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Zero Sum

The First Death (1985)

Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula

Bess finished reading the forty odd pages of text she’d printed from the work file found open on the desktop of a new Macintosh Computer sitting on an “L” shaped work bench that filled the centre of the room. She sucked her lips onto her teeth and made a smacking sort of sound, followed by a long “Hhhmmmmm…” as she spun slowly on the chair taking in the arrangement and content of the room.

Three of the walls were covered with floor to ceiling book cases assembled from recovered timber. They were full of an eclectic variety of fiction, history, science and philosophy. There were many literary novels and there was also a great deal of science fiction and some fantasy, though heavily biased to the literary end of those genres, as Bess took a cursory glance along the shelves. 

Here and there, sitting between books, in front of books, pinned to the bookcase timbers, were postcards, bits and pieces of pottery, small ornaments in china or glass, cheap souvenirs, even some fine pieces of brass trench art, certificates, old school pennants; for hockey, Bess noticed; and there was a proliferation of Kookaburra iconography. He liked Kookaburras. 

So the subject was well read, a bit of a Womble, and apparently had literary ambitions of his own; even if the subject matter of those current ambitions, hanging loosely from Bess’ hand, seemed bizarre and somewhat confronting.

The body of the young man had been taken away before Bess had arrived at the scene and the SOCO’s were now going through the rest of the house on Keegan Avenue in Glebe. She could hear them moving about at the back of the single story terrace.

They were talking quietly to one another as they worked; about ordinary things, mundane things, as though their professional task here was secondary to the social opportunity, as though it was everyday that they confronted the death of a perfectly healthy young man. Which of course, quite often, it was. Though generally speaking the subject was less well presented than in this case. 

This body had apparently looked like it had just put its head down for a quick power nap before forging on with the writing now printed out and hanging from Bess’ hand. The file’s metadata showed that he had applied the last full stop and saved the file at 10:09AM this morning. Liver temperature said that he had died shortly thereafter, though the coroner had been reluctant to make even a suggestion as to what had caused the young man’s demise. He’d expired in the chair she was sitting in. 

Bess stood up and folded the printed pages in half, pushed them into the back pocket of her trousers; she’d read the whole thing again later. 

Bess had wondered why she’d been taken off her current work and told to, very quickly, fly across town and take part in the investigation of this suspicious death; though, at this stage it was the man’s life that seemed suspicious rather than his death. 

“You’re gonna wanna see this Bess.” the Chief Super had said. 

Now she knew why; but this was just the beginning, there was going to be more. Bess knew that too.

For now it was time to go and see what, if anything, had turned up in the rest of the house.

It was a simple single story terrace in a street of identical terrace houses sitting atop a sandstone cliff above Pyrmont Bridge Road. There was no street frontage. Keegan Avenue was just an eroded, broken bitumen pathway that provided access to the front of the houses, enclosed on the cliff side by a rusting shoulder height steel fence.

The young man had turned the front room, with its obscured view of the city skyline over Harold Park, into his work room. He slept in the second bedroom, and the back of the house included a lounge room, kitchen, small bathroom and a laundry which doubled as an entry vestibule. The sort of home an artisan tradesman and his family would have enjoyed in the late 19thcentury. A modest house of modest proportions, perfectly fitted to its current modest literary life.

Bess walked up the short hall, glancing into the bedroom where a forensic officer was taking photographs and bagging and tagging evidence that they might later rely on. 

“Find anything? Bess asked casually.

“Yeah there’s a number of letters to and from various persons. They might be good background to his recent activities, give some insight into what might have happened here.” The SOCO turned in place and pointed to a collection of a dozen or more photo albums. “Lots of photos, but from a quick look, very few of him.” 

“Hhmm, well, put them aside I’ll look at them all later. Nothing else?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary. Its a bedroom with all you’d expect in a bedroom, though he obviously had a thing for shoes.” the officer pointing to the bottom of an open wardrobe from which spilled multiple pairs of shoes in a spectacular variety of shapes, colours and uses. 

