The Great Boursini
‘Wake up, grandad!’
Jamie had to laugh. He was sitting on the git’s bed – sitting on it – with the bedroom light blazing, and the bag of bones was still dead to the world. Sleeping tablets most likely, Jamie thought with a shake of his head; the old ghouls had to knock themselves out or they’d be awake half the night.
He stared at the wrinkled face with disgust: the bulbous nose wormy with red veins, the archipelago of liver spots on the bald scalp, the spivvy white moustache that had been out of fashion for fifty years or more, the slack cables in the chicken-skin neck. Was there anything more disgusting than old people? Bruised, shrivelled, mouldering like rotten fruit. Long past their sell-by date. Fit only for the garbage. God, he fucking hated them.
He held the knife a millimetre above the old man’s left eye and the eyelid trembled slightly as if the delicate skin sensed a danger that the unconscious mind could not. It made Jamie snicker. He rested the point on the gaunt cheekbone, and lightly drew it in a circle around the puckered sump of the toothless mouth and across the sandpapery chin. The crumbly twitched slightly as if a fly had settled on his face, but he didn’t wake up. Unbelievable. Unbefuckinglievable!
‘I know what’ll bring you round,’ Jamie said under his lager breath, and jabbed the knife into the soft hummock of fat under the old man’s chin. He reared up with a startled cry, a hand clawing at his neck for the source of the pain. Jamie watched his face with amusement as it ran the now familiar gamut of emotions: confusion, fear, panic, and then a sort of bleak resignation as he realized there was no escape from the predicament he was in, and his head sank slowly back onto the pillow.
‘That’s right,’ Jamie grinned at him. ‘You’ve got a little visitor. And I ain’t been sent by meals on wheels.’
He watched the old man’s eyes – still a startling blue in spite of his advanced years – goggling at him in terror, taking in the gymnasium biceps and Homer Simpson T-shirt, the long greasy hair and the ‘cut here’ tattoo on his neck, trying to work out how bad this was going to be. And Jamie could have told him. It was going to be bad. It was going to be very bad. It was going to be as bad as it could possibly be.
Jamie had only given him a little nick, but the crumbly was bleeding like his throat had been cut; blood ran down the runnels in his neck into the untidy nest of grey hairs on his chest, blood stained his pillow a red so dark it was almost black. Jamie scowled. Ten to one he was on Warfarin. They were all on Warfarin these days; you only had to touch them and they started pissing out blood. Jamie would normally have roughed him up a bit now just to get the ground rules straight, but he didn’t want to get blood all over him. Not just yet.
He brought the knife close to the old man’s face. ‘Now do what I tell you or I’ll cut your fucking eyes out. Junnerstan?’
The old man flinched away from the blade with a whimper.
Jamie stood, noisily snorted up a mouthful of phlegm, swallowed it, then gesticulated vaguely with the blade.
The old man struggled into a sitting position, and, putting one hand on the night-table for support, his thin arms trembling with the effort, managed to haul himself upright.
‘Jesus!’ Jamie groaned when he saw the old man was naked. ‘Put something on for fuck’s sake!’ and he jagged the knife at him in a wild arc, careless of whether he cut him or not. ‘I don’t want to see your battered old knackers!’
There were some track pants on the chair by the bed and the old man tried to put them on, but either because he was so frightened or so feeble, he had great difficulty balancing and almost fell over when he caught his foot in the waist band. In the end he had to lean a shoulder against the wardrobe to steady himself. When he’d finally got the pants on, he stood cowering by the bed like a chastised child.
Jamie stared at the white, distended belly, the sloping shoulders disfigured by moles and skin tags, the saggy tits rubbery-nippled like a woman’s. Trickles of blood raced each other through his chest hairs and over the medicine ball of his gut and soaked into the grey crotch of his track pants.
‘You’re disgusting,’ Jamie said with a grimace.
‘I – I – I’ve had cancer,’ he stammered, keeping his eyes on the ground, not daring to look in Jamie’s direction. ‘They cut it out, but it keeps coming back.’
Suddenly impatient, Jamie seized him by the arm, dragged him to the end of the bed, and pushed him hard towards the door. ‘Get in the lounge room!’
