Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula


Zero Sum

02 An Open Investigation (2019)

It had been a long, hot, 5 hour drive out from Wellington as Bess Stafford finally nosed the  Landcruiser into a parking spot outside the Bourke Police Station. She threw it out of gear, pulled the handbrake and killed the engine.

The sudden, simultaneous silence of the diesel, the air-conditioning and Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” on the audio system, felt more a palpable presence, than a sudden absence. The early afternoon heat immediately began to broil the interior of the truck.

Bess took up the song under her breath, “I go out walking after midnight”, undid her seatbelt and gathered up her phone and hat. “I’m always walking, after midnight, searching for you”. She looked at the thick old manila and paper file sitting on the passenger seat, decided she didn’t need it and just gave it a pat as if to say, “I won’t be long”. She opened the door and stepped out into the hard light.

The heat was like a smack in the face. She pushed her phone into the thigh pocket of her trousers, adjusted her aviator style sunglasses and pushed her Akubra onto her head, tugging the front brim down low.

The heat was intense, the display in the truck had said 45; hot, even for Bourke. The air was incredibly dry, Bess ceased singing as she looked about, up and down the main thoroughfare. Her drill cotton shirt began to cling as the sweat started to run on her body.

There was no-one out on the street. Not a bird in the sky, not even the occasional dog bark. Even the insects were quiet. It was too bloody hot!

A few hundred metres down a B Double cattle truck rumbled through an intersection kicking up a low, translucent cloud of dust in its wake. The heavy growl of the engine, the spit and hiss of the air brakes died away and the dust just hung in the hot still air, suspended in the heat plume rising off the tar. The street went quiet again, the silence seeming to intensify the heat.

Bess walked over to the station and under the low verandah that surrounded the old colonial building. Glad to be back in the shade, even after so short an exposure to the early afternoon sun, she pushed through the heavy single government-green wooden door into the reception area. The high ceilinged, cool interior exerted a quick chill on Bess. She smiled and shivered delightedly as she took off her hat and wiped her brow and the interior band of the hat with an old hankie she kept wadded in a pocket for just this purpose.

It was quiet inside the station too. The whir of a ceiling fan and the occasional crackle and unintelligible bit of yak on the LAC frequency in the com.’s room off a corridor to the side was all that disturbed the peace and quiet of the station interior.

A ruddy faced young constable with a fresh haircut was behind the counter sorting a sheaf of papers into some kind of order. He held the sheets like a hand of oversized cards and deftly pulled a page out and inserted it higher in the order. The tip of his tongue was just visible between his lips.

He noticed Bess and hurriedly, self consciously, put the papers down and ran his left hand over his hair. He smiled his best public service smile.

“Yes missus, what can we do for ya t’day?”

Bess removed her sunglasses, “That’s Detective Superintendent “Missus” to you young constable,” Bess smiled as she flipped her warrant card at the young officer.

The young constable leaned over to take a look at the card and badge. “Yes Ma’am, sorry Ma’am”, the now straightened junior replied, “What can I do for you? Who do you want to see?”, he asked hurriedly, now at attention.

“This your first posting?” Bess asked fondly. She had a soft spot for embryo coppers and smiled warmly at the young bloke, “You can relax. I’m just here as a courtesy. I’m passing through to a place over the river. An old open case and I thought, before my retirement, I might just give the whole thing the once over again, you know, just in case.” Bess’ eyes brightened and focused on the constable’s face.

“You weren’t born round here were you?” she asked him directly, “You might be able to help with some background.” There was a little hope in the question but these days young constables were placed all over.

“Nah, I grew up round Hexham just out’a Newcastle.” The young constable visibly relaxed and leant on the counter, “You’re right, this is my first posting.” He smiled back.

“Well good luck to you Constable Hourigan.” offered Bess generously, spying the young man’s light blue name badge. “Keep it tidy, play a straight bat and you’ll do alright;” Bess smiled again, “but as I said this is just a courtesy to say I’m in the area and I might like to drop in some time in the next few days to go through your intelligence files and old case notes.”

O’ yeah,” he nodded, “well that shouldn’ be a problem.”

“If you could let the Boss know I’m about. I’m not sure where I’ll be staying but I’ll call once I’ve booked in and let you know. In the meantime here’s my card with my mobile and email details.” Bess had opened her wallet and taken out a standard police card. She handed it over as she flipped and clipped her wallet and stuffed it back in the right rear pocket of her worn desert camo trousers.