Bess smiled inwardly. A proto-novelist with a shoe fetish. Add a few more cute conceits and you’ve got the beginnings of a novel. Though how it might develop she had no idea of at the moment.

Bess walked through into the small lounge room. There was a high end sound system powered by a professional looking Crown amplifier which pushed a pair of bulky Tannoy monitors. There was a direct drive turntable and a seemingly brand new CD player. There was a large collection of LP’s and some CD’s; a copy of Bobby Bland and BB King’s “Together Again” on the turntable. 

The thrill is certainly gone here.” Bess thought darkly. “So he valued his listening experience quite highly,” Bess thought to herself. “I wonder what else he listened to.” 

She flipped though the LP’s. There was some rock and pop, but he apparently had a preference for 20thcentury composers. He liked the Brits. There was Walton, Williams and Britten, Elgar of course, interestingly Bax; but there was even more of the Europeans, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Ravel and many others including Berg and Stravinsky. Eclecticism once again. 

There was some jazz, mostly great solo artists who played sax, trumpet or piano, Roland Kirk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis of course, but also Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans trios, even one that Bess had herself. Bill Evans and Tony Bennett doing picks from the standard catalogue. Bess sang quietly as she looked through the rest of the albums. 

Just when the fun is starting, Comes the time for parting. Lets just be glad for what we had, and what’s to come…” Bess was going to catch up with this young man “Some Other Time.” 

Bill Evans accompanying Tony Bennett on that singular album was often all Bess needed after a long day. A glass of Wolf Blass Colombard Cruchen Chardonnay and Tony singing just for Bess. So she had something in common with her unlucky subject, though the wine rack in the fire place had mostly reds, notably a Henschke 1976 “Hill of Grace”. “Top drop.” Bess thought.

There was no television but the walls were covered with art reproductions from dog eared post cards to full size prints, John Olsen’s “Five Bells” filling most of one wall. Bess had seen the original at the SH Ervin gallery in the rocks some years ago. It was an impressive piece.

A telephone sat atop a small sculpture made from zinc galvanised steel sheet held together with pop rivets. It was all odd twists, planes intersecting, a topological nightmare to cut. There was also a notepad and pen; the top page of the pad, while blank, showed the imprint of numbers and notes scribbled on the previous pages, and then torn off the pad.

“Can someone be sure to get the impressions off this note pad.” Bess asked the room.

“On my “to do” list.” a SOCO answered. 

Blue-tacked to the wall just above the phone was a post card of Pope Paul VI. Someone had defaced the image with blue biro; a discrete but erect penis tentatively emerging from the pontiff’s cassock, and a thought bubble, “Goonders! I Fink I got a Stiffy!”

Childish certainly and probably nothing, but it was funny in an embarrassing way. An absurdist foil for the great art covering the rest of the room. Bess smirked a little and admitted she liked this young man, or would have, if things were different. 

“Who found the body?” Bess asked no-one in particular.

“Woman next door. He was still warm. The Boss has just gone in there.” a SOCO replied without looking up from his work. He was carefully collecting ash from a small frog shaped ashtray with a rest forming part of the frog’s bottom lip. Bess noted that there were two rollies already safely ensconced in an evidence bag.

“Dope?” Bess asked as she fiddled with the printed pages in her back pocket.

“Yeah. Looks like it.”

“Hhhmmmm…..,” Bess consciously pulled her hand away from the pages. “I’m just off next door, if anyone needs me.” Bess walked out through the laundry vestibule and went next door.

As Bess swung open the neighbour’s back gate she noticed that the mailbox was stuffed with post. She grabbed the bundle of mail and walked inside.

The house was exactly like its neighbour except it was mirrored and Bess found the Senior Investigating Officer sitting with the neighbour in her lounge room. They both looked up as Bess came in.

“Please don’t let me disturb you. Just carry on. I’ll listen in if you don’t mind.”

The officer turned to the woman and made the introduction. “This is Inspector Bess Stafford. She’ll be providing some psychological assistance on this one. Bess, this is Wilhelmina Kinnane. She found the body.”

