There are times when one small happening coincides with another and another until eventually a pullover of heavy wool, hand knitted by an arthritic aunt is pulled undone and the truth is revealed.
The death of the Colonel in a car accident just at the start of my adventure in the Torres Strait was put down to accident. Then Carol never believed it was accident that killed her father and I was never really satisfied – it was too convenient from my way of looking. I had put it all behind me and would not have thought about it if the first coincident hadn’t materialised.
When I started teaching in Ballarat twenty years ago there was a quiet young girl in one of my classes and I remember mentioning to the class in passing that I thought I might buy a new car. A secondhand car was all I could afford and the quiet young girl told me her father sold second hand cars. Her father, Frank, I soon found out, was also quiet in manner but the rough and broken nosed face held two bright and discerning eyes.
We got to talking. I don’t suppose there is a car salesman anywhere who doesn’t talk and I’m pretty sure he was interested in who this fellow was who would be teaching his daughter for the next few years. So the conversation was much more than just about cars.
“How long have you been in this game?” I asked at one stage.
“Ever since I got out of the Force,” he answered and I saw his eyes flicker at something on the wall. Now at that time the ‘Force’ could have only meant one thing – the Victorian Police Force. He said nothing about the ‘Force’ but we stood up to wander around the car lot and look for something that would suit me.
When we got back to his office I looked at the framed ‘Commendation for Bravery’ that I had noticed earlier. Nothing seemed to get past him and he noticed me looking.
“That was a long time ago,” he said. “I don’t talk about those days much.”
“Do you miss them? I had five years in the Army and I miss a lot of things about my time.”
“I miss a lot like a hole in the head. One or two mates I still miss.”
Twenty years later and I’d forgotten Frank and I’d put the death of the Colonel out of my mind. The police hadn’t had any luck finding the bloke who’d run into Carol’s car and I imagined it had been filed away as an accident.
I needed a new car. Mine was using oil and the front wheel bearings weren’t too flash so I looked up ‘Used Cars : Ballarat’ and there, surprisingly was Frank’s Cheap Cars. I might get a good deal from him if he remembered me.
He did. “Isn’t it time you got rid of that old bomb?”
“It wasn’t a ‘bomb’ when you sold it to me.”
“Alright. Fair enough. So what are you after this time?”
“I was thinking of doing a bit of travel and I was looking for a second-hand SUV. Maroon or Black. You know. Something that’ll show the dirt!”
“I had a dark red SUV late last year. But I wouldn’t have sold it to you. Some fellow brought it in and sold it for cash. It needed the front fixed up. He said he’d run into a car that had come through an orange light. Said he had to get back to NSW and couldn’t hang around to get it fixed. So I got it cheap. I wouldn’t have sold it to you anyway. Those big SUVs look tough but some of them are pretty cheap and if they’ve had a bingle you can never get the front end balanced properly.”
My mind froze for a second and then started to whirl. The Colonel! I wonder! I told Frank some of the story of the Colonel. About how he died. About the end result and how it all seemed a bit suspicious to me.
“Well if it was suspicious why didn’t the Feds investigate? He was one of their men. You’d reckon they’d want to know the truth.”
“But what if he was a bit of a thorn in their side – which he was – and they were happy for it to just go away. Although you could be right. I just can’t believe the police, either local or Federal, would just sweep something like this under the carpet.”
“I do,” said Frank. “I was in the Force long enough to have seen a few shonky deals. And just because I get a nice framed letter saying how sad they were to see me go, there were a few old coppers, and a few young ones too, who were very happy to see the arse end of me.”
“So is there anything can be done?”
“I don’t know.” Frank shook his head. “Let me think about it for a while. I’ll give a few fellows a call – I still have one or two mates left who can stir up the mud. Why don’t you give me a ring tomorrow and I let you know.”
Now I hope you haven’t been waiting on tenterhooks (or tender hooks for the illiterati amongst you) for more information about the Colonel’s death. I mentioned that I had gone to see Frank at his car yard and he sparked an interest in a maroon SUV that might, or might not, have been involved in the collision that Carol, the Colonel’s daughter, had had that resulted in the Colonel’s death. [This happened in the earlier story Concerning Constable Aaron.]
I didn’t get around to seeing Frank for quite a while. I had things to do and getting old does often take up a lot of time. “Where have you been?” he asked and I told him I’d been out chasing charming and delightful women and he laughed.
“Well while you have been sitting in front of the TV watching the cricket I have been taking steps,” he said. “And what’s more I am interested in a couple of things. Firstly what has the Colonel got to do with you going to Thursday Island and secondly…”
“Stop!” I interrupted. “I didn’t tell you I went to T.I. and that the Colonel had anything to do with it.”
“Actually you did. You told me you have worked for some mob in Canberra on a ‘now-and-then’ basis ever since you were in the Army and that you were going to T.I. just for a holiday and then the Colonel got involved.”
“OK. Sorry! You’re right. I must have been in a bit of a muddle when you told me about the SUV.”
“Anyway after you’d gone I rang Sammy and asked her to come in early.” I asked him who Sammy was and he reminded me that she was his daughter, that I had taught her years ago when I first came to Ballarat and that she did his books for him.
“I asked her if we still had the photo of the bloke who sold me the SUV.”
“Why would you have a photo of him?”
“We have CCTV Security cameras all over the place because we have problems with hoons coming into the car yard all the time. For instance we took your photo when you came in last week. The camera records on a month long loop. But Sammy thought that if we kept a still shot of people who come in as customers then we can have a record so if they come back we will be able to talk to them as if we remember them. It’s amazing what you can do with computers these days.”
“When did you get to be so sneaky?” I said.
“When I was in CSS-Drug Squad.”
“And CSS is what, exactly?
“Covert Surveillance Section. So Sammy got me the photo of the SUV driver and I sent it to a mate in Records. Now that I’m a civilian I don’t have access but there are a couple of ways of calling in a favour. Then I took the name that they gave me, and the photo, back to the Drug Squad and in about ten seconds they clammed up and told me I had no rights left and “Get back to selling cars, Frank” before someone puts me out of business permanently. I pulled a few strings and got in to see my old boss. He wasn’t happy that I’d got through to Records and that they’d given me the name on the photo. All he could tell me – all he would tell me – was the SUV bloke was on the Queensland ‘wanted list’ and was a ‘person of interest’ to the Feds.”
“Is that it? Is that all you could find out?”
“Sort of. But it isn’t the end of it. Yesterday, and I was going to ring you just before you came in, I got a very hard to resist invitation to go to Canberra to see someone in some organisation called ‘The Organisation’ and I wondered if they were your mob?”
“Yes, that is my mob as you call it. How hard to resist was the invitation?”
“Very hard to resist. Just a tiny little bit harder and it would be a formal subpoena.”
“They don’t do subpoenas, Frank. They do suggestions and in my experience it is always a good idea to do what they want. So when do we go?”
“You’re not coming. It was just me they asked.”
“I am coming. I’m going to hold your hand all the way. The Colonel was probably the most important and influential person in my life – wives included.”
Frank told me what flight he was booked on and I went home and wangled a ticket on the same plane.
I rang Margaret, an old friend I know who lives in Canberra and she insisted I stay with her and John and they’d be happy to give Frank a bed as well. Then I called Frank and he said he didn’t think it wise for him to stay with me at Meg’s place. I got the impression he knew a lot more about the way ‘The Organisation’ might work than I did – and I knew a fair bit.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, mate. The bloke who killed the Colonel, and I don’t think there’s any doubt about it now, knew more about the Organisation than you did. And if we both stay with the same person, in this case an old friend of yours, who’s to say they won’t get dragged into it. It could be dangerous.”
Frank was so firm about it that I rang Meg back and said I wouldn’t be coming after all. I didn’t tell her why. I wanted to keep as much under my hat as I could from now on. It makes a difference when you have a real professional, Frank, walking with you. I reckon he was holding my hand not the other way.
When we turned up at the address that they’d given to Frank we thought there’d been a mistake. The office was on the second floor of an office block just opposite the bus stop in Marcus Clarke Street. We were given a floor level, number two, and a room, number five, but it was for the Canberra office of the Wombat and Koala Protection Organisation. It was one of those open office places where about five people had desks and phones and a computer and they all seemed very busy. Some vacuous little twit smiled and asked us to take a seat. Frank gave her his name and said he had an appointment. She smiled again in a vacuous sort of way. “She will be with you soon. She is on a call at the moment. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
About five minutes later another vacuosity walked out of a small room at the side. “Ah,” she said, “you must be here about the wombats in North Queensland. Follow me this way please.”
I decided that the mistake was getting worse and started to say something but Frank just elbowed me in the ribs and said thank you and what a lovely day it was outside. We were ushered into another room, found a couple of chairs and were politely told to sit down.
The vacuosity smiled and went out and Carol came in. Yes, that Carol. The Colonel’s daughter.
“Hello John, I wasn’t expecting you.” She turned to Frank. “And you must be Detective Inspector Frank Brown. You, I was expecting, but I didn’t think you would bring a friend.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you,” Frank replied. “I apologise for him.” He pointed at me with a strange smile on his face. “I didn’t bring him, he just followed along by himself.”
