I’m aware that someday, someone will read these entries and wonder about the person who wrote them, in much the same way as I did when I found my grandmother’s wartime journals. Her continuing career as a spy in Great Britain is a constant source of inspiration for me in my career.
The business side of my meetings with Barry take only a few minutes; the rest is taken up with Barry’s need to tell me things.
In the early days, he would give me tips, and I have to say that some of these tips kept me alive — dramatic, I know, but true nonetheless.
In recent times, Barry likes to tell me stories.
I know very little about Barry and his private life, and I intend to keep it that way. I know how he got his nickname, ‘Backdoor Barry’ and I know that he likes suits, but as for the rest, it seems to me that ignorance is bliss.
I think he is married, and I believe he has daughters, but I’ve never asked — the information came from listening to him talk — little bits of information leak out, no matter how careful a person might be.
Barry knows this — he told me so.
“Ever noticed how policeman ask questions but don’t say much apart from that? They understand the power of silence. People who are nervous, and everyone in a police station is nervous, talk a lot to cover their nerves. So, Policeman Plod sits quietly challenging you to fill in the silence — works like a charm,” said Barry late one Friday afternoon and I don’t remember how we got onto the subject.
Barry’s best stories are about policemen and criminals, which makes sense — this is his world.
The stories are not all about high profile personalities either — Barry has an eye for the little bloke with an interesting tale to tell.
One particular Wednesday, I’d been paid for a small assignment involving a newspaper man with a story that his paper did not want to print — one of the easiest jobs so far. I let him pick me up at the bar where the newspaper blokes hang out and over a couple of drinks (he wasn’t drunk) he told me the whole dirty story. I was a willing ear, and he needed to share his frustration.
I put the usually wrapped package in my bag and was eager to leave when Barry’s eyes said ‘don’t go just yet — stay — talk to me.’
It is hard to imagine a character like Barry being lonely, but I think that emotion hits us all, so why not Barry?
“Have I told ya the shiny caravan story?” said Barry with a smile that said ‘thank you for hanging around’.
“No, I don’t think you have. Will it take long and will I feel sick when it’s over?” I said.
“No, you’ll be right. This one’s suitable for sensitive audiences — not exactly Disney, but no one explodes or bursts into flames, but remind me to tell you the one about the exploding grandma, will ya?” said Barry.
“Absolutely. I’m counting the days,” I said as I settled in for some vintage Barry.
“Property Sergeant Karl Stippich had learned, long ago, that too much knowledge only got you into trouble.
He was eighteen months from retirement, and his goal was to keep his head down and dream of being retired.
He was still young enough to enjoy it, and his missus had the whole thing planned. They bought a very cool old Airstream caravan at a police auction.
It had previously belonged to a nefarious character who moved drugs for a Melbourne gang.
This bloke and his missus drove up and down the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney at least twice a week. The gang paid him five thousand dollars per trip, and that was one trip in each direction. Drugs went up, and cash came down. Twenty thousand dollars per week. Even when you took petrol, tyres and wear and tear into account, that was a good weekly wage.
They had been at it for about eighteen months when an officer, stationed in Albury, wondered why he kept seeing the same vintage Airstream caravan, week in and week out.
The nefarious character and his wife had spent many happy days in Albury in their youth, so they rather foolishly stopped there every time they made the trip north.
The constable didn’t mention it immediately, but after he had observed them a few more times, he told his sergeant.
The Police waited for the polished aluminium caravan to arrive one more time and nabbed the older couple and several kilogrammes of cannabis.
The arresting officers were from the Drug Squad, and the eagle-eyed traffic constable didn’t receive any credit.
His sergeant thought this was grossly unfair and wrote to the Commissioner on his behalf.
The young constable’s commendation arrived ten days after he drowned trying to save two teenage girls who had unwisely gone swimming in the flood-swollen Murray River.
He lingered for more than a day before succumbing.
His wife accepted the award on his behalf. She spoke to reporters about his courage and his desire to help others, but secretly she wished he had been a bit selfish and had waited for help to arrive instead of diving in and leaving her alone. In time, she would have a bravery award to add to the memories of her brave, young husband.
The Drug Squad were very pleased with their haul, and it made for good television. The gleaming silver vintage caravan and a large pile of ‘grass’. The old couple did not bother to hide the loot, they loaded it into their caravan and threw a blanket or two over the pile.
No one ever asked to look inside the van.
The loot was carried in plain sight, so a comprehensive search of the vehicle seemed like a waste of time, at least, that was the opinion of the top brass, and despite the protests of the detective in charge, the word came down from on high. ‘A waste of Police resources. Stick it into impound and get on with your next case.’
