Jon Sumby

HE sat in his office, as he often did, while the bills piled up and the clients never came. A dingy office, in the low-rent part of Malvern, almost Caulfield. On the second floor, above a gym that crackled and roared with maleness, it added a certain odour. He watched his door, hoping that the lean streak might pass again.
Staring at his name, in gold leaf, that read backward through the frosted glass and the words ‘Detective Agency’, which didn’t. He watched the flies lazily spiral below the single globe in the ceiling, wondering if ‘ycnegA evitceteD’ summed up where he was. Then a shadow obscured the words: A client, a debt-collector, or trouble.

The hesitancy of the shadow told him it was a client, the pause told him that they were in trouble, big trouble, or they couldn’t read the sign. She walked into the office like a centipede with ninety-eight missing legs. She was beautiful and she was trouble. He took the case, not knowing just what he was getting into. But he noticed her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the centre.

After she had left he mulled over the facts. The Russian was the key to the mystery and the danger she faced. It was time to pound the mean streets of Malvern, from Central Park to the tough end of Glenferrie Road. He needed to hear the buzz on the street.

He walked down High Street, past the old ladies with their vinyl shopping-trolleys. Aware of their suspicious stares, he knew they were wondering if he would reveal just what they were carrying in those trolleys. But today wasn’t one of those days; he had bigger fish to fry. Besides, they often went tooled up and were always close to Family.

The hailstones leapt from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in the wok. Winter pounded on the door, whistling through the cracks. He opened the door, peered into the cold grey rain, knowing that rain is colourless, waiting. Winter pocketed his whistle and said, ‘I have news for you’.

‘Thanks Johnny’. $1.20 later he was learning all he needed to know, but nothing worth printing. It was a dead end, another blind alley he couldn’t see his way out of. Things were getting serious, time was running out, he must buy a watch before he saw this case out, her life may depend on it. A crucial mental note.

‘I’ll meet you, tonight, at the Astor’, his contact said. Tersely he replied, ‘But that’s not in Malvern’.

‘I know, but it should be, it’s that kind of place.’ His contact added, ‘Nine sharp’.

Leaving Malvern he felt surrisingly safer;he was no longer showing-out, a marked man. If he lived through this maybe he should move on, take in a different place, somewhere exotic, where he could rest easy, like Caroline Springs. He liked the north-Australian heat.

Standing by a pond on Gardiners Creek, he knew he was on the verge of cracking the case or ending up as another anonymous body found in the Sacre Coeur. He smiled as he watched a small boy launch a model boat into the water. It brought back bittersweet memories of his own innocent girlhood, growing up in Repton Road, learning life’s lessons in Ardrie Park.

The little boy’s boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t. Watching it, he knew exactly what to do. The plan was simple, like his mate Derrida. But unlike Derrida, this plan just might work.

But first he needed information, so he went to the Junction, way outside of Malvern. Sukey lived in a flat on Havelock Road and ran a market stall at the five-ways in Camberwell. Although she was a map fifty-niner, you never mentioned her name in polite society. She had her finger on the pulse, from helping the underground railway for escapees from the Melbourne Labour Camp in Barkers Road, to knowing when the next shipment of Koeninger Puff was due.

Sitting at her kitchen table they played word games. She really was beautiful; her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two other sides gently compressed by a Thigh-Master.

Still there was no time, the situation was desperate, he needed to know what she knew but her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever. By his Detectives’ Code, he could not hit a dame. He tickled her exactly the way a duck wouldn’t, because ducks don’t have fingers. She spilled the beans and told him everything she knew.

He left her to clean up, racing into the night, racing against time; and love.

The rain swept down Glenferrie Road, overtaking a tram before settling in behind a car speeding and showing that yellow symbol of danger: ‘Caution: Children Onboard’. The cars raced through Malvern, tires screeching. Hearing that reminded him of his long-ago university classes in logic, that for every cause there is effect, like Paul’s prawn barbeques. Right now he was focussed on a bit of grevious, if needs be, since he needed information from the Russian before he moved on.