The old man limped slowly down the hallway and Jamie followed him, flicking on the lights as he went. He wasn’t worried about neighbours – the weatherboard cottage was one of the few houses on this stretch of the Sewell road, sandwiched between Braddock’s Farm Machinery and Sacco’s Car Repair; behind it there was just a potholed dirt track and a bogged tributary of the Ovens river, and beyond that nothing but paddocks. Jamie had driven up the track just after two a.m. and parked right outside the back door. There was a security light at the rear of Braddock’s which he hadn’t counted on, but it didn’t change his plan; even though it cast a bright light there was no one around to see him, and he’d jumped the waist-high chain-link fence and broken in through the back door confident that he was unobserved.
The lounge room was cluttered with shit like they always were. What was it with old people? Why couldn’t they ever throw anything out? There was a three-piece suite, a sideboard, a Welsh dresser, an electric organ – there was even a dining table with six chairs around it when Jamie knew full well he lived alone. Every flat surface was covered with the usual knick-knacks: decorative plates, vases, china figurines, trophies, clocks. And photographs, photographs everywhere – on the window sills, on the table, the mantelpiece, the organ, and all over the walls. Jamie shook his head. The photos were the same in every geriatric’s house he’d ever burgled: photos of their kids graduating high school, backpacking in Europe, getting married; then photos of the grandchildren – baby photos, christening photos, birthday photos, photos of them modelling their first school uniform…It made Jamie want to laugh. Everyone thought they were so unique, that their lives, their families were so special, but from what Jamie could see they were all the fucking same.
‘It’s like Aladdin’s cave in here, grandad. Don’t you ever throw anything out?’’
Jamie took one of the chairs from the dining table and, dragging it into the middle of the room, shoved him towards it.
‘Sit down, you troll.’
The old man did what he was told. He was shaking uncontrollably and seemed to be having difficulties breathing. Jamie listened to his strangled wheezing and frowned; he didn’t want the old geezer to cark it – not till he’d told him where all the goodies were.
Jamie put the hunting knife in his back pocket and took several lengths of nylon rope from a pouch in the thigh of his army pants.
‘Please,’ the old man said when he saw the rope. ‘You don’t have to tie me up.’
‘Shut the fuck up!’ Jamie bawled, and, roughly seizing the old man’s arms, he yanked them behind the back of the chair.
When he’d first started burgling the homes of the elderly, he hadn’t bothered tying up his victims as his initial assault usually left them so stunned there was no point. During one job, however, a woman he thought he’d left unconscious, managed to crawl to the telephone and call the cops while he’d been out of the room. If Jamie hadn’t happened to catch sight of a policewoman coming up the front path with her gun drawn and escaped out of the bathroom window, he’d have gone inside again for a good long stretch. So he always made sure he tied them up good and proper now.
He wound the rope around the old man’s wrists and tied his hands tightly together with a perfect reef knot (Jamie was good with knots; after four years in the merchant marine he knew every knot there was to know). Taking a longer length of rope, he wrapped it several times around the old geezer’s torso, pulling it so hard that the pallid flesh oozed through the gaps like dough, then he knotted it with a square knot. To finish off, he dropped to his knees and bound the bony ankles together, securing the ends with his favourite knot of all – the constrictor.
When he stood up he found himself looking at a framed photo of an overweight woman in her fifties. She was dolled up in evening dress and pearls, raising a glass of champagne and beaming at the camera. Jamie shuddered at the double chins, the bingo wings, the large mole on her left cheek.
‘Is that your wife, mate?’
The old man found it difficult to speak and had to pause for breath between every few words. ‘Yes -’, he gasped, ‘- that’s my wife – Tanya – .’
‘Where is she now?’
‘She died – a long time ago – I’m a widower.’
‘She looks like a pig in drag, mate. How many years were you doing her?’
‘We were – married – twenty years.’
‘You must have a strong stomach, that’s all I can say.’
Jamie’s face darkened as he returned to the business at hand.
The old man looked at him pleadingly. ‘Please don’t hurt me – I was in the special hospital a long time – the doctors said I was – a very sick man – .’
Jamie put an arm around the cadaver-white shoulders and brought his face very close to his prisoner’s.
‘How much you get hurt depends on you, grandad. It depends on how honest you are with me. Junnerstan? Now, where do you keep your fucking money?’
