Authors: Gabrielle Lord
|Jack McCain |
|2010 : Australia|
What the critics said of
Gabrielle Lord is writing increasingly assured and complex books—none of her contemporaries have more thoroughly and seriously explored the casualties of a prosperous time.
Sydney Morning Herald
As always, Lord’s grasp of the technical detail is very good, but the most impressive aspect of
is the compelling cast of fragile and flawed characters that she has assembled. The rich characters give extra depth to the plot and contribute greatly to
being a compelling thriller that steadily draws the reader into its dark twists and turns.
Lord is unputdownable, her work chilled by a sense of dread that makes you reach for the Ventolin inhaler.
is a cracking yarn, soaring to thrills and sinking to chills with a consistent pace—Lord is a wonderfully gifted writer, justifiably tagged Australia’s First Lady of Crime.
A fascinating look into the world of crime and suspense.
Paul Milton Butler,
A masterful psychological thriller.
Good Australian crime writers are few and far between but Gabrielle Lord is widely regarded as one of the best.
Lord has assembled a plot that is clever and intense—its vigour is more than enough to keep the reader up to all hours.
This is a psychological thriller which is very satisfying reading indeed—and her research into the forensic world is chillingly thorough.
Sunshine Coast Sunday
In her new novel [Lord’s] skills have reached new heights—
may be her most intense and chilling novel yet.
Gold Coast Bulletin
This edition published in Australia and New Zealand in 2002
by Hodder Headline Australia Pty Limited
(An imprint of Hachette Australia Pty Limited)
Level 17, 207 Kent Street, Sydney NSW 2000
Copyright © Gabrielle Lord 2001
This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review as permitted under the
Copyright Act 1968
, no part may be stored or reproduced by any process without prior written permission. Enquiries should be made to the publisher.
National Library of Australia
Lord, Gabrielle, 1946- .
ISBN 978 0 7336
ISBN 978 0 7336
2555 8 (ebook edition)
1. Suspense fiction. 2. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
Cover design by and digital imaging by Ellie Exarchos
eBook by Bookhouse, Sydney
To Greg, the original Reginald
and to all friends of Bill W.
Let conversation cease. Let laughter flee.
This is the place where death delights to help the living.
Inscription from the Office of the
Chief Medical Examiner, New York city
I was sorting through the second victim’s clothing when my mobile rang, sounding very out of place in this rented room reeking of old food and stale sex, the grubby chenille bedspread over an iron bedstead, the dun-coloured walls, veneer and plastic wardrobe with matching chest of drawers and the fraying holland blind knocking against the window. I didn’t answer the phone, leaving it to voice mail. I can do that these days without feeling too guilty now that I’ve paid my dues and am no longer tied to the lab. I’ve taken leave from the Division of Forensic Services while I sort out the end of the marriage and decide what to do next. It’s taking a lot of time and energy. Certainly as much as the beginning of the relationship. But without the younger hopes and dreams.
At one end of the dead man’s room was a sad little eating area, jars, bottles, a cheap radio and a mouldering sliced white loaf on a checked plastic tablecloth. As my young brother Charlie, the clinical psychologist, says ‘you can get a lot of information about how a person is on the inside by noticing what they create around them on the outside,’ so I stood there, letting the surroundings speak to me of the desolate individual who had lived there. Nesbitt’s room was like an extension of the crime scene. Every little thing an investigator can learn about the victim is helpful. If I hadn’t already known why they’d locked Ernest Leslie Nesbitt up, I might’ve been thinking, ‘poor bastard, and only just out of gaol’. But I knew that the pile of
magazines beside the bed and the KMart catalogue with its photographs of pubescent kids in their knickers wasn’t because of his interest in fashion. I’d already pulled on my gloves, lifted his suitcase onto the bed and started sorting through his belongings before the phone rang. The investigating police had been through all his stuff already and it was now up to his next of kin to claim it. Or the landlord to dump it. But my partner in the old days, Bob Edwards in Homicide, hoped I might notice something everyone else had missed. I thought it was unlikely.
A couple of T-shirts, one white shirt, some trousers, shorts, underpants and singlets in a greyish pile, socks, a book on the Northern Territory, a Bible, a framed and tinted 1950s photographic portrait of a woman I guessed to be his mother, some very basic toiletries, some references—Nesbitt had both front-end loader and ‘C’ class licences—claim forms for Special Benefits papers from the Department of Social Security, a pack of playing cards. There wasn’t a birth certificate; no doubt the investigating police still had that. A man doesn’t have much when he comes out of gaol after many years and there’s nobody waiting for him.
I crossed the room in three and a half strides, which made it about the same size as the cell at Goulburn Gaol where he’d lived the last six years, to look out the window. On the way, I caught sight of myself in a spotted wall mirror. Genevieve used to say she was first attracted to me because I looked like Harrison Ford. I’ve never been able to see the resemblance myself and it’s been a long time since my wife found me attractive. For a second, I felt the awful clutch of angry grief, but I stopped that in its tracks by refocusing myself into the present, unpleasant as it was. To break the mood, I switched on the tinny radio, interrupting a talk-back program.
