It all began when I was sent to Thursday Island on assignment from The Organisation in Canberra. The Organisation is very secret and as far as I know it has no other name. I was introduced to it early in my career in the Army. But I’ve told you that somewhere else. As far as I was concerned it was, for me, the Great Australian Detective novel.
But now it is different. I am a lot older and I really can’t do all that I used to do.
I was still in my dressing gown and slippers that morning when I heard the lid of my post-box clatter as is was closed with all the casual lack of concern that a postman gets as he senses retirement and his last few rounds somewhere not too far away. So, coffee in hand, I wandered down the steps of my new flat in Ballarat expecting advertising brochures and demands for money. And I wasn’t disappointed. But amongst the rubbish was a battered, mangled brown envelope that looked rather like something my grand daughter might have played with two or three years ago.
The main address was for me at the house I had lived in when I came out of the Army. I told you about that some time ago. That was when the love of my life, Ramona, tried to kill me while I was trying to find out where the guns for the great Bookie Robbery had come from.
I hadn’t lived there for years but the Post Office tried hard and sent it to the school I taught at in Fitzroy – since closed due to the gentrification of the area and the stampede of the Italian and Lebanese migrants from the inner suburbs to the outer green belt and the two storey el cheapo mansions of the new middle class.
Then the letter was re-directed to my ex-wife’s house and her neat, emphatic and angry hand addressed it to my flat in Caulfield and the Caulfield Post Office sent it to me, here, in Ballarat.
It was from my old school, ostensibly from my old rowing master. I could have walked over and picked it up although I wasn’t living here at the time it was sent.
So who was it from – not ostensibly? Ostensibly is quite a strange word and you have to delve to find its origins but the antonym is simple – ‘really’. The opposite of ‘ostensibly’ is ‘really’. So, question, who was the letter really from?
Answer, I had no idea. But not my old rowing master.
When I was sent away to school I was a young boy from the bush. I was naïve and did not fit in well. We were not a wealthy family and most of the boys I was thrown amongst were hard, wealthy and unforgiving. But I was strong and well built for may age and the rowing master cornered me in the gym one day and introduced me to rowing. By the time I left school at the end of year twelve I was the stroke of the first eight. But I was not just an ox. I was also relatively intelligent and I knew that this letter could not be from my old rowing Master. One plus one equals two and fifty plus fifty was equal to one hundred and my old rowing master would have to be over a hundred if he was still alive.
The invitation was for a day about a month ahead of time in a coffee shop next to the old cemetery just up from the lake.
And because it had taken a month to get to me I wasn’t at all surprised to see that if I hurried and missed shaving I would just about make it on time.
There was nobody from my old rowing life anywhere to be seen. The coffee shop has about four separate rooms and anyone can disappear and be lost in a caffeine-induced haze for hours. I had just determined to give up and go back to photographing a snail climbing up a lettuce leaf when two university students with earphones attached to iPhones sat down opposite me and started talking between themselves with me left in the middle getting more and more annoyed.
I tried not to listen to their conversation although my subconscious recognised such vacuous phrases as ‘like you know’, ‘they don’t even have a Starbucks here’ and ‘cool’. But what was worse they both kept ‘texting’ on their ‘phones with thumbs flashing at lightning speed.
I pushed back my chair and went to stand up. The one with the weird haircut and tattoos put out his hand to stop me and said, “Like man, why don’t you sit back and give us a chat about finding that guy who made that gun the bookie robbers used.”
The other moron grinned and grunted and said, “Yeah dude. Back at the office some people haven’t heard about it. And can we get the lowdown on that drug bust in Tassie.”
Their slang was either so far out of date they must have looked it up on the internet or so new they had only made it up on the spot but they both turned their ’phones off and looked directly at me.
“And by the way old man, we are from the office of you know whom. Or is it ‘who’?” I didn’t answer. “And the only names we can give you are now no longer with us but this little piece of paper should reassure that we are the real deal and you have another job to do.”
“I know who you are – the same bastards who sent me on the chase after the bookie robbers and the same people who nearly got me killed chasing drug dealers up the coast of Tasmania. You’re just younger, ruder, probably more nasty than they were.”
* * *
I got up and walked out. First of all I didn’t enjoy sitting and talking to two recent graduates who both looked like they were partially stupid and I was expecting the one with the weird haircut to be dragging his Neanderthal thumbs on the bitumen. They followed me. I did say ‘first’ and the second reason was that if they wanted to talk a little less like the year nine boys I had given up teaching ten years ago, then they could jolly well talk on my terms not theirs. What’s more, the waiter was an ex-student of mine, name of Beau, son of an indulgent single mother, who had spent his childhood being teased unmercifully by boys the carbon copies of these two and I didn’t feel comfortable.
I drove down to the North Britain Hotel. It’s only a rock’s throw from my place and they do a very acceptable ‘Lambs Fry and Bacon’ on mashed potatoes. The two children followed me ten minutes later and came and sat at the same table. Julie, the forty-year-old barmaid hovered. I was in love with Julie and I proposed marriage, or something, the first time I saw her. She had one of those fantastic smiles where you can see her teeth flashing like the lights at the start of a police line-up for the booze bus. Julie wasn’t in love with me but she certainly made it easy to forgive her.
“And what would you two boys like to drink? We do a very nice lemon squash here. Of course if you want to show me some I.D. I might get you a beer.” I will buy Julie a bunch of roses tomorrow. If I had wanted to put those two in their place I couldn’t have come up with a better plan.
They flashed I.D., she brought them beer and me a whisky. They ordered steak and she asked them if they wanted her to cut it up.
“What the hell’s the matter with that bird?” the Neanderthal asked and I told them that if they were trying to prove they were old and mature they should go back to drama class and try again. “Anyway what do you two little sparkling wonders want to talk to me about?”
The other one, whom I had christened Osty for ‘australopithecine’ – I was a little bit in to palaeontology at this time – said, “OK, Johnnie Boy can we stop mucking about and get to the reason we came to see you.”
I shoved my chair back. It fell over and I walked out. Osty chased me. “Come back. We need to talk to you.”
“You call me Johnnie Boy one more time and I will break my arthritic knuckles against your receding forehead you little twerp. Now we go back in there, we sit down and you get on your bloody iPads or whatever you have and look at my record in detail and when you are ready to apologise and treat me with the respect I deserve then I might just listen to what you came here to tell me.”
They sat over at another table with their beers and left me to finish my meal. Julie asked me if I wanted another whisky and I told her to tell the boys that they were paying. She smiled that bloody smile. “They’re not that bad. They’re just young.”
It took five or ten minutes and they came over. The Neanderthal said he was sorry we had got off on a bad foot and Osty said, “No one told us what you had done. We were told to pick up an old bloke get him to do a few little things for us. All the instructors at training school tell us about the Great Bookie Robbery and how Ramona was killed. We never knew it was you. I am so, so sorry we talked to you like we did.”
He turned toward the bar and caught Julie’s eye. “Could we have another whisky for our guest, please.” His name was James. The Neanderthal was William. “Call me John,” I said.
Then they told me what it was all about.
“Well, Sir,” William said. “It is really quite a simple job and I don’t mean that in a patronising way. What we mean is that it shouldn’t include any of the dangerous sorts of things you have had to deal with in your other jobs.”
I was beginning to like these two boys. Maybe I had been an old grouch and blamed them for the way the Department had treated me in the past when they had no idea of the past. I sat back and listened.
* * *
My warm feelings of a moment earlier didn’t last long. Probably my fault.
“We want you to take some paperwork with you to Thursday Island and deliver it to …..”
“Stop. Just stop right there. Up ’til now I thought it was maybe a joke. Let’s see if you can clear up a few things for me. First of all who exactly are you two kids? And I want to see some ID and not the sort you use to you can prove you’re old enough to be out this late. Secondly how did you know I was going to Thursday Island?”
“You know who we are.” This was William. The Neanderthal. “When you were in the Army and you tracked down the people who provided the gun for the Bookie robbery it came under a small, not well known part of the Army Intelligence Corps. When you were in Tasmania helping find some druggies it was supposed to be the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Apart from that we can’t really tell you. Can we just say it’s ‘Canberra’ and leave it at that.”
“No. Not unless you show me something that truly identifies you. And what about how did you know I was going to T.I.?”
“We know you’re going to Cairns to see your brother and we know your going to Thursday Island to stay with a friend of his because we read your texts.”
“We read your text messages on your mobile phone. And don’t get all funny about that. Everyone does.”
Osty, the other early hominid, added his bit. “And we haven’t got anything to show you who we are officially. You’ll have to believe us.”
I got up and pushed my chair back. “I’m going. One of you pay for the drinks.” I left and went home. And that said John, is that!
Today I spent most of the time putting together a small build-it-yourself backyard shed. Years of collecting books and extraneous pieces of rubbish and beer making gadgets have left me with more than I can fit in a small one man unit. So a shed is necessary. On two or three occasions I ducked down to the hardware store to buy a new saw, some screws and glue and to take rubbish to the tip.
It was therefore very, very surprising when my phone rang. Not my mobile phone – my fixed landline phone; like a phone on the end of a wire that comes out of a wall. Why so surprised? Because I don’t have one. I mean I didn’t have one. I do now.
I suppose it was because of the two boys bringing up my ancient history that made me recognise the voice on the other end of the line. “Good evening young fellow. How has life been treating you?” It was the Colonel from my old Army days and Ramona and Owen guns and bookie robberies. He didn’t give me time to answer but just went on. He must have been eighty by now and would obviously not be still in his old job. “I bumped into a fellow I knew back when you and I were playing silly buggers. I doubt if you knew him and I won’t tell you his name even if you did know him. However, he is now working for the same people you and I worked with back then. He is in fact major domus and he asked me to let you know that the two boys that annoyed you recently are legitimate and are who they say they are but that they can’t show you anything to prove that. But to put it as formally as he can he wishes to ask you if you could please give us a bit of a hand when you get to Thursday Island.” He stopped to take a breath and I jumped into the gap.
“And it is very nice to hear from you Colonel. I suppose there is little point in my refusing so I imagine I will hear from the two youngsters again.”
“They will be in the reading room at the Mechanics Institute on the day before you fly out for Cairns. I trust you will have a pleasant trip up north. If I am still alive I may speak with you again.”
He hung up without giving me a chance to say anything more. I made a coffee and picked up the phone to dial Information to find out what my new ‘phone number was. The line was dead. Absolutely dead. Disconnected. All rather ominous.
I am now in the hands of two tyros who are yet to instil in me much confidence.
* * *
The day before I leave for Cairns I go to the Mechanics Institute Reading room. It opens at 10 in the morning and I arrived at ten minutes after. My plan was to be there waiting for them and when they arrive I will look at my watch and show my annoyance at being kept waiting.
There are three comfortable chairs and I sat reading the morning paper. It is necessary to pass these chairs to get into the reading room. This way I’ll know when they arrive.
After about ten minutes I go into the reading room to make sure that we won’t be disturbed. They were already there! They beat me to it.
The discussion was not all that enlightening.
“Briefly it has to do with Border Force.” Osty was the spokesman for today. I forget his real name. “Apparently, what with Thursday Island being so small, having Queensland Police, Federal Police and Border Force gung-ho warriors all crowded in the same place there is a little bit of tension developing. It’s a bit like the bikies turning up to a Country Women’s Association meeting and finding that the PWMU ladies have booked the place for a prayer meeting.
“That’s all we can say at the moment. Your job is to wander around acting like an old fart with a camera. Poke your camera in as many faces as you want, annoy anybody and just wait for a reaction. If we send someone who is currently operative it might be a bit obvious.
“That’s all. When you get on the plane from Cairns to T.I. just take notice of the other passengers. Your contact up there won’t introduce herself until a day or so but you will remember seeing her on the flight. She will just happen to be in a coffee shop or café and you will say, ‘Did I see you on the flight up from Cairns?’ and she will reply, ‘I’m not sure. Did you?‘ which may sound stupid or rude or whatever but you will know who she is.”
“So, is this ‘contact’ old or young, pretty or ugly, married or single?”
“How would we know? What you see is what you get. And what you get is in charge and will tell you all you need to know.”
That was all I need. I hope she is old, I hope she is ugly and I hope she is married. I don’t need another Ramona in my life. The last one tried to kill me.
I left and came home and packed.
The Reading Room.
(PWMU – Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union. I’ve no idea how Osty would have ever heard of them.)
* * *
The easiest part of the whole adventure was getting to Cairns. I heard the alarum go at 3.30 in the morning. I know I heard it then because I had been lying in bed, wide eyed awake since two waiting for it. As a result I got to the shuttle bus (Ballarat to Tullamarine) in plenty of time. I planned on trialling the idea of seeing if I could recognise the people on the plane as I had been instructed. But I was in the third row from the front and the only people I saw were the hostesses who have always looked eminently marriageable no matter what aeroplane I was on. So they didn’t count. There was one mum with a cute little four year old girl, a recently married couple – I’d reckon about 24 hours recent who spent I lot of time getting to know each other, and a group of international tourists who all look the same to me.
Then I closed my eyes and went through in my mind other flights I have made. There was one time, sitting in a British Airways Trident jet on the runway at Nice. Nice only had one runway, which ran parallel to the beach, the wind was fairly brisk and blowing across the strip. The pilot or the co-pilot came over the speaker with, “Ladies and Gentlemen we apologise for the delay but we have been advised by the tower that the cross wind is just a little over the recommendation for this aeroplane so we will just have to wait for further advice.”
