Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula

Zero Sum   

06  Possible and Probable (1986 and 2019)

The sun was setting on one of those hot Sydney summer days that seemed to be both a beneficence and a bane. The heat, having awakened areas in the limbic system that tended toward sun worship, prompted many to spend the day lying around lazily soaking up the rays; lizards seeking the primal light. Not so much a sickie as a sunny.

Now that the sun was setting, that day long load of whole body heat had begun suggesting potential but unspecified action. The day was closing and soon night would fall. Friday night; and the humidity was just killing. 

Bess had other things on her mind. After getting home from the scene in Glebe she had spent a few hours going through the dead man’s computer, notebooks and photo albums, developing a fairly good profile of him and his life. As she’d sorted through the materials she’d bundled together a few of the photos and printed pages she had singled out from the evidence collected at the terrace on Keegan Avenue. A lot of the files on the Macintosh she’d transferred to a floppy which she stuck between the leaves of the folder containing the photos and print outs.

She’d begun to see some threads running through the materials but she still had no idea how the dead man had known her, and the notes and working files she’d found on the Macintosh had proved that he knew her well, very well indeed. Or at least her profile up until now, the mid eighties. 

Logically, the author, being now dead, could not have any possible knowledge of or experience with Bess after today’s date, (leaving aside that fact; the future, having not explicated itself, no-one could really say they knew what would happen, or more accurately what might happen, after today’s date.) 

So the narrative of her later life must all have been conjecture, confection, conflation. The Hague sounded fascinating and it also suggested that she was going to get another promotion prior to that secondment; but it all seemed like a fantasy version, a movie of her life.

She was a News South Wales Police Inspector with a PhD in Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology. A senior specialist, she liked her job and was well thought of by the other cops around her. That much was established. 

A great deal of the fictional Bess the writer had created was based in fact. She had been involved with the search for the missing boy as set out in the narrative written by the dead man. She had been selected for the Quantum Consciousness Project’ which she had thoroughly enjoyed and, what’s more, she believed that it had had a formative effect on her future; that it had, in fact, put the final polish to her mind before she set out on her career in the Force. But, and this was the first and last, the biggest “but”; Eric Hansen was not a twice dead enigma. He was actually Professor Eric Hansen and it had been Eric that had suggested the Police as a career for Bess. 

She recalled sitting with him by the fire in his rooms, drinking tea and eating biscuits, (still an habitual comfort), just quietly talking. It was the winter of 1976. It had been cold and pelting rain all day. The wind was whipping the fig trees as the light drained from the sky outside. Down in the Professor’s rooms the world could be ending for all the effect it would have down there. 

The room was warm and they were both a little drowsy. They’d had a stiff whiskey when they’d come in from the weather and they were both now relaxed, open.

Eric had asked Bess what she would be doing now. “Now” in this case being the future.

She’d told him of her fondness for puzzles and how ever since she was a little girl she’d loved working out whatever it was that everyone else was missing. This had led the conversation circuitously, or at least she had thought so at the time, to what she might do that would allow her to enjoy her love of puzzles in the cause of her career. He’d suggested Research Psychologist, Historian, Philologist, Philosopher, (“Yes Virginia, they do still exist.”); “or….,” he had shrugged casually, like this next suggestion wasn’t really to be taken seriously, “Investigator,” the same casual shrug, though this time as he turned to grip his tea cup, “Cop?” 

He took a sip from his tea; letting the suggestion hang for a moment. A moment Bess hadn’t even realise had passed at the time. His eyes now closely focussed on Bess, “I could see you eating anything you set your mind to. You really are that good Bess.”

Bess, with her usual self deprecation, had scoffed at the idea. She might have been protesting too much; but a seed had been released, blowing in on a truant breeze, a breath from somewhere distant and definitely different, that found some rough purchase in a crack, a drift of dust.

At the time she’d not really taken any of Eric’s suggestions seriously and Eric didn’t seem committed to pushing any particular barrow for Bess’ future; and anyway, there was still a few months before any choice would need to be considered. Maybe not even then. “I might just take off.”, she had thought.

She had then, subconsciously at first, then merely unconsciously, begun to think of herself as an investigator. A professional solver of puzzles.

The little seed that could. And did. By the time they were all having end of course drinks during the first week of November Bess had made up her mind to take up a recruitment offer from The New South Wales Police Force. She was off to be a copper.