Carol looked at me and nodded a greeting. Everybody was smiling these days. Except for me. I was worried and didn’t see that smiling was going to help but I supposed I should go along with things. She turned and addressed both of us but more particularly Frank. “I think you should explain what you are here for,” she said. ” All I got was a message from the folk around in Kings Avenue that there was someone I should listen to.”
I raised my eyebrows, “And Kings Avenue are…?” I asked, because I just can’t stand it when people use jargon and expect all the ordinary people to understand what they said and I wasn’t going to let Carol get away with it even if she was the Colonel’s daughter.
“Sorry. The Federal Police. I assumed you would know,” and she was looking at Frank. Not me. Was there something I didn’t know? Was she annoyed with me. If so what had I done? I know her father was coming to see me when the SUV hit and killed him, but surely she couldn’t blame me.
“I believe you have information for me Inspector.”
“Please just call me Frank. I wasn’t an Inspector and I’m retired anyway.”
“Retired why? Voluntary or otherwise?”
“Otherwise! Thank you. But I’m not sure you need to know.”
Then he set out all that he knew about the Colonel’s death. He showed her the photograph of the driver of the SUV. She took it and looked at for a long time and then nodded her head. Frank explained the connection with the Queensland Police and the AFP.
She looked at him and said, “Yes, Frank. That is the guy who drove the truck.” Then she turned to me and smiled. The cold had gone. “Thank you, John. I never thought we would ever get to the truth.”
Then Frank took over. “We haven’t got to the truth, Ma’am. All we have is your confirmation that the man who sold me a Maroon SUV is the same man who was driving a vehicle that ran into the passenger’s side of your vehicle.”
This was a different Frank to the Frank I knew. He called her ‘Ma’am’ instead of Carol, as she had been introduced. There was a definite distancing himself from her and she felt it.
“What happens now, Inspector?” she asked and he didn’t correct her this time.
“I’m not sure, Ma’am. I’ll do some investigating and let you know when we find something.”
We left the office of the ‘Wombat and Koala Protection Organisation’. I suggested a coffee and Frank agreed. But all the way to the coffee lounge he said nothing. And he walked differently; casual and careless had gone and his shoulders were held a little firmer and his step was stronger. The coffee came and he had said nothing. It was clear that he was thinking a lot.
“I’m not sure about this,” I said. “But I get the feeling that ‘Frank the second hand car man‘ has transmogrified himself into ‘Inspector Frank the Covert Surveillance Cop‘. Am I right?”
“As soon as we finish our coffee I’d like to go and see what the Feds have got to say,” he said, ignoring my comment. “And why did the ‘Organisation’ invite me, firmly, to come up here and then Carol didn’t seem to have anything much to say? And I want to know why this bloke who hasn’t yet been given a name….Just a minute! He has got a name. I just didn’t bother to ask.”
He pulled out his mobile phone. “Sam will know. He must have given us his name when he sold me the SUV.” He punched in Samantha’s number and asked her to look up records. She was obviously one step ahead of her father. The name was Andy Fong and the address he had given the car yard was a false address in Perth.
“Andy Fong. What a name he chose for himself. Andy is Scots and Fong sounds a bit Chinese to me. Have a look at that photo and tell me what you see.”
“OK. I don’t know what a typical Scot looks like unless it’s red hair and a kilt and he certainly doesn’t have anything oriental in him at all.”
“Right. Let’s grab a taxi and while I go to see the Feds you can have a wander around the National gallery and when I’ve finished I’ll meet you in the cafe for a bite to eat.”
“I’d rather come along with you. It’d be good to have look around the Federal Police Offices.”
“No. Not today Gunga Din. Not today.” he said dismissively. “I think it will look better if I go on my own.”
We got a taxi down Commonwealth Avenue, crossed over Lake Burley Griffin and I got dropped off out the front of the Gallery. It was lovely weather for ducks all of a sudden and I scampered quickly to get out of the rain. I suppose it was about an hour later that my phone buzzed in my pocket and there was a message asking indignantly why I wasn’t in the Cafe. Because I was probably as far away as I could be but still be in the same building, at the Torres Strait and Aboriginal Art. Ten minutes later I sat down. Frank had waited to order his meal until I had turned up: sign of an old fashioned gentleman.
Over our meal Frank told me that the name Andy Fong was about all the Feds had. “But when they saw the photo they had an apoplectic fit and wanted to know why I hadn’t given them the photo earlier. I explained that I’d only found it a few days ago and when I’d met Fong I wasn’t looking for a crook, just an SUV that I could make a bit of money on.’
So the Feds ran the photo through all their wizz bang computers and found nothing much at all. There was only one piece of information that linked the name, Andy Fong, to the photo. Apparently he’d come in through Customs and it was nothing more than a bit of a query about his visa for a trip to Hawaii. That was enough to make him a ‘person of interest’ and all Frank could get was that Fong’s fingerprints were on record with the QPS – Queensland Police Service.
“And so therefore, young fellow, why don’t you and I go home and see if we can rustle up a fingerprint for Mr Bloody Fong?”
We left the Gallery after our very pleasant meal and Frank threw in another one of his surprises; we were apparently going to drive home and not take the plane.
“There’s a car for sale out Belconnen way. It’s a good deal. I know a fellow back home who has been looking for one for a while. And if he’s still interested I think it’ll pay for our trip.”
It was fairly obvious that Frank was still a used car dealer when he wasn’t playing private cop. And that was something I needed to get straight in my head before we got much deeper into things. I thought I’d wait until we picked up the car and were on our way home.
We left Belconnen in a nice little 2006 Porsche Boxer 987. The owner wanted to get $30,000; Frank offered him a few thousand less and the owner agreed because it was hard not to agree with Frank because he was such a convincing type of bloke.
He wouldn’t let me drive so I settled down to enjoy the scenery. A little bit the other side of Yass we picked up the Hume Highway and the thing that was bugging me needed putting away so I started.
“Frank,” I said a little nervously because I wasn’t sure of how I felt, “when you went in to see the Feds this morning were you open about being an ex-Victorian copper or how did you go about it? I don’t know if I said that right but you know what I mean.”
“What you want to know is just what game are we playing,” said Frank. “The truth is this; I was a good policeman. I never did anything shonky in my life. Sometimes I played things hard and sometimes not. I left the force because my immediate superior wanted to cut corners and play a bit close to the law. He wasn’t too worried if we put words into a con’s statement that wasn’t completely true. So I told him I would go upstairs to the Commissioner but he got there before I did. There was a fellow we were interviewing who was a nasty piece of work. But he also had a heart condition that we didn’t know about. Anyway during the investigation we were pretty hard on him and he had a heart attack and dropped dead. Dropped dead in the police station while we were interviewing him. I was blamed and I got thrown out.”
He stopped talking and I wasn’t too keen to start saying anything. We were just going through Jugiong so we stopped at The Sir George; a typical country pub with an authentic feel and rustic charm. I hope that doesn’t sound like a tourist brochure but I liked it a lot. We had a drink and a bite to eat and got back on the road.
A couple of kms along the way and Frank got back to talking as though we hadn’t had any interruption. “So anyway I was out of the Force and I didn’t like it. I had to make a living for Sammy and Moira. The super that I could put my hand on was enough to buy the car yard. And it’s a good job and I enjoy it. But I missed being a cop. So I did a course to get my PI licence.”
“So when you went in to talk to the Feds did you say you were a Private Investigator?” I asked.
“No. They thought I was a Victorian Cop and I didn’t tell them they were wrong. Anyway a PI doesn’t have to identify himself in the ACT so I didn’t say anything. In all states of Australia a Private Investigator is supposed to identify himself to local police but not in the Australian Capital Territory. It is a good idea to drop in to the local cop shop and tell the local Police that you are a PI and tell ’em what you are there for.”
He went all quiet again for a while. I dozed off and didn’t wake up until we were crossing the Murray at Albury. As soon as we were in Victoria he woke me and asked if I’d like to drive for a bit of the way. I’d never driven a Porsche. Oh the joy, and the power was something very new to me. He kept telling me to watch the speedo. And the car kept creeping up and nudging the limit. The limit in Vic is 110 Kph on freeways and I only hit 130 once before he told me he was going to have a bit of shut eye and I had to swear an oath on my mother’s grave that I would be sensible.
At Seymour we swapped driving duties. We left the Hume and took the Pyalong Road that would take us across country through Pyalong, Lancefield, Daylesford and so to home. It was a tighter road and I was happy that Frank was driving.
We got in to Ballarat about 10.30. Frank dropped me off and I was probably asleep before he got to his place ten minutes later.
The next day we had work to do.
Next morning I slept in for a bit until the bathroom called at about the same time the need for coffee forced itself into my subconscious. It was cold; I turned on the heater and toasted a few slices of bread. I didn’t want to go around to Frank’s early; I didn’t want to seem pushy as he was doing me a favour. It was one of those fantastic winter’s days when the sun shone through clear skies and warmed your heart. If you were out of the wind.
And all the time there was something that was scratching away at my memory. I pulled my little notebook out of my back pocket and skimmed over it. It was Carol! There was something about Carol that worried me. It was her attitude. When she saw the photo of the bloke who drove into her she was very quick to just accept it. Then in Canberra she seemed quite distant. There were contradictions that I didn’t quite understand. I decided to go and see what Frank had to say and then the phone rang. I knew he had said we would start early in the morning and now it was about ten o’clock.
