Helen had left two weeks before to begin her wife-in-residence segment. We’d had an exhaustive and exhausting sexual session and in the morning she was gone. So now I had an empty house that still bore traces of a woman’s recent presence. I was enjoying the solitude and would for about a week more; but already I was regretting that Helen wouldn’t be there for the summer.
I threw together something to eat and allowed myself two glasses of wine. When it got dark I put on jeans, sneakers and a black T shirt, collected a leather pouch of pick locks and keys and went off to do a little discreet burglary.
Bill Mountain lived in a part of the Eastern Suburbs that was called Bondi Junction by some and Centennial Park by others. In fact the park was right opposite the row of small houses. I’d been there to a party a couple of years back and recalled the laneway behind the house and the brick wall with some sort of creeper over it. From recollection it was the sort of wall a man in reasonable health could get over without a ladder. We burglars weren’t carrying ladders that year.
I drove carefully around the district in the despised Falcon to get the feel of the place. I parked a couple of blocks away on the principle that quick getaways were easier on foot than by car, especially with the open acres just across the way. As I walked through the streets I pondered on how much easier burglary was when the burglar had had social entry to the house beforehand. Nothing new; Raffles had proved that.
The traffic was light, but it was a fine night and there were a few people in the streets so I had to lurk at the entrance to the laneway for a bit before I could slink down it to tackle the wall. Mountain’s place was three from the end. I slunk quickly, took a quick look left and right and swung up onto the wall. The creeper helped. The backyard was small and mostly bricked over; some light from the house next door fell on the bricks and helped me to miss the potplants and little herb garden as I came down.
I stood still by the back of the house listening for sounds of humans or other animals. It was quiet. The bush with leaves like a tomato plant growing by the back door surprised me; most people as alcohol-pickled as Mountain don’t get anything out of the stuff.
I rattled the back door and let the sound soak into the silence inside. Still nothing. I ran a thin torch beam around the edges of the doors and windows looking for wires and electric cells, but Mountain had opted for a simpler security. The lock was tricky, new and dead-locked, but the picks were new and tricky too. The lock yielded after a while; the door had a sliding bolt in place but there’s a tool for that too. All in all, it was one of my quieter and smoother entries.
It’s a mistake to creep around in strange houses trying to avoid the furniture and glassware by torch light. You bump into things, it looks suspicious from the outside and you can’t really see anything useful anyway. Put on a few lights and the telly, bung on a kettle and no-one looks or listens twice.
I did all that, and prowled through the house. The small sitting room in front had a few ornaments and pictures and a shotgun hanging over the fireplace. Otherwise the house was dominated by books, manuscripts, magazines and newspapers. They overflowed in all rooms including the bathroom and toilet. There was enough paper in the house to re-constitute a small forest. I stood at a bookcase and flicked through magazines, galley proofs and scrap-books stacked in with expensive hardback novels. I had no idea what I was looking for-just impressions-but nothing was revealed unto me.
Mountain’s workroom was a study in chaos: there was a big desk with an electric typewriter sitting on it, but paper had flowed over the machine like lava over a hill. The surface was covered by words ranging from a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to a tiny three line death notice clipped from a newspaper. The desk drawers were full of notepaper, lined and unlined pads, pens, filing cards, paper clips and bits of string. I remembered looking into the room some time back at the party Mountain had got up on the spot at the pub the way he liked to do. The room looked the same now as then.
In the bedroom the bed was a tangle of sheets and blankets and the clothes in the wardrobe looked disorganised but intact. There was food and wine in the fridge and half a case of Suntory whisky in a kitchen cupboard.
Following the policy of acting natural, I went into the bathroom for a piss. There were two toothbrushes and the usual accessories. Washing my hands, I found the first independent confirmation that Mountain was ‘Worthington’. In the hand basin, only partly washed away, was a scattering of beard clippings. There were more on the floor. I didn’t sweep them up and put them in an envelope but the find jogged memories of Mountain moving around in his house, pouring drinks and… hanging his car keys on a nail in the kitchen.
I went through to the back, found the keys and put them on the table. They rattled, and a clinking sound came from the front of the house like an answer. I went cautiously down the passage towards the sitting room. There was a chair standing in front of the fireplace and the shotgun was missing from above it. I gaped at the space and started to turn towards the door. Before I completed the turn I heard the hammers click back and a voice cut in through the sound: ‘Stand right there and don’t move or I’ll shoot you.’
When someone holding a gun says ‘Don’t move’, what they really mean is don’t pull out a bigger gun or reach for an axe. I continued my turn, but slowly. When I stopped I was facing the shotgun. It was held by a young woman who couldn’t have been much taller than the gun was long; but she held its weight steadily enough. She wore a white overall on top of a dark turtle neck skivvy; her high-heeled boots might have lifted her over five feet, just. The only other remarkable thing about her, apart from the shotgun, was that she was Chinese.
‘How did you get in?’ I said stupidly.
She shifted the gun a little and I thought I might be able to wait her out. Maybe eventually she’d have to put the gun down from sheer fatigue. But she wasn’t tired yet. She shook back some of the short, black hair that hung in a fringe over her eyebrows. She had an oval face with a broad nose and wide mouth; those features went admirably with her slanted eyes. I’d never seen a better-looking shotgun holder.
‘I came through the bloody door. What about you?’
‘Through the back window.’
Our voices and accents were alike; she couldn’t have been born any further east than Bondi. I suppose we could have been excused our tones: mine was nervous and hers was angry.
‘What for? There’s nothing much to steal here.’
‘That’d take a bit of explaining,’ I said. ‘Could you put the gun down?’
She shook her head; the fringe danced.
‘D’you know where Bill Mountain is?’ I didn’t know what to do with my hands so I clasped them in front of me like a clergyman.
‘You know Bill?’ She sounded more concerned than angry now, and her attention slipped away from the gun a little.
‘I’ve had the odd drink with him. I’ve been here to a party once. Put the shotgun down. I’ll explain.’
Like any sane person, she was looking for an excuse to put the gun back on the wall, but she hadn’t found it yet. Her pure Sydney accent got the harsh edge to it we develop when things don’t go our own way.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Never heard of you.’
‘Why should you? I’m a private investigator. I can show you the ID. I’m looking for Bill.’
‘Oh shit! That’s all I need!’ She moved the hand on the stock up to join the other one on the barrel; then she leaned the gun against the wall like a broom. I breathed out fully for the first time in minutes and unclasped my hands. She got a packet of cigarettes and matches out of the back pocket of her overall and lit up in a smooth, unhurried movement. She sat down on the arm of the couch and put the spent match back in the box. From that point, about three feet off the floor, she blew smoke up at me; she squinted against the smoke and her eyes disappeared altogether-very disconcerting.