“Righto. No worries.” The constable looked at the card. Except for the details it was the same as the ones in his own wallet.

“I’ll let the Super know when he gets back in later. He’s down at the town hall with some councillors. We’ve had some trouble lately with bloody kids going joy riding and then torching the stolen ride. Its a real bastard, if you’ll excuse my French.” The young constable was trying to give the impression that he was intimately involved with the matter. “We’ve had three of them so far.” he said shaking his head.

“Bloody kids, eh?” Bess said shaking her head too. “Not a lot else for them to do, I suppose. Well I’m sure you’ll sort it out in the end,” Bess offered indulgently, “but right now I have to get on, so I’ll say hoo-roo until next time.” Bess gave the young bloke her best smile, turned and walked out the door.

The sudden heat felt like a pressing iron, as she stepped out again into the hard hot light. Pulling her brim down and pushing her sunglasses up her nose, she walked over to the Landcruiser, got in and lit it up, pushing the AC to maximum.

“…I walk for miles along the highway, Well, that’s just my way”, Patsy sang as Bess reversed out, and headed down Oxley Street, turning right on Sturt and driving through to the old Bourke Dock on The Darling.

Back inside the station young Hourigan entered Bess’ visit in the log and put her card front and centre on the counter so he could pass it over to the Super immediately he returned. He didn’t go back to sorting the papers. Instead he thought about Detective Superintendent Stafford and her brief visit.

She was an odd stick, he thought. She said she was nearing retirement but she looked quite vigorous. She was short, only about 165cm, and had a little barrel of a body, big arms and thick legs, big bum and bust. “Solid”, was how young Hourigan thought of her, “but nice with it.”, he added in his mind. She had a thick head of unruly salt and pepper curls, cut short and allowed its own way; and really bright green eyes. When she smiled her chubby cheeks dimpled.

She’d been dressed for Bourke he noted. All hardwearing practical fabrics, strong boots, good hat, and it all looked like it had a working life before the visit. He’d noted that her watch had one of those old fashioned bands that included a leather cover for the watch face. Hourigan’s grand dad had one like that.

But it wasn’t what Bess looked like that fascinated him, it was that he’d felt she was special in some way he couldn’t put his finger on. Like that smile hid some kind of knowing that he was yet to understand.

It had been a very brief visit and she’d been nice enough, she hadn’t really pulled rank on him, she seemed to understand who and what he was. She’d known he was new. That could’ve been just sharp observation or maybe it was the way he’d reacted when she’d pulled her warrant card. For a moment he felt like an arse, and then he thought that she wouldn’t have seen it that way. In the end he just stopped at the fact that the brief encounter had lifted his spirits. He felt good and she’d smiled so nicely.

He went back to sorting the papers and didn’t think of Bess again until the Super came through the door about an hour later.

When young Hourigan handed over the card and gave a brief report of the visit, the Superintendent took one look and stopped, still, staring at the name on the card. Slowly a vague smile began to form at the corners of his mouth as he just looked at the card.

“Bess Stafford, ay? Well I’ll be buggered. I wonder what she wants.” he muttered, scratching his sunburned chin as his smile broadened to light up his entire face. He looked at the younger policeman. “You’ve never heard of D.Supt. Stafford have ya Bob?” The Super had never used Hourigan’s first name, let alone the familiar diminutive.

“No sir.”

Young Hourigan could see that even though his commanding officer hadn’t been about for the visit, just the mention of D.Supt. Stafford had a similar effect on the Boss as her visit had on him.

“You’ve been in the presence of greatness, young Bob, You’ll never forget her.” the Super said, then drawing his breath in and looking at the young Constable. “She’s one of the best investigators I’ve ever met and I don’t know of any better when it comes to interview technique. Mind like a steel trap, that woman.”

The Super warmed to his theme and drew in to lean in on the counter with the young constable before continuing in an almost conspiratorial tone.

“I saw a video once of her interviewing a Serbian war criminal. It had the transcript running over the picture at the bottom, you know, like the news.”

She was on secondment to the International Warcrimes Tribunal in the Hague. She got a complete confession from this evil bastard; entirely against his will. It was breathtaking to watch. She remained completely calm throughout, but pushing his buttons mercilessly, smiling that smile of hers all the while. The rage in him as he admitted his crimes to her was unbelievable. It cost him every time he uttered a word, and when she finally broke him and he let it all go, I swear, if he wasn’t restrained he’d have killed her with his bare hands, and all the while he’s spitting and shouting chapter and verse as though his crimes were actually grand final wins. He was a bad bugger.