I picked up the phone, “Yes Frank. I’m sorry I’m a bit late…”
But it wasn’t Frank. It was Carol. I apologised and told her I’d been waiting on a call from Frank.
“That’s why I’m ringing,” Carol said. “I was a bit abrupt with you two when I saw you last. I wasn’t sure who that fellow Frank was and I was even more put out when he told me he wasn’t a police officer. But after you’d left yesterday I stopped and thought about it and I realised that your unconventional way of working is exactly the thing the Colonel used to use you for. It’s because you don’t follow usual procedure that you get results. So I just wanted to apologise if I came over a little strange.”
She was obviously feeling the need to patch thing up. “Maybe I should tell you where Frank comes into things.” And I mentioned his being an ex-cop, a detective and how I’d met him when I taught his daughter. I told her about how helpful and caring a fellow he was. I told her a story about an American exchange student just so she’d know what sort of a bloke Frank was. [The character Frank is based on a real ex-cop I knew Click here if you want to learn more.]
She rang off and I went straight around to the car yard.
“Did you sleep in or are you just getting old?’ he said. “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news and then I’ve got good news. Good news: the Maroon SUV hasn’t been touched since Andy Fong came into the yard. Bad news: except that the inside was wiped clean of fingerprints. What happened is I gave it to a young couple who do all the car detailing for me and they were going to get it repaired and sell it. They were going to get married so I thought they could make a bit of money for themselves.”
“You said good, then bad, then good, again. What’s the good news? Again?”
“The good news is they didn’t get married.”
“And that’s the good news! You can be a miserable old cynic at times, Frank!”
“The good news is that they never got around to repairing it and it is still in the back of the shed at his place, under a great sheet of plastic and you and I are going to have a butcher’s at it as soon as that daughter of mine turns up to look after the shop.”
Sammy turned up but we didn’t leave ‘as soon as she turned up’ because she had brought coffee and cheese-and-ham croissants for morning tea.
We finished and Frank gave Sammy instructions to contact the car detailers to give the Porsche a good going over and then to find the fellow who had been looking to buy one. The salesman was back in town. And the detective had a different job to do at the same time. And I was going with him.
We got in Frank’s car and headed out to Sebastopol which is a southern suburb of Ballarat and that’s where the SUV was garaged.
“Interesting name for a place, isn’t it!” Frank said. Frank has a very encyclopaedic interest in Ballarat history. I had a pretty good idea where the name came from but didn’t interrupt. I knew he needed to talk about something other than the case we were on. “There was a gold mine here in the 1850’s and it was about the same time as the Crimean War was raging and many of the miners in Ballarat had come from Europe at the time. They thought the sound of rocks being blasted with dynamite sounded like the guns in Sevastopol in the Crimea. Other people say that it was the sound of the ore crushers in the main Ballarat mines that could be heard from that distance. Whatever, it is an interesting piece of irrelevant trivia.”
He was about to continue when his mobile phone rang. He asked me to answer and to put it on speaker. It was Sammy, Frank’s daughter who was in the office. “I think you should come back to the office, Dad. There’s a gentleman here who wants to talk to you.”
“Who is he and what does he want?”
“He won’t say but he says it is more important than chasing old car wrecks.”
“How does he know what I’m doing?”
“Because I told him. But I think you should come back.”
Frank grunted and told me to hang up. We turned around and went back to the yard. He stopped right at the door and stormed into the office and the next thing there was an almighty bellow of laughter from Frank and another fellow who could have been a clone.
“Well, well, well! I thought you were dead. James W Wilson! What are you doing in this neck of the woods?”
“New job, Frank. I’m now Senior Sergeant with a roaming brief to look at road traffic accidents. Last week I was over in Morwell checking up on Gippsland and this week I’ve got the whole of the Western District. I’m based at the new station in Ballarat West out the Carngham Road and I’ll be here for about a month and then I get shuffled around to Bendigo or Mildura. And so on and so forth.”
“And you just thought you’d drop in and see an old mate?”
“Yes, Frank. That’s exactly what I thought.”
“Sammy,” Frank said. “Could you duck down the street and get us some coffee and a few donuts. It’s party time. Time for me and Jimmy to catch up on old times.”
Sammy grabbed some money out of the petty-cash tin and left. As soon as she was gone Frank turned to his ‘old mate’ and said, “OK Jimmy, cut the bull shit. What are you doing here? And don’t give me that wandering brief garbage.”
I stood up and said I thought it was time I went home to look at my ducks. Frank then apologised for having not introduced me and started to remedy his mistake.
“There’s no need for that, Frank. I know who this is.” Jimmy stood and offered his hand. We shook. “I’m pleased to meet you, John. I don’t think you’d remember but I was in Bandiana at RAAOC* when you were at RAEME* Training Centre. I knew your Colonel.”
“Which Colonel was that?” I asked as a shiver went down my spine. “There were two while I was there.”
“Your Colonel. I knew your Colonel. The one who died in a traffic accident here about a year ago.” He turned to Frank. “Sorry mate but I’m actually here on business. And I don’t mean I want a car.”
“I didn’t think it was a social call, Jimmy. I’ve never known you to wear your uniform unless you were on duty. So stop the waffle and tell me what’s going on.”
Apparently Frank’s enquiries concerning the ‘accident’ and our subsequent trip to Canberra had rippled out like a pebble in a pond. It reached Jimmy in his róle of ‘wandering minstrel’ and he’d looked into it.
“It was a pretty dodgy investigation, Frank. As soon as you started poking your nose in, there were a few people who were worried that their sloppy work would be uncovered.”
“Don’t tell me…,” Frank interrupted, ‘Don’t tell me you’re here to cover up someone else’s bad work. That’s not you. You were always a stickler for following procedure.”
“Yes, Frank. I still am. So when these donuts arrive I’ll tell you what we are going to do.”
Sammy arrived just in time and we sat and talked.
It was fifteen minutes after we’d stopped eating donuts and the old copper and the new Senior Sergeant finally finished arguing over whose grandfather had been the more gentlemanly bushranger or whether being kicked out of today’s modern police force had been a blessing in disguise that James explained what we were to do.
Sammy said she would leave us to get on with our business but James said that if Frank had no objections he would like her to stay.
“Do you take shorthand, young lady?” Sammy shook her head. “No! Then I’ll talk slowly because I’d like you to take notes.
“Point one: Tell me about the SUV; where is it and what state is it in?
“Point two: Is there any question about the loyalty of the Colonel’s daughter, Carol?
“Point three: …..”
I Interrupted at this point. “Where the hell did the question of Carol’s loyalty come into this? She is his daughter. Was his daughter.” James ignored me.
“Point three: Can we have blown up copies of the fellow Fong please. And was there only one?”
He looked at Frank with eyebrows raised. “The SUV is under plastic wraps at the moment,” Frank said. He looked like he was thinking of two things at once. “It has been wiped clean of fingerprints but that’s all for now. John and I were just off to have a look at it when you turned up. And I don’t know anything about the Colonel’s daughter. Why did that come up. A bit out of the blue isn’t it?”
James ignored Frank’s last comment and said he wanted to have a look at the SUV with us and Sammy could please look for as many shots of Fong as she could find. I was still seething about the comment on Carol’s loyalty and quickly remembered I’d made an appointment with my dentist that I couldn’t break.
After Frank and James had left I rang Carol’s number and was told she was out but to try again in half an hour. Ten minutes later Carol rang back. I told her about the sudden appearance of Senior Sergeant Wilson and how we might be getting some official help to investigate her father’s death. I asked her to write down in detail everything she could remember about the collision. Everything. Quite often, in my experience, getting someone to write their remembrances down elicited a more accurate and detailed account than a question and answer from even the most experienced interrogator. Then I went home.
About an hour later there was knock on my door and I opened it to a young bloke in Army uniform. He snapped a pretty decent salute which I didn’t return because even an uneducated fool knows a civilian doesn’t salute.
I nodded in return and said thank you and he handed me an official looking envelope.
“Where are you from son?” I asked.
“8th/7th Battalion, Royal Victoria Regiment. Ranger Barracks, Sir.” He saluted again. I nodded again and he got back in his car and disappeared.
I opened the envelope. It was from Carol and there was a long list of points concerning the collision. She finished by telling me that any further contact between myself and herself was to be made by going to the Ranger Barracks in Sturt Street, asking for a Staff Sergeant Jimmy Bancroft and using a secure phone that he will show me. The letter informed me that SSGT Bancroft was unofficially credited to ‘The Organisation’ and although he had no active róle he was a ‘secure conduit‘ and I should feel confident to make use of his service if and when necessary. The only thing she did not say was, ‘tear this letter up, burn it and swallow the ashes‘ but I got the feeling that I was to be a bit careful. I folded up the letter and placed it in my wallet.
Back at the car yard the SUV had just been unloaded from a truck and was being pushed into the back of Frank’s workshop.
Frank, James and Sammy were quaffing another round of coffee and donuts so I joined them. “Did you notice anything that all the others missed?” I asked. I was harbouring a little resentment toward the new member of our team. James shook his head but Frank thought the SUV looked worse than he had remembered.