“Please, call me Billy.” The woman nodded a greeting and smiled absently as Bess handed her the post. “Bess, did you say? Bess Stafford?”

Bess nodded.

The woman gave Bess a closer look. She obviously didn’t understand why “psychological assistance” might be necessary; but more particularly, it seemed that the mention of Bess’ name had triggered something in her memory. She fidgeted with the mail.

“I think he may have mentioned you once or twice,” her tone suggesting this was an uncertain recollection but that there was definitely something about Bess’ name.

The SIO, an Inspector from the Glebe station, seemed surprised at that and looked from the neighbour to Bess and back again, hoping that something more illuminating might pass between them.

‘Hhmmm,” Bess responded, and said to the Glebe Inspector, ‘You didn’t see his computer then?.” The inspector shrugged a no. “So you have no idea why I’m here, do you, really?” The Inspector gave a more nuanced shrug no. Bess smiled softly at the Glebe Inspector and mouthed “I’ll fill you in later.”

She turned to the woman. “Regarding him knowing me; yes, he seems to have known me, or more accurately a version of me, a possible me; but I don’t know him from Adam. Curiouser and curiouser….” Bess shrugged elaborately and smiled at the woman, who smiled back, as if to say it was all a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, tucked inside an enigma.  

Bess was thinking that “psychological assistance” as a job description was a bit vague, perhaps even obscurantist, but there was certainly something psychological going on.

While the SIO continued the interview, collecting the boilerplate answers that every investigation needs, Bess looked around the room. The hall door was open and Bess could see the hallway rainbow illuminated through what she assumed to be coloured glass in the front door. There were bookshelves running down the party wall of the hall.

Back in the lounge room there was an upright Ronisch piano, some Mozart on the stand and other music books and manuscripts stacked higgledy-piggledy across the top of the upright. It had intact candle holders fitted with white wax candles, burned about halfway down. A tall narrow bookcase sat next to the piano, groaning under the weight of what appeared to be the entire Oxford Reference Set and a collection of well thumbed paperbacks.   

Along the wall, and on which Bess and the SIO sat, was an elaborate nineteenth century cane swooning divan with worn silk damask upholstery and cushions; “call me Billy” sat in the only other chair, fifties Scandinavian minimalism. In front of the closed fireplace sat an old AWA “Deep Image” black and white TV on a low table, a ragged looking tortoise shell cat asleep on top.

There were two professionally framed prints, both Pre-Raphaelites. One was the ever popular “Ofelia” by John Everett Millais; that Shakespearean heroin lying half submerged in the water, her red hair spread and drifting around her while her posey slipped from her loosening grip. Bess remembered a Fine Art lecture from her days at uni that had enumerated the flowers and their meanings. A mix of metaphors jumbled together, Millais had added additional blooms to those mentioned in Shakespeare’s text, creating a sort of semiotic density more suited to viewing than reading.

The other print was “Elegia di Madonna Fiametta” by Rosetti; Boccaccio’s heroine looking not unlike a younger version of the neighbour being interviewed; long red hair, noble nose and large widely-set blue-grey eyes, full lips. Bess tuned in to their conversation.

The mantle over the TV had a collection photos, one of which showed the dead man’s neighbour in cricket whites, padded and holding a bat. She was standing with a young man similarly attired, his trousers held up with a knotted tie.

“…..and he was quite bright, but he didn’t fit in at Sydney. I think it was the first time he’d ever really been free to think for himself. He is.., was, very self possessed and seemed to pursue his own curriculum which, increasingly, diverted from the curriculum he would be examined on. He tried first year twice and failed to complete on both occasions.” 

“How did he support himself? Did he work?”

“He always seemed to get by but he was never flush. To be frank I’m not really sure what he did to earn a living but I know he often wrote advertising copy for print ads. Just print ads. He told me once that he’d got them all fooled at McCann Erickson. Half a dozen lines of semiotic hooks and unconscious memes and hey presto a cheque. He seemed to be always working the edge of something and rarely showed any interest in the core of a matter.”

“Could you elaborate on that?”