Just then a Pan-Am jet raced down the runway and took off.
The co-pilot who had obviously not switched off the inter-com was heard to say to his colleague, “If that Yank can do it, we can.” And without missing a beat the pilot said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for your patience. We have just been advised that the wind had dropped and we will take off immediately.”
I do believe that every passenger in the plane expressed a degree of suspicion with some fairly obvious language.
Next step was to get the plane from Cairns to Thursday Island. Again things weren’t as simple as the people in Canberra envisioned. This time the little aeroplane was narrow with one aisle and two seats each side. We were at the very back. We went on first. I couldn’t see anyone in front because the flight was bumpy, the seat belt sign stayed on the whole way and everyone in front of me got off first.
The only positive was that because it was a Qantas flight all refreshments were free. They were simple and non-alcoholic but we both grabbed what was on offer. We landed on Horn Island, got a ferry to Thursday Island and waited for the sun to go down over Friday Island.
On the first day on the island I set off to do a round of the shops. There aren’t many so I looked for some signs of Border Force and took a few obvious photographs. For one set I walked through a yard and fortunately the sun was in my eyes so I did not see the sign that said, “All persons entering this yard must report to the office first”. I’m pretty sure that is what it said. Nobody stopped me but one of the Border Force persons on the boat that had just pulled out did stare at me for a while. I think staring is impolite.
I saw no sign of anyone who could possibly be ‘Canberra’ so I decided to spend as much time as possible being a tourist. It was, after all, my decision to go to the Torres Strait that piqued Canberra’s interest.
Things in the island are very expensive. Milk is double the price of down south, as is petrol. Wine is only a little bit more. The warmth of the tropics is welcome although there is a surcharge in the form of a dramatic increase in the humidity.
* * *
And about time too. No contact for three days; nobody walked up and said hello; no people who looked out of place, except for me. Then this morning a husband and wife couple pushing a baby in a pram stopped, suddenly, at the coffee shop and, breaking every rule they would have learnt in any spy school from Moscow to Washington – even the Pink Panther wouldn’t do it, they gushed and heaved a sigh of relief. “We thought we missed you. Where have you been? We looked in both coffee shops last night and in the afternoon but they were closed.”
”Yes. They would be. If anyone had bothered to do their homework they would have known that the only two coffee shops on Thursday Island close at two in the afternoon. You were supposed to bump into me in the morning. So, assuming you are who you’re supposed to be I’m s’posed to say, ‘didn’t I see you on the plane?’ And what do you say?”
And the husband bloke said, ‘yes and we saw you too’ and the wife type person said, “No Darling. That’s not right. You’re supposed to say, ‘I don’t know. Did you?’ That’s right, isn’t it!”? She looked at me so proud that she had got it right. I’m hoping he isn’t the clever one.
Then to prove a point she turned to her husband. “Darling, could you take Blossom for a walk while I have a little chat with our new friend.”
”Yes dear. Where will I go.”
”Just down there to the jetty and stay for a while.”
He walked away pushing Blossom and did not hear the last mumbled comment imploring him to ‘hopefully fall of the edge of the jetty and drown’. I assumed that there was no actual baby in the pram.
”He is an idiot,” she said. “And I get lumbered with him. Anyway, I’m Janine and you, I assume are John. So the instructions are fairly simple. We aren’t interested in what you actually find. What HQ wants to know is whether Border Force, the Queensland Police Service (QPS) and The Australian Federal Police (AFP) are working together well or is there tension or are they getting in each other’s way. We don’t care how you find out. What we do want to know is what you think is happening. But most importantly you aren’t to get involved in any actual investigations. I am instructed to ask you if that is clearly understood.”
”And I assume that I am supposed to answer that I have no intention of getting my hands dirty. Is that correct?”
”Yes. Thank you.”
“And when I have come to an opinion who do I contact?”
“You don’t contact anyone. When you have come to an opinion book your ticket back to Cairns; we will find out and I will meet you at the airport.”
”Is that all?” She nodded. “So do you now take your friend and ‘Blossom’ back home and leave me to get on with my work?”
”No. He should already be on the ferry over to Horn Island and sitting waiting for the plane. I, on the other hand, have a week’s holiday and I am staying with a friend right here. So I might see you around.”
* * *
It should be clear that the reason I chose Thursday Island for a holiday was that I have a friend who works on the island and this helps me to get ‘into’ things quickly. This friend has an ‘in’ with a local detective of the Queensland police and so he, the detective, became my first stop. Well actually I didn’t but I asked my friend, whom I shall call Mike, for easy remembering, to go and have a chat with the copper chap. Mike works with all sorts of people translating from the local creole into English so that dumb people can understand what the locals are saying.
Mike’s policeman friend had been trying to understand what some local drug dealer was talking about and asked Mike to translate a tape or something – he won’t give me any more details than that – and I asked him to slip in a question about local, Federal, Queensland, and Border Force relationships and the reply was that they all got on pretty well together. So if that is the case then my job is done and we can all go home.
His actual words were, “If we need something we push them; if they need something they push us.”
But I had no intention of letting it go at that. I intended to have a holiday, and I don’t care what they say, I will enjoy my holiday in my own way.
My next step involved a boat.
The Launceston and was originally of the Royal Australian Navy until it became a part of Australian Border Force. And that is a pretty impressive looking fellow; I wouldn’t like to meet him on a dark night in a deep-water channel between two islands. I went into the ABF offices and tried being subtle. I made up some kind of story about being a Navy freak and asked if they would tell me if the Launceston was a Navy ship on loan to Border Force or was it officially now a Border Force boat and could I go on board and have a look at it.
The only definite answer to any of my queries was one “No”. All my other question were avoided or received a shrug of the shoulders.
I may need to do a little more digging.
* * *
The next night Thursday Island’s spectacular sunsets were an outstanding failure. All that was delivered was a mediocre picture of grey with the sun sinking behind deep clouds and the moon only fitfully poking its nose around some corner or other. The alternative to sitting in a borrowed house, overlooking an island hospital, reading strangers’ books or old National Geographics was to go down, in the dark, to the jetties – there are three – and take evocative photographs of small boats bobbing on their lines.
Away across to the channel that separates Prince of Wales Island from Friday Island three bobbing green lights appeared. I assumed they would come into the port where I sat but they continued around the island and disappeared. The clock ticked along and I settled back, leaning on the base of a huge old mango tree. More green lights appeared in different directions and disappeared. I think I slept.
When I woke the moon was starting to win over the clouds and I could make out shadows and the boats that wore the green lights. Some boats were quite quiet; those that had small electric outboard motors would glide silently to their mooring.
Between the two main jetties the water was lit by the port lights but I was sitting between the Main Wharf and the farthest of the three – Rebel’s Wharf – and here the lights did not meet and there was a wide strip off dark water.
Behind me, on the bank, I heard a hushed whisper and two figures crept by me; about ten feet away. They sat on the sand in the dark under the same tree that I leant on. They were waiting, and, as I wasn’t in any hurry to make a noise, I waited as well.
Half an hour went by; there was a soft whistle from the water and one of the men gave a low whistle in reply. A shadow appeared; a boat carrying no light. The two men helped to drag the boat in to shore and three others got out. Two were obviously passengers; they both carried bags; and the other stepped back into the boat.
As the boat pushed off I heard some very clear words. “Yu kambaigen tumoro. Em go gad bigblaik gen. Mipla go gad nada pasinza.” I did not write these words down but I asked my mate Mike – the creole translator – to tell me what I had probably heard.
“You come back here tomorrow. It’s going to be cloudy again. We’ve got another passenger.”
Now I’m not Einstein but that all sounds a little dodgy to me. However the next night the sky was clear, the moon bright and nobody arrived to meet a boat that didn’t turn up.
* * *
OK, So the next night was, as I said, cloudless and I didn’t go down to the beach. But as things happened that was just as well.
Next morning Mike and I were upstairs; I’d just put on the coffee and there was a loud knocking downstairs, on the front door. Mike went down to see who it was and he came up followed by Noel, the police sergeant, he been working with. He didn’t seem quite as easy as he was the other day
I stood up, “I’ve just put coffee on. Can I get you a cup?’
“No.” he said. “I’d rather you sat down.”
Ouch, I thought. In police talk that sounds quite negative.
Mike and Noel exchanges raised eyebrows and gritted teeth and shakes of the head and then Noel started.
“Right, let’s get some facts sorted here. Mike, I have a taped intercept for you to listen to so can we go in to another room, and you,” he said looking at me, “just sit and drink your coffee.”
About five minutes later they were back. Mike was looking uncomfortable. I’m not sure it that is the right word but he didn’t look the same as before.
Noel started. “What have you been up to these last few days to while away your time? Don’t answer. I know. First of all you ask me how I get on with the Border Force people. And what did I tell you. Don’t answer. I know because I was there. I said we got on well together. Different roles, same objectives. I want something I’ll push them. They want something, they’ll push me.
“Then where did you go?”
By now I didn’t think it would be prudent to answer him.
“Next day you go for a leisurely walk down to the services’ wharf and happen to bump into a young Army engineer who is about to go on board the Army’s local supply vessel. And what do you ask him? You ask him how the military get along with Border Force. And you feed him a few lines. ‘Do they come over like ghung ho warriors with their big boat and their smart uniforms and their guns on their hips?’ And what did he reply? Don’t tell me. I know what he said. Do you know how I know? Because I asked him. So here we have it. You have been hoofing it around town asking people questions that are inclined to annoy people. Have you spoken to anyone else?”
Now if you are intending to lie to someone as intelligent as this police officer seemed to be it is always good to think carefully before you do.
“No,” I said. “No one else.”
“Now I’m really truly sorry you said that.” He didn’t sound one tiny bit sorry. “Did you forget your big long chat with the CO of Border Force when you went in to their lovely big headquarters building? It started out so nice. A simple question from a ‘navy ships’ enthusiast. ‘Is that big ship down on the pier a Navy ship on loan to Border Force or does it now belong to Border Force outright. Because it was originally the HMAS Launceston, wasn’t it.’ That’s what you said. But as you were leaving you couldn’t help yourself, could you? Quick little query about relations between the various security arms in the Torres Strait.”
I said nothing. What could I say? He was obviously very quietly steaming underneath his cool exterior.
“Now, Mike. How about you give John a brief summary of the intercept I gave you before. Not too much. Leave out the bits that might be operational.”
Mike started slowly and didn’t like saying what he was saying. “The two men who you saw that night knew you were there all the time. They had seen you from their car when you were walking along the beach. They were hoping you would have left before the boat came in. When you didn’t they were worried because they had no way of stopping it. So the idea of another boat on the next cloudy night was so that you could turn up and they intended to take you for a ride around the other side of Horn Island to the mangroves and feed you to Kenny the crocodile. This is not a joke. They meant it. So instead of looking all hurt and annoyed by Noel’s attitude I think you might want to thank him for stopping you going down to that beach again.”
“And finally,” Noel said, “We have a pretty good idea of what’s happening in the islands. Do you know how that is? It’s because all of us up here work together.”
“Well,” I said. And I really meant it. “I have only three more days on the Island and I promise to do no more stupid things. I didn’t want to do this but Canberra asked me to.”
“Well Canberra, as you call that group of old retired security guys won’t be asking anyone else again.
“And you don’t have three more days on the island. You’re going home on the next plane and I will happily take you over in the Police launch. And for the effect of making this sound any more official, you are hereby listed as being unable to visit any island in the Torres Strait and any part of the mainland north of Cairns. For the next ten years. And that’ll make about eighty-six by my reckoning.”
I had about half an hour to pack and Noel waited the whole time.
The trip back, Horn Island to Cairns and Cairns to Melbourne, was uneventful. But to do a little further investigation for myself I went online to book a ticket to Horn Island via Cairns just to see what would happen. The reply came back. ‘This journey is unavailable to this applicant.’ Then it quotes some regulation and an Act of Parliament.
Looking back, it must be listed as my most effective sacking from any job I have ever had.
I had promised my children and my brother and sisters that I was finished with adventures. One of them said something about me being nearly as old as our father when he died. Stop pushing your luck, John. And definitely, said one of my best friends, if you hadn’t gone off at the mouth about what you were going to do, nobody would have known when it went pear shaped.
So it had been quite a time since Thursday Island and what was tantamount to an expulsion under duress from those islands in the sun. I had heard from ‘Canberra’ that things had been settled amicably and I was no longer ‘persona non gratia’. That didn’t bring about in me any un-sublimated desire to revisit the dugongs and the sunsets and the happy singing churches on a Sunday.
I had moved on.
But! However! Just wait there a sec!
If there are gods!
Then they have only one task.
Just one task in all creation.
And that is to conspire against me.
And they have conspired against me.
In the ‘Deifitic Rules for Dealings with Mortals’, rule 27.3a says, ‘find the victim’s fundamental weaknesses and work with those’.
And how did those gods conspire against me?
If I tell you they found my fundamental points of weakness I would be giving away all my defensive strong points.
The first thing that woke me up to the fact that I was being meddled with was my phone started ringing; the not turned on and not connected phone started to ring. It was the Colonel. It was that Colonel whom I had been told would not bother me again. The one who had retired not necessarily on his own terms?
“I’ll be passing through your way tomorrow. Thought it’d be nice to catch up for a whisky in the Ballaarat Club.”
It isn’t my usual haunt but if he can get me in it’ll be interesting to see how the 5% live.
I asked him how it was that he’d be passing through from whence to where but he hung up the phone and I never heard.
