. Under the guise of installing cable TV in people’s homes, they would plant hidden cameras which were connected to a bank of computers at their house. If the films showed anything interesting, they would blackmail people.

Sergeant Eke asked me if I’d seen anything untoward at Bill and Rita’s over the years… perhaps women coming and going while Rita was at work. I told him most certainly not.

Eke said that when the police searched Wiggs and Burns’ house after they were killed, it looked like someone had cleared their computers – though not in the usual way. Someone had filled up the bathtub and dropped the computers in there. Any information they might have contained was lost.

A couple of days later, Sergeant Eke sat at my kitchen table – he’d come to speak to Rita, and I’d invited him in when he finished.

‘You look tired, young man,’ I scolded while I filled his tea cup and added a dash of milk.

‘You know, Kath,’ he said in a weary voice, ‘when a homicide happens, we hardly sleep at all; maybe a few hours here and there, but if the trail goes cold, we miss our chance.’

‘Do you think you’ve missed your chance with this one?’ I asked. It had been over a week since I’d lugged Bill out of the fish pond.

‘No, not at all!’ said Sergeant Eke with a confidence that I didn’t think he felt.

‘But what have you got?’ I asked. ‘You haven’t found the murder weapon. The bullets are from a gun that’s not in your data base.’ I didn’t want to be a negative Nelly, but someone had to be honest with the young man.

‘I know. But while we might not be able to find the gun, we can look at people connected to Bill who have owned a registered 9mm Smith and Wesson. We are also looking at people who knew Bill who might have wanted him dead.’ His shoulders were slumped.

‘There, there,’ I said soothingly and patted him on the back as I left the table to get him a Tim Tam.

‘But you know, hard evidence isn’t everything,’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’ I got the packet of Tim Tams and put a small handful on a plate.

‘Well, there’s also a line of investigation that deals with criminal behaviour.’

‘Really?’ I said, intrigued.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘We look at how people behave after a crime – it’s called post-offence behaviour. Everyone will behave and react differently to Bill’s death, but only the killer has to do certain things to avoid detection. The killer had to kill Wiggs and Burns who possibly had some dirt on Bill, and then the killer has to hide the gun, appear innocent, and perhaps do other things to avoid detection.’

I smiled sympathetically at Sergeant Eke; he certainly had his work cut out for him. 

‘And there’s another phenomena in investigations that we watch out for.’

‘What’s that?’ I asked. I was certainly learning a lot about detective work.    ‘Sometimes the killer tries to inject himself into the investigation.’

‘How do you mean?’ I asked, intrigued.

‘Sometimes when we do a crime scene, we’ll review photographs later, and the killer might be somewhere in the crowd of onlookers. It makes sense when you think about it – he goes to all that trouble, and he wants to be around for the excitement afterwards.’

‘Goodness gracious me,’ I cried. ‘What will they think of next?’

‘It’s true,’ he said.

‘Well, did you take photos of the crowd outside Bill and Rita’s on the night of the murder? Although, if you ask me, I can hardly believed one of our neighbours could have done something like this. And I certainly have never seen any Mafioso wandering around our streets.’ I laughed at the very thought.

‘Fountain Gate is hardly a seething hotbed of Mafia activity,’ he conceded.

‘So you’re looking for a man who had hung around the investigation?’ I mulled this over.

‘…or a woman.’ He looked up.

     ‘A woman?’ I laughed. ‘How many women do you know who go around shooting people? Although ever since that Lara Croft film, a lot of girls rushed off to join rifle ranges. My Skye Rose dabbled for a while; joined a pistol club. Luckily, that faze lasted about as long as her tie-dying and a bit longer than her macramé.’

Sergeant Eke flipped open his notebook. ‘And according to our records, Skye Rose purchased a 9mm Smith and Wesson pistol in 2001, right after the first Tomb Raider, if my memory serves me correctly.’ Sergeant Eke certainly knew his Lara Croft.

‘Well,’ I sniffed, ‘it was only a fad. I think for a while there, she thought she was Lara Croft. Once, she asked if we could install stretchy ropes from the cathedral ceiling in the family room.’ I paused and considered him for a moment. ‘You’d like her, my Skye Rose,’ I said. ‘She’s single…’ I felt my cheeks blush just a little and I hoped Sergeant Eke didn’t notice.

‘I think you’re missing my point,’ said Sergeant Eke gently, ignoring my overtures. ‘We’ve checked everyone connected with Bill, and your Skye Rose is the only one of them who owns a 9mm Smith and Wesson pistol just like the one we’re looking for.’

‘So…’ the idea suddenly dawned on me, ‘…are you saying that my Skye Rose killed Bill?’ I wondered if Sergeant Eke would still want to date her if he thought she was a murderer. And then I suddenly had a horrible feeling that Sergeant Eke would put Skye Rose in jail for a crime she didn’t commit, just like on The Fugitive. Except Skye Rose had both her arms… or was that the real killer who was missing an arm?

‘No, I’m not saying that,’ said Sergeant Eke gently, patting my hand. ‘Fortunately, Skye Rose was in Byron Bay at the time Bill was shot and has her whole commune as an alibi.’

I let out a sigh of relief.

‘Skye Rose’s 9mm Smith and Wesson pistol is registered as being kept at this address. I would like to have a look at it.’

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘She keeps it in the garage in my late-husband’s safe.’

‘Can I see it?’ he asked in a quiet voice.

I gasped. ‘Do you think that someone used it to shoot Bill?’

Sergeant Eke shrugged and I got my set of keys and he followed me into the garage. I opened the old safe and it smelt musty as the iron door swung open. The gun lay in its usual place on the top shelf. Sergeant Eke flipped a clean hanky out of his pocket and went to pick it up.

‘It’s got no finger prints on it,’ I told him, ‘so you don’t have to bother about using your hanky.’

He pulled his hand back and raised an eyebrow in my direction.

‘I Mr Sheen it,’ I explained, smiling at the shining gun. ‘In the thirty-five years I’ve been a housewife, no one has ever been able to fault my aptitude for cleaning.’

‘Tests can match the bullets to the gun. Even Mr Sheen can’t disguise that…’ he paused and let the meaning of his words sink in.

‘How long have you known?’ I asked.

‘Pretty much since you killed Wiggs and Burns and tried to make it look like a Mafia hit.’

‘Bugger!’ I said. ‘So that didn’t fool you?’

‘Not when the bullet wounds were covered in doilies.’

‘The Mafia don’t do that?’

‘No, and another give-away was when we tracked down Skye Rose in Byron Bay and told her that Bill had been shot; she broke down and told us that Bill had promised to leave Rita and marry her. Now because Bill had cable TV and a connection with Wiggs and Burns, we thought the two of them might have been filmed in a compromising situation and that suggested a motive…’ He left the sentence hanging.

‘Bill was a no-good layabout dirty old man. Skye Rose can’t help it if she falls for the underdog. I thought her last boyfriend was bad enough with his pierced nipples and low hanging jeans that exposed his underpants. Imagine my horror when I spotted her kissing Bill at the front door after a visit. He deserved everything he got.’

‘Are you making a confession?’ said Sergeant Eke, in the gentle voice of a sounding board.

‘I have the right to remain silent,’ I said, and then pursed my lips shut and went back inside to get a warm cardigan to wear to the police station.