The fat man was running. He was sprinting through the canola paddock, his belly jiggling, his eyes wide with fear. He put his hands to his ears and shouted something, but his pace didn’t slow. Glancing to his left he could see the train in the distance. It had just negotiated the long curve outside Beniston and, with ten kilometres of ruler-straight track ahead, was starting to accelerate.
He reached the four-board fence and clambered over it, panting noisily with the effort, and dropping down onto the other side, immediately began to scramble up the steep embankment.
The freight train was 400 metres away now and approaching its top speed of a 100 kph.
The fat man stumbled in the long grass. He turned his sweat-streaked face towards the train and for a moment it looked as though he wouldn’t make it. With a cry he scrabbled forwards on his hands and knees, and, grasping fistfuls of grass, hauled himself up onto the railway line. He’d barely had time to stand upright and turn towards the train when it hit him.
The driver heard a thump and a crimson mist spattered his windshield. He braked hard but it was another half a kilometre before the train, clanking and screeching in protest, finally came to a complete standstill.
And then there was silence. In the vault of blue sky carrion crows were already starting to circle.
When Detective Peter Mackinnon arrived at the scene the paramedics were emerging from the canola carrying a body on a stretcher. He got out of his unmarked Nissan Patrol and walked through the small crowd of onlookers a young police officer was doing his best to keep back. Mackinnon flashed his I.D, got a nod, and made his way past the police cars and the ambulance parked along the narrow rural road. He crossed with the paramedics coming the other way and glanced down at the stretcher. He could tell the sheet didn’t cover a complete body. It was weirdly truncated and he guessed it was only the head and torso. He walked a little farther on to the ute which had been abandoned with two wheels up the grassy bank and its driver’s door wide open.
Careful not to touch the paintwork, Mackinnon leaned inside the cab – there was nothing that struck him as unusual – a newspaper and an empty can of coke on the passenger seat, parking stubs and apple cores in the cup-holders, a pine tree shaped air-freshener hanging from the driver’s mirror. No suicide note that he could see.
He cut into the canola paddock, following the path the fat man had made, climbed the four-board fence and jumped down. McKinnon felt a twinge in his knee from the injury he’d sustained on his 10k run that weekend and it still hurt as he climbed the steep embankment.
‘Hey, Detective. What brings you out here?’
He looked up and saw Barry Earnshaw grinning down at him. The Police Sergeant reached out a hand and helped him up.
‘I caught it on the radio. Thought I’d drop by and check it out. What have we got?’
‘Looks like a straightforward suicide.’
Earnshaw pointed back across the canola field to the ute, adjusting the peak of his cap against the low sun. It wasn’t ten o’clock yet but the temperature was already creeping up into the thirties. ‘Witnesses say he came barrelling up the road, jumped out, and ran hell for leather for the railway line. They say he was shouting things out while he was running like he’d completely lost it.’
‘He wasn’t being chased? No one else involved?’
‘Not as far as we can tell, Pete. Just looks like the guy woke up and decided he’d had enough.’
Mackinnon pursed his lips but didn’t say anything.
‘We reckon the impact point was about where we’re standing,’ the Sergeant went on, ‘but the train dragged him a fair distance. He got chewed up pretty bad along the way.’ He nodded towards the officers combing the slopes of the embankment and the adjoining paddocks. ‘I’ve got my men bagging up the bits and pieces – it’s like a game of Mr fucking Potato Head.’ He looked at Mackinnon and pulled a sour face. ‘Who’d choose that as a way to check out?’
‘At least it’s quick.’
‘I hope so – for that poor bastard’s sake. I’d prefer a bottle of whisky and some sleeping pills myself.’
‘Have we got a name?’
‘No formal identification,’ the Sergeant said, ‘but we’ve traced the ute.’ He took a notebook from his tunic pocket and flipped the pages. ‘It’s registered to a Dixon. Wayne Dixon. Beniston address. 53, Monaghan Street.’
‘Have you sent anyone out there?’
‘Not yet. I was going to go down myself when we’re done here.’
‘It’s okay. I’ll go and check it out.’
‘No need, Pete. I can send a patrolman.’
‘I’d like to do it myself. Tell you the truth I’ve got a weird feeling about all this.’
‘Your spidey sense tingling, huh?’
‘Yeah, something like that.’
Mackinnon began to descend the embankment then stopped and looked back. ‘Hey, Barry, you better make sure you do a thorough job on this site – we don’t want some kid coming home from school with a severed hand.’
‘Could be worse – we haven’t found his pecker yet.’