I wasn’t to know then, but the colonel was dead within five minutes of my taking his call. I never saw the inside of the Ballaarat Club.
I knew nothing of this and turned up to the Club on time and was met by a fortyish something woman wearing dark glasses to hide what I eventually found were red eyes from crying and a badly bruised cheek bone. She was the Colonel’s daughter and the story she told me was rather harrowing. She had driven him down from Canberra especially to see me; he was worried and concerned about something that he would not talk about. He had just finished talking to me, she explained, when a large dark coloured SUV pulled out of a side road and ran straight into the passenger-side door. The driver did not stop. The Colonel did not die instantly but managed to say a few words. “I want John to tidy up my Gardening books.”
He had never called me ‘John’ before, at least not that I remember; he always used rank to address any of his staff. And I didn’t even know he was interested in gardening.
Well that put paid to any plans I may have made and four days later I was in Canberra. I don’t generally like funerals but military funerals do have a bit of and edge to them; pomp and circumstance. There were some faces that stared at me saying I know you, do you know me. Carol, the Colonel’s daughter was busy with relatives so I was pretty much on my own. The day was drawing to a close and people had gone home and I felt like a sore thumb sticking out wondering why I was there in the first place. Carol had booked me a room at the University House; I had hoped to stay with Poor John and his wife Peggy but they were gallivanting around Africa somewhere. The reason I stayed at all was that cryptic last utterance: “I want John to tidy up my Gardening books.” But that was tomorrow.
It was about eleven that night and I, blue striped old man’s pyjamas and a dressing gown and a final glass of whisky when the door to my room was knocked on. Or upon which it was knocked. I didn’t care. I didn’t like the knocking anyway, grammatically correct or otherwise.
* * *
Do you remember that woman who contacted me in T.I. and gave me my instructions? Well she had twinned because there was another with her. I was harbouring some residual resentment after everything had gone wrong with that episode, and it was late, so I may not have come across as the most welcoming of people.
She didn’t introduce her companion and she did not offer her name; she just assumed I would remember who she was. I’m not sure if she had given me her name in the first place.
“I have come to tell you that some people in Canberra are not happy to have you snooping around the Colonel’s things.”
I remained quiet. But there was a red rag flashing in this old bull’s eyes.
I had no intention of snooping anywhere, I told her gently. “Carol, the Colonel’s daughter, has asked me to come and write out a catalogue of his Gardening books. That’s all I’ll do and then I’ll go home. I’m not interested in having anything to do with you or ‘some people in Canberra’. Anyway I thought you’d given them the flick and gone to work with Queensland Police!”
“I have”, she said. “It is just that they wanted me to give you the message because you know no one else. So make your list, leave the books and go home. You are a washed up old man and it’s time you recognised the fact.”
Then they left.
It is probably no exaggeration to say that I was cross and that the red rag was now waving wildly.
Next morning I arrived at Carol’s place. The taxi dropped me and there, waiting at the door was the other girl from last night. But it was different now.
“Good Mornin’, John. I’m Catherine with a ‘c’. I was the Colonel’s secret’ry and I don’t like that other girl.”
Catherine! She might have spelt it with a ‘c’ but she didn’t pronounce it that way. ‘Cat-ryn’! She pronounced it like honey dripping off hot buttered toast. She said everything like honey dripping off hot buttered toast.
“Officially I’m here to make certain that you don’t snoop into the Colonel’s things. Unofficially I’m here to do a bit of snoopin’ of m’ own.” I had to listen carefully; she spoke so softly and quietly. Honey.
I was cautious. Memories of Ramona came back. That was a long time ago; I was much younger then. And Cat-ryn was a lot younger.
Carol showed us into the Colonel’s library. Catherine and Carol seemed to know each other. There was a easiness between them. “Some people came last night and went through the library,” she said. “They had lots of official passes and took nothing away. They said they were looking for anything out of place.”
I started making the list. The Colonel had been meticulous. Books about specific plants were in one section. Plant diseases were separate from ‘Garden Design’. There was a section for gardeners with big names like Vita Sackville-West and Gertrude Jekyll who were there with Edna Walling and Ellis Stones. It was quite boring and Catherine was quietly wending her way through different shelves. She was looking for something but not where I was. I really had no idea why the Colonel had wanted me to make this list. What did he want? What was I supposed to find?
I actually laughed when I found it. Catherine stopped and Carol stopped. It was a book I had given the Colonel as a gift a few years ago. It had my name on the frontispiece.
“I’m claiming this!” I said. “The silly old bugger obviously hadn’t bothered to read it.”
“What is it?”
“ ‘The Constant Gardener’ by John Le Carre. It’s not a gardening book at all. It’s a spy book. You know. Smiley and the Spy who came in from the Cold and all that! The Colonel didn’t read it but he must have just assumed, by the title, it was a gardening book. Carol is there any chance we could have a cup of tea?“
She got up and Catherine followed her. To help.
“You cunning old bugger!” I thought. I flipped through the pages. Nothing. I remember him telling me to hide things out in the open. I picked up the book again. It’s a large book. I opened it at the centre, folded it back and there it was. Stuck down the back of the spine was a piece of paper cut exactly to size, three and one half centimetres by twenty-three centimetres. It was just a blank piece of paper but I’ll bet a month of Sundays it’s got something written on it but it’ll wait ‘til I get home.
* * *
I had a few things to do before I sat down to ponder the likelihood of secret messages. I went out to my hot house to check up on my Australian native succulents. Some of the rarer ones are quite difficult to propagate and I was using an Ultraviolet lamp to stimulate growth. It is warm and pleasant in the little propagating room in my hothouse. I took a whisky with me and started thinking about the Colonel and his piece of paper. There was nothing on it but I was fascinated by it anyway. I opened my wallet and took the piece of paper out. As I did it flashed blue. How good was that! I smoothed it out and held it directly under the UV lamp.
Trust none but your heritance.
It did not help. What has my inheritance got to do with anything? It just didn’t make sense. Cat-ryn of the buttered toast rang me and asked if she could talk. I said ‘No’. ‘Trust None’ is what he said and I wasn’t keen on trusting anyone. I said if she wanted to come down to Ballarat she could. She could tell me anything she wanted to. I couldn’t stop her doing anything.
There must be something crooked in Canberra or why did he say to trust no one but myself. My ‘heritance’. Silly spelling mistake? I didn’t think anymore about Catherine coming down. The next two days I was away up in the Grampians photographing a new succulent that had been discovered.
I pulled in to my driveway and before I had turned off the ignition Catherine had opened the door and was waiting for me to let her into the house.
“Have you been waiting for me?”
“How long have you been here?”
“I’m sorry you’ve wasted your time. Where are you staying?”
“That’s good because you’re not staying here.”
“You don’t like me. Do you?”
“I don’t not like you. I don’t trust you that’s the main point.”
There was a silence between us. Outside the cars drove up and down Doveton Street, their tyres on the bitumen sizzling like bacon on a fry pan.
She broke the stalemate. “He was in love with Ramona, too. Did you know that?”
I didn’t know that and what’s more I didn’t like it that she knew that. My mind went back to those days. The “Smarmy Bastard” Hutton and the guns and the Bookie Robbery. This girl Catherine wouldn’t have been born then. How did she know about Ramona. She had no right to know. Was I jealous? What did she know to be able to say ‘too’?
“Did you find his message?”
“What message are you talking about?”
“The message he asked you to find in his Gardening books. He told me he’d hidden one. He said that you were the only one who’d know where it was hidden.”
“Yes I did thank you. Thank you for being concerned. Do you want me to read it to you? All it said was “Trust no one.”
“And you don’t trust me!”
“Of course I don’t trust you. Why would he have said, Trust no one. Do you now expect me to trust you?”
“Can I see it? Please.”
“There’s no hidden message in it. Of course you can see it. It needs UV light so you’ll have to come into my gardening shed.”
“No need. I’ve got a UV pen light in my bag.”
She took out a small light and shone it on the message.
“Didn’t my step father ever tell you about never wasting a word in any message? Did he tell you to be precise about the words you use?”
“Stepfather! So he is your stepfather? And that means Carol is your stepsister. And I suppose now you want me to say sorry and I’m going to trust you with everything?”
“Of course I don’t. But I do want you to read his message. You haven’t read it all. He didn’t say trust no one. He said trust none but…So! Who is it you are to trust?’
“…my inheritance. “
“You know something. You found his note because he put it in a book that he knew you would find easily. A book other people would not notice. And now you have his message you can’t even read it properly. It does not say your inheritance. It says your heritance. Not INheritance. Just heritance.”
“So what’s the difference?”
“I don’t know. It’s your message. You might need to work it out.”
By about this time tempers were frayed. I offered to drive her to her hotel but she rang for a taxi.
* * *
At two o’clock in the morning my phone went off. It was a text message from Catherine.
“Is it an anagram?”
I didn’t reply.
Heritance is an anagram? Maybe she’s right. I start looking.
I can see caretine – that’s not a word. And there is a letter left over.
Threance –that’s not one either. Same as above.
I hate anagrams. I think I should ring back. Catherine will know.
China tree. Proper words. And all nine letters.
It’s three o’clock. If she doesn’t care about waking me at two I don’t care if I wake her at three. She answers the first ring. I didn’t wake her.
“Catherine, I think you’re right; it’s an anagram. Do you know if the Colonel – your step daddy – had a china tree in his office or at home?”
“What is a China tree?”
“My mother had a pottery tree with short stumpy branches and she hung her jewellery on it. She called it a ‘jewel tree’.
Do you know if the Colonel had one? Or your mother?”
“No he didn’t and neither did she. But there might be something like that that he called a ‘China tree’.”
“Well I think I need to get up to Canberra and have a look.”
“No. I don’t think that’ll be necessary. I’m going to sleep. I need to go to sleep.”
She rang off and I was getting a little annoyed with her. First she tells me it’s an anagram and then she doesn’t think the answer is the right one.
But I look for more. The Crane. Missing the ‘i’. The Cairn. Missing an ‘e’. I was missing something and I was starting to get a little annoyed with myself as well.
I slept. I woke. She was banging on the door. I made coffee. She sat there with an exceptionally smug look on her face. Whether she would drip honey from hot buttered toast I didn’t know. I said nothing. It was early, I was tired, I needed to get some more sleep. She looked like a cat with cream on its whiskers.
“What?” I said.
“What do you mean ‘what’?’ she asked.
“What are you looking so damnably smug about?”
“Do you realise,” she said. “that I was beginning to like you. But at this time of the morning you are just a grumpy old man. I don’t think you are as clever as you think you are.”
There was no honey dripping from hot toast this morning. Cumquat marmalade has a very astringent element in its makeup. She does too.
“So what have you to say this morning? Ma’am.”
“Let’s go back to the start.
Trust none but your heritance
And the answer is in the word ‘heritance‘. The Colonel knew you would be suspicious of everyone who has had anything to do with the Organisation. So much went wrong the first time. I’m talking about Ramona. So take out a piece of paper and write down the word heritance.
Now I will call out a letter. Write the letters out as I call them. One after the other. And cross the letters out of heritance as I call them.
First letter is c. Then a. ca. Now t then h. What have you got?”
“I’ve got c.a.t.h. And I think I can do the rest myself. C.A.T.H.E.R.I.N.E. I am to trust none but Catherine. How long have you known?”
“Well I always knew he wanted you to be able to trust me. But I didn’t know how he was going to tell you. And to be perfectly honest I didn’t see ‘Catherine’ in the anagram until after you had rung me with the China Tree. So I rang Carol and asked her to look up an anagram site on the web. I don’t have my smart phone charger with me and my battery was nearly flat. About five minutes later she sent me my last SMS before my phone died. “It’s you, sweetheart. Heritance is an anagram of Catherine’. I haven’t told her the significance.”
“I’m sorry I’ve been such a grumpy old man. I thought I should be able to trust you but his message was so definite I really couldn’t.”
“But now you can!”
“Yes. Now I can.”
* * *
So now I can Trust Catherine because the anagram in the secret note that the Colonel sent me that only I would find makes it clear that I should. And I really did want to. I did want to trust her. But I remember Ramona: how I trusted her. And that smarmy bastard back in Canberra; I trusted him.
Meanwhile back in North Queensland things were happening that just might change the situation somehow or t’other.
Torres Strait oil drilling report released
By Damian Steele
Posted 19 April 2019, 2:55pm
The company proposing to search for oil in the Torres Strait has released its environment plan, but Greenpeace has accused it of downplaying the risk of a major spill.
- Ecuadorian company Ecuaoil has released an environment impact statement
- Greenpeace says it omits crucial information about the consequences of a spill
- The company says a capping stack to block a leak would be kept in Singapore
In April, Greenpeace revealed an internal draft emergency plan which showed that an oil spill could devastate the whole ecological basis of the Torres Strait under a “worst credible case” scenario.
The document contained maps of Australia’s coastline which outlined the extent of a potential spill.
However, the group said those projections were unavailable from the company’s official draft environment plan which has been released today.
Further information from the company was not available at this moment in time.
A Queensland government spokesman said that a low level exploration programme would have minimal impact on the area. But it had the potential for creating hundreds of jobs.
Local community leaders expressed dismay. ‘The population of these islands relies on fishing and tourism and oil will destroy both.’
Catherine and I wouldn’t learn about this for a while and in the meantime had a lot to discuss.