When Karl Stippich towed the van home from the auction, his wife was very excited, but she said that the inside had a strange smell. Karl just laughed and said the smell would go away.
Karl was a handy sort of bloke, so he decided to service the van himself and save a bit more money.
Once he had jacked up the van to get the wheels off, he packed the wheel bearings, put the wheels back on and was about to let the jacks down when he decided to check under the floor. The body was aluminium, but the floor pan was probably steel — and steel can rust.
Considering its age there was very little rust, but there was a series of bolted-on compartments that most likely were not original spec’.
Karl tried undoing the bolts on one of the compartments, and they came away easily. There were at least ten thousand dollars in that one and about the same in the others.
It didn’t make sense to Karl.
The detectives were sure that the couple loaded the drugs into the van and covered it and did the same with the cash.
So what was this money about?
Karl was no fool. He was going to give this a bit of thought before he did anything rash like handing it in.
In the coming weeks, restoration work carried out by officer Karl revealed several hidden compartments inside the van. When Karl ran out of hiding places, he had amassed slightly more than a quarter of a million dollars.
Mrs Karl voted to keep the money.
‘It’s probably their personal stash, and they are not going to live long enough to get out of jail and come looking for us. And anyway, what are they going to do? Beat us to death with their Zimmer Frames?’
Mrs Karl was wide-eyed and full of plans for spending their bonanza.
Karl agreed and surmised that the couple probably thought that the police had found their stash of cash. He suggested that they wait until he retired, and if no one showed up asking about the van, they were probably in the clear.
They were right, and they got to keep the money, but money strangely accrued can have a peculiar effect on those doing the accruing, and Karl and his missus didn’t relax until news eventually came that the old couple had died in prison,” said Barry.
“I love a story with a happy ending and a minimum of explosions,” I said.
“Just goes to show you, though, doesn’t it?” said Barry.
“Not sure I get your drift,” I said.
“Never assume,” said Barry, and he was right, but I could help but feel sorry for the old couple and their attempt at independence.
“And never underestimate the skills of a sharp-eyed policeman,“ I said.
“That too,” said Barry.
I shuffled in my seat exactly the way anyone does just before they get up and leave, but Barry was awake to my intention.
“That’s not the end of the story. The Property Sergeant pops up again in one of Sam Bennett’s cases. You remember Sam? I introduced you to him,” said Barry.
I remember those eyes and those shoulders and that cheeky smile.
“Yes I remember him,” I said trying not to appear too eager.
“Sam was trying help out a friend, a lady friend, of course, one of his wife’s friends. The cops had her pinned for murder and Sam was doing his best to clear her.
Sam had pulled some strings and got access to some old evidence. Karl Stippich wasn’t too happy about having a civilian in his evidence room. Their meeting didn’t start off too well when Stippich said, “I’m not sure what you mean Mr Bennett, but this is all the evidence we have on the Ray McAlpine murder. You’ll understand that it has been a long time, but everything seems to be here. At least everything that was here when they started putting stuff on disk in the 90s. I’ve laid it all out for you, from most important to least important, just like I was told.”
“Told? Told by whom.”
“Can we just get on with this? My boss doesn’t like civilians being down here. Lots of sensitive stuff in here.”
The Property Sergeant’s domain was a huge old factory site on the outskirts of the central business district. Storage racks reached almost to the ceiling which was at least twenty feet high. Nothing fancy about the inside of the building, just bare red-brick wall. There was very little natural light, and Sam was reminded of the nameless warehouse in ‘The X-Files’.
“You haven’t got any dead aliens in here, have you?”
“No, but plenty of dead people. These paper files go back a long way. The whole lot is being moved out to a new complex in Broadmeadows late next year. Gonna be a hell of a job to move it all. I remember when they bought it all here — Hell of a job.”
“Of all the stuff associated with this case, what is the one thing that seems strange to you.”
Stippich thought like a policeman, so this was a tough assignment. As far as he was concerned it was all evidence; strange was for detectives and was way above his pay grade.
Sam could see him struggling with the question.
“If you had to pick one thing that seemed the least likely to be associated with this murder what would it be?”
Stippich’s eyes widened just a little when he looked at the coat near the end of the evidence table.
“This coat was found a few metres away from the body, and as far as I know, it’s not linked to anyone involved or suspected in the case, which is unusual. The list of suspects was pretty long, and anyone who was anyone in Scumbag Town was on that list.”
It was a three-quarter length pure wool coat with a designer label. It was in good condition considering how long it had been stored. The coat itself was a camel colour, and the lining was a light brown silk.
Not the sort of coat anyone would expect to find in a run-down suburb and close to a murder scene.