And now, tonight, armed with the photos and printouts and the floppy in her folder, that copper was off to be a student again. To sit, as she had so often in the past, with the man who had been a friend and teacher, her mentor during those early years of her Police career. She wanted to know how the dead man knew so much about her and more importantly, why had he chosen to name the most enigmatic character in his yarn after the Professor. She had a feeling that Eric would know, was maybe involved, could offer some insight, something. Anything.

She stuffed the materials into her backpack and slung it over her shoulder, unlocked the deadbolt on her front door and stepped into the corridor outside her flat. She looked back through the door as she took the key out of the interior lock and pushed it into the exterior slot. She liked her little flat at the top of Harrow Mansions with its views down over William Street through the buildings to Woolloomooloo Bay and the bridge in the distance. 

The little flat on Clapton Place, Darlinghurst was home. It had belonged to her Great Great Aunt and came to Bess when that venerable old woman passed on. She’d been 102.

Bess cherished memories of visiting “MrsG”; as the whole family called her. A native of Arbroath, she had married a lowlander called Gilfilian; who, having conferred his patronymic initial, promptly up and died. He’d been a sailor and had only one thing of any consequence to leave his young widow; a flat, in Darlinghurst, in Sydney, all the way out in Australia.  

There was nothing for it. Mrs G had packed two small portmanteaux and booked passage, steerage, to Australia; and the rest actually was history.

She was monumental, tectonic, and the deepest of wells. Sitting with her, drinking tea and eating wafer biscuits with chocolate cream, Bess had never felt as excited and full of anticipation. She had told wonderful stories, fantasies full of adventure, and Bess was always the central character in all of Mrs G’s stories. Bess the jet pilot, Bess the Archaeologist, Bess the Secret Agent. She’d loved it all. 

Mrs G had filled the flat with art and other interesting things; knick-knacks, objets d’art, and a money box known as “The Penny Nigger”. Bess had loved loading the hand with a penny, (special pennies saved by Mrs G for just this purpose), and watching the “Nigger” pull the coin up to his mouth and swallow it. As a child she had played with the money box endlessly. It still stood on a shelf, now kept clean and shiny like a relic. Bess gave him a wink and said, “Back later. Look after the place for me.” He didn’t reply.

Bess closed and locked the door, turned, and made her way down the four flights to the vestibule. She noticed that there was a buff envelope sticking out from her letterbox. That hadn’t been there when she came in earlier. 

She pulled it out, opened and read the single page inside.

“Dearest Bess,

Urgent that I see you tonight. We have much to discuss of very great importance.


No kidding.” Bess thought to herself and just pushed the letter and envelope into the left rear pocket of her trousers and stepped outside. But there it was again. Eric was the strange attractor in this chaos. He had to be a part of this whole phantasm. A central part; but what was he playing at?

She hailed a cab on William Street just near JJJ. It was still very warm and humid. The sky was darkening to a bruised purple, cut through with shafts of golden sunshine. There were thunderheads forming like gathering gunpowder, and the wind was getting up. There was a Southerly Buster coming. Bess jumped in the front seat of the cab and told the driver she wanted the main Quad at Sydney University. As the cab pulled into the evening traffic the first fat drops of rain began to fall and thunder rolled in the sky.

It was absolutely bucketing down and the heavy low clouds were riven with lightning as Bess jumped from the cab and ran, her backpack over her head, into the eastern vestibule of the main quad accompanied by several loud, close, cracking peels of thunder.

The quad was deserted. Term didn’t start for a few weeks and the weather was keeping whoever was on campus indoors. Bess walked down the eastern cloister towards the Philosophy corner recalling lectures in The Oriental Studies Room; Alan Chalmers on The Philosophy of Science, John Burnheim on Demarchy and political alternatives. The early Seventies. It was a time of classic contest between the Marxists of General Philosophy and the Classicists of Traditional and Modern, and it had all came to nothing. Some years later the two sides agreed to disagree, kissed and made up. Marxism never became the better mouse trap and the classical model had been failing for decades. Funny days Bess thought.

As she made her way down the worn sandstone steps to the basement, Bess’ inner voice suddenly began to babble. “To be real, a thing must entail its own transcendence. A things reduction to its falsehoods makes it utilitarian. Hammers aren’t made of porcelain because the proposition, “a porcelain hammer has utility”, is false. Einstein wouldn’t try to drive a nail with a Bow “Flora”. 

Bess had gotten used to these recent explosions of nonsense and figured her Auditory Ventral and Dorsal Streams where getting confused, entangled; causing the neurodata received at Broca’s area to generate nonsense; gobbledygook in, gobbledygook out.. 