“Well, look I could be completely wrong about this but he seemed always to be in a sense, in hiding, but also…, “questing”. The woman had put an uncertain tone to the word as though she were unsure whether that was exactly the right way to describe her neighbours daily life. “He was a nibbler.., at things. If the taste was not to his liking, he moved on to something else He bought the house ten years ago; just before his second attempt at first year. In that time he’s only held one job, you know, a regular job, and that was in the public service. It lasted less than a year. He’s worked with pop bands, on films, TV, that sort of pop cultural stuff. I liked him. I liked him a lot. He was good company, a good friend. I’ll miss him….” 

The neighbour’s recollections tailed off and she looked out the window. Bess noted the look of loss and confusion. She had been genuinely fond of her neighbour.

The Glebe Inspector looked over at Bess, and shrugged, his eyes asking whether or not Bess had any further questions. Bess nodded.

“Sorry to have to keep at this.” The woman blinked a few times, then gave them her attention. Bess continued, “Did he have many visitors, particularly in the last few days?”

“No,” the woman looked absently through her mail, “he never was all that much of a host. There was more activity when he first moved in. The occasional dinner party, sometimes just a group of people around to have a drink and talk. 

I sometimes have friends over to play poker. He became a regular and popular player. He introduced his favourite form of the game to us, 5 Card Hi Lo Screw Your Buddy. Absolutely cut throat game. We all loved it, win or lose.”   

“So no-one in the last few days, that you know of?”

“No, I’ve not seen anyone recently, and certainly no-one this morning. I’ve been in the back garden since just after breakfast, tidying up and wrangling my sweet peas back onto the trellis after the winds yesterday. I’d have seen anyone this morning. No one ever arrives at any of these houses by the front path.” This last sentence trailing off to a murmer. 

The neighbour was looking at a piece of her mail, a look somewhere between concern and confusion.

“This one’s for you. It’s his writing.” She said, awkwardly handing Bess a standard, white, DL envelope, no window, inscribed with her name in a clear hand, no rank, just her name.

A shiver ran through Bess as she took the envelope and opened it. There was a single white, unlined page; in the centre of which, in the same plain hand, was written, “It wouldn’t have been any good.” Bess handed the page to the Glebe Inspector. He read the note, looked at Bess, turning the note so that the message was towards her, his head tilted slightly, his eyes wide with enquiry.

“I have absolutely no idea what it means.” she said quietly, her mind racing through possibilities, probabilities and getting nowhere. Her hand went to the folded printout in her back pocket. “I suppose he’s trying to tell me something, but not knowing what “it” is that wouldn’t “be any good”, I’m afraid I’m clueless.”

The neighbour had turned to look out the window again. The Glebe inspector looked at Bess and kicked his head to the side as if to say, “let’s get out of here.

Bess pulled her lips back, nodded and let out a short nasal huff. They thanked Ms. Kinnane for her time and said they might be back if they needed more from her. Bess touched the woman gently on the shoulder. She turned from the window and Bess said, “I’m very sorry about your friend. Sudden death is hard to come to grips with. If you need to talk…” Bess gave the woman her card. Bess smiled softly at the woman again, which seemed to perk her up a bit; and then followed the Glebe Inspector out through the back of the house.

When they were out in the lane Bess asked if she might take the computer with her, as well as the photo albums and letters.

“Take whatever you need, just be sure to maintain the integrity of the chain of evidence.” He gave Bess a searching look. “What was on the computer?”

“It looks like the beginning of a novel about me, but its set thirty years from now, just before my retirement.” Bess said flatly.

“Really! How’s that?” Incredulity all over his face. “But you say you don’t know him. How the hell does he know you?”

“At the moment I have absolutely no idea. Maybe his notes and working files will turn up something. I started the day working on a forensic psychiatry report for the Chief Super and ended up here. You now know as much as I do. Look, this is your investigation and you’ll have to carry it. My part seems to be of another order of weirdness entirely. It may be nothing or it may be everything, but right now, I can’t say.”

Bess and the Glebe Inspector went back into Number 5 and he helped Bess gather up the photo albums, letters and the computer and put them in Bess’ car. It was going to be a long night.