Peter Mackinnon had lived in Beniston all his life. In those thirty-five years he’d seen it grow from a rural town into a city with a population of more than 50,000. The change had inevitably brought problems with it – urban sprawl, ill-conceived sub-divisions, traffic congestion in the CBD, and an increase in crime. Over the years Beniston had been the scene of some notorious cases which had made national headlines – the sadistic rape and murder of a nurse in 2003, a series of unsolved child abductions in 2010, and a domestic dispute in March of that year that had turned into an armed siege and cost the lives of four people. But in Mackinnon’s view these incidents were aberrations that gave people the wrong idea about Beniston. He was fond of saying that if you scratched the city’s surface you’d find a rural town, not all that different to the one he’d grown up in. It still had that strong sense of community characteristic of country Victoria – on a Saturday afternoon the pedestrianized precinct was crowded with local charities holding sausage sizzles, and almost every weekend there was a fun-run around the lake in Federation Park to raise money for some good cause or other. Beniston was still sport mad, with thriving footy, netball and swimming clubs, and for many – adults as well as children – the calendar revolved around training nights and league games, race meets and cup competitions. Although Beniston now had this connection to crime in many people’s minds, as Mackinnon never tired of pointing out, there were many Saturday nights when the police were called out to nothing more serious than some drunken pushing and shoving in the main street. Beniston had grown, there was no denying that, but it was still a long way from becoming a Melbourne or Sydney.
Monaghan street ran through the middle of Eckridge, one of Beniston’s poorer suburbs, where a lot of government housing had been built in the ’80s. Mackinnon knew the street well from his time as a beat policeman and had attended many a call-out there. He pulled up in front of number 53 now and turned off his engine. The weatherboard miner’s cottage looked like it had been left to go to hell: the paint was blistered and peeling, the windows brown with grime, the grass in the front yard waist-high. On the driveway an ancient Holden Camira, stripped of its wheels, stood on four stacks of bricks, engine parts rusting in the tall weeds around it. It reminded Mackinnon of a whale carcass in the process of being gutted and flensed. Unconsciously, he reached under his jacket and touched his gun.
What had made the dead man race like a lunatic to throw himself under the Melbourne train that morning? And what had he been shouting as he’d run towards the tracks? It wasn’t like any suicide he’d ever come across before…
He slammed the SUV’s door, and picked his way up the overgrown path to the veranda. The wooden boards were warped, and through the gaps he could see years of litter in the dirt beneath. He couldn’t find a doorbell and knocked. As he waited he looked around him: the undersides of the veranda roof couldn’t have been cleaned for years – the wood was black with dirt and strung with cobwebs. Just above his head a green-carapaced beetle, ensnared in invisible wires, twitched futilely.
‘Hello? Anyone in?’
He knocked again.
There was no answer. But Mackinnon didn’t turn to go. He couldn’t say why, but he had a feeling that someone was in the house.
He walked to the side and tried the wooden gate. It was locked. He pulled himself up and looked over. A large garbage container full of building refuse had been pushed up against it. Wayne Dixon clearly wasn’t keen on people snooping around his property. Mackinnon heaved himself up again, clambered over the gate onto the bin and jumped down. He felt an electric shock shoot up his leg from his knee and winced. He hoped he wouldn’t have to chase anyone down – he didn’t think his knee was good for more than 100 metres.
He peered around the corner of the house into the back yard. The ground was bare of grass, scorched from cook-out fires and grey with ash. A rusted oil drum had been used as a brazier and around it there was a circle of upturned crates and paint tins; broken beer bottles glinted in the cinders. On a clothes line a hooded sweat shirt hung arms down like a drowned corpse.
Mackinnon stepped up onto the rear veranda. A rotten plank squealed. He looked in at the window, but the blind was down and he could only see a thin sliver of black and yellow kitchen lino.
He moved to the back door and tried to see inside through the frosted glass but couldn’t make anything out. He tapped on the door with his knuckles.
He tried the handle. It was locked.
Mackinnon went to the next window. The curtains were drawn but they’d fallen slightly open in the middle leaving a gap a centimetre or so wide. Wiping away the dirt with his sleeve, he brought his eye close to the glass. He could see a narrow strip of olive green wall, the edge of a cheap dining table, the back of a plastic chair. As he shifted position to try to see more of the room he locked eyes with a man in an armchair and instinctively jumped back. In panic he fumbled for his pistol, but as his brain replayed what he’d seen, he drew near the window again. The eyes were glassy and unblinking, the neck jammy with blood, the white vest dyed ruby red.