”When I saw it the first time I didn’t know someone had died as a result, but this time one thing struck me as being a little strange; it must’ve been a pretty hard hit to do a lot of damage and yet the driver’s airbag hadn’t activated.” He turned to James and asked if there was any chance that we could get some forensic experts to come out tomorrow and have a look.
I left the car yard and went home. I hardly ever notice the Ranger Barracks in Sturt Street although I drive past it often. This time I slowed to have a better look and so I drove into the car park and went and asked for Staff Bancroft. As soon as I introduced myself he took me into a smaller office, closed the door and saluted. I told him I was no longer in the Army and we could do without the singing and dancing. He relaxed and I asked him to forward a note to Carol in Canberra. He said I could ring her if I wanted. I didn’t want to because I hadn’t anything to discuss with her. All I wanted to know was where her wrecked car was taken.
He typed a few words into a computer, went and made a coffee and a couple of minutes later, and before the coffee came back he handed a slip of paper to me that gave me name and number plate of her car and ‘Central Motor Wreckers’ down the Sebastopol end of Humffray street.
It was still only just after midday so I went down to the wreckers to look for her car. The boys at the wreckers found it for me.
“It looks pretty badly knocked around,” I said. “I don’t know much about this model. Do they have side impact airbags?”
“Yes but this one didn’t activate which is strange because the impact looks quite severe.”
“Why wouldn’t it have worked?”
“Well that’s a bit of a mystery. Give us your number and I’ll do a bit of looking around.”
I left them to it. I wasn’t too sure what worried me about the airbag but maybe the impact wasn’t as severe as it seemed. Perhaps the impact was slight but just where the two vehicles met the body crumpled enough to absorb the shock. Maybe the Colonel was not killed by the trauma but rather had a bit of a weakness from earlier fights with injuries or sickness. Maybe the accident just hurried the inevitable along. I know he was on a few different medicines.
But Frank had noticed the same thing with the SUV back at the yard. The airbags hadn’t operated on either vehicle. I don’t like coincidences. And I don’t like waiting so I got back in my car and drove back to the wrecker’s yard. The young bloke I had talked to earlier called me in to the office. I was introduced to the big boss. “We were just going to ring you. There’s a bit of a problem with that car you were looking at. The airbag system was broken. There is an accelerometer that activates the airbag. It’s connected to the car’s computer by a USB connector. The connector had been pulled out.”
“Could it have come undone on impact?” I asked.
“Nope. When it’s pushed in it has a clip that holds it in firmly. It’s an integral part of a car’s safety system and is made to be fail safe. Only someone who knows what he’s doing can isolate the airbags. So the owner must have wanted the airbag to be inoperative.”
“Why would someone do that?” I was puzzled and worried.
“There are a couple of reasons. I know a few rally drivers who deactivate their airbags because they are anticipating a few bingles and they want to be able to continue driving without have a deflated bag in their way. If you have a baby in a baby seat it can’t be installed in the front seat if the seat has an active airbag. Some newer cars actually have a deactivating switch. Long story short; if you know what to do it can be done fairly easily.”
“So is this car fitted with a deactivating switch?”
“No. And what’s more it is usually quite difficult on this model.”
“So how was it done? On this car? If it was quite difficult.”
“Someone cut the wire with a pair of snips!”
It was almost five so I drove very quickly back to the Ranger Barracks. The Staff Sergeant was just locking up but he held the door open and ushered me in.
“I need to use your phone,” I said. I rang Carol. “The Ranger Barracks are just on the point of closing for the night. I need to know when you have ever left your car unattended. Anytime within a few months of you leaving to come down to Ballarat. Don’t tell me now but think carefully. Like dates when you had the car in for service and the name of the service station. Send a message to Bancroft and he can give it to me in the morning.”
She didn’t question me other than to ask why the Ranger Barracks weren’t open at night. Wasn’t there a duty officer? I explained very briefly that the Unit was an Army Reserve unit and there was only a small office staff on the base at this time of the year. I went home and had to wait patiently for the morning.
I hadn’t even had my second coffee – it was still dark, there was a cold wind blowing from the west and a sharp rapping on the door. It was Staff Sergeant Bancroft. He saluted, I braced up to return the salute and was awake enough to remember I’d been out of the Army for more than forty years so I just said, “Thank you Staff. Could we forget the saluting thing from now on. It’s been a long time, and anyway, those ribbons on your jacket are a lot more impressive than the ones I’ve got stashed in a cupboard.”
“Yes Sir! Sorry Sir. It’s a bit hard to stop.”
He handed me an envelope. ‘Message Received Major C.C Smith’.
“It’s from Canberra Sir. When you read it it won’t make sense. She told me you’d understand. She said it was just a lot of stuff about gardening and she hoped you still had her father’s gardening book and you should read pages 72 to 92 and that ought to be enough.” He braced to salute, smiled sheepishly, said ‘sorry’ and walked down the path.
I ripped open the envelope. It was brief. There was a list of numbers interspersed by a few letters. They were of irregular lengths. They were obviously words and I knew the code. I’d used it before a long time ago. To reassure myself I went to my bookshelf and got out the Colonel’s book; The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré. It was the same book that started the investigation last year. For this code to work the sender and the receiver must have the same edition of a book.
The test word was the first group of words with four letters. If she was using the right code then that word should read, ‘JOHN‘. The test word is always the addressee’s name. If my name had been Rosencrantz I think she’d have changed the code.
So this is how it works. I opened to page 72. The first letter on that page is a ‘d’. I started my list. p 73. first letter ‘a’, p74 – ‘i’, 75 ‘w’ and so on. Page 78 started with ‘who’. I didn’t need the ‘w’. I didn’t need the next letter, ‘h’ because that was on p 76. So 78 became an ‘o’. I won’t go through it all. It doesn’t take long when you get the idea. I just wrote out my list.
Then I looked at the fourth set of numbers. 81,78,76,84. J,O,H,N. Code confirmed. It is a simple code. Pages 72 to 92 gave me all the letters except b,k,l,q,x,& z. You don’t need to check – just trust me. If a message requires any of the missing letters then the next in the alphabet is used as a letter. So the word ‘able’ will appear as 73,C,M,83. Once I had the list of letter/number equivalents I just put it into a simple program on my computer and read her letter.
“Be clever John Car always in lockup. Only time was on way to B’rat. Ran over something near Balmattum. Three punctures. Repaired first tyre shop Euroa. Stayed overnight. Car left tyre shop. End.”
I took the transcribed message to Frank. He read it carefully.
“I’ve got an old mate in Benalla. I’ll get him to run down and ask a few questions.”
“I suppose he’s an ex-copper too.”
“Nope. He’s still active. He knows his way around. More important – I trust him.”
“While we’re talking about trust what’s the gen on Senior Sergeant James? He was a colleague of yours. Is he kosher?”
“Listen John. I know he comes on a bit strong but I trust him one hundred percent. If you don’t, don’t worry. Just work with me and I’ll work with him.”
I grunted, walked off and had a chat with Sammy, had coffee, and Frank rang his mate in Benalla. He didn’t tell him the full story, just to find out if there was anything to learn about the side airbag being disabled. The Benalla copper was doing a routine highway patrol from Benalla to Euroa. He knew the shop in Euroa where Carol had had her car tyres repaired and he regularly stopped there for a bit of a chin-wag with the girl in the front office. Frank was of the opinion that information from the Euroa Tyre shop would be easily obtained. But we might need to wait until tomorrow.
We waited almost all day but toward evening Frank’s mate in Benalla sent the following email:-
Sgt W Foster
To: Ballarat Cheapest Cars
Frank, I went and saw the Euroa Tyre place. They remember the car coming in. They remember a gentleman coming in a couple of minutes later claiming to be the driver’s husband. He asked for the side airbag to be deactivated. He had a story about it triggering spontaneously and causing major disruption. The mechanic said he knew that that type of car did have a ‘bit of a problem’ in that type of vehicle. They therefore deactivated the passenger’s side airbag. There is nobody at the Tyre place who can be held accountable. IMO.
I asked if they had a CCTV image of the person involved. They had something vague but it looks like the fellow was very clever and avoided smiling for the camera. However I asked at the Fish and Chip shop two doors down and they gave me a photo of three men who came into their shop about that time on that day.
I will send all three photos in a separate email.
Are you doing some private work there Franky boy? Looks a bit dodgy to me. Once a copper always a copper!
Regarde Vous Bill.
We looked at each other wide eyed. One of the photographs was almost identical to one we had for Mr Andy Fong of no valid address.
“It’s not just dodgy,” Frank said. “It’s bloody murder. That’s what it is. Now we need to get the real Police involved.”
It had been a long day. I’d done nothing but sit around drinking coffee and reading the paper. Frank had kept a bit of an eye on people wanting to buy cheap cars. Frank’s mate in Benalla had done all the work.
And we now had a fully fledged murder case.
So in keeping with my attitude to life the universe and everything I went home, had dinner, watched the cricket and waited for the morrow to dawn.
Frank rang the Senior Sergeant and he was there waiting when I got to the car-yard the next morning. I must admit I didn’t like the bloke all that much but if Frank said he was OK then I wasn’t going to argue. But I was a bit miffed at him coming in and taking over our investigation. I know that legally he every right to take over but inside I felt that it was my case or mine and Frank’s case.