Well Bess, she just sat back out of the range of most of the flying spit, an impassive, smiling face, a quiet reasoning voice occasionally prompting him to greater revelations of his bastardry. When he’d finished threatening and raging at Bess he just sat there, shackled in that sad little cell with a look of triumph, like he ruled the world; only realising as Bess got up to leave, that he’s just confessed to multiple rapes and mass murder!”

“For Christ’s sake Bob, she speaks fluent Serbian! I can’t even remember my school boy French!”

“Wow….” slowly, was all young Hourigan could muster.

The super looked at the card again, and again shook his head slowly. “I don’t know how she did it.” A look of uncertainty flitted across the Super’s face but then, just disappeared.

“She’s got a fabulous smile though, hasn’t she?. Did she give you one of her smiles?” the Super asked, still looking at the card. He didn’t wait for the answer. He just wandered down the corridor to his office, went in and closed the door, leaving young Bob Hourigan to wonder just what it was, apart from speaking Serbian, that constituted the “greatness” that the Super had alluded to.

He sat down behind the reception desk and Googled “Detective Superintendent Elizabeth Ruth Stafford” on the station computer. She’d had a storied career apparently and after futzing through the results, catching a paragraph here, an image there, he finally settled on a YouTube ENG video of Bess back when she was a Sergeant.

She had been involved in the search for a child missing for several days in rugged terrain. The video showed the parents, and Bess dressed much the same as she had been earlier, with the little boy on her knee clinging to her as if she were life itself, Bess telling the assembled media pack that apart from being very hungry and sporting some bruises and scratches, the little bloke was as right as rain.

“Aren’t you little mate?” she’d asked the boy, who smiled a huge smile and hugged Bess even harder. Bess had then looked directly into the lens of the camera and smiled too.

It was a great smile. Young Bob Hourigan hit pause and “full screened” the image, pushing himself back on his chair, he raised his hands up behind his head, laced his fingers and leant all the way back, his eyes never leaving that smile.

Bess was down at the river. It was a few degrees cooler by the water. The Darling was its usual sluggish low muddy self. A bit of good rain in southern Queensland a month ago had sent a of pulse of water flowing down the course, but as Bess stood at the rail of the old Bourke Dock she could see that the water today was now barely up to where the thick wooden piles drove into the dry bank just above the low water level.

She made her way down to the slack brown water by way of the stairs under the dock. With water levels in the river so unreliable the dock had been built with several landings at different levels that made it possible for passengers to get on and off the river steamers no matter the level of the river.

Down by the water Bess sat down on one of the worn wooden steps, pulled out her phone and went to the folder of case notes and images. She slowly swiped through, pausing on some, passing through others, trying to let her imagination take up the mental slack and begin to focus.

Bess had picked up the case when the body of the an unidentified “academic” had vanished from its locked cooler at the morgue, leaving no evidence that it had ever been there. The stainless steel of the tray was absolutely clean, not a trace of the frozen body that had been lying there for years.

She noted again as she had so many times since she’d been engaged in this investigation, that the face of “Eric Hansen”, a Bourke local who died over fifty years ago and her reason for being in Bourke, was just like the face of the dead man at Sydney University; biometrics confirmed through a friend in the AFP; though showing the wear of thirty odd years of additional life in the relentless arid environs of Bourke.

Problem was, Hansen 01 had been dead over forty years before the putative Hansen 02 had shuffled off his mortal in the stacks of Fisher Library, and then had the temerity to disappear completely from the morgue a few years later. It was all very confusing and not a little contradictory.

That curious alphanumeric string was the ticket to the two Hansens connection. At first impossible to decipher without a “key”, it was now revealed as a publicly available Geohash of a location which turned out to be Hansen’s abandoned place over the river from Bourke. That had led to the State Archives and the file on the earlier death in that location. Which facts were interesting in themselves in that the Geohash system had not been released for public use until 2008, fully two years after the discovery of the Library body. Maybe that body had known the young Brazilian Geohash inventor Gustavo Niemeyer, Bess had thought.