The verbiage never really made sense but it somehow hovered just on the edge of meaning. She shook her head. Literally trying to shake the nonsense away. Thankfully she had never experienced these mini fugues when she had been speaking to other people. 

Sometimes it manifested as a repeating phrase, such as this morning’s, “Reality is the set of all things we know to be the case; which is a subset of all things that are.” repeated again and again, for a minute or two as she made her tea. Each version having a slightly different pronunciation and word emphasis.

At first Bess had thought that these apparent discontinuities in logical thought and speech production could represent the beginnings of a more serious condition; perhaps a kind of neural compulsive tick; but it was never debilitating in any way and always disappeared should some matter of greater urgency engage her mind. 

Perhaps it was a manifestation of Bess’ quietly held belief that there was always more going on than met the eye; that her life was somehow, sometimes, not really her own; that there was a subconscious part of her that lived an entirely different life to the mundane copperly life that Bess experienced day to day. She might mention it to Eric when she saw him. He always had good ideas about the seemingly absurd.

She arrived outside the heavy oak door of Eric’s rooms, dropped her backpack and pushed her dark tangled wet hair back from her forehead with both hands. She knocked quietly; two knocks, pause, third knock. It was their signal.

There was no response at first and Bess surmised that Eric must have his head in something and had not heard, so she knocked again, same pattern, but harder this time.

A voice she didn’t recognise, shouted out, as if from a distance, “Hang on. Be there in a second.” 

There was a curious blue glow shining through the worn oversized keyhole. He must have been using an ultraviolet lamp for some reason. The glow dissipated and the door opened.

It was a young man with long wavy dark hair and startling black eyes that seemed to twinkle with gold and green and blue. He was dressed somewhat oddly; very pointy red snake skin boots, electric blue skinny jeans just managing to hold onto the top of his bum, cinched with a broad belt. He was wearing a washed out rock’n’roll T shirt; “The Magnetics”; with a colourful image of an old steam train with a human face wearing glasses chuffing out from the front of the shirt; “Death From Above” emblazoned across the trains bumper. The arms of the T shirt had been hacked off with scissors. Altogether his outfit seemed more suited to a rock guitarist than some serious minded student. Bess felt a little older, a little further out of the main stream.

He looked a little stunned, speechless, but he had a huge smile and Bess got the distinct notion that she knew this young man, or had, at least, seen him somewhere before; in a context that made the current half formed recollection important. He must have been in his twenties, thirty tops. Perhaps he wasn’t a guitarist at all, but rather one of the current crop of QC candidates.

“Bess! Bess, Bess. Come in, come in. We’ve been expecting you.” He bowed and graciously swung his thin arm low indicating that she was more than welcome.

“I was hoping to catch up with Eric. He sent me a note earlier today.” Bess stepped in past the theatricality of the young man.

As she turned back to him he was gazing intently on Bess, his smile relaxing a little and then reasserting itself as he took in quick observations of his guest.

“I’m to tell you that he just stepped out and will be back shortly.” He quickly closed the gap between them and offered his hand.

“I’m Philipe Apfelbaum, but my fiends call me Pip. You must call me Pip. I think we’re going to be famous friends.”

Bess smiled wryly. He was a good looking guy. “Such presumption, Pip Apfelbaum; and both Alpha and Omega. Are youthe beginning and the end of all this?

Pip looked worried for a moment, as though he didn’t get the question. “I’m sorry, I don’t…..” He didn’t want to seem a dunce at their first meeting.

“Pip, or “seed”. Apfelbaum is German for “appletree”; so beginning and end…..? Granted it wasn’t a very good joke; and as a play on words, its hard work, particularly after having it explained. Sorry Pip, its the pedant in me. Eric and I used to play word games all the time. It must be being back here. 

“Sorry, I don’t speak German. My parents were post war immigrants. I grew up here. I mean, I knew Apfelbaum of course, but …” He seemed genuinely sorry for his lack of language skills. Another odd thing, Bess thought. But then things were always odd for Bess. Odd was the default setting on her life.

She looked more closely at the young man. If his parents were post war immigrants he should have been older, or so it occurred to Bess. He was spectacularly pale, almost white; making all his features; his eyes, lips, his ears; seem too full of colour. He was also spectacularly thin making his limbs seem too long. Yet he was graceful, not at all gangly. And he was very pretty, Bess thought.