So I was taken aback with his opening statement. “Well, fellas. Let’s see where we stand. John, you first. The way I see it you’ve been a sort of partner of the Colonel’s for over forty years. I did a bit of research. And you probably feel like running the investigation on your own. I’ve read some of your cases and I would have loved to have been in on the Great Bookie Robbery with you, but I was still in primary school.
“Now you’ve got the best colleague you could find in my mate Frank here. So what I would like to suggest is that you two work this all by yourselves. I’m just going to sit in the background and give you any advice and assistance whenever you want. I’ll tell you if I think you are getting a bit close to the edge of what the law allows and if you need the strong arm of the law to do something you can’t do then I’ll be in my office. And I’ve a lot of tools you can use like fingerprints and access to computers and connections to interstate and Federal agencies.”
The three of us started to set out all the information we had. I had to admit that my attitude to Senior Sgt Wilson – call me Jimmy everyone else does – had had a bit of a turn around.
Sammy knocked on the door and handed me an envelope. The same as the one with the message I got from Carol. I opened it and it was another list of numbers. Numbers in pairs. I showed the note to Frank and started to decrypt it. But it was all rubbish. Didn’t make sense at all. There was something wrong and I struggled into my memory to work out where I had made a mistake. Then the lights flashed.
“Sammy,” I shouted through the partition. “Ring Ranger HQ and get that Staff Sergeant back here!”
Sammy came to the door. “He’s still here. We were having a talk about last night’s mixed basketball match.”
The Staff came in a little more sheep faced that necessary and started apologising a little bit too quickly.
“Sorry Sir,” he stuttered. “I didn’t know you knew Sammy. We play basketball together.”
I think they might play more than basketball if the rising pink flush on Sammy’s face was indicative.
“Staff,” I said. “When the Major gave you this message how was it sent? And what else did she say?”
“It was sent by internal electronic fax, Sir. It’s secure. Better than email and better than phone. And she just told me to hand deliver it to you immediately. That’s all. And a bit of friendly chatter. Sort of to say hello.”
“Staff Sergeant Bancroft. How long have you been in the Army?”
“Fifteen years, Sir.”
“Do you always indulge in friendly chatter with a senior officer that you have never met before?”
“Good. So what did the Major say to you. Word for word. Exactly.”
The SSgt mumbled a bit and looked suitably uncomfortable. “Well Sir. Sorry Sir. She rang on the secure line to tell me she was sending a fax.”
“I’m not sure I made myself clear. I am getting a little frustrated with you but this is very important. I want you to tell me using her words, I repeat, using her words, exactly what she said. Leave out what you said.”
“Yes Sir. Sorry Sir. I answered the secure line. She said, ‘Staff Bancroft. I have just sent a fax. Stand by the machine and make sure nobody gets the message before you do. Then deliver it to the same person you gave the last one’. Then she said goodbye and hung up.”
“Staff Sergeant Bancroft. I am getting very tired of this. She didn’t just say goodbye and hang up. Word for word please.”
“Sorry Sir. She said, ‘And tell that old bastard to return my father’s gardening books in time for his eightieth birthday.’ And then she hung up.” I think the SSgt used the appellation with a little more than necessary emphasis.
I smiled. “Thank you Staff. Well done. You can go back to annoying the office lady.”
“What the hell was that all about?” Frank asked.
“Sit down and I will explain.”
I waited until I heard the SSgt’s car leave and then asked Sammy to come in.
I handed her my keys. “Could you duck over to my place and on my table in the lounge is a hardback copy of ‘The Constant Gardener’. It is blue and has a few bees on the front cover. Oh, and if I left the heater on could you turn it off. Thanks.”
She left and the three of us settled down.
“This is now totally serious,” I said.
“What makes you think that?” Call me Jimmy asked.
“Well. First of all she could have got a message through on the Ranger HQ line. That is secure. But she didn’t trust it completely. Secondly she sent it by a secure Army fax machine that is even more secure. But she didn’t want to use that completely. So she uses the book code. She wants to make sure that nobody knows what she is saying. A coded message sent via a secure fax machine. Her message is encrypted first to go via fax, then decrypted and then I have to decrypt that message using a code that can’t be read by anyone except me and never used a second time. So it could just be a bit serious.’
“Righto,” said Frank. “But what was all that getting the Staff Sergeant to recite word for word. It didn’t make sense.”
“Oh yes it did. It was the key that unlocks the code. I showed you how the code works. But the code only works once. When I tried before and it came out all nonsense I had forgotten about the failsafe key. She said, “tell that old bastard to return my father’s gardening books in time for his eightieth birthday.’ That message has a number of points.
Old Bastard, means that the last code is no longer legitimate.
Return means to count the pages backwards.
Eightieth means start counting pages back from page 80.
“The message is only readable if you get the verbal clues. So when Sammy gets back with the book we go to page 80 and read the last word on the bottom of the line and the last letter of that word is the letter that 80 stands for. Then on the 79 and the last letter on that page et cetera et cetera. In the meantime I will go for a walk to get us all coffee and if Sammy gets back with the book you can both work out the code.
Sammy was back by the time I returned with a half a dozen donuts and four coffees. Frank was dealing with a bloke who wanted an old Subaru Ute and the Senior Sergeant had been through the book from page 80 back to page 60. “I wasn’t sure how far back to go but I thought that if you only used twenty pages last time then that might be standard.”
“Yes it is unless the verbal message indicates something different. You might send the verbal message with a football score in it. It’s whatever you can think of at the time. So you were spot on.”
“Who invented this code?”
“I don’t know. Using a book is pretty common but indicating the pages and the place on the page varies with the user. And you have to have the same book and the same edition.”
I bit into my donut and called out the numbers and Jimmy called the letters back. When we finished he looked at it and shook his head.
“Where did I go wrong?” he asked. He had written it down but it didn’t make any sense. Jimmy had written it up on the whiteboard which Frank and Sammy used to write notes to each other.
yrruh seltsihw ro slleb tuohtiw emoc ereh si eh mih wonk i
“You didn’t make a mistake. But you hafta read it backwards.”
At that point Frank returned. Jimmy winked an eye at me. “I can’t make head of tail of this Frank. See if you’re any cleverer that you used to be.”
Frank looked at the message on the board for about a tenth of a second, picked up a donut and a coffee, mumbled something unintelligible and turned his back to the board.
“What did you say, mate?” Jimmy asked.
“Read it backwards. Even a child can see,” he said. “Is that a spare donut?”
Then we all sat down together. We had serious things to discuss.
I got up and went to the whiteboard – the teacher in me was rising triumphant from his grave. I took my red marker pen in hand and rewrote the message correctly.
I know him. He is here. Come without bells or whistles. Hurry.
They were my punctuation marks. I split it up and wrote it on the board.
- I know him.
- He is here.
- Come without bells and whistles.
“What are the implications of number one?” I asked. I don’t know who said what from here on in. I just wrote everyone’s thoughts down in note form.
-She obviously didn’t see him when he rammed into her car.
-She’d have been pretty upset at the time.
-So now she’s seen a photo and she says she knows him.
-Didn’t we show her a photo before?
-I forget. Did we?
-So now she knows him. Now she recognised him.
-Knows v recognises. What’s the difference.
-I think it means she actually knows him.
“OK. Number two. He is here.”
-Is he here as in in Canberra?
-Where else could she mean?
-She could mean she’s seen him somewhere in the street.
-Or in the building. Is he stalking her?
-Why wasn’t she clearer.
-Cos she was in a hurry.
“Next! Come without bells and whistles. What does that mean?”
-Hurry up you slack bastards!
-Send in the cavalry
-No. She says without bells and whistles. WITHOUT.
-So she wants us there but quietly and don’t make a fuss.
-Yes and that means he is close and we don’t want to startle him, frighten him or warn him.
-But who does she want to come.
-I think she wants bells and whistles, but silent, quiet and not very bloody obvious.
“What about ‘Hurry’?”
“I think, although I could be wrong. I think that she wants us to be there by yester-bloody-day.” That was Frank’s opinion. And that was all our opinions.
Frank called out to the office. “Sammy, put up a ‘closed for family reasons’ sign on the front gate. And, Sammy, do you want to come to Canberra? No forget that. Sammy, you are coming to Canberra. We could need you.”
Frank was taking charge. I was happy with that.
“Do you want me to come with you?” asked the Senior Sergeant.
“Of course I want you to come you silly bastard. We might need someone with a bit of authority.”
‘”OK. Everybody who wants a pleasant trip in the country is expected to assemble outside my pleasant abode at FIVE O Bloody A’Clock. Tomorrow morning. And Sammy, that means you and you will provide three intelligent men with a large Thermos of coffee. And if you don’t like that remember that I am your father. And I love you.”
We all went home and packed our bags. Tomorrow was when the adventure begins.
The next morning we all got in to Frank’s car and headed north. Sammy’s mother had over catered as usual. There were Thermos flasks of coffee and others of tea. There was a huge icebox with sandwiches and fruit and finally a hotbox with curried chicken. But for all that I don’t think we were off on a holiday.
Sammy insisted on calling the Senior ‘Mr Wilson’ and he said that was his father’s name and as he was long since gone to the great and eternal police station in the sky he would prefer it if she would call him Jimmy. But Sammy insisted that as Jimmy’s father was no longer using his name then she would call him Mr Wilson whether he objected or not. And Sammy won that little skirmish.