He squeezed his eyes shut, thinking hard. ‘My wallet’s in my bedroom – in the night-table – there’s cash in a tin on the kitchen counter – fifty dollars…’
‘Yeah? And what about savings? Where d’you keep your savings?’
‘I don’t have – any savings – you can see I’m not rich.’
Jamie smiled at him strangely, as if there was something he wanted to say but was holding back.
‘I’m gonna have a good look around myself, grandad. And if I find out you’ve been lying to me I’m gonna hurt you real bad. Junnerstan? Real fuckin’ bad.’
Jamie wiped a string of spittle from his mouth with the back of his hand and glowered at the old toad shivering on the chair. I’m not rich! I don’t have any savings! They always gave him the same bullshit. He remembered the old lady in Mendham who’d sworn on her grandchildren’s lives that she didn’t have any money in her apartment and he’d believed her. He’d got away with under a hundred dollars, then opened the paper a few days later to see her sitting up in her hospital bed, grinning away in spite of her panda eyes and busted lip, and holding up $16,000 in cash she’d had hidden behind her hot water service. Wily Widow Outwits Heartless Burglar the headline had read. After that Jamie decided he had to be more thorough, more methodical. So now, after tying them up, he always had a good search himself, and then came back for what he called ‘the lie detector test’ – they soon spilt the beans when you took the hacksaw to their fingers. It had proved a very effective method over the years; he’d turned up countless little stashes he might otherwise never have got his hands on, as well as a safe full of valuable World War Two campaign medals and a $9,000 lottery win. Of course it went wrong from time to time. There was Mrs Gullifer who’d died of shock when he was cutting through the knuckle of her middle finger, and Sydney Branch, the old guy who’d swallowed his gag and choked to death while Jamie had been upstairs. But Jamie couldn’t take the blame for either of those deaths. The old bird had suffered from a weak heart, and the old codger must have had a panic attack or something. No, Jamie’s conscience was clear. He’d just been doing his job.
It was a bit different this time anyway as Jamie knew this old fossil was bullshitting him. He had inside info this time. Jamie had been in the Jemimaville Hotel one afternoon when the old codger had come shambling past the window; Wardy, the landlord, had pointed him out and said he used to be in show biz way back when and had been a regular on telly. Wardy didn’t know whether he’d been a singer or an actor, but he was adamant he’d been on telly. Jamie’s ears had pricked up at this. If he’d been on TV then he must have made a stash, and even if it had been a long time ago there was a good chance he’d still have a tidy sum squirreled away somewhere. And if anyone could find it, Jamie could. Yes, he thought, this house had a nice surprise in store for him. He could feel it in his bones.
Jamie took a chamois leather rag from another pocket in his army pants and, ignoring the old man’s pleas, stuffed it into his mouth. He stepped back to admire his handiwork and nodded with satisfaction. Grandad was trussed up like a Christmas turkey. He wouldn’t be going anywhere in a hurry.
Jamie rapped the points of his knuckles hard on the crown of the bald head.
‘I haven’t finished with you yet, mate. Not by a long stretch.’
The old man, the ends of the rag hanging out of his crammed mouth, looked up at him with his unnaturally blue eyes. Jamie had seen that look many times before. It was a plea for mercy. But it didn’t move Jamie in the slightest. Jamie wasn’t a big believer in mercy.
He left the lounge room and went into the hallway. At the end of the long passage he could see the back door and, through its glass fanlight, the yellow starburst of Braddock’s security light. He decided to check the four rooms on the left-hand side of the hall first, then work his way back up and do all the rooms on the other side. He had to be thorough and methodical. They were his watch words.
The first room, a small utility, didn’t look very promising. He felt around inside the humid drum of the washing machine, ran his hand along the grainy shelves and searched through all the cupboards but didn’t turn anything up. The next room was the bathroom and Jamie pulled a sour face when he saw the old man’s false teeth in a glass on the toilet cistern. He ransacked the cupboard under the sink and smashed the ceramic toilet roll holder in case there was a secret hidey-hole behind it. The bathroom cabinet was so crowded with bottles of pills and plastic tubs of tablets it looked like the shelves of a pharmacy. Jamie had never heard of most of them – Trifluopazine, Flunaxol, Haloperidol, Chlorpromazine….Prolixin rang a faint bell but he couldn’t remember for the life of him what it was for. He decided to take them all when he went; ‘Chemical’ Harry would know what they were, and he usually gave Jamie a good price.