She’d contacted Niemeyer in Brazil and he had very graciously thanked her for the fascinating contact. He’d never been involved in a police investigation, but his response to the mortuary portraits Bess had emailed was “No, I don’t know this man, and I’ve asked amongst colleagues that worked with me in developing the Geohash system and none of them remember an Australian being in touch prior to release.”

Then there was the assumed date at the end of the string. A geohash doesn’t have or need a date, usually.

So how did the dead man know about Geohash and be able to provide the location of a spot several kilometres outside of Bourke a few years before that system was even available? And the date, or assumed date, would have been 13 years in the future at the time the unknown man inscribed it on the pad found with the body at the scene. What could a future date mean to a dead man?

There were too many impossibles and precious few probables and the whole process had taxed the oft repeated investigative maxim, keep an open mind and follow the evidence. Problem here was, as Bess thought on the crazy and the curious, the evidence was leading her to cloud cuckoo land. Not a place Bess had ever felt comfortable in, though she had to admit, she’d been there often enough in her peripatetic career.

Bess continued to swipe through the gallery until she came upon the historical images she’d gathered at the State Library from the late 19th century and early 20th century when the Port of Bourke was one of the busiest ports in Australia. She wanted the images for backgrounding, to get the feel of the place.

As she interrogated the images she found herself mentally “falling” into them, their irresolved, grainy, black and white transmuting to the blown out light and sun bleached colours of reality in early Bourke. Bess relaxed and let her imagination expand.

Soon she was seeing the old time paddle-steamers and barges tied up at the dock and along the river bank. All shallow draft vessels, their broad flat decks piled high with bales of wool and corded wood for the boilers. The wharf labourers shouting to one another as the steam cranes lifted bales of wool, farm machinery, even horses and other live stock, onto or off the craft moored at the dock. In Bess imagination the dock was a maelstrom of noisy activity and from out of the dust and smoke walked a tall thin man, a “roll your own” hanging from his lip. The man stopped and looked directly at her. She noted a look of anticipation, and maybe, just a hint of trepidation.

Bess snapped back to the now. Had she just seen the face of Hansen, the man, in life? Was that him? It couldn’t be. It was just her imagination playing tricks in the heat; but the figment had looked directly at her, in her own imaginings. What was her unconscious trying to say? Bess let that question hang for the moment. Her unconscious had a way of revealing itself according to its own imperatives. Sometimes Bess even thought that below her conscious life there was another life playing out by a completely different set of rules.

Bess climbed back up the stairs and walked back to the Landcruiser. She’d check into the Riverside just up the road. She liked its old Bourke feel and all that beeswaxed woodwork she’d seen on the internet.

After checking in she had taken a shower and put on some fresh clothes before ordering sandwiches and a pot of tea. “Real leaf tea please, brewed in a pot with boiling water, and can you bring me lots of biscuits. I love biscuits”

She called the station to let them know she had checked in and she had another brief chat with Constable Hourigan. Young people always opened up to Bess and she enjoyed their youth and enthusiasm, their innocence and ernest commitment. They had yet to see what she had, do what she had, and dealt with the personal consequences.

They’d spent a few pleasant minutes chatting about his experience at the training college in Goulburn. He’d asked her what she was after, but she had deflected that line of questioning, not really being able to say just how she had arrived in Bourke for fear of being thought soft. Her reasons were compelling to her but she wasn’t sure she could explain that reasoning without it sounding like a science fiction fantasy. She’d cut the conversation short as she realised just how much revision and reading she had to do before tonights exploratory excursion.

By the time the tea and sandwiches arrived she had opened the old manilla file and spread its contents across the floor. She ate one of the sandwich quarters whole and then grabbed another. She was quite hungry. She poured herself a black tea and sipped the tea and chewed on the sandwiches as she stood in the middle of the spread documents, slowly turning to take in the material arrayed about her.

In Bess’ mind these original and photocopied documents, images, handwritten notes, scraps and bits and pieces of “evidence” all represented data points in a developing cloud of points from which she hoped would emerge a discernible pattern or picture. The problem with this case, or rather these cases, was that there were precious few reliable data points to map. As she had pondered on the matter her mind had thrown up all sorts of speculative points, possible points yet to be observed, confirmed, but which had a persuasive resonance that found a mesmeric harmony with the real, but that didn’t make them real. Bess had to admit this wasn’t like any other case she had ever had to work on and she further realised, now she was in Bourke, she was in for both the penny and the pound. The problem had her by the mind and it wasn’t letting go.