‘My nephew,’ a woman was saying, ‘works as a police officer and he says that there’s a huge cover-up going on. The police know what it is that’s doing these killings, but they’re forbidden to talk about it.’
‘Madam,’ the DJ interrupted, his professional politeness edged with contempt, ‘the police are not permitted to talk about active investigations at any time.’
‘But this is different,’ said the woman. ‘Pete says he’s seen the report from the scientific people. And it’s written in black and white and it says that whoever or whatever did these murders definitely isn’t human.’
‘Does Pete say what it is?’ asked the DJ.
The woman’s voice dropped, as if she was concerned that 500,000 listeners might hear her. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but I can’t say over the air. And anyway, you wouldn’t believe it.’
‘Anyone out there able to say it?’ the DJ asked. ‘I’m sure we’d love to hear. Please ring the station.’ The mocking tone of his voice was unmistakable. ‘We’d all love to know. Especially the men of this town.’ His voice shifted up a gear and he started advertising a hardware chain. I thought of the woman’s certainty about the information she was broadcasting. It’s amazing what myths can arise in the public mind when a journalist gets something half-right.
From the lane below, the smells of old cooking oil, overflowing rubbish bags and cats’ piss drifted up. From the plane tree across the road, an Indian mynah screamed, ‘
Cheaper cheaper cheaper!’
and from somewhere behind me in the boarding house came the sound of chronic coughing. I turned away from the backside of Kings Cross and leaned against the window ledge. Despite the grime, there was something reminiscent of my own bachelor digs, the same monastic bed, chair and table in a small room.
I opened the door and peered out. Over a century ago, this house would have been the proud residence of a professional man of Empire. Now, it was one of the few dwellings still licensed to operate as a rooming house in an area dominated by high and low rise apartments. I knew that number 31 next door, the mirror image of the house I was in now, operated as a brothel. Or had done so, years ago when I was in the job in Sydney.
On the landing outside the murdered man’s room was a tiny kitchenette, old gas stove and sink, both badly in need of a clean up. Down the hall were three more rental rooms and I caught a whiff of the bathroom—the smell of men who don’t care very much—a smell that reminds me of the zoo. But one man never came back to his rented room in number 33; Ernest Lesley Nesbitt, and I looked again at the photograph Bob had given me.
There’s something about mug shots that’s unique, that mixed expression of sullen defiance and submission to an overpowering force. I’d seen it in my own daughter’s face eighteen months ago before she ran away. My daughter, Jacinta. It’s one of the reasons my colleagues know not to call me to a PM on any young female until she’s been identified. The last images I have of my daughter and her mother are bad enough.
I brought my attention back to Nesbitt’s picture. Late forties, a tight, closed-up face. Thin-lipped, close-shaven, unattractive, and something smeared and distorted about the entire lower face, reminding me of a photo I’d seen of Sir Anthony Blunt, cold war communist spy and art adviser to the English queen. Nesbitt’s form was long and ugly, the usual pattern I’ve come to expect for killers like him, and he’d finally been put away for the rape and attempted murder of a thirteen-year-old girl. It’s the sort of crime that makes any father think of his own daughter. Or an older brother of his little sister. And I don’t permit myself those sorts of thoughts.
After a long time in this game, it’s almost impossible not to see the world divided into the goodies and the baddies. My brother, Charlie, says it’s not rational to look at things this way and intellectually I have to agree with him. He tells me it’s an attitude fostered by the work I’ve been in all my life, and the events of my past—a past he doesn’t share because he was only a baby and too young to remember that summer. So I looked again at the pathetic items spread out on the bed in front of me and forced my mind back to the job at hand.
Ernest Nesbitt stared out at me from his mug shot and I tried to find some compassion for the dead man. I found none. Just a sense that he’d walked straight into something dreadful and inevitable, set on track with breathtaking precision like the
and the iceberg. Two weeks ago, someone had encountered him near the stone seawall at Birchgrove and hacked off his penis and scrotum. Another deep wound had severed his right femoral artery. Both injuries had combined to kill him quite quickly. The young psych nurse who’d responded to his screams from a house across the road could only hold Nesbitt’s hand while his boyfriend rang the ambulance. It was almost all over by then and Nesbitt was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. Because of the nature of his crime and manner of his death, police had re-interviewed certain angry relatives of the young girl he’d murdered years ago. They’d drawn a complete blank.