Jamie left the bathroom and went next door to the old man’s bedroom. He got the full force of his smell as he drew closer to the bed and almost gagged. It was the same smell he came across in almost every geriatric’s bedroom – the rank, organic smell of their bodies; not just their sweat and their breath but their most intimate smells, their shit and their piss, the smells they’d kept discreetly hidden throughout their adult life, but couldn’t hide any longer. And there was another smell in this room – the sickly-sweet stench of putrefaction and decay. The smell of approaching death.
Jamie took the wallet from the night-table drawer and flicked through it. There was twenty dollars in cash, and two credit cards, and he made a mental note to get the pins before he left. He tossed the bed (under the mattress was a favourite hiding place), then went through the chest of drawers and the wardrobe, emptied out the contents of a Louis Sherry box onto the bed (a sewing kit, playing cards, some old badges), and swept the books off the shelves, but found nothing. He thought it was odd there was none of his wife’s jewellery around. Chances were that he’d given them to the kids, but he’d double check – that string of pearls could have been worth quite a bit.
The last room turned out to be just a cupboard full of cleaning products, brooms, mops and old shoes. Jamie turned on the light and had a look around inside but there was nowhere to hide anything in there and he came out empty-handed again. He paused by the back door. He could feel the autumn chill coming through the splintery crack he’d made in the frame when he’d jemmied it open. A moped went by on the Sewell road and, when its mosquito whine had faded and it was quiet again, he could hear the fleshy throbbings of the frogs by the river. Jamie felt a strong urge for a smoke but managed to resist the temptation. He still had a lot of work to do.
He went back up the hall and, opening a door directly across from the pensioner’s bedroom, flicked on the light. His first impression was that it was a store room full of old junk, but as he looked more closely he let out a long whistle: it wasn’t a store room at all – it was a museum! And Jamie had to laugh; old Wardy had got it all arse upwards as usual: the wrinkly hadn’t been a singer or an actor – he’d been a magician. Everywhere Jamie looked there were theatre bills and promotional posters advertising The Great Boursini, and, in spite of the passing years, there could be no doubt that the magician’s piercing blue eyes and second-hand car salesman’s moustache belonged to the old husk he’d left tied up in the lounge room. From a large poster on the far wall, The Great Boursini, in black top hat and cape, stared mysteriously at Jamie over a fan of playing cards.
The room was crammed with a career’s worth of props: tasselled folding tables, bird cages, decorated Chinese screens, magic boxes of various sizes, a bulky wooden stage guillotine, a levitation bed, and several full-length mirrors. There was a box like a coffin on the floor which Jamie recognized from TV by the hinges in the middle and the holes in each end, as the prop magicians used when they pretended to saw their assistant in two. At the back of the room there were cardboard boxes overflowing with silk scarves, plastic flowers and silver jugs for water tricks. Jamie grinned, showing his yellow rodent teeth, and rubbed his hands together. All his burglar’s instincts told him he’d hit pay dirt. If the old crumbly had a secret treasure, this was where it would be hidden.
He decided to try the cardboard boxes first and threaded his way carefully through the props to get to them. He paused to look in a wardrobe full of outdated black suits, frilly-fronted shirts, and a magician’s black cape with red silk lining. On a shelf there were three top hats and he made up his mind to take one with him and wear it down the pub next time he went – it would give his mates a good laugh. As he passed the guillotine he playfully touched the blade with his finger and gave a violent start. The blade was razor sharp! Jamie looked at his fingertip and, like invisible ink held up to a flame, a thin red line slowly began to appear. He sucked it for a few seconds, then inspected it again, frowning. The cut wasn’t deep, but thank fuck he hadn’t run his finger up the blade or it would have sliced it in two. Jamie glared at the poster of The Great Boursini on the far wall. The expression on the magician’s face seemed different somehow, as if, behind the fan of playing cards, he was sniggering at him. Jamie’s top lip curled into a snarl. He’d make the old crock suffer for that. He knew a thing or two about cutting fingers himself…
Jamie’s path to the cardboard boxes was blocked by a heavy wooden cupboard shaped like an Egyptian sarcophagus, decorated with magical signs and symbols, and punctured all over with small apertures like coin slots. Jamie recognized this prop from TV as well – it was called a sword cabinet. The magician locked his leggy assistant inside, then took a sword, and after demonstrating its sharpness, plunged it into the cabinet. He did this with sword after sword until the audience was convinced the assistant had been turned into a human kebab, at which point he’d serenely remove the swords and she’d emerge from the cabinet unharmed. Jamie was always blown away when he saw the trick performed on TV and had never been able to figure out how they did it (retractable sword blades? A secret compartment?). He bear-hugged the sword cabinet now, expecting it to be a bastard to move, and was surprised when it slid away easily from him on chrome ball coasters.