“Frank, did you tell Marge where we were going and why?” asked Jimmy as we left town and headed north.
“Nope. She doesn’t need to know. It’d only worry her.”
“And that is the first total lie of the morning,” Sammy said as she looked at the back of her father’s neck. “My father,” she continued, addressing Jimmy and me, “tells my mum everything. All my life, until I left home, I was lulled to sleep by the rumbling sound of dad telling mum everything that happened that day, everything the good guys said, everything the bad guys said and mum told dad everything that happened to her. Sometimes it went on for hours. It was just rumble, rumble, rumble. And I was always asleep before it finished.”
“Gee, I wish I had a wife I could talk to,” said Jimmy. I said nothing – nothing out loud.
“I think you’re exaggerating, Samantha. Anyway talking to Marge at night helped me get my head straight.”
“Yeah. Probably kept you sane. Which would be a tough ask knowing you as I do,” said Jimmy.
A certain quiet settled over us all as each, in our own way, thought back over our own circumstances.
Suddenly Jimmy spoke, breaking in, “First stop Euroa to have a chat to the tyre shop and then the cop shop in Benalla.”
I sat in the car with Sammy when the other two went in. Jimmy was in civvies but he had his warrant card. He showed everyone in the tyre shop the photo we had of ‘Andy Fong’ and they each agreed that he was the man who asked for the airbag to be deactivated.
Then we went on to Benalla and Frank went into the police station on his own. When he came back we set off for Canberra. I wanted to stop somewhere to go to the toilet and have a coffee but Jimmy said he didn’t want a group of three old men and a young woman to be seen anywhere by anyone if it could be helped. So we stopped at a detour and had our coffee in a little park under a couple of big redgums.
And then we kept on to Canberra. All the time the two blokes in the front seat were planning. Sammy and I left them to it except when they told us what our respective tasks would be.
We stopped at a lovely little motel right near the Cockington Green Gardens on the bus route into the CBD and Sammy found herself a room. We organised to meet later down town. Jimmy said he wanted there to be a separation between her and the other three of us. For her safety.
We booked three rooms in another motel within walking distance of Carol’s office. Three rooms next to each other up one flight of stairs. Frank was insistent.
We three wise men then went down town and went to a coffee lounge just off Marcus Clarke Street and close to the Wombat and Koala Protection Organisation – Carol’s office.
My mobile phone buzzed about ten minutes later. It was Sammy.
“I’m here. Are you old blokes ready? I’ll go in now and then I’m off to the art gallery. Keep in touch.”
Sammy had a very simple task but she needed to play it well. She walked up to the office of the Wombat and Koala Protection Organisation and was greeted by a nice young thing at the front desk and asked to speak with the Carol. “I’m an old friend of hers from Ballarat. Tell her I have one of her father’s books that I want to return. I am in Canberra on Business, I thought I’d just drop in.”
Carol did not know who Sammy was but there was enough in the message and she was ushered in to Carol’s office. Carol was not sure exactly how to deal with her visitor. Sammy on the other hand knew what her job was.
“I have a message from an old time music group calling themselves the ‘The Bells and Whistles’. They know you are a fan and would like to meet you at their favourite coffee lounge. They are there now.”
Sammy didn’t wait for a response but turned around and left.
The next moment Carol walked out of the offices of the Wombat and Koala Protection Organisation, walked down the street and turned into a coffee lounge.
“Well here we are. Without Bells or Whistles?” I said and introduced the other two.
“First question first,” said Frank. “Can I get you a drink and what did you mean by ‘you know him’ and what did you mean by ‘he is here’?”
Jimmy went and bought us all something to drink. We were all a bit past coffee so he found something else to keep us all lubricated.
Frank handed Carol our most recent photograph of ‘Andy Fong’. She sat holding it in her hand and said nothing. She started shaking. Gently to begin with, tears welled up in her eyes and rolled unnoticed down her cheek. Frank stretched across the table and took the photo from her and handed it to me. Then he stretched his hand back and held hers again, firmly, gently and caring. He handed her a handkerchief and she dried her eyes. It was the same gentle caring man I had seen once before when he gave a car to a very young American student teacher. If you didn’t know Frank he would scare the living daylights out of you. If you did know him he was as soft as marshmallow. In those few moments Carol knew more about Frank than most people do.
“Now Girley,” he said without letting go her hand. “No more tears. We have work to do. We are here now so tell us about this bloke.” He tapped the photo and Carol started to talk. While she talked Frank never let go.
“His name is Stanley Moffat. Captain Stanley Moffat, Australian Intelligence Corps. I am the only person who knows he is Intelligence. When he has to wear uniform he wears RAAEC – Education Corps – badges and lanyard. He has been with “The Organisation” for three years. His office is upstairs from mine but we see each other often through the day.”
The tears had gone and all her strength was coming back. She looked at her hand in Frank’s hand and smiled at him and he let go. The connection between them had been made. It would not break now. He would still call her ‘Girley’, he would protect her as a father but he would not patronise her. “What is his role?”
“He is particularly concerned with drug imports. He is often away and has a good record clearing up cases in Queensland. It takes him away from the office and very often I don’t know where he is. If I need him for something he is always correct and efficient.
“And not one bloody bit of this makes sense,” she continued. “He has been in this office for three years, talking to me, seeing me, having a drink now and then if we have a get together on a Friday and all the time he has been working to murder my father. I just don’t believe it.”
“Well, Major Smith,” said the Senior Sergeant, interrupting and being unusually formal, “we are almost certain he did. We know beyond doubt that he organised for the side airbag in your car to be inactive. We know he was driving the car that hit you side on. We know that his car did not have an active airbag, but it had a very professional seat belt. Therefore when he hit your car, his airbag would not hinder him if he needed to get out. What we don’t have is a motive.”
“Are you here officially Mr Wilson?”
“No. I’m here to help you, these two in any way I can,” he said indicating Frank and me.
“Well, if that’s the case, James, please call me Carol. What is our next step?”
“Your next step is to go back to work and, as hard as it might be, you are to act as if nothing has happened. We in the meantime need to find out why he wanted to kill your father. It was very carefully planned so we can assume that he had a very good reason, in his own mind, for wanting to kill your father.”
“And that,” said Frank, “is where we come in. Please don’t ring us or contact us. If you need to talk, or to let us know something then do it through Sammy. She will ring you later today to have drinks. She is now an old friend from Melbourne and she will drop in to the office each day. Tell the girl on the front desk to expect her. Tell her she is to be shown into your office whenever she arrives.”
“And what will you three be doing while I’m sitting in my office with my father’s murderer upstairs and very very close?”
“We, my dear, are going to do what we do best. We are going to find out everything Captain Bloody Moffat has done since the day he was born. Which reminds me. Can you give Sammy a copy of his details. Date of birth, names of parents, Army career. Everything you’ve got. We’ll go from there.”
We got up to leave. Jimmy and I shook Carol’s hand. Frank hugged her. Carol’s eyes welled up again and she turned away and went back to work.
“Let’s go and see Sammy,” said Frank. “I think there are a few things for her to do.”
She was still at her motel so we went up there and played the role of sightseers. We organised to just ‘come across’ her while we visited Cockington Green which is very close to where she was staying. It has many miniature houses and monuments from many countries, from Scotland’s Braemar Castle to Peru’s Machu Picchu. Frank and Jimmy were adamant that she was not seen as one of us so we acted the tourists and asked her directions and she played along.
“Now Sammy, Carol is the only person who knows who you really are,” said Frank. “I want you to go to the office and when you get her on her own, say we need an application form for Captain Moffat to apply for a week’s compassionate leave on the grounds that his mother is very ill. Get Carol to sign and approve the application but to leave the dates blank. Carol will not know why but she needs to know it will be necessary.
“Also you are going to start thinking of yourself as one of his cousins. We may not need that but it could be helpful.”
Sammy asked why she had to be distanced from us and Frank, for the first time actually spelled out in words, “Because it might be bloody dangerous.” I think we were all treating this as a bit of game playing up until this moment. We said goodbye and went and found a quiet pub outside Canberra in Queanbeyan. Queanbeyan is a town very close to Canberra but across the border and in New South Wales. We settled down in the Royal Hotel on Monaro Street to a discussion on ‘what why and wherefore’.
“What we need is a motive.” said Jimmy. “Why would this bloke want to kill the Colonel? It must be big because he seems to have spent a lot of time working his way through the Army to get close to his target.”
“So there has to be a connection between him and the Colonel,” I said.
“Yes. Obviously, but what? Frank, could you ring Sammy. When she goes to see Carol tell her we need the Moffat’s Army details ASAP. And as much of the Colonel’s service record as she can get her hands on. Like straight away. Then get her to grab a taxi and bring it over here.”
“So what could we find out from them?”
“Well how do their service records overlap? They have to have come across each other before.”
“No way, Frank,” said Jimmy. “The Colonel hasn’t been in the Army, officially for twenty years. Moffat would have been a school kid back then. The only contact would have been since Moffat joined the so called ‘Organisation’.”
“How many actual serving members are in this ‘Organisation’?” asked Jimmy.
“When I last talked to the Colonel,” I said, “he told me that Carol and ‘some Intel Corp bloke’ those were his words, were all the service members. All the rest were ex-Army that the Colonel had collected to make up the Organisation.”