Nor was he the first man to have died of such horrific injuries. Only a few weeks before Nesbitt’s death Cecil Warren Gumley had died in the same savage way. Gumley had been dead for some hours before he was found. There’d been no kind stranger to hold his hand while his body emptied of blood. Naturally, Bob and the other Homicide fellows considered the likelihood of the same killer. Some of the old dinosaurs were reminded of Macdonald, dubbed ‘The Mutilator’ by the Sydney newspapers, a murderer active around East Sydney in the early 1960s who neatly removed the working tackle of his unfortunate victims. Now, nearly forty years later, the newspapers had started a story that refused to go away. ‘
!’ the first headlines announced in connection with the Gumley murder, ‘
Police puzzled by lab results
’. Despite our assurances that we weren’t puzzled in the slightest, the story seemed to be gaining ground all over town that some sort of beast, accredited with almost supernatural powers, was on the loose in Sydney, depriving men of their virile member.
‘Would you take a look?’ Bob had asked me after the second death. ‘We’ve just had our budget cut by one third. The boss is a total dickhead and you owe me a couple.’ Then he looked me straight in the eye. ‘I need your expertise,’ he added. Bob is one of those friends who gets through to me, even though I like to keep people at arms’ length. I made some joke of it, but of course I agreed.
It was true that I owed him and we go back a long way, Bob and me, to the time we both joined the Service—the Force as it was then called—as keen young probationary constables. On the second day of my appointment, the sergeant called us all into his office. ‘Right, he said, ‘you might have noticed that as well as me, there are four blokes with the name of John in this station. So from now on
John,’—he swung round on me—‘you’re Jack, and the rest of you, use your second names.’ And that’s how I became Jack, and why my workmates of the first year or two in the job were named Melvaine, Herbert and Cleever.
After serving nearly twenty years in various divisions and sections, but mostly Physical Evidence, and with my recently completed Masters in particle examination, I applied for a job as a scientist with the Federal Police in Canberra. Genevieve was scathing. ‘If you get that job, you’ll be completely impossible,’ she said. ‘Not only will you
everything like you already do now, you’ll be able to prove it.’ I remember that I laughed then. I got the job, much to the contempt of some of my colleagues—the ‘plastic cops’ they call us Federal police. Maybe one day they’ll hear what we say about them. And as Genevieve well knew, I wasn’t laughing these days.
I picked up the framed sepia portrait of the woman, tinted in the pastels of the 50s.
Esme Nesbitt, Ramsgate, New South Wales, 1954
I read, when I turned it over. You’d be in your late seventies now, at least, I thought as I picked at the little metal tabs that pressed the backing of the frame against the picture. The whole thing came apart easily. I lifted the backing carefully away from the photo and I was hardly surprised to find what I was looking for. I took them out and lined the six pictures up on the greasy tablecloth. It’s such an obvious place to check, and any experienced investigator does it as a matter of course. Obviously nobody had and I started to see why Bob might feel the need for my assistance.
I put the pictures in a labelled and dated plastic bag and then refitted the portrait, wondering what his mother would have thought of the images her own photograph had been hiding for her son. ‘Perfect,’ I could imagine Charlie saying.
Alerted now, I took a closer look at his book on the Northern Territory and the Bible. The Northern Territory was clean but it didn’t take me long to find the extra leaves of Bible-quality paper with Nesbitt’s own crude illustrations depicting a tiny girl and a grotesque penis distributed among Jeremiah.
, I read, when I lifted the drawings up and read Jeramiah’s words directly underneath,
a whirlwind of the Lord is gone forth in fury, even a grievous whirlwind: it shall fall grievously upon the head of the wicked.
And not only his head, I thought.
I was replacing the ugly sketches where I found them when an envelope addressed to Nesbitt in gaol fell out of the Bible. I picked it off the floor and peered inside. There was nothing in it. I flicked through the Bible again, finally turning it upside-down and shaking it. But nothing further was revealed. Nesbitt’s name and the address of Goulburn Gaol were handwritten on it, with no return address on the back. It was postmarked Kings Cross and the date was obscured. Why, I wondered, does a man keep an empty envelope? I looked more closely, then saw some pencilled writing on it:
Long blonde hair, red jacket
. I threw the envelope down in disgust. One of Nesbitt’s ‘sightings’, no doubt. From my time in Child Sexual Offences, I knew enough about pedophile behaviours and how many of them kept lists of children who ‘appealed’ to them.
I repacked the photograph and the clothes from the bed and closed the suitcase, putting the pornographic photographs to one side. One glance alone told me they were prohibited imports. I couldn’t imagine anyone demanding their return.
I left the premises, pleased to be out of there. On another day, I’d have rejoiced in the cloudless summer sky and the warm breeze, the beautiful Sydney girls in their pretty dresses, but not today. Where other men my age might be contemplating the end of kids’ schooling in a few years and a future of relaxation and leisure, I had been thrust into the pain and confusion of the end of my marriage. The end of the known way. Old habits die hard and the human heart hates change. The month of November is always pain-ridden for me and I had to admit to myself that investigating the murders of these two repulsive men, coming as they did in this month, was something of a godsend.