He took one cardboard box at a time, emptied it onto the floor, then carefully examined its contents. He trawled through playing cards and coloured handkerchiefs, juggling balls and lacquered boxes, coils of rope, metal rings, plastic hoops and handcuffs, but didn’t come across anything of any value. There was a large box full of trophies (Melbourne Magic Circle’s Magician of the Year 1960) which could be melted down for their silver, but he knew he wouldn’t get much for them.
He was taking down another box when he noticed a row of hardback books of various colours and sizes lined up along the skirting-board. At first he thought they were diaries as each had a year printed on its spine, beginning at 1953 and ending in 1977, but on looking closer, he saw that they were scrapbooks. They aroused Jamie’s curiosity, and, not being in any great hurry, (after all, The Great Boursini – or what was left of him – wasn’t going anywhere), he sat down on the hinged coffin and picked out 1955 at random.
The early pages were filled with evidence of a fledgling career struggling to get airborne – homemade flyers (The Great Boursini’s Cabaret of Magic, January 30th 1953), small ads he’d taken out in local newspapers (‘children’s parties a speciality…’) copies of his magician’s CV that began, ‘Derek Slater has been performing as The Great Boursini since May 1952’, and went on to recite a long list of the private parties where he’d performed. There were some early publicity photos showing him as a skinny young man barely out of his twenties; the spivvy moustache was jet black, and his hair was teased into a fashionable quiff. Even in black and white, there was something striking about his eyes.
Jamie flicked ahead. There were programmes for shows at obscure venues in towns all over Victoria – Pete’s Place Restaurant, Mt. Buffalo, Sunny Acres Golf Club, Shepperton, Elysian Fields Retirement Home, Horsham, Bradley’s Supper Club, Lakes Entrance. There was a Certificate of Appreciation from the Yarram Homeowners’ Association and a handwritten thank you letter from Gerald of Gerald’s Pizzeria, Benalla. There were no reviews as such, but any mention of The Great Boursini’s name in the local press was cut out and eagerly underlined in red. Jamie came across a photo from the Marjingali Times which showed The Great Boursini performing on the daggy stage of Marjingali’s community hall; a banner behind him read: Lions Club Father and Son Day. In spite of the rows of empty chairs he was smiling and stretching out his arm towards his assistant, who was stepping from a sword cabinet which looked identical to the one Jamie had just moved. Jamie checked the assistant out; the spangly costume she was wearing must have been pretty cutting edge for the 1950s, it showed off her long legs and nice rack to good effect. The photo was pretty faded but he noticed a large mole on her left cheek and it slowly dawned on him that this was the boiler in the framed photo on the organ, the old codger’s dead wife, Tanya. Although not given to philosophy, Jamie shook his head and whistled at what time could do to a fuckable piece of pussy.