The only visible damage on the coat was a long slit in the lining at the bottom of the coat on its right-hand side. Without asking for confirmation, Sam decided that the lining had been cut with a knife rather than scissors.
Sam photographed the coat while the Property Sergeant looked the other way. With a bit of luck, the maker’s label might lead him somewhere.
“I think a trip to visit Tony Bone is in order.”
“I don’t even want to know what that means,” said Sergeant Stippich.
Sam still kept in touch with a few places he used to frequent in the old days.
Old haunts, from before.
Before Scarlett, when he was single and writing and investigating, and sometimes both at the same time.
For several years Sam lived with a couple of university mates, in Preston, and there was a particularly seedy cafe on High Street that featured in some of his favourite cases.
He used the cafe in two of his novels, but he changed the name. Not that he was worried about the reputation of the cafe or it’s owner because it didn’t have one.
At least, not a good one.
The owner recognised his cafe and himself when the books were published, but it did not dent his friendship with Sam. The owner, one Tony Bone, thought it was excellent to be immortalised in print.
It was to Tony Bone’s ‘Cafe What?’ that Sam was headed on this bright and sunny day, and yes it had a question mark in its name.
Tony knew everyone, and everyone knew Tony. Everyone knew that Tony had a big mouth, but because that came in handy at times, no one had ever tried to close his mouth. Occasionally someone would take a swing at him, but Tony could handle himself, and it usually ended up badly for the aggressor.
Sam knew that there was something fishy about the coat and he was hoping that Tony could shed some light. He had questions, but he understood that you approach Tony Bone slowly. Sam took the time to soak up the ambience of Tony’s ‘Cafe What?’. The tables were a mismatched set of Laminex tables and not matching vinyl chairs. These were all the rage in modern cafes but in ‘Cafe What?’ case they just happened to have been there so long that they had come back into fashion. Tony didn’t put much of his hard earned ill-gotten gains into decorating, and the walls and the light fittings seemed to have been stripped out of another less reputable eating place and transplanted into Cafe What? The orange plastic light shades were an interesting contrast to the bamboo counter, and the plastic tomato shaped tomato sauce dispensers looked elegant on the Laminex tables. Flies and cigarette ends were stylishly scattered around. The cigarette ends let you know where you were. Smoking in a cafe had been against the law for more than a decade, but this cafe and its customer were above this and several other laws.
It was always dark in ‘Cafe What?’, even when all the lights were on. Somehow Tony had gotten hold of a caseload of old-school 5-watt microwave oven bulbs, and he was going to use them all. The strange glow gave Sam an idea of how a TV dinner must feel, but without the warmth.
Cafe What?’s unusual name was a mystery to most people, and whenever some bright spark would ask Tony, he would reply with some variation of, “It’s always been called that.”
Sam had heard about twenty different versions of how the cafe got its name, but the most unlikely were probably the truth.
The sign writer who did the original shop sign back in the 1930s was deaf, and the owner of the cafe was a real prick.
He delighted in taunting people, and he saved his best material for the hapless sign writer.
The signwriter’s name was Carlo, and he worked around his disability quite well. He would insist that his clients write down exactly what they wanted to have on their sign, but the cafe owner kept changing his mind.
He would shout at the sign writer whenever he wanted changes, and laugh loudly whenever the signwriter would say “what?”
Eventually, Carlo got fed up and painted a new sign and installed it during the night.
The owner took the sign down, but the name stuck.
Eventually, a new owner went with the joke and put the sign back up, and ‘Cafe What?’ it has been ever since; complete with a question mark.
It was a good story, and Sam hoped it was true.
After leaving Tony’s establishment, Sam drove the short distance down Bell Street and turned left into Erin Street.
Sam and Erin Street had a lot of history.
Tony Bone revealed that the coat with the slit in the lining was a calling card of sorts, and it ultimately led Sam to the real killer, but that is another story and quite a long one. I know you need to get home to your family, so I’ll tell you that story some other time,” said Barry and there was a strange ‘far away’ look in his eyes.
“I do enjoy your stories, Barry,” I said, but he didn’t answer, he just smiled.
On the drive home I thought about Barry’s story and how hard Sam had worked to clear his friend, and I realised that I didn’t have a friend like that, not with those skills. I wondered if anyone would stick their neck out for me if I were in trouble? My husband of course and Barry perhaps, but only if he saw a profit in saving me.
Essentially, I’m on my own in much the same way that Daisy was when she was in the field — behind enemy lines. Both of us have people who would miss us when we are gone, but our future was and is always in our hands.
Strangely, this thought did not frighten me.
I like being the source of my survival.