He kicked open the back door and burst in with his gun raised. He went over to the man, put two fingers under his ear and felt for a pulse. There was nothing. As he removed his fingers, the dead man’s head rolled away from him, a deep cut opened in his neck, and a gout of dark blood leaked out. Mackinnon moved into the hallway, gripping his gun tightly in both hands, bending his knees to lower his centre of gravity, trying to prepare himself to meet the sudden rush of an assailant. He barged open the door of the bathroom – empty, swung into the bedroom on his left – empty, then entered the lounge room to his right – empty again.
He walked back to the kitchen-diner. Through the open door he could hear Abba playing on a neighbour’s tinny radio. He put his revolver in its holster and stood with his hands on his hips contemplating the dead man. He was in his late forties, flabby and big-bellied, his heavy jowls blue with stubble. His right arm hung down by the side of the armchair and now Mackinnon noticed the cut-throat razor on the floor a few inches from his fingers. His brow furrowed.
What the fuck happened in this house?
Mackinnon was about to return to the car to radio for assistance when something in the corner of the room caught his eye. It was the white tasselled fringe of the rug. A chair had been moved away from the wall and the threadbare rug flipped back. The detective went over to it and stared pensively at the exposed floor boards. A brass ring was set into one of the planks, and crouching down, he looped his index finger through it and pulled. A trapdoor opened and he found himself staring into the black mouth of a cellar.
He couldn’t find a light switch, and taking out his car keys, switched on the mini torch on his key-ring and shone it inside. The beam showed him bare brick walls running with damp, but was too weak to penetrate to the bottom. The detective positioned himself on the edge of the hatch – and with a nervous glance at the back door – cautiously descended the vertical wooden ladder.
In spite of the hot day the moment he sank below floor level he felt chilled and his skin turned to gooseflesh. He could smell the musty stench of mould – and something else, something pungent, organic, faecal. After going down seven or eight rungs he clicked on the mini torch again and the thin shaft of light struck the flagstones of the cellar floor two metres below him. He moved the yellow disc in an arc to his right; it spotlighted a paper plate smeary with the dried remains of a meal, mattresses piled with soiled duvets, and, in the corner, a metal bucket (Mackinnon knew where the smell of shit was coming from now). With a mixture of horror and disbelief, he realized that he’d stumbled on a prison.
The question was: where were the prisoners?
He had a vision of the trapdoor suddenly slamming shut, entombing him in the darkness, and hurriedly started to climb back up the ladder, but he stopped when his torch flashed over a wooden shelving unit. It was the only furniture in the cellar and it was large, almost covering an entire wall. It must have been laboriously lowered piece by piece, Mackinnon thought, then assembled down there. And yet all the shelves were empty. Fighting back his fear, he descended the last few rungs and jumped down. He landed awkwardly and jarred his knee, but his body was so pumped with adrenalin now he didn’t feel the pain. He seized hold of the shelving unit, dragged it away from the wall and shone the torch behind it. A square sheet of metal, about the size of a chessboard, was screwed into the bottom of the wall. It had several holes punched through it that looked like they’d been made by a .22 calibre rifle. He crouched down and examined the screws, trying to think if he had a screwdriver in the car, but on turning one, found it was loose enough to undo with his fingers. He took out the four screws, and pulled the panel away from the wall. A soft whistle escaped him when he saw the gaping hole in the brickwork it had been concealing. Leaning forwards, Mackinnon shone the torch inside and started violently. He would be asked many times over the months that followed what he’d felt at that moment. He usually answered that he’d felt ‘shock’ and ‘horror’, and although that was true, it wasn’t the whole truth; words weren’t really his thing and he didn’t want to struggle to explain himself to strangers, but the emotion he remembered feeling more than any other wasn’t shock – it was shame…
Three children huddled together in the darkness. The girl and two boys were naked, half-starved and begrimed with dirt. Their hands and feet were shackled.
‘Oh my God,’ he gasped. ‘Oh, sweet Jesus Christ.’ The torch began to tremble in his hand. ‘Okay, okay,’ he said trying to get a grip on himself. ‘Okay, I’m going to get you out of there, okay? I’m going to call for help and get you out of there. Okay?’
They stared back at him but didn’t speak.
‘Are you injured?’
They continued to stare at him in silence.
‘Are any of you hurt?’
Still they said nothing.
‘Talk to me, say something so I know you’re okay. I’m a police officer, you can trust me.’
By way of answer the blond-haired boy opened his mouth wide so that Detective Mackinnon could see that he’d had his tongue cut out. Then the girl and the other boy did the same.