Towards the end of the scrapbook there was a clipping from the Daylesford Chronicle of Derek Slater and Tanya on their wedding day. Beneath the headline, A Wanderful Occasion!, there was a photo of the newly-weds walking arm in arm between two lines of guests who were holding magic wands aloft to make a roof above their heads. Tanya was wearing a frothy white bridal gown, but Slater was in his magician’s top hat and cape, and, although it was clearly meant to be a bit of fun, the outfit gave the photo a strangely sinister quality. Jamie skim read the small article under the photo: ‘….Derek Slater, or The Great Boursini as he’s known professionally, married his assistant, Tanya Davies, yesterday at Daylesford’s picturesque Uniting Church…Tanya can look forward to many years of being stabbed with swords and sawn in half by her husband…’
Jamie tossed 1955 aside and picked up 1965. He could tell at a glance that The Great Boursini’s career had taken a huge leap forward in the intervening ten years. Instead of a mention here and there in some local rag there were proper reviews in better quality newspapers. He was no longer just performing in Victoria, but touring all over Australia and appearing in the best venues – The Carousel Club, Adelaide, The Ramona Theatre, Brisbane, The Ambassadors’ Lounge, Sydney, and although his name was never at the top of the bill, it was never at the bottom either. There was a TV listings page cut from a newspaper, and Stan Webber’s Funhouse at 7pm on ABC was frenziedly circled in red. The Great Boursini’s name appeared among the list of performers and had been underlined three times. A little further on there was a profile from a glossy magazine entitled, Australia’s Mr. Magic, and a colour photo showed him on stage in front of a packed audience performing the ‘sawing a woman in two’ trick. He had the hinged coffin jack-knifed open in the middle, and Tanya’s head was poking out of one section while her white stilettos were – surreally – sticking out of the other. The Great Boursini stood soaking up the applause, smiling ecstatically, and, as Jamie studied the photo, he smiled too. You don’t get to be on TV, he thought, without making a shitload of money. There’d be a stash hidden somewhere in this house and Jamie would find it. With any luck there’d be enough for him to be able to go back to the Pink Palace in Melbourne and have a week long fuckfest with Donna and Jenna like he had when he’d found the lottery winnings….
Jamie picked out 1975 and the greedy smile withered on his lips. Instead of going on to greater triumphs, Derek Slater’s career had gone backwards. The scrapbook was again full of programmes from obscure venues in obscure Victorian towns, cheap flyers, and ads in the classifieds (‘children’s parties a speciality…’). The Great Boursini was back playing the God-forsaken holes he’d played twenty years before – back in Marjingali’s daggy community hall, back in Sunny Acres golf club, back in Gerald’s Pizzeria. As Jamie turned the pages, his mouth twisted into an ugly scowl. With every page he saw the dollars disappearing; with every miserable page he saw Donna and Jenna’s mouths and tits and snatches slipping out of reach. What the fuck had happened? What had gone wrong?
He got his answer when he came to a newspaper article with the headline – Audience Boos The Great Bore-sini. A blurry photo showed a confused struggle taking place at one extreme of the stage, and Tanya, in her forties now and running to fat, looking ridiculous in her skimpy costume, caught in the central spotlight, her cheeks smudged with mascara from crying. Jamie read – ‘…the TV magician was booed off stage and angry audience members demanded their money back. Ken Grace who had bought tickets for the show to celebrate his wife’s birthday said, “The guy was drunk out of his mind, he kept messing tricks up and then blaming his assistant. He was swearing at her, calling her all sorts of names. Some of the audience started heckling him, telling him to leave her alone, and he just spat the dummy. He got hold of one guy and I really thought he was going to kill him….” In a statement The Great Boursini’s agent, Darren Keogh, said that the showbiz couple were going through marital difficulties…’
Jamie heard something and quickly looked round. He strained his ears, but the noise didn’t come again. Probably a logging truck going over a manhole cover on the Sewell road, he thought. It couldn’t have been the wrinkly, there was no way the old geezer could have got out of the knots he’d tied – they would have held a grizzly bear in place. After listening to the thick silence for another few seconds Jamie turned around again. He picked up the last scrapbook which was dated 1977.
The Great Boursini was now performing alone. It seemed he’d lost even the dismal supper clubs and retirement homes he used to play and now performed mainly at private parties as he had at the very beginning of his career. There was a yellowed Polaroid of him holding out a fan of playing cards to a disinterested group of children in a suburban garden. He’d aged considerably and his hair and moustache were quite white. It was a hot day and he was in shirtsleeves. He looked drunk, his eyes hooded, his body held at an odd angle as if he were struggling to keep his balance on a yawing ship. Jamie looked at his thin arms and bloated gut, the tell-tale signs of an alcoholic.