The Colonel had spoken to her of his concerns about the Organisation and about the situation in the Torres Strait. Apparently his sending me up there for what turned out to be an abortive nothingness was intended to be a much bigger exploration. Carol had driven him down to see me when I came back from up there so that he could discuss his concerns. Catherine was well and truly in the loop and knew what he had wanted to tell me.
To put it simply and clearly; the Torres Strait was being set up by a South American cartel as the roadway into Australia for cocaine from Colombia but also for heroin from the Middle East. The massive work being done by the police, both Federal and State, and by Border Force, was effective but the cartel was looking for new ways to achieve their goals. He had no real evidence but it was a gut feeling he had; an intuition if you wish, that had served him in good stead in the past.
This is what the Colonel believed but had been finding it difficult to get the Organisation to focus. The Organisation believed that the authorities in the Strait were doing all that could be done but the Colonel believed there was a ‘leak in the dam wall’, as he put it. He wanted me, with help from Catherine, to find the leak.
So I went back. First person I spoke to was Noel, the police sergeant who had been so quick to get me off the island. I went in all humble pie and apologies and he was very cool but accepted my being there. “Just keep out of my way and don’t go snooping around like before.”
“Can I ask you a few simple questions? Tell me to go away if you want, but I am still here under the auspices of the Organisation whether you guys have any faith in it or not.’
“OK. So what’s the question?”
” Last month an English bloke on the run from Western Australian Police was captured on Saibai Island, about six kms off the PNG border. He had got all the way on a jet ski from the Australian mainland. How come he wasn’t picked up earlier, or didn’t you know he was there until almost too late?”
“And that’s what you call a simple question. Answer: we knew where he was all the time but we wanted to know how easy it would be. That’s all. No drama.”
I thanked him and left. Back in my room in The Federal Hotel on Victoria Parade I looked up reports of the bloke who had nearly got away.
UK man arrested after trying to flee to
Papua New Guinea on a jetski
Posted 27 Mar 2019, 7:54pm
A UK man wanted in Western Australia over drug-related offences has been arrested in the Torres Strait after allegedly trying to flee the country on a jetski.
- The man was found 150 km from his launch point, on the eastern side of Saibai Island
- Police say the arrest stands as a warning to other would-be fugitives
The man, who was carrying additional fuel and supplies, was seen launching a jetski at Pundsand Bay near the tip of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula on Monday.
Local police alerted the Australian Border Force, and the man was identified as a 57-year-old from the UK who was wanted on drug charges in Western Australia.
A search was launched and the man — who has not been officially named — and his jetski were found on mudflats on the eastern side of Saibai Island in the Torres Strait.
Saibai Island is a few kilometres off the coast of Papua New Guinea and is one of a string of islands in the Torres Strait that belong to Australia. It is about 150 kilometres from the tip of Cape York.
“He gave it a red-hot go,” Queensland Police spokesman told the Guardian.
Torres Strait islanders reportedly helped police to track the man, calling in with updates as he passed or landed on their islands.
“It’s a bit unusual to try and get from Pundsand Bay all the way to PNG. He stuck out like the proverbial.”
After his arrest, the man was transported by boat to Thursday Island.
Australian Border Force spokesperson said the saga should serve as a warning to anyone thinking they could flee from Australia through the Torres Strait.
“Anyone who thinks they can either enter or leave Australia through the region without detection should think again.”
An Australian Federal Police spokesperson said the arrest sent a strong message to would-be fugitives.
“Our reach across Australia is second to none and we will use all our contacts and relationships to find you and bring you before a court.”
Question: So could it be done? If I can find out if it could be done then they will have to take notice.
* * *
Next morning and I stroll. I just wander around wondering. No! Not wondering, waiting. What am I waiting for? Something to fall into my lap. I really can’t make out what is happening in Canberra with the Organisation. First of all, going right back to the beginning there was the Smarmy Bastard who suckered me into working for a security arm of government without telling me what it really was. The only person who was straight as a die was the Colonel and that Sergeant whose name I’ve forgotten. Then the Colonel took over as boss. In the back of my mind are memories of dead people; Ramona – of course – and Captain O’Hanlin and now the Colonel. I know the Sergeant retired and disappeared. So who is in charge of the place; it certainly can’t be Catherine. All this is why I am at a bit of a loose end. I’m certain that Noel the Police Sergeant is straight but I cruelled my pitch there. I will need to take it easy until he comes around. Anyway, stop grizzling, things always work out in the end.
There were some new people in town. There are about 4,500 people on the Torres Strait islands. There are about 3,000 on Thursday Island; that’s not many and it was easy to pick the new people. Even I could pick them. They were there to start the oil exploration for Ecuaoil.
A bit of background information; there are more than 270 islands in the Torres Strait. Of these less than 20 are inhabited. Ecuaoil made a public statement that they intended to survey a line of islands from the Papua New Guinea coast to the tip of Cape York. They would not go onto any inhabited islands but would only erect a small shed about three metres by four metres. In this shed they would store some simple provisions such as water and fuel. They had developed a very small seismic testing vessel that is about one quarter the size of the smallest vessels so far in use.
A spokesman for Ecuaoil said they were aware of the danger to marine fauna, especially turtles and dugong and they would carry out their testing in one small area around one island and then when they finished that island they would move to another island, not the adjacent island but one further along the chain. This would mean that the impact on the marine fauna would be minimal.
Furthermore they would not begin the tests for at least eighteen months. In the meantime they would start to establish the line of small islands or cays. This would begin very soon.
I found all of this very interesting. It was a marked change from normal procedures and the eighteen-month hiatus was intriguing. I bought a little 16 ft half cabin runabout and arranged with a young fellow to act as crew for me. I organised all this with Noel because I wanted him to get the idea that I was on the up and up. I had stopped off at Birdlife Australia, North Queensland Group in Cairns on my way up and asked for help and advice even though I probably would ignore them but at least it gave me some sort of excuse if anyone asked. My story was that I wanted to make a photographic record of the bird life of all the 270 islands and I would need young Simmie to be a navigator and diplomat as I went to some of the farther away islands. And of course, I told everyone, I wanted to make sure that the seismic testing was not disturbing things too much.
It took about five days to organise the boat and get to know Simmie. But it only took about three days before Alejandro Garcia came a-knocking upon my door.
“Buenos dias John. I am Alejandro Garcia from la compañía petrolera and I wish very much to tell you that you are welcome to come with me any time you wish to visit the islands to see how careful we are with looking after the birds.”
That was so nice of him and when total strangers come knocking and are very nice the old cynic in me starts to become suspicious and I was delighted. I told him I would be very pleased to go with him. But I didn’t write any days in my book. That will come later. Bird Watching! Hmpff. I’ll be watching for birds, that’s for sure.
* * *
It seemed that things might take a little time to develop. I sublet my unit in Ballarat to a couple of international students from Malaysia and took out a lease on a small place on TI; over on the side away from the main town. There are some identifiable areas on the island that in any other place would be called ‘suburbs’ and I found a house near what used to be the Quarantine Station and is now in the ‘suburb’ of ‘Quarantine’.
Simmie showed me around the islands and over the next few weeks we travel from one to another eventually stopping at most that were inhabited and a few that weren’t. I took a huge number of photographs and Simmie kept shaking his head. “You already got that one. We got him back on Moa Island. Why you wan another photo?” I explained that I needed to photograph it again because I wanted to establish how widely the birds were spread. He didn’t seem to understand why that was important but he was very good at stopping me and silently pointing out every bird there was.
Then one day we headed for a small, uninhabited island with a few low trees or shrubs. It had a nice beach and we stopped and hopped off. We’d been in the boat for four hours and it was nice to stand on solid ground.
“What’s this, Uncle?” Simmie called to me from the other side of the island. It was only about 100 yards across. I was now officially his uncle.
“What’s what, Simmie?”
“This here sign on this rock?”
A small copper disc was concreted into a large rock. It looked official and read, “Survey Office Queensland. Penalty for Interference $200.” It looked official. But I had a feeling that all official survey markers should have a stamped serial number. This one didn’t. We walked around the island. If we had approached from the other side we would have seen the sign on a small steel shed. “Warning. Do not enter. Seismic testing location.” Underneath was the word Ecuaoil and what looked like a signature; A. Garcia. The shed was locked with a cheap combination lock.
“Bad luck, Uncle. We doan know the number.”
“Let me show you something, Simmie.”
Now I don’t want to boast but I will. There are two kinds of combination padlocks; cheap ones and expensive ones. They both look the same but cheap ones have just a little bit of looseness in them. So with Simmie listening carefully I told him how to do it.
“Pull down on the lock. Not too hard just a bit. Now carefully turn the first wheel until you feel a little click. No noise just a feel.”
Simmie tried and there was a slight movement as the wheel slipped. It seemed harder to move as though it was in a groove.
“Now try with the second wheel.”
Simmie tried and nothing happened.
“OK, Simmie try again but this time start with the wheels from the other end.”
Simmie tried from the other end. The first wheel slipped into place. Then the next, then the next. Then the smile on his face as the lock slipped open.
“It’s a secret Simmie. Don’t tell anyone or you’ll get into trouble back home.”
“OK, Uncle. Our Secret.”
We opened the shed and looked in. There was nothing much. Just four cans of outboard motor fuel and three white containers of fresh water. I was about to close the door ’til Simmie pointed at a piece of heavy fishing line. It was tied to a steel snap hook that was hooked to a hole drilled into a steel section of the shed. Outside the shed it was covered by sand. We carefully lifted it from the sand and followed it to the water’s edge. Simmie put on flippers, facemask and snorkel and followed the line out into deep water. He surfaced about 100 yards out.
“It stops at a concrete block, Uncle. That’s it. Nothing else.”
It was a puzzle. It was obviously recent; obviously the Seismic testing people and obviously not very offensive. But it still seemed to smell bad to me.
We covered the line up and locked the shed and tried to brush over any signs that someone had visited. Back in the boat I looked at the map. The next closest island was pretty well due north, or a bit to the west. It was getting late and a bit of a wind was coming up so we headed back to TI. Tomorrow we would have a look at the next island.
* * *
The next day I changed my mind. Instead of going and looking at another island I needed to look again at the one we saw yesterday. Something seemed a bit dodgy. We arrived at the island in about an hour. It had taken four hours yesterday because we had wandered all over the place from island to cay to sand bar. Today we just went straight there. GPS navigation is a brilliant thing.
Simmie dived down again and found the concrete block and took a lot more care to describe it. I had a small waterproof camera with me; it was only good down to 10 metres but Simmie reckoned the block wasn’t that deep so I gave it to him and he went down again and took a few shots. We sat in the boat cabin and looked at the replay. What we saw this time was a small buoy tied to a thin cord that was the same colour as the concrete block. He hadn’t noticed it yesterday.
I looked down and there was the small buoy rising to the surface. It bobbed about for a while and then Simmie shouted for me to look at him. He started to pull on the fishing line and the buoy disappeared. He went into the hut, clipped the line back, closed the door, locked the lock and swam back.
“You undid the lock pretty fast,” I said. “You remembered how to do it.”
“No, Uncle. I remembered the numbers.”
He wasn’t silly.
And whoever had set up the hut and the concrete block and the survey marker and the buoy on the string wasn’t too silly either. In fact it was all a bit too clever for my liking.
We spent the rest of the day cruising around as many islands and cays as we could but this time we only looked for a ‘Warning. Do not enter. Seismic testing location’ sign or a new steel hut. And it wasn’t until quite late that we found one. Exactly the same sign; exactly the same shed. It was getting late and I thought we should leave and come back later, but Simmie was adamant.
“You stay here, Awa, and I’ll go in.”
He didn’t wait for me to object; slid over the side and swam in. The door was unlocked as quickly as the one earlier in the day; he found the fishing line and unhooked it. Another small buoy surfaced about twenty metres from the boat. I waved and he pulled back on the line, hooked it in the shed, closed and locked the door and swam back.
“You unlocked the door quickly, Simmie. Was it easy?”
“Those fellas are pretty stupid, Uncle. The number on this lock same as number on other lock.”
We got back to my place in Quarantine just as the sun was setting behind Hammond Island. I told Simmie to meet me early Island Time, which could mean 8 o’clock or just before lunch, but as it happened a storm blew up, Simmie stayed home and I spent a lot of the day thinking and pondering until something quite out of the blue occurred.
* * *
I was on my second coffee and was looking for a way to relax. I’d run out of clean shirts so decided to put on a load of washing. I remembered I had a clean shirt in the bottom of my bag so I scratched it out and on the bottom was that book that I’d found in the Colonel’s library. John Le Carré’s “The Constant Gardener”. I had given it to him as a gift but I don’t remember ever reading it myself. I try to read books in order as they are published. That is books by the same author. Maybe I’d not read the book because I had been waiting for the one before it, which was “Single & Single“. Anyway I had nothing else to read so I thought it might be a good way to wait out a tropical storm that could last for two or three days. I was wondering if the Colonel had read it. There were no dog-ears and the spine hadn’t been cracked except when I did it on purpose and found the secret note. “Trust none but your heritance.” I don’t think he’d read it.
That was until I got to page 159 and it smacked me right in the face. His notes won’t show up unless I hit them with ultraviolet light and then I can’t photograph them. But I have arrowed the line that stopped me.
I got my ultraviolet penlight and right across the top in block letters was “GOOD YOU FOUND IT” and then along the bottom of pp 158 & 159 he wrote a lot more.