“So who pays their wages?”
“The Federal Government. They are APS – Australian Public Service.”
“So if Moffat has wangled himself a job with the Colonel’s crew he must have known about them or he must have know the Colonel. There has to be a connection.” We were going around in circles.
We were talking ourselves silly for what seemed to be hours. Then the doors of the pub lounge opened and Sammy walked in.
“Carol says she hasn’t any idea what you blokes are up to but she sure hopes you’re getting somewhere. Everything she’s got is here,” Sammy said. “And giving it to you is as close to a hanging offense as she will ever be. So, she says, you had better make sure it works out.” And with that, she turned about and left.
We scoured the information.
The Colonel had retired from the Army pretty soon after he got back from Vietnam. He’d been injured in a battle in the rubber plantations near Nui Dat. It was not the Long Tan battle where so many Australians were killed.
“The Colonel was injured in a battle that no one has heard about.” Frank asked. “Why not?”
“Because it was overshadowed by the battle of Long Tan where 105 Australians and some Kiwi gunners held off 2000 Viet Cong.” I said. “Not much is known about the skirmishes around Nui Dat.”
“Wasn’t the Colonel in charge of the Australians in Long Tan.”
“No.” I said. “That was a Major Smith. Our Colonel was only a Sergeant then and he was in that skirmish at Nui Dat.”
“Well how old was Moffat when the Colonel – or Sergeant as he was – was at Nui Dat?” asked Frank.
We scratched around looking at dates. Moffat was about six months old when the Colonel was in Vietnam. So that didn’t seem to make sense.
“I’ve had a thought just flash through my mind,” said Frank.
“Was it playing space invaders?” asked Jimmy with a grin.
“No. I think we should ask Captain Moffat. Tomorrow.”
“Good idea,” said Jimmy. “About time you added something worthwhile to the exercise.”
Frank explained his plan. The more detail he gave us the more unsettled Jimmy appeared until finally he stood up.
“No bloody way Frank. That is so absolutely bloody illegal you have no idea.”
“Of course I know how illegal it is Jimmy. I was a copper for longer than you have ever been. I know it’s illegal mate.”
“If it is ever found out I was in on this I’ll lose my job, I’ll do my bloody pension in and I’ll probably get knocked in prison.”
“And that is why I will personally drive you to the airport so you can go home. You won’t be anywhere near us when the action takes place. Actually I’ll drive you over to Wagga. You can fly back to Melbourne from there.”
“It’s the least you can do.”
It was a three hour trip to Wagga. Six hours there and back. We were sorry Jimmy left but it was understandable. Frank’s plan had all the possibilities of disaster but neither of us had as much to lose as did Jimmy.
The next few days were going to be pivotal and we needed to get to bed early as soon as we got back from Wagga.
But we stayed up. It’s amazing how simple a complicated and difficult task becomes when you share a glass or two with a good friend. Frank and I were now good friends, and we took it in turns to buy each other a smallish glass – now and then. Finally we went to bed.
We left the motel in the morning and walked around looking for Salvation Army thrift shops. They weren’t as easy to find as in some places but we were directed to an ADRA Op-shop. It was play-time and I was looking for my costume. I was very lucky and we went back to the motel and I tried everything on. Half an hour later I stood in front of the mirror and looked. I was wearing large baggy tan trousers with cuffs, a pale yellow openneck shirt with a bluish Paisley cravat and a brown houndstooth jacket with leather patches. I had also got a pair of very bookish glasses that had only a minor amount of lense prescription so I wouldn’t trip over the footpath.
“All you need now is a dirty old pipe and some bad tobacco,” said Frank. “But I must admit you do look a bit like some struggling author trying to write his first book.”
“I actually want to look more like a very successful author researching his twentieth book.”
I left Frank who was going to spend the next few hours with Sammy in the War Memorial and walked sedately to the Wombat shop as we now called Carol’s office. The girl on the front desk didn’t recognise me from the time I had first visited and ushered me into Carol’s room. Carol was also a bit at a loss and it took her a minute to know it was me. But I continued to play the role in case anyone was ever asked.
“Thank you for seeing me at such short notice, Ma’am. My name is Fernsby. Frederick Fernsby. All the fellows at school called me FF and then they played around with that and now I am simply known as Effie. Not very flattering but I’m used to it now.
“Enough of introductions. Down to business. Won’t waste your time. Busy lady I can see.”
Carol was trying hard not to laugh and looked like she would throw something. “And how can I help you Mr Fernsby?”
“Call me Effie. Thank you. I am writing a series of books on some of the lesser known Corps in the Army. I’ve done the Chaplains, the Pay Corp, the Legal Corp and now I’m up to the Intelligence Corp. A fellow I know over at the Academy – used to call it Duntroon in my day – told me there was an Int bloke working here who might be able to help. Is there any chance you could let me borrow him for an hour or so? You know, coffee and a bite to eat and a little chat. That sort of stuff.”
There is no way I could have wangled that if Carol was not the head of the unit. But she called Moffat down and introduced me. Carol ‘explained’ who I was and what I wanted, using most of my own words. Moffat wasn’t very keen but Carol pulled rank and said she couldn’t make him but she would be pleased if he would agree. In Army language that was as good as a direct command.
Moffat wanted to show his independence and said that it was impossible that day but he would try and find the time tomorrow.
I thanked him and went to catch up with Frank and Sammy at the War Memorial.
Frank and Sammy were quietly studying in the downstairs Reading Room.
“So what have you found out about our Colonel?” I asked.
“Did you know,” said Sammy, remembering that I had taught when she was a whole lot younger than now, “Did you know that in 1967 when the battle of Long Tan happened there were 34 soldiers based at Nui Dat with the surname of Smith?”
“And why is that relevant?”
“I don’t know why it is relevant,” said Sammy. “I am not an investigator. I am just a simple girl who fills in forms when her daddy sells someone a car. And today I am on holiday.”
“So what made you look up that info?” I asked.
“Because Dad was saying how he and Jimmy were confused by the fact that we thought the Colonel was the same man as the hero of the battle of Long Tan. And I just thought it was interesting. That’s all.”
“Well one thing has been answered,” said Frank. “We wanted to know how much of their service time had overlapped. The answer is ZERO. It is confirmed.”
“But we must find a motive. There has to be some connection between the two. “
“I found one,” said Sammy. Well I found a coincidence but I don’t know what it means. There was a soldier called Moffatt who was in Vietnam then. But it is spelt with two ‘t’s not one. And he was in the battle of Long Tan and our Colonel wasn’t. So now I think of it there isn’t much coincidence at all really. Sorry I brought it up.”
I looked at Frank. Frank looked at me. “You know Sammy,” Frank said. “I told you mother I thought you might come in handy some day. John, let’s get out of here. We are going to take my daughter out to dinner in some posh place to celebrate.”
Sammy looked genuinely puzzled. “What’s going on? What did I say?”
“I don’t actually know Sammy. But tomorrow we are going to ask Mr Bloody Moffat with one ‘t’ a few very probing questions. But for now, it is party time. Let’s go.”
We left. There was a lot more we could find amongst the Memorial’s collection but we didn’t know where to start. I had hoped that I would have found something from Moffat today but it would need to wait until tomorrow. But with Sammy’s inspired catch I had a few questions that I hadn’t thought of before.
First thing next morning I rang the ‘Wombat Society’ and asked to be put through to Captain Moffat. Could he make it for lunchtime was my question and he reluctantly agreed. I was sure Carol had put a bit more pressure on him.
Frank and I discussed our approach. “From the outset be as nice as you can,” he said. “I know that’ll be hard for you, just pretend he is one of the good boys at school and you are chatting about his excellent English marks. In the old days in the Police Force we used to call it ‘lulling the crook into a false sense of security’. And then when he’s developed a completely erroneous impression that you are a nice fellow, then you wack him over the head and extract a confession. Anyway that’s how we used to do it.”
“Do you have any more exquisitely appropriate advice or are you happy for me to handle it myself?”
“Maybe. But when I look back at how damaged Sammy was from your influence I think I should handle it myself.”
This banter, for want of a better word, could have gone on forever. Frank had been a very clever investigator in his day and when we stopped playing games we came to an agreed position.
I collected my ‘tools of trade’; a laptop and a collection of books about the Vietnam war; ‘Australian Military Operations in Vietnam’ by Albert Palazzo, Lieutenant-Colonel Brian Avery’s, ‘We Too Were Anzacs’ and hidden in my laptop case for use later on was a copy of Colonel Harry Smith’s gripping story, ‘Long Tan -The Start of a Lifelong Battle’.
I had to borrow them from the Canberra library. Because I was a visitor I could only take a few but I had my Ballarat library card and they were reasonably happy after I had told them the same story I had told Moffat yesterday about wanting to write about the Army Intelligence Corps.
Moffat agreed to meet me at the Cafe Alibi in Farrell Place just off Marcus Clarke Street at noon. I arrived early and set myself up against the back wall so that I could see him as he arrived. I wanted to look like I had been there a while. My laptop was open, the two books placed casually so that he could read the titles and I had a very scruffy, nearly full note book in front of me.