The Russian that is, his moving on had no cause but it would certainly have an effect in the mean streets of Malvern; not to mention the dirty little world that lived, like bedbugs, under the covers of the computer swap-meets at the local town hall ($3 entry; pass-outs available).

The cars sped down Parslow Street, along Silver Street, and into Elizabeth Street. Stirring up autumn leaves that settled in their wake, covering pieces of the ground that had previously been uncovered. The Russian was speeding away, driving like an Italian. He was losing him, but there were too many speed cameras and he knew his client wouldn’t pay those fines.

Ulrich Beck was right, this is a risk-society. ‘Risikogeschellschaft’, he thought, or something like that, perhaps with cheese. He finished and ordered a flat white, deeply pondering. The pieces were falling together but with every piece the danger increased. It was time to pack some heat, deep heat, the type that would get him out of a sticky situation if need be. Ulrich would be able to tool him up.

He was hot on the trail, from the rough areas of Stonnington he had pursued the Russian, and now he stood in a seedy foyer, he was close, so close he could smell it. It came down the stairs looking very much like something no one had ever seen before. He pushed past it, intent on catching the Russian. The chase went on down the long corridors of the fleapit pool hall, Malvern’s den of inequity, the hangout for the worst (or best) from Melbourne slammer.

He stopped suddenly; at the end of the corridor someone blocked his path, face grimly shadowed by the cheap, dim, hall light. The young fighter had that hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while. The situation was dangerous. But when the fighter moved he realised that he was as lame as a duck. Not a metaphorical lame duck either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something. He snarled, ‘Bosnia or Iraq?’ The young fighter snarled back, ‘A holiday in Cambodia’. Leaving the young fighter to add more stains to the carpet, he burst through the rear door; entering an alley. The Russian had made good his escape. He was alone with the alley cat, but the cat was not alone with him.

They sat late into the night, united by the case, seperated by hurt. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up. Suddenly she was in his arms, passionate, needy. Briefly he thought of the only woman he had ever truly loved. ‘Love hurts’, he thought, ‘it hurts the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.’ But not now. In the morning there was no sign of her, except for a note she had written and left on the table.

‘I cannot accept the danger that I have put you in [she wrote], I must leave, otherwise the Russian may find you and that is something we both can do without. Accept my love and forget me.’ She wanted it to be as if they had never met, like two hummingbirds who had also never met. On a hunch, he checked the shipping news. Just as he thought, a Russian freighter was due in port that afternoon. The two events were unconnected, he knew, but it was good to know that.

Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do. He had caught the Russian after a chase over the stinking rooftops of Cabrini. The Russian was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree. ‘Drop your gun, Russian,’ He called, ‘tell me everything you know about this case!’ The Russian caught him off-guard. ‘Oh, I’m Russian, am I? Listen mate, me name’s McMurphy, have you ever met a Russian named McMurphy? What else is it you’ve been told?’

McMurphy fell twelve stories, hitting the pavement like a garbage bag filled with vegetable soup. Sometimes you just lose it. On the fifth floor, oblivious to McMurphy’s end, she rose gracefully ‘en pointe’ and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

‘Case closed’, he wrote. ‘In the end it was all for love’, he thought, ‘theft is property is theft and in this post-modern, Internet world, we are all thieves. Everything is a purloined letter, an apocryphal metaphor.’ The number six tram beckoned.


Coming Soon!

My new story, ‘The Duck that Did Not Bark’, featuring my new character, the amateur magician and part-time detective, Gardiner Creek. This excerpt is from the moment before the moment when all is revealed:

‘He gathered them together in the parlour, for now he knew just who the culprit and their accomplice were. It was complicated, additionally, the rain began to come down in sheets. Lightning bolted. The little Pekinese detested rain.

‘One less suspect’, thought Gardiner. At that moment, inaudible to no one but himself, he heard a sinister click, like the sound the door makes when you lock yourself out. It could mean only one thing.

‘Duck’, cried Gardiner…’