“John, A lot of ice that was coming in from SEAsia has been stopped but I think they’ll now try to bring it in from PNG. There is a rat in one of the organisations in the Torres Strait. It could be in BF, AFP, QPS or the Army but
I turned over the page and he continued along the bottom of 160 & 161.
…it only takes one. You need to make friends with someone up there. It’s up to you.”
And then this. “Actually go to the note I left you between p 229 and p 230 that’ll tell you how hard it’ll be.”
I had to give him credit, the bastard. It was an old English teacher’s trick. You’ll never find anything between those two pages. I think he wanted me to know it was going to be a hard job.
But then I got to page 366 and the Colonel had underlined a short sentence. “Trust nobody, Tessa told him, so he didn’t.” After I saw this I taped my ultraviolet pen to the kitchen table so I had my two hands free and flipped through the whole book but there were no more messages that lit up.
I wonder if he knew he had contradicted himself. I need to make a friend up here, he said, but I still must trust nobody. You’re making it bloody difficult Colonel. Even Simmie? I trust Simmie but I won’t tell him anything that he doesn’t need to know. Do I still trust Catherine? Probably not completely. Anyway she’s down in Canberra. Sgt Noel of the Qld Police is OK I think. He is the only person up here who has had a real go at me; who has actually looked me in the face and said what he thought. That’s always a good sign. At the moment I think I’m pretty much on my own. We’ll see.
* * *
Over the next few weeks Simmie and I found another four little islands with little sheds and padlocks and little buoys that floated to the top when the line was unhooked. The islands set out a reasonably direct line from Dauan Island down through the Central Islands and to a small island just to the east of Muri and Cape York. It is about 150 kms from coast to coast and although they aren’t equally spaced the six islands are an easy boat trip apart. My suspicious mind is working overtime.
I bumped into Alejandro Garcia at the coffee shop on Victoria Parade. He was very gracious in a Latin way – which means he was completely charming and polite and gave away nothing. He repeated his offer to escort me through the islands; an offer I accepted for the next day. He was very pleased to agree that Simmie could accompany us although reading between the lines I knew he would have much preferred to leave my island guide behind.
Next morning I met him at the jetty. His was a strong, swift launch that looked as solid as a battleship. Simmie sat himself up in the bow and gave the impression of being bored and uninterested; except for the instructions I had given him.
To keep my cover as blatant as possible I told Alejandro that I was keen to see my first White-bellied Sea Eagle and asked if he had seen one anywhere on his travels through the islands but he most apologetically had not.
“But I will take you completely around the islands from the Queensland coast to the coast of Papua New Guinea. In this boat we have no troubles.”
We headed almost due north and passed between Badu Island and Moa Island and then to Saibai Island where we eased ourselves between that island and the coast of PNG. From Saibai we headed a little to the south of east to a little island called Masig. As we passed Masig Simmie called to me from the bow and pointed at the top of a 50m high telecommunications tower. There was a large nest. So I didn’t see a white-bellied sea eagle but I saw its nest. Then we turned Southwest and made for the tip of Cape York and then back to Thursday Island. It was a long day. We had scribed a large circle and I asked what was in the centre. I know you led me away from all the islands in the centre, I thought but did not say.
“Oh there is little to see there,” Alejandro said. “Tiny little islands of nothing. No birds of interest.” But little islands with steel sheds and digital padlocks and fake survey markers you could say if you wanted to. Unless you want to hide something.
I thanked him profusely. I can do charm if I’m pushed.
I drove Simmie home. “Well, Simmie, did we learn anything today?”
“I don’t think he wanted to show us all the islands, Uncle. We didn’t go close to the ones with the sheds and the hiding buoy. Maybe Mr Alejandro from the oil company wants hide something.”
“Maybe I think you are right, Simmie. Tomorrow we will go places Mr Alejandro didn’t take us.
* * *
The next day Simmie and I did not go visiting little islands. Do you remember that lady who, with her pretend husband and her pretend little baby boy in a pretend pushcart, came up from Canberra to tell me what my job was supposed to be? You remember her? Well the last I had heard of her was that she had resigned from the Organisation and had taken a job with the Queensland Police Service (QPS). So you can imagine how surprised I was when she knocked on the door all smiles and charm and asked if she could come in. And how could I, old, polite, and charming refuse.
”So you left the Organisation, you came up here and joined the QPS, and now I suppose Sergeant Noel has sent you around here to tell me to go back South.”
“No! Sergeant Noel, as you call him does not believe that you’re here birdwatching. He thinks that you have a serious job to do. He doesn’t think Canberra would have cleared you to come back if it wasn’t serious. So he has asked me to ask you what the hell is going on.”
“And I suppose you think I will just reveal all. Even if I was doing something naughty I suppose you would expect me to tell you that as well.”
“Can we start again? We were never properly introduced. I am Janine; code name J9. I came up with instructions from the Colonel. If you look at your notes – I assume you take notes – all you were asked to do was to ascertain whether the authorities up here were working together well or whether there was tension and whether they were getting in each other’s way. You very effectively found out that they do work well together. You did that by poking your nose into everybody’s business.”
“And I suppose you have come around here this morning to hand me my report card to take home and get signed by my mummy and daddy.”
“Not really. I wonder if you would believe that I was the Colonel’s closest confidant. I’m sure you think it was Catherine but she was really just his secretary.”
“I don’t believe you. I have a note from the Colonel telling me to trust Catherine.”
“‘Trust none but an anagrammatic Catherine’. Is that the one? I wrote that note. Written in capitals. Not the Colonel’s handwriting. And did you get even further into the book. ‘TRUST NOBODY’. That includes me too. The Colonel asked me to set up those notes in that book. He knew that there was something going on in the islands. I wasn’t working with him back when you were involved in that drug thing down in Tasmania. But he told me about it.”
“Hang on a bit,” I interrupted. “Am I supposed to trust you? No! Am I to trust Catherine? No. If I’m to trust neither of you, what is going on?”
“Right”, she said. “Catherine is not a problem. She is a good, clean, safe member of the Organisation. So am I. But what the Colonel wanted, and remember he wasn’t planning to be killed, what he wanted was for you to trust nobody up here; not Border Force, not the Queensland Police, nobody. There is someone rotten up here and he wanted you to go in, alone. He was frightened that he could be murdered. He had received threats. The book was there if it happened. It was his insurance.”
“So now you are up here working for the Police. Are you rotten?”
“No John. Just stop and think. The Sergeant was perfectly within his rights to kick you out of the Torres Strait because you really did make a mess of things. But the Colonel wanted things to quieten down a bit before he could get you back. In the meantime I got shunted up here to keep my eyes open. Tomorrow I go back to Canberra – unless you want me to stay. That’s the deal. I’d like to stay but it is your call.”
“And why should I trust you?”
“Because if you are going to do what the Colonel asked you to do you just might get into a lot more trouble than the first time. And you will need someone close at hand to pick your drowning body out of the water. Look at it like this. The Colonel is gone. Nobody knows who is in charge of the Organisation. Maybe by the time this is over there won’t be any Organisation. It was the Colonel’s baby after all. At least if I stay you have a thin safety line.”
I sat for a while. I couldn’t decide so I sent her away.
“Come back and see me tonight after six. I’ll tell you what I think then. OK?”
“OK. See you at six.” And she left.
* * *
Five minutes after six she was on my door.
“So do you want me to stay or do you want me to go back to Canberra?”
“What difference would it make to you what I decided?” I asked.
“None at all. I’m here to stay. I’m going to look over your shoulder when you write home to mummy. I’m going to hide behind trees and watch who you talk to. And I’m going to know where you go whenever you go anywhere.”
“Then I guess I’ll have to make do with that. But I don’t trust you.”
“That’s where we are different,” she said. “Because I trust you. Now that is settled, goodnight. See you around like a record.”
I sent a text message to Simmie, and asked him to meet me at the boat in the morning a bit before sunrise. I planned to go straight up through all the islands to Saibai and then to set out from the New Guinea coast and follow the Steel Hut Islands all the way to the Cape York coastline. But again circumstances seemed to alter my plans as they had done before.
When I got to the boat Simmie was waiting and we packed our lunches and were about to pull off from the wharf when Janine arrived carrying a shoulder bag. She hopped on board and said how delighted she would be if she could come with us. There really didn’t seem to be much point in refusing so we headed North and on past Wednesday Island .
As the day went on there was a slight shift in the relationships on board. At the beginning Janine was chatting with me about bird watching but gradually she started talking to Simmie and soon the two of them were chatting like old friends. Simmie pointed out all the different features of all the little islands we passed; the flat sandy cays, the little tall hills that popped up out of the waters of the Strait.
I took the boat as close as I could to the PNG coastline; we could’ve thrown a rock at it, and then we stopped and beached the boat on a little island just between Saibai and Dauan. This was the first of the Steel Hut Islands as I was now calling them. I was about to warn Simmie not to go and open the shed when the seismic launch appeared from behind Saibai Island. Simmie quickly put on his goggles and flippers, grabbed his speargun and said he was going to find us something for lunch. I gathered a few pieces of driftwood and started a little fire.
At about the same time the seismic launch lowered it’s dingy and my new friend Alejandro Garcia came over to say Buenas Dias.
“You are just in time for lunch mi amigo if Simmie catches a fish.”
Alejandro thanked me for the invitation but declared that he had much work to do and maybe some other time. I had exhausted my supply of Spanish so I was happy he wanted to speak English. Then, as he was getting back in his dingy he said, “Could I ask you to be careful not to touch the survey markers if you happen to see any more on your travels.”
Then with a wave and a farewell he left, but his words to the sailor handling the outboard motor was in Spanish and I didn’t know what he said but it sounded a lot less jovial than his other words.
“That was enlightening,” said Janine. “Do you understand Spanish?”
“No. I’m limited to ‘muchas gracias’ and ‘buenas dias’. What about you?”
“I was brought up by a Spanish father. Señor Garcia doesn’t like you. His parting words were, ‘Espero que el bastardo no entre en la choza‘. ‘I hope he doesn’t get into the hut’.”
My first thoughts were that Janine would now want to know what was in the hut. I hadn’t wanted to let her know but she went straight up to the hut and started playing with the lock.
“Some people are really stupid. Did you know that! They build a really strong steel hut to hide things in which just advertises the fact that they have something to hide. And then they put a lock on it that a ten year old can open. Let’s see.” She started fiddling with the lock. Simmie was back from his fishing expedition and watched her with a grin on his face. She found the combination and flung the door open.
“There,” she said. “That didn’t take long.”
“5791,” said Simmie. “I did it in half the time.”
I had a funny feeling that my little team of two was now a team of three.
* * *
The next day I met Simmie at his place because I didn’t want J9 to know what we had planned for the day. We headed north again but this time we stopped at the Steel Hut number four. We had located it s few days ago but hadn’t landed and done any investigation although we did pass it and commented when we sailed past yesterday. It was reasonably large and had a hill high enough to hide behind if the seismic boat turned up.
We climbed the hill and scanned the horizon. I had brought a set of binoculars; since yesterday, nearly being caught by the seismic boat, I thought it would be mildly clever to be a little more careful. It was clear of boats; not even a fishing boat. On the side away from the hut was a small patch of mangroves and I thought I might wander down later to look for a bird or two; I really needed to keep my cover story as blatant as I could. But later. I wanted to get Simmie to have a look at the buoy and see if it was the same as the other ones we had seen.
Simmie put on his goggles and I looked for the line hooked to the hut. It was there exactly as the others. I sat in the hut out of the sun while he went swimming .
”Good morning. And how’s the bird watching today?”
”Where the hell did you come from?” And I didn’t apologise for my manner.
”Oh I was hiding down in the mangrove swamp waiting to see if you’d turn up. I thought this was the hut Island most closely in the middle so whichever one you were going to I guess I’d be pretty close.”
This lady was becoming quite a nuisance; not becoming a nuisance, was a nuisance. “How did you get here in front of us.”
”I put a bug in your boat, obviously. Anyway do you want to tell me what you know or will I just keep following you until I find out for myself?”
By this time Simmie had come up the beach and sat down without a word. I had told him to be careful what he said to Janine but she obviously had no intention of beating around the bush.
She kicked off her shorts and shirt; she had her swimming togs on and picked up Simmie’s goggles and snorkel.
”Can I borrow these for a minute? I guess if I follow this line out I’ll find whatever is that is so interesting,” she said. She was holding the fishing line that went from the hut to the sea. Simmie looked at me, questioning and I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t have much of an opinion. She swam out with Simmie keeping to her side and they disappeared under the water. They both surfaced and Simmie shouted for me to unhook the line and they both watched as the buoy floated to the surface.
They came back and I said I was a bit worried that the seismic boat would turn up unannounced.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Janine, “I put a bug on their boat as well. There’s a little GPS thingamajig in the pocket of my shorts. It’ll beep if he gets within five nauts. Now let’s have a little chat about what we know. Simmie, dear, could you rustle up a bit of a fire and a couple of fish.”
I wondered if somebody was taking charge of this investigation.
“Now, John dear, I wonder if it’s going to be ‘pass-the-parcel’ or ‘leapfrog’.”
“I wonder if you could tell me, in your own good time, using words a simpleton like me can understand, just what the earth you’re talking about.”
“OK. But shouldn’t we wait for Simmie. You’re using him as a simple local guide whereas he is as clever as either of us plus he has all his local knowledge.”
And just to prove that she was correct, Simmie arrived and said he’d built the fire over on the other side of the island so that the seismic mob wouldn’t find any sign that we’d been there. We locked up the hut, covered any sign that we’d been there and while I walked back to his fire, he and Janine sailed our boat around and moored it next to hers; out of sight.