He arrived and looked around and came over and sat. The waiter came over and I ordered a coffee and a Smoked Salmon Bruschetta. If I had asked him at the start he would have ordered a coffee only and then he could go after that. But he wouldn’t sit and talk while I ate so he was forced to order a meal as well. So far so good.
The idea was, according to Frank, to talk about anything at all rather than him personally. I chattered on about my time in the Army, about living in the officer’s mess after my marriage collapsed, about university and the Moratorium marches we all went to to protest against the war in Vietnam. I wanted to let him take over and start asking questions.
“So where else were you posted Mr Fernsby?” he asked and I knew he had taken the bait. I told him a lot of places and left out anywhere that he had mentioned so we could have a chance of comparing each other’s experiences. I was trying to turn the conversation around to my writing a book about the Intelligence Corps but he beat me to it.
“So Mr Fernsby, what do you want to know about the Intelligence Corps?” I flipped open my notebook and picked up my pencil. The interview was about to commence.
“Nothing at all,” I thought, but out loud I said that there were two ways I could write my book. I could collect as much from a wide range of sources or I could write about the life of one Intelligence officer. ‘And you Captain Bloody Moffat are going to be my first choice’.
He started talking and he was quite enthusiastic, but I had judged my timing as well as I could. I looked at my watch.
He looked at his watch. “How long do you have for lunch?” I asked him.
“I’ve got to get back now, but I’d be happy to see you again if it’d be convenient?”
“That’s very good of you,” I said. “Listen. I live just up the road a bit. Within walking distance. How about you drop in after work and we talk about this a bit more. Then I could run you home.”
And that is what we decided.
We had all afternoon to work out what was happening. Frank rang Jimmy to make sure he got home all OK. He talked about the fact that there was a Moffatt who had been at Nui Dat at the same time as our Colonel was and the same time that the Colonel Smith who was the hero of the Battle of Long Tan.
“So how can they be in the two places at the same time?” Jimmy asked.
“Because Nui Dat was the base and there were little skirmishes all around there. Long Tan is five kilometres from Nui Dat. They could have known each other, easily.”
“Frank! I know a fellow in at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. He’s at CARO. I don’t know if it is called that now. Probably not. Central Army Records Office. I’ll ring him up and tell him it’s official business. I’ll tell him I’m investigating a car accident – which I am – in which there was a fatality and I suspect that one of the persons involved is related to this fellow Moffatt; with two ‘t’s. See how easy it is if you do things legally. I’ll get him to email me and get it to you as soon as it comes through.”
Moffat knocked on the door a bit after five o’clock. Frank disappeared into the adjoining unit through the connecting door and I ushered the Captain in. Moffat had seen Frank when he sold him the Maroon SUV wreck so he had to keep out of sight.
The most important task was to establish a solid motive and I didn’t care how long it took.
“So where do you want me to start?” Moffat asked me.
“Wherever you are comfortable Stanley. Can I call you Stanley? I’ll give you a few ideas. You can tell me where you are now in your career and work backwards. You can tell me when you joined the Army, why you joined, did you go straight into Intelligence or were you a police officer and went in as a Direct Entry Officer. You choose.”
We went on and on. Moffat was spilling the whole story from when he joined the Army. Nothing before that. It was boring me to tears. There was no way anyone would write a book about it. I just let him go on. Please, please give me something we can nail you for. Maybe when he got to his posting to Our Colonel’s ‘Organisation’. He has now become Our Colonel to distinguish him from the Long Tan Colonel.
My mobile phone vibrated. It was a text from Frank. “Get in Here. Now”
“Stanley, I’m just going down to the desk. I’ll only be a minute.” I pushed the books about Vietnam toward him. “You can have a browse through these if you want.”
I walked out the door, turned right and went into the next room. Frank was holding a sheet of paper. It was from Jimmy. Jimmy had emailed it to Frank and then Frank had a hard copy printed on the motel’s machine.
It was brief but to the point.
- Private Henry S. Moffatt B Coy was killed Nui Dat August 20, 1966
- NOK Jill Ann Moffatt.
- Wife expecting baby when Moffatt was shipped Vietnam.
- 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) arrived South Vietnam May 1966
“John. I think this is the father of our man next door. If Jill Moffat got pregnant, let’s say April ’66 that’d mean her baby would have been due some time in December/January. Check Moffat’s Date of Birth. I’ll bet it is very close to late ’66 early ’67. It still doesn’t give us a motive. But it might.”
I went back to the other room. Moffat was quite engrossed in one of the books.
“Sorry about that. Now I think we’ve covered all about your time in the Int Corps up to now. But I need to put in some background. So I’ve got a few questions. A few personal ones. Like about your mother, your father and you. Where did I put my pen? Ah. Right. When were you born, Stan?”
“Christmas Day 1966.”
“Oh, Lovely! That would have been a nice present for your Mother.”
“It wasn’t,” Moffat said.
“Why would that be? A new baby is always a delight, I’ve always found.
“And why would that not have been a lovely Christmas present, Stan?”
“Because my father had just been killed in Vietnam. That’s why.”
“Oh that is so sad. So you never got to know your father. And he never got to know he had a son.”
“My mother and father had only been married for one whole bloody month when he was shipped overseas.”
“How was he killed, Stanley?” I asked. Should I have begun to sound sympathetic? Perhaps. But here I was looking at a killer. We knew he had murdered the Colonel. We probably had enough evidence with the airbags to prove it but we needed a motive and I think we were getting there.
“He was in the battle of bloody Long Tan. August 18 1966. That is one day I will have to live with for the rest of my life.”
“Was that the battle where they held off 2000 Viet Cong. And lost eighteen?”
“Hooray. The heroes!” Moffat was angry and bitter. I could understand. If it was true.
“So who was the commander, then, Stan?”
“You know who the bloody hero was. Major Harry Smith. Soon to be Colonel Smith. You’ve got his bloody book right here. And he got the Military Medal.”
“Didn’t he deserve it?” I asked.
“Not in my mind.”
“Why is that, Stanley?”
“Because he is responsible.”
“For my dad being killed,” Moffat shouted. “That is what.”
I went next door and spoke to Frank. “Do you reckon we’ve got enough, Frank?”
“Yes. But we could get a little more. Get him to admit it. But there is one problem. Look at the dates again,” said Frank. “Long Tan was 18 August. Henry Moffat was killed 20 August. Long Tan was D Coy. Moffat was B Coy. Ask him how he was killed. Or do you want me to?”
I was sick in my stomach. I had never done something like this before. Frank would be better at it. “Yes Frank. You do it.”
“Righto! But it’s not going to be nice. Get ready for that.”
Frank walked in, Moffat did not look up.
“Goodday Stanley. Remember me? Sold me a car a while back!”
Moffat looked up at Frank then at me. Any fight he had in him vanished in an instant.
“So, Stanley. Why did you kill him?” Frank was nothing if not direct and to the point.
“Because he was responsible. My dad wasn’t supposed to be there, but Smith sent him out anyway. Sent him out and he got shot by a bloody Viet Cong.”
“So you killed him because your father got killed in Viet Nam!”
“Yes I did and now everyone will know I made him pay for my father.”
“You poor, poor, silly stupid boy. What a terrible waste.”
“I don’t care anymore. I’m glad it’s over.”
“Just a couple of question we need to clear up. Just to get the facts sorted out.”
“When did your father die?”
“18th of August 1966.”
“Wrong! It was 20 August 1966. Who was his commanding officer?
“Major Harry Smith.”
“Wrong. Major Harry Smith was Commander D Coy 6th Royal Australian Regiment. Your father was B Coy 5th Royal Australian Regiment, and his platoon Commander was a Lt Tommy Smith.”
“Where was your father killed?”
“Wrong. He was killed at Nui Dat.”
Moffat’s head had fallen onto his chest and he was weeping. I felt sorry for him. Desperately sorry. I don’t think Frank was quite as sorry as I was.
“You are a very stupid person Captain Moffat. You killed a man who was doing a tough job and men died. But the stupidest thing you did was that you killed the wrong man. Same war, same army base, same day – almost, same name. Wrong man. I am going to sit here with you while you write out a confession. Explain how you did it. We know about the airbags. We know it all and you just admitted how and why. And while you are writing it all down I am going to pour myself a glass of whisky and I’ll pour one for you because you aren’t going to get one anywhere you’re going now.”
“And John here, who you know as Mr Finley, or whatever he calls himself, is going to go and ring for the Federal Police to come and take you away.”
The Federal Police came and said a lot of things that sounded legal. They asked who we were and I told them I was writing a book about Vietnam and I was interviewing My Moffat for some in depth personal information and things got deep and he just broke down and confessed to murdering a person in Ballarat by crashing into his car. And we were happy to help the Police. And we were a bit upset so we planned to go back home tomorrow as soon as possible.
I called Carol and told her the outcome. I told her how many errors Moffat had made and what a terrible waste it had been. She didn’t have any sympathy for the mistakes her father’s killer had made. “We might not have played by the book,” I said, “but in the end we got the bastard to confess.”
Then we went to pick up Sammy for the trip home. “I’m staying here for a while Daddy,” she said to Frank. “You said it was a holiday. It wasn’t. I’m going to stay with Carol. I think she could do with some company.”
“Stay as long as you want, Sammy. You’ve made your father very proud.”
And that’s about all there is.