He pursed his lips and uttered a stream of expletives. He wasn’t going to find a big stash, he wasn’t going to live it up at the Pink Palace with Donna and Jenna; the old loser had probably drunk every cent he’d ever earned. It looked like the height of The Great Boursini’s fame had been a series of TV appearances in the mid-sixties and then his career and his personal life had taken the long slow ride down the dunny. Jamie had got himself all worked up for nothing; all he’d go away with was fifty dollars, some cancer pills and a fucking top hat. When he looked at the poster of the Great Boursini the magician’s expression seemed to have changed again; now the piercing blue eyes appeared to be openly mocking him. He felt the anger rise in his chest like a poisonous wave and clenched his fists. He was going to enjoy this one, he thought, he was going to enjoy every minute of it. He rose to go to the lounge room and as he did so the pages of the scrapbook flopped forwards and a headline screamed out at him: Woman’s Remains Found in Quarry.
He sat back down and stared at the grainy photo of a scrum of police officers climbing up a grassy bank in a rainstorm. They carried a stretcher between them and on it, covered by a white blanket, was something oddly shaped, truncated. Jamie read:
‘…a man walking his dog in Sewell quarry on Tuesday morning discovered a woman’s torso in an advanced state of decomposition….police found the lower half of the woman buried nearby…inquiries are under way to identify the murder victim whom police say was white and aged between forty and sixty years of age…’
Jamie hesitated before he turned the page. He had a queasy feeling he knew what he was going to find. And sure enough the front page of the Sydney Morning Telegraph blared: Ex-Husband Arrested In Torso Murder. There was a photo of Derek Slater being restrained by two policemen outside Melbourne Central Criminal Court. His mouth was wide open and stringy with saliva, and those eyes – the pinpoint pupils…Jamie could see now that there was something lupine, something untranslatable about them.
Jamie felt a cold draft on his back as if a door had been opened and he shot a nervous glance behind him. The hallway was empty. He listened for a long time, but couldn’t detect any change in the silent house and he turned back to the scrapbook.
‘… Dennis Slater was charged this morning with the murder of his ex-wife Tanya Davies…the couple had worked together as a magic act until an acrimonious divorce in 1975…the prosecution’s contention is that Slater lured the victim to his home by pretending he wanted to resurrect their stage show…once she’d entered the stage prop, he locked her inside and then murdered her by cutting her body in half with a power saw in a grisly reprise of the trick they used to perform together…’
Jamie looked down at the hinged coffin he was sitting on. It couldn’t be the same one…could it? Surely the police would have kept the one she’d died in?
He hurriedly leafed through the pages of newspaper cuttings describing the trial until he found the verdict: Guilty But Insane in Torso Murder.
‘…the jury was swayed by defence experts’ evidence that Slater was suffering from acute schizophrenia at the time of the murder. The Judge, Peter Wilcox, ordered Slater to be detained indefinitely at Crosskeyes Prison for the criminally insane. He stressed that Slater had not evaded justice as he was likely to remain confined for the rest of his life…’
Jamie knew now why Prolixin had rung a bell – it must have been one of the drugs they’d tried on his brother before he’d slit his wrists…
There were only a few more pages in the scrapbook and Jamie was curious to see what else was left to tell. The final cutting was weirdly reminiscent of an earlier one – Slater in handcuffs on the steps of Melbourne Central Criminal Court, struggling frenziedly with a group of policemen – but this time the headline read: Murderer Recaptured After Eight Hours on the Loose.
‘…Derek Slater, who worked as a professional magician for many years, managed to free himself from his handcuffs and pick the lock on the prison van in which he was being transported to Crosskeyes mental institution. Crosskeyes’s Governor, Saxby Chambliss, said, “We hadn’t realized that, as part of his repertoire as a magician, he used to perform tricks which involved escaping from handcuffs and ropes. Now that we know what Slater is capable of we will obviously take extra precautions in the future.”’
Jamie felt his blood run cold. ‘Escaping from handcuffs…and ropes.’
He stood abruptly and pulled out his knife. Going to the door he listened, and then, as quietly as he could, walked back up the hallway to the lounge room.
The chair lay on its side, the three ropes coiled like sleeping snakes on the carpet. There was no sign of the old man.
(To Be Continued…)