“Where’s Simmie?” I asked her when she returned.
And no sooner Simmie arrived with a reasonably sized Black-and-white Snapper held proudly on the end of his speargun.
As we feasted on Simmie’s Snapper we discussed the rights and wrongs of her having planted a ‘bug’ on my boat. In the end she agreed to remove it. As I had not seen one before I asked her to describe it and tell me where to find it.
I crawled into the cabin and started searching toward the bow as she had described and after a few minutes I found a little button shaped object that was fixed by some type of adhesive. How proudly I showed it to her but the look on her face was not what I had expected.
“That’s not mine! I’ve seen one like that before. It must belong to the seismic crew. He’s been bugging you as well. And take this back and put it as close as you remember to where it was. We don’t want to let ’em know we found it. Simmie, dear, run up to the top of the hill and see if you can see any serious boats.”
“The Border Force launch is going past, but not heading in our direction,” Simmie reported. He went back to the hill to have another look and came back quickly. “It’s taking a big sweep around and going back.”
Janine was very quiet for a while; she said nothing while we packed up and got ready to leave.
“Simmie can you take your boat back and John can come back with me. We need to have a talk.”
* * *
Simmie headed off home and Janine and I sat in her boat; we were giving him a chance to get ahead of us she said. Then she opened a small box in her cabin.
“OK. Well there’s Simmie,” she said pointing a finger at a red circle on a small black screen.
It was quite fascinating to watch the matter-of-fact way she spied on my boat. “What are those dots there?” I asked and pointed to similar but different icons.
“That one there, blue square, is Border Force 1 – the launch. That one, skull and crossbones, is the Seismic boat. The Border Force one is legit. All of us in legal/enforcement have a good idea where each of us is. But I’m worried about the one on your boat. Not the one I put there. The other one that you found. All the ones we use are the same. They’re all made by the same mob. But that one was different. So I think it can only be that the Seismic boys are following you.”
“Can you see?”
“I can only see what I know; I have to know what each bug’s frequency is. I can switch to see all boats within range, but I’ve got it tuned to only boats I recognise.”
“Are they allowed to? Is it legal?”
“It’s legal for all the authorities in the Strait. It’s mainly for safety so that we don’t run into each other at night. At least that’s the excuse. But, as I said, I’m worried about the one on your boat.”
We tossed thoughts and ideas around for a while and then headed back the way Simmie had gone. Suddenly she stopped and pointed at the screen. “Look at this! The Seismic boat is heading on course to meet Simmie when he comes around that island there. Simmie won’t see them coming.”
“Surely Simmie will see them. It’s not as if he won’t be looking out for other fishing boats or anything.” I hoped.
“No. I’m worried,” she said. “See how low in the sky the sun is. And that boat is really moving. If they keep going at the speed they are then the Seismic boat will be directly in the sun and Simmie won’t see them at all.”
She opened the throttle and chased after Simmie. She handed the controls to me and watched the dots on the screen. They were getting closer and closer. And closer. We were still a way behind and then the two dots merged. Janine kept looking at the screen. She said nothing. Then a mumbled cry, “The bastards rammed him. And kept going. Simmie’s not moving.”
It took about five minutes to get there. It was obvious that the boat was wrecked. There was no sign of Simmie anywhere. There was oil on the water and the boat had drifted some distance from where the collision had taken place. The wreckage of the boat was floating so we came alongside and tied a rope to it to drag it back home.
Faintly behind there was a call. It was Simmie. “You white fellas go leave this Island boy to swim home?’
We got him into the boat and he told us what happened. “I seen that big bastard coming at me and jump outside just before he hit. And he went round a couple times to look for me but I go down deep and wait. I wait under the water maybe two three minutes. Then he goes away. I’m pretty happy you come along.”
“How long did you say you stayed down?” Janine asked. “Two or three minutes?”
“Maybe more,” said Simmie.
“When I was a young fella my mother use to dive for trochus shell. She made me learn. It’s not too deep here so I go down and hold onto some coral. This way I don’t use up oxygen. I can stay down four maybe five minutes.”
She started the boat and handed the wheel to me. The heat was going out of the sun and she wrapped a rug around Simmie’s shoulders and sat with her arms around him.
When we were back on land she went straight back to the Police station in Douglas Street and got Simmie to explain to Sgt Noel what happened.
“Put your uniform on and go and bring in that Garcia bloke and whoever the helmsman was.” Noel was cross. “If they object then arrest the bastards. They would have expected the two of you to be in the boat. And,” he said, looking at Janine and not at me, “I wouldn’t mind knowing why you were hitching a ride in a police boat when you had a perfectly good boat of your own. Maybe later. And I want to know why Border Force didn’t hang around to look for you.”
* * *
- Crocodile tears
Janine called in on her official police radio. Alejandro and the helmsman were coming in voluntarily.
Sgt Noel put me into his office and pulled down the blind. “Stay here, shut up and under no circumstances come out. Garcia doesn’t know you weren’t in the boat he rammed and I want him to go on not knowing.” He walked out closed the door and we waited; me in the office and him outside waiting. The station doors opened and Janine escorted the two Ecuadorians in. Alejandro was full of apologies and understanding and Sgt Noel shut him up, sat the two of them down and dragged Janine into his office; my hiding place.
“Janine, does Garcia know he wasn’t on the boat?” he asked pointing at me.
“No.sir. I haven’t said anything to him about John or Simmie.”
“Good. That’s how it stays.”
“Does he know you speak Spanish?”
“Good. That’s how it stays.”
He walked out and the two stood up. Alejandro started again with the apologies and some pretty decent crocodile tears. He was sorry and they had stayed for ten minutes to look for the two men on the boat. They went around and around and found nobody. Please understand it was all a most sad accident. How can they repay for this most ‘accidente desastroso’?
“Speak English please, Mr Garcia,” said the Sergeant and then, turning to the helmsman asked him to explain what he was doing at the time the ‘accident’ took place.
“I apologise that it is impossible but this man does not speak English.”
“Then you must speak for him.”
“He says that we were travelling quite slowly and the sun was a problem and he did not paying attention. I have sacked him from his job and he will return to Ecuador as soon as we can get ticket.”
At this the young man exploded in a torrent of words, crying and angry. Garcia shouted at him, Cállate, Cállate, Idiota and the young man shut up. He wasn’t much more than a boy and was obviously very agitated. Janine caught the Sergeant’s eye and nodded into the office and the two of them walked in and closed the door.
“What did he have to say, Constable?”
“He kept saying it wasn’t his fault, Garcia ordered him to do it. He tried to turn the boat away but Garcia pushed him and took the wheel at the last moment.”
“You believe him?”
“Yes. He’s telling the truth. What are we going to do now?”
“What was that word he kept shouting at Garcia. Sounded like ‘esseeno’. What does that mean?”
“‘Asesino‘ is what you heard Sarge. ‘Murderer, Murderer,’ That young boy was shouting that Garcia was a murderer, that he wasn’t to blame. It was Garcia. The boy wasn’t to blame Sarge. And you can’t let him go on believing he killed anybody.”
“I can let him go on thinking what he wants to think. But you’re right. I’ll let them both stew for a while. Go back in there and let them talk to each other but listen and don’t make it obvious. You stay put,” he said to me. “I’m pretty happy thinking that you’re dead and I’m even happier if Garcia thinks you’re dead too. Where’s young Simmie?”
I explained that he had gone home and he apparently thinks he’s partly responsible for not getting out of the way in time. Noel told me to duck out the back way and go and get him and bring him back to the station.
“Give us about a half hour and then tell Simmie to walk in the front door on his own. He’s not to say anything. He just walks in, looks at the Ecuadorians then Janine will grab him and bring him in here to this office. Make sure you tell him to say nothing.”
My car was down at the jetty so I got the duty driver to take me around to Simmie’s place. By the time I’d explained everything the half hour was almost up. We sat in the police van for five minutes and then Simmie hopped out and pushed the station door open and walked in. And I believe I missed something when Simmie made eye contact with the young helmsman.
By the time I’d walked around the back of the station Sgt Noel had almost finished with the two so I missed most of his tirade. “We are very lucky that we found this man,” pointing at Simmie. “But we only picked one man up from the water and both of you are to stay on Thursday Island. You are not to take your boat out until I give you permission. Now you may go.”
After they had gone he turned to me. “Now I want a full description of these islands with their tin huts. You might have stumbled on something. I don’t know how long I can keep the Seismic boat tied up. Maybe only two or three days. So you three take one of the Police boats and find out as much as you can as quickly as you can. Hopefully you won’t be bothered anymore.”
“Can we have someone to help crew the boat? It’s a bit big for me?” I was so glad Janine asked.
“After what happened to the other boat you don’t think I’d lend you a boat without a crew. You get two.”
* * *
- We get a new boat.
So Sgt Noel lends us a boat and two brave young policemen who don’t look old enough to ride a rocking horse. In fact they could make that boat dance on the wind. Janine and the two police crew put out to sea from the main wharf and then cruised around to the other side of the island and picked me and Simmie up from the Quarantine Wharf well away from the inquisitive eyes of any of the Seismic crew.
We visited each of the Steel Hut islands, took underwater photos of the concrete block that was at the end of the line at each of the huts. Then we unhooked the line from inside the hut and let the buoys float to the top. We took photos of those as well. One of the young policemen made a very accurate map of where each of the seven islands were in relation to each other and to the mainland, both PNG and Cape York. We accomplished a lot because we weren’t worried about being spied on and anyway the two boys on the boat were doing all the looking out.
Two of the islands were little more than a sandy island with no plant life at all but each of the others had some vegetation and two had quite decent hills and trees.
When we got back to T.I. the boys dropped Simmie and me at the Quarantine Wharf. A little later Janine turned up in a paddy van and took us back to the station. Sgt Noel put us all in the conference room and we began by making copies of all our photos and the map.
“Where are the two boys?” Noel asked and went next door to drag them out of the staff room where they were sipping coffee. His first words were to tell them he wanted them to be a part of out group and then he heaped praise on the map. “I want you all to go back to Jimmy’s map and sketch in any details that are left out; height, trees, places someone could hide. Anything. Everything has value. Good work there, Jimmy.” He went out while we all contributed to the map. Simmie in particular added a lot of detail about what it looked like under the water. The sort of thing a diver would notice that the camera missed.
There was a shout from Noel’s office. “Get coffee and be back in ten.”
Then while we sat injecting caffeine into our systems Noel kept breaking in with instructions. He wanted the map copied. We copied it. He wanted each island to be separated from the next. We cut the map up. Then each island map was enlarged to A3 size. We enlarged. Finally he laid the maps out on a long table in the centre of the room and placed all the photographs with their relevant island.
“Right! What are the bastards up to? John you go first.” First time he’d actually sounded pleasant toward me.
“Well. The organisation in Canberra…..”
“The Organisation is in Canberra. Not here. I asked you. What do you think they are up to?”
“Okay! I think they are going to bring drugs in from Asia and use the islands as stepping stones to get from PNG to Cape York in small stages.”
“Same. They saw how hard it was last year when that bloke from Perth tried to make it on a Jetski. And the fuel in the huts is so they won’t need to stop at any islands to buy fuel.”
“Simmie? You know these islands better than all of us together. What do you think?”
Up ’til now I think Simmie had reason to feel that he was just hired help. Now the Sergeant was making him one of the experts.
“I reckon they both right. But I reckon there better ways to get drugs through. I reckon maybe guns is what they doing. Maybe both. Guns and drugs.”
Sgt Noel sat and scratched his head. He tapped his pencil on his teeth.
“Pass the parcel.”
We all looked puzzled.
“That’s what it is. Pass the bloody parcel. If all they are worried about is getting fuel without going to any settlements, why the buoys on the end of fishing line operated from the hut? I was at a conference in Miami a few years back. Someone was talking about moving contraband from one side of the US to the other. You take the parcel and leave it in some hidey hole. You don’t know where it’s going or who you’re giving it to. Next day, or two, someone picks up the parcel and takes it a little bit farther along the line and drops it. Eventually it gets to the end of the line. If anyone is caught the whole line isn’t compromised. They just move a couple of steps and get on with it. That’s what it is; Pass-the-bloody-parcel.
* * *
17 The Conundrum
Even if the Sergeant is right and everything is being set up for ‘pass-the-parcel’ we won’t know until we see it.
“So if we’re right,” said Noel, “What are some of the problems? Theirs and ours? Simmie you go first. What haven’t we thought of?”
“Well, Boss. Everyone of those concrete blocks are in deep water, below low tide. But if there is a low tide then it gonna be hard getting in and out from some place. Specially on number three island.”
“That’s a good point, Simmie,” said the Sergeant. “Hadn’t thought of that. Will it affect them or us or both them and us? Don’t all answer now. Think about it.”
Aaron, the other young Police Constable, hadn’t said much up ’til now so it was good when he piped up. “If it works out that they are moving drugs, or guns Simmie, when do we stop them? If we arrest them when they start then the big guys who organise all this will just get scared off and move somewhere else. On the other hand, if we stop just one quantity of drugs getting through we maybe save some poor fellow’s life. And maybe the blokes who are moving the drugs from island to island are just doing it for a bit of money without even knowing it’s drugs.”
“Thanks Aaron. Didn’t need that. The argument between blocking the pipeline to save the users and letting it run so we can find the suppliers is one that keeps me awake plenty of nights. Are you going to supply me with the right answer or do you want to leave the serious stuff up to me?”
“Sorry Sarge. It’s just something that gets to me. My mother died when an ‘ice’ addict went mad with a kitchen knife. If that one dose had been stopped maybe she’d still be alive.”
“Don’t say ‘sorry’ son. Before this little episode is over we will all need to make up our own minds. I’m glad you brought up the point. Anyone else?”
They were really starting to talk serious police talk so I got up and took orders for tea or coffee, found some biscuits in the staffroom and let them talk. I had a few ideas of my own but I felt that they didn’t need some old bloke from Canberra telling them what to do. Simmie came out to help me but I sent him back. “You go back in there Simmie. That Sergeant really appreciates your opinion.”
Anyway it was getting late. We finished our coffee and Noel sent us all home.
“Janine, I want you to pick up John and Simmie and bring them here early tomorrow. 8am. It’s been a good day. Get some sleep, and goodnight.”
* * *
Next morning bright and early young Jimmy brought in a huge plate of hot pancakes. “Who cooked these?” everybody asked.
“Um. Is there anything that I’m supposed to know about Constable?”
“Sorry Sarge. I was meaning to tell you.”
“Well let’s get this little problem sorted and then we might need to have a chat. Now, business. I can’t keep the Seismic boat tied up much longer. Maybe until lunchtime. So this morning I want you to hightail it to the tin hut islands and work out which one lends itself to having a little hidey hole put up where no one can see it. I can’t let you have the Police boat after lunch so you have to get to the islands, work out the right spot and then get back here quick as.”
“When do you let Garcia know I’m OK?” I asked.
“I’ll go and see him while all of you are out looking for a picnic place. Then we have another meeting when you get back. I think I need to bring in the Federal Police because if we’re right it will have to involve PNG as well. Right! Well what are you all hanging around for? Get a wiggle on.”
* * *
We got in the Police launch. Jimmy, who had drawn the map of the seven islands, turned to Simmie. “Simmie, I reckon Island number four is our best bet. What do you think? You know these islands better than us.”
“Yeah. I think number four best one. Good trees up near the top. Good place to hide. But maybe number one island next to Saibai. That’s where the huts start. We make hideout on Saibai and keep look with binocular. Maybe we need two hideout.”
If we hurried we could check out both islands and get back by lunch time.
* * *
18 Standard Operating Procedures
Eight o’clock next morning. The two young Police boys have the boat all prepared. Janine is studying the radar instrumentation under instruction from Aaron; Jimmy has a big camera with a long lense so that he can, as he says, see what’s going on without getting his shoes dirty. When Simmie and I arrive the motor is running and we start moving as soon as our feet touch the deck. There are three police officers who are in a hurry to get to work and back in time for lunch.
There is no stopping and no sidetracking and we arrive at tin hut #1 – it was Sgt Noel who changed their name. Up close and it is pretty clear that making a hideout on Saibai Island won’t work. The island between Saibai and Dauan is visible but this side of Saibai is mangroves and a very bad place to set up a tent. Dauan is much better; the settlement is on the north side of Dauan but the south-east coast has a beach and low trees. Aaron says it’s perfect, Simmie agrees and we headed south for Tin Hut #4. Noel had given his three officers clear instructions that they were not to let anyone see them scouting around any inhabited islands.
Tin Hut #4 was different. There was no settlement and Jimmy’s radar said there were no fishing boat anywhere near so we all got off and inspected a really neat little grove of trees that would be perfect. “I bags this one,” said Jimmy, “and, Aaron, you can have Dauan.”
“I’m Okay with that. Tramp it Jimmy. Let’s get back on time or the Sarge will spit the dummy.”
* * *
I did not learn until it was all over but the Sergeant and young Constable Aaron Davidson had had a long talk after everyone was supposed to have gone home. I can’t give it verbatim but the gist of it was as follows.
Aaron do you know why you got posted to T.I.? It’s because I overruled your request for Cairns. It’s because I wanted you here. I worked with your brother in Mackay when he came out of the Academy. I worked for your Father when I came out of the Academy. When your father got cancer he asked me to keep an eye on his family for him. But I didn’t. Not a good one. I knew your brother had started on ‘ice’ after he got belted up by that gang in Airlie Beach and I thought he’d get over it but he didn’t. And the day he stayed home and had that fight with your mother is the day I did nothing. I didn’t know because I was too busy looking after myself. The worst part was, I was the arresting officer, I was first on the scene and there was nothing I could to save your mother.
So I understand why you feel the way you do and the confusion that there is between catching the ‘mules’ and taking out the ‘Mr Bigs’. And Aaron, never ever apologise, never say sorry for standing up for what you believe. I know you blame me for having you posted up here, but you are still too young to join the drug squad. When you are old enough and experienced enough and mature enough I will write a recommendation for you. But not today.
And Aaron asked Sgt Noel when he thought he would be old enough and mature enough.
Depends on what happens with this thing now. Maybe next week. I won’t know until it happens.
And I believe that that is how it went.
* * *
We got back to the station about 12.15. We all five of us walked in to the Sergeant’s office just as Garcia was walking out with the keys to the Seismic boat in his hand. He looked at me with a smirk on his face.
“Delighted to see you are looking so well. I hope to run into you sometime.”
Then he stuck his arrogant nose in the air and disappeared.
The Sergeant was furious. “You won’t believe what that bastard has done. He put that young helmsman on the plane yesterday morning and he is back in South America by now. When he came in I told him that you and Simmie were both alive and that you had been on Janine’s boat. But I told him I was going to have him charged with attempting to murder Simmie. He laughed and said my only witness was the young sailor and he was not here anymore.
So now we have to wait and see what happens with our ‘pass-the-parcel’ routine. But we will get him one way or another.
Oh, and this afternoon the Federal Police inspector is coming in and I want you three constables to be available but I’m afraid no one else will be permitted. Not my decision. Standard Operating Procedures. But we will all talk later.”
* * *
19 A bonding session.
And we did talk later. Actually Sgt Noel spoke; we listened.
“I’ve known the Inspector for quite a while and he can be a bit difficult at times; especially if he isn’t in charge.”
It was clear from what the Sergeant said that the Inspector thought the whole thing was a beat-up. The Australian Federal Police are concerned about crimes that impact national security or criminal activity that has an Australia wide effect. He thought that at the moment no crime had been committed and the Ecuatoil Seismic activity was perfectly legal and had Government approval. He advised that because the only witness to Mr Garcia’s behaviour at the time of the collision had departed Australia and that serving a subpoena on an overseas resident was problematic there was little that could be done, or little that needed to be done.
That seemed to be that. But the Sergeant was not going to give up easily.
“Maybe he hasn’t committed a crime that we can ping him on, but we can keep a close eye on things and wait and see if he does.”
There was a knock on the door and the front desk officer said, “Noel, there’s Bill from Border Force on the line. Do you want to take it?”
Noel spoke briefly and listened quickly and hung up.
“That bastard Garcia has just taken his boat and gone home. The “Launceston” reports they are now out of Australian waters. So he gets away with it. Actually I want another meeting. All six of us. I am ordering all you police officers to go home and report in civvies to the Torres Hotel. You’ve got thirty minutes. I’ll talk to the manager there and get us a quiet spot outside under a big tree where can talk.”
When we got there Noel was already set up. He was wearing shorts a bright flowery shirt and sandals or thongs if you want be correct. “Right you fellas, my name is Noel for the time being. Anyone who refers to me by rank will buy the next round.” I could see that that was going to be difficult for Jimmy and Aaron; Aaron most of all. They avoided it by not referring to him at all. If he asked questions they answered but generally just addressed the group as ‘you guys’ or Janine. Me they called ‘Sir’ until I told them that that was my father’s name and he was dead.
I was beginning to develop a good deal of respect for Noel. Then I was a bit taken aback by what I thought was a lack of feeling when he said, “Aaron, mate. Tell us how your mum died.”
Aaron was taken aback as well and I think so were all the others, but he told us about the drugs and the pain and the addiction to ice that his brother had. He told us how his brother was now; not good but coping. He was off drugs but on fulltime suicide watch in prison. He told us about his father dying of cancer. He told us about his brother being a policeman like his father. About how he had tried to stop a gang belting up an old drunk in Airlies Beach and how they had belted him up instead. How his injuries are what made him turn to drugs to relieve the pain. And he told us about how Ben, his brother had started a fight with his mother and what happened then. And he told us how badly he wanted to get into the drug squad.
I looked around the group. Jimmy was crying. The tears were falling down his face and he didn’t want to move to wipe them away. Janine was sobbing. Simmie had got up and sat next to Aaron with his arm around him as only an islander can do. I was a bit tearful myself, actually. Then things settled down a bit. Noel got up and said it was time everyone had a drink and it was his shout and Aaron said it was his shout and Noel told him to sit back down and that was an order son, and Aaron said sorry Sergeant but it’s my shout and it was because he’d called him ‘Sergeant’.
But Simmie said, “First I want to pray for my brother Aaron.” And he prayed. Then he said, “Now you go buy us all a drink, brother.”
What I had thought at first was a lack of feeling turned out to be one of the most moving examples of team building I had ever seen.
Aaron came back with a tray of drinks for every one and Noel said “So now we all know about young Aaron here and his concern for drug dealers, we’d better make sure that none of our tears were shed in vain. I for one want to get that bastard Garcia and I will if he ever sails back into Australian water. And Simmie. You can pray for me whenever you want.”
* * *
- Playing ‘pass the parcel’
After our life defining drinking session at the Torres Hotel nothing happened. Janine went about doing whatever she did which was basically family welfare work. The islanders had a pretty decent lifestyle but there was still a bit of a problem with alcohol – who were we to judge, the session at the Torres Hotel lasted ’til late. The two boys, Jimmy and Aaron, went about doing what young Constables do and Sergeant Noel looked after his team of ducklings like a mother duck with a mothering complex. Simmie went back to work as a fishing guide taking tourists out to reefs looking for fish.
I went home.
And nothing happened.
I looked after my vegetable garden and wrote letters to the editor of any publication that would print me about anything that seemed to concern me at the time.
Nothing much concerned me. Except that I worried about Aaron and his brother. Mother dead. Father dead. Brother in gaol. Aaron worried about the world wide drug culture and what he could do to change the world. What can we, anyone of us, do about anything? Not a bloody lot.
I’m sitting here in Ballarat worrying about cold westerly winds and thinking about Simmie, who calls me Uncle, about Aaron and Jimmy, and Janine who really works for Canberra but who is beginning to think of Thursday Island as her home. And about Sergeant Noel who wants Simmie to pray for him but he also, with a not very Christian attitude towards one’s enemies, wants to destroy Señor Alejandro Garcia.
And as I sit here in wintery Ballarat I think about said Señor Alejandro Garcia and wonder if there is any room for people like him in this world, or if all the room in this world that people like Señor Alejandro Garcia take up leaves much space for the decent people like Sgt Noel and Constable Aaron.
One night, with help from a mixture of herbs and malt whisky from Scotland, I was brave enough to send the above mentioned Sergeant Noel of Queensland Police Service a brief message on my phone. An SMS that was brief, but to the point. ‘How are things in Glocca Morra?” And he, who had obviously been well educated by the Christian Brothers at Ignatius Park College, Townsville sent me an enigmatic text. “I wish I was in Carrickfergus.”
I had no idea what he meant so I had to look it up. But basically he wished he was somewhere else.
* * *
Then, and the time frame threw me for a bit, about five minutes later he sent another;
‘ Pipeline running. Someone’s playing pass the parcel. Come home all is forgiven.’
Pack a bag – 10 minutes. Walk down Doveton St to the station – 20 minutes. Wait for shuttle – 20 minutes. Shuttle to Tullamarine – 90 minutes. Sit on bum for two hours. Next flight is Jetstar leaving 14.35. Jetstar to Cairns 3 h 20 m. Stay with brother waiting for Qantas to Horn Island tomorrow 0815 arrive 10 am. Ferry to T.I. arrive 10.30.
Sgt Noel picked me up from the ferry. “You took your bloody time. I expected you yesterday.”
“Do you want to see my timetable and itinerary? Where are all the others?”
He smiled and shook my hand. “No I don’t wanna see your itinerary. It’s good to see you. Your little trip at Christmas time certainly turned into a major undertaking. The others! Aaron is on Dauan keeping an eye on Tin Hut #1. Janine is with him. They’re a bit of an item now. Jimmy and Simmie are on Tin Hut #4. Come back to the station and I’ll fill you in.”
“First up, I’d like to get myself somewhere to stay.”
“That’s sorted. I’ve got you into one of the single officers’ quarters at the station. I’m gonna need you close at hand until we get this over and done.”
I go into the flat I’ve been allocated. Like being back in the Army. Actually it’s a good feeling. I shower and change clothes. It’s warmer than Ballarat. Noel is waiting when I come out.
“Two days ago we got a report of a tinnie, (small fishing boat), coming over from PNG. Came straight over and stopped at Tin Hut #1. He was there for ten minutes and then turned and went back to PNG.”
“Was Aaron looking then?”
“No. Border Force were doing a routine patrol up there in one of their small boats. They didn’t get a visual but noted on their radar.”
“So what made them tell you?”
“We’ve asked them to report all contacts, visual or radar, of boats stopping at any of the Tin Huts. But not to approach. So then we sent Aaron and Janine to Dauan and Jimmie to #4.”
“I thought you said Simmie was at #4 as well.”
“Simmie’s a private citizen and he volunteered. He’s been living on #4 since you went back south. He’s got a two way radio to contact us. As a matter of fact, when this is over I’m asking him to apply to join the QPS. He is top value that fellow.”
His desk phone rang and he picked up. He waved at me and indicated for me to come back at 12 for lunch.
* * *
21 This is how it’s done.
What happened after I left and before I got back at lunchtime was as follows.
The AFP Inspector, who had been the one who’d phoned Noel, had asked the Sergeant to drop in and see him at his office at the Commonwealth Centre. From Noel’s point of view it was more like an interrogation than and inter-service liaison. The Inspector had heard from his opposite number at Border Force about the visit to Tin Hut #1 and was very venomous in his attitude toward the QPS. “If you thought something might happen and it was going to come from PNG you were obliged to inform me. Instead you have an arrangement with Border Force that they keep a check on some islands that you have pinpointed. I must admit I am very disappointed with you Sergeant. I expect better from the Queensland Police Service.”
Noel apologised profusely for his unforgivable lack of cooperation and promised to let the Inspector know about any further incidents that had relevance to the AFP.
“But I may just develop a bit of a habit of forgetfulness when it comes to reporting matters concerning Federal Regulations,” he told me when he got back from his meeting. “I told that bastard all about the Tin Huts and he said there’d been no crime so I should forget all about it. But now he and BF are talking I can’t very will hide things from both of them. BF are being very cooperative.”
Just then the two way radio squawked. It was Aaron. “There are two blokes in a tinny have come from a southerly direction and have landed on Tin Hut #1. I can see it clear as a bell through these glasses. Wait. One bloke’s gone to the hut. He’s unlocking it. Now he’s taking a drum of fuel down to his boat. He’s given it to his mate who’s refuelling his fuel tank. Right. Now he’s gone back to the hut. He’s unhooked the line and the buoy has popped up. Right. Now the other bloke’s moved his boat over to the buoy. Wow Sarge this is how it’s done. He’s pulled up the rope that’s tied on the buoy. There’s something heavy on the end of the rope. Okay he’s got it. A parcel wrapped in plastic about a metre by a half. He’s put it in the tinnie. He’s waving to his mate at the hut. Now the fellow at the hut is pulling on the line; the buoy has gone under and he’s hooked the line on the inside of the hut. Locked the hut. Running down the beach and swimming out to his mate and they’re heading back the way they came. South. Did you get all that.”
“Yes I got all that. Well done young fella. I’ll ask Border Force to keep out of their way but to monitor them on radar. You two can come home now. Well done. And I mean come straight back. No sight seeing on the way. But switch your RF up one.”
It’s been a long number of years and I haven’t ever been operational with the sort of equipment that is used these days. “What does switch your RF up one mean?” I asked.
“For security reasons on a job like these we use a series of two way radios that have a set of random frequencies so that no one else can listen in. Because Aaron has just used his we all know that his frequency should now go up by an amount that we change every day. So if Jimmy or I want to talk to him we will need to change the frequency we call by the set amount.”
“So why did you tell him to if it is set procedure?”
“One. Because he’s young. Two. Because he has just sent the most important and lengthy message of his career; ’til now, and he just might forget. Three. Because he might be a bit excited and forget to. Fair enough?”
We sat and waited. I had coffee and Noel was busy on a lot of other things that needed his attention and finally after what seemed like hours, Jimmy arrived back and then about an hour later Aaron and Janine turned up.
“Where’s Simmie?” I asked. I hadn’t seen him for weeks and had been looking forward to seeing him.
“He’s stayed out on #4. Said to say hello and invited you to come out tomorrow. In fact I think he needs to come back so if you come with me in the morning, I’ll stay and mind the shop and you can bring him back. It’s his boat we’re using anyway.”
But that’s tomorrow.
* * *
22 Final Options.
Later that evening Sgt Noel gathered us together to work out a plan for the future. Simmie was still out on Tin Hut #4 so there only the five of us.
Noel started by outlining what he saw as our options. “We have three ways to look at this,” he said, and set it out on a whiteboard.
- We arrest every boat that comes from PNG and stops at Tin Hut 1. This will effectively stop any drugs coming into Australia from this point.
- We let the pipeline run and follow it to the gang organising the distribution. Then we arrest them all and seize all the drugs.
- We hand it over to the Federal cops and see if they can work back through PNG and take out members of the supply gang.
“Let’s get as many comments down as we can. Aaron, you start.”
“Number three is out as far as I’m concerned. It would require an international task force and I can’t see anyone starting Rambo style war against whoever is behind it. It would be good if it would work but I can’t see it happening.”
“OK stop there. What does everyone else think about number three?” There was a general shaking of heads and mutterings and everyone agreed with Aaron’s point.
“So what is the effect if we opt for number one?”
“I can see the benefits.” This was Janine. “It stops any drugs getting on to the mainland. It stops any locals getting tempted to get involved. But it makes the bad boys cross so they pack up, go home, write off the work they’ve done setting up the Tin Huts and move somewhere else. We’ve hurt them but they’ll probably just shrug their shoulders and get on with whatever they want next. I reckon we opt for number two.”
I think everybody would have expected Aaron to go for number one. Anything to stop any quantity at all coming in. But I was wrong. “I think numer one is the worst option of them all.” he said. “I want to hurt them as much as possible. If we go for number two we can put some tracking stuff in some of the bags. We can let as much come in as possible. But we can slow it down until it backs up and then arrives at the distribution centre. Then we seize as huge an amount as we can and arrest as many bastards as there are.”
“And what if we lose even one of the parcels and it gets through?” asked Noel.
“Well, I for one would reckon it would be worthwhile.” Jimmy had been a bit quiet while all the toing and froing was going on. “I keep thinking about Aaron and his family and yes, one parcel getting through would be bad. But in the whole scheme of things, and Aaron, Mate, I don’t think any drug related death is any less terrible than any other one, but if we can stop one hundred then that is the price we must pay. I think option three isn’t a realistic option. Main point for me is Option one is totally not on. No where, no way. Worse than doing nothing.”
“John, you’ve been quiet. What’s your line.”
“I can’t see why you bothered to write option one up in the first place. Now you know how the pipeline works you use it for advantage for as long as possible. You just keep monitoring it and keep a track on every parcel until it gets top the end and you have to close it down.”
“Fine,” Noel seemed happy. “Then that’s decided. I’ll fly down to Cairns tomorrow and talk to the big boys down there and make sure they can stop any leaks their end and we start monitoring. Thank you all. It’s been great. Tomorrow first thing I want one of you to go out and bring Simmie back and fill him in. I’ll go down on the afternoon plane. Good night then. See you all in the morning.”
* * *
23 The Inspector
We all assembled in Noel’s office to establish a common point of view; Noel was heading off to Cairns to talk with his boss down there and really wanted to make certain that we would let the ‘pass-the-parcel’ pipeline run and that they would catch things at their end. He had already spoken on the phone to Cairns but wanted to make sure all ends were tied up.
“Excuse me Noel,” said the desk officer, “Sorry for butting in but you might want to hear this.”
‘This’ was the AFP Inspector about to make an important announcement. Noel turned on his radio which was tuned to Radio 4MW. (4 Meriba Wakai , Our Voice.) The announcer was chatting about some local happenings while she waited for the inspector to come on.
Then: “Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen and listeners. I’ve wish to announce a major step in the war on drugs. Yesterday afternoon members of the Australian Federal Police, on my instructions, arrested a person carrying an amount of proscribed drugs. It was part of a large international plan to bring drugs into Australia via the Torres Strait Islands. We have stopped them. My officers have done a magnificent job at uncovering a clever plan to undermine the youth of Australia. Australians all over this country can rest assured that the AFP, here in the Torres Strait, are ever vigilant. Thank you, that is all. I will now take questions.”
Noel slammed the radio off. “Any bloody questions! That mongrel bastard. He’s destroyed everything. Just to big-note himself. I told him what we were going to do. He just smiled and nodded his imbecilic. I even told him I why I was going to Cairns this afternoon.”
Aaron stood up and pushed his chair back so hard it smashed against the wall.
“And where the hell are you going?” Noel was too angry to be polite.
“I’m going to punch that bastard in the head and tell him exactly what I think of him and his almighty Federal Police. And then I’m going to get drunk and then I’m going to write out my resignation so you won’t have to send in a report to Brisbane and then I’m going home. Which will be difficult because I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“You come back here right now and sit down and cool off. All of us are angry. You’re not the only one who has been hurt by drugs. Sit down! Now!”
“Sorry Sarge,” he said as he stormed out slamming the door behind him.
“Jimmy go and get him and bring him back.”
In the room there was silence for what seemed like an eternity but was probably counted in seconds. Noel picked up the phone and rang the Inspector on his direct line.
In the room there was silence for what seemed like an eternity but was probably counted in seconds. Noel picked up the phone and rang the Inspector on his direct line.
“Good morning Inspector. Something urgent has come up. One of my young officers is on his way down to see you and is planning to destroy his career. He plans to tell you that you destroyed our whole operation. I don’t want him to see you because you will have to lodge a complaint and I will have to send a report and that would be bad for his career and that would be bad for QPS because he is a brilliant young officer.
So please, could you have some of your staff out the front to stop him. And could you have him brought back here to me before he can say all the things he is planning to say?”
He hung up. “He said he’d stop Aaron and make sure he didn’t get to say anything.”
We were all pleased about that, at least. The last thing anyone wanted was for Aaron to do anything to get himself dismissed. We sat and waited. It wasn’t long before Jimmy came back.
“That bastard has arrested Aaron. He had his men waiting out the front but they were told to let Aaron through and the Inspector came out of his office and waited, in front of everybody, with his arms folded for Aaron to confront him. Aaron started telling the Inspector what he thought of him. Used language I didn’t think he knew. He even threatened to punch the Inspector in the head. Then the Inspector told his men to arrest Aaron and charge him with threatening a Federal Officer.”
Noel stood up, put his uniform jacket on; something we hadn’t seen him do before, and walked out slowly without saying a word. Jimmy and Janine followed but he turned them back. “Stay here,” he ordered. “I’ll go and get him.”
* * *
24 Formal Discipline
Noel returned in half an hour with Aaron. Aaron’s shirt was torn and he had a split lip and his left eye was going to look worse before it looked better.
“He slipped on the floor while they were charging him. They told me,” said the Sergeant. “He’s been released into my custody so, Janine, take him across to the hospital and get Dr Conrad to check him over. And don’t let him do any bloody thing else stupid today. No matter how brave.”
I don’t know if anyone had a way of describing the Sergeant at this moment. All we could do at the time, is to read into his few words and his actions to get an idea.
“Jimmy, how long have you worked with Aaron? A couple of years? Except for today, what is one thing you have seen him do that you would mention if you were going to recommend him to other young coppers?”
“No one specific thing Serge. He’s just a full package. He’s the first to jump in to help you if things get tough. He’s always there to back you up. He never loses his temper; except for today. I could go on but I don’t want to. Are you going to send in a report on him?”
“Yes Jimmy. I am going to send in a report in him. I don’t have a choice. He made a mistake, no matter how much we might agree with him. I would have liked to go down and punch that Inspector in the face myself. But I didn’t. Because it wouldn’t solve anything. Because I have a career that I’m proud of and because I have a wife and two small children. Now go and find something to do while I work out what to write in my report.”
Janine came back with Aaron who sat down at his desk and said nothing. He just kept looking at the wall or the apple at the bottom of his computer screen.
An hour later Noel called the three in to his office. Then he asked me to come in and Simmie too.
“Okay. This has affected us all. It is really a Police matter but John, you have been a part of it, even before we were. Simmie I want you to hear what I’m going to say because I want you to post off that application form that I gave you last week.
A discipline report is usually between the officer and the member being reported on. And usually everyone else involved wants to know what was said. So I’m going to read it to you as long as Aaron doesn’t object. Aaron?”
“Do what you like. I stuffed up and that’s that.”
“Okay. This is what I wrote. There are few formal things at the start that I won’t bother you with but this is my statement.
I enclose a complaint from Inspector (Name Given) of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) that at 0945 hrs on this date Constable A. J. Davidson No. 64529 of the Queensland Police Service (QLS) did make threats to injure the said Inspector and was arrested on a charge of ‘Threat to Injure’. This charge has been withdrawn on condition that the member, Constable A. J. Davidson No. 64529, be released into the custody of the senior Sergeant QLS of the Thursday Island Station.
The member did verbally abuse the AFP officer and furthermore did threaten the said officer. Because the charge has been withdrawn I have to report that the member’s actions today were in breach of an acceptable standard of behaviour.
The member had received information that a case upon which he had been working had been irreparably undermined by the above mentioned AFP officer. He therefore, understandably, reacted in a manner that was unacceptable. Furthermore he disobeyed a direct instruction to remain in the Thursday Island Police Station and he was also instructed to desist from approaching the above mentioned AFP officer.
It is my recommendation that the member be reprimanded, forfeit one year of his promotion entitlements on condition that he remains on Thursday Island and is posted to no other position.
The member is an exemplary young police officer and the extreme provocation that he suffered from a member of the AFP should not be allowed to destroy his career. On serving a one year probation, in my care, I will recommend that he be transferred to the QPS Drug Squad and then, after specific Drug Squad training he be reposted to the Torres Strait.
Signed Sergeant N (Name Given) No 41952
Then Sergeant Noel invited us all to go back to his place where his wife had prepared lunch and where we all commiserated with each other for quite a considerable time.