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Authors: Barry Maitland

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BOOK: Bright Air
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‘Fair enough,’ I said gruffly, and got to my feet, correcting for a slight unsteadiness.

In the hall we encountered the judge and Socrates again.

‘Ah, Mary. How was bridge?’

‘A bit strained tonight, Rory, I’m afraid. My usual partner didn’t turn up and I had to play with someone who had some rather odd ideas about bidding.’

‘Oh dear.’ He regarded me suspiciously, frowning at the empty glass in my hand, and it occurred to me that perhaps the judge didn’t like me. Maybe I was in the way.

‘I’ll make your warm milk, Rory,’ Mary said, and he beamed. I thought of the murderer in his cell at that moment, awaiting the fate that Rory would perhaps finalise over his warm milk, and felt a little chill. ‘Why on earth are you only wearing one slipper?’ Mary added.

‘Ah yes.’ The judge gazed at his feet in some bemusement. ‘I seem to have mislaid the other one. I rather thought I might check Socrates’ basket.’

‘Good idea. Come along.’

 

I found it hard to get to sleep that night. My mind put images to the bald descriptions in the newspaper cuttings: the cliffs of Mount Gower, the rocky shelf, the projecting outcrop behind which Luce had disappeared, the scramble when they heard her cry out … And Owen’s words,
It didn’t happen that way
.

Finally I wept a little, for Luce. It wasn’t like a dam breaking. More like something frozen beginning to melt.

3

There was a big crowd gathered in the forecourt of the church when I drove past, and I had to go on several blocks before I could find a parking space. I didn’t recognise anyone as I joined the queue at the foot of the church steps to sign the attendance book. Then, turning away, I found myself facing Damien. He seemed larger, more forceful, as he gripped my hand and pulled me into a bear hug, slapping my back.

‘Fantastic to see you, Josh. I didn’t know you were back. Isn’t this just sickening? What did they think they were doing? Crazy bastards. God, I’ll miss them.’

He
was
larger, by half a dozen kilos at least, and smoother somehow. When we were students he’d had a beard and had seemed quite rugged, but the beard had gone now and the look was much sleeker. But the change was to do with his personality, too, or his projection of it. He’d always stepped in when our group needed a bit of leadership, but now I had the impression that he didn’t wait to take charge.

Something over my shoulder caught his attention and he said, ‘I’m going to have to shoot off straight after this, but we must catch up.’ He slipped a business card out of his top pocket. ‘Here.’

‘You’re a lawyer?’ I said, noting the name of a big law firm in Martin Place.

‘Yes, I gave up on science the year you left, concentrated
on law. Commercial mainly, up your street. Who were you with in London, by the way?’

‘BBK, a German bank …’

‘I know them, they’re clients of ours. So you’re working for them in Sydney now? With Victor?’

‘No. I’m looking around first.’

‘Okay. Who was your London boss?’

I hesitated. ‘Sir George Henderson.’

‘Don’t know him. Well, look, give me a call. Soon.’ He clapped me on the arm and moved off. I felt as if I’d been strip-searched. I joined the crush moving into the church. I couldn’t see Anna anywhere.

It was a good service, I suppose you’d say, very professional. Parts of it moved the people around me to tears, especially when Curtis’s brother delivered a heartbroken eulogy, but I couldn’t feel anything. It all seemed so remote from the two blokes I’d known. Only the pair of caskets, side by side on the altar steps, stopped me short, metonymy in spades.

But afterwards, outside the church, I had to face Owen’s wife, Suzi, and that was painful. She was weeping and looked totally washed out, as if she hadn’t slept in days. We hugged each other and she whispered her thanks to me for coming. I hardly knew what to say, and mumbled some platitude. Really, there are no words, are there? She was twenty-five, a pretty but not very bright girl with few options. A little boy was clinging to her hand, looking confused.

‘Do you remember Thomas?’ Suzi asked, sniffing and wiping her eyes.

‘Of course. I used to babysit you. Can I have a hug?’ I bent down and the boy gave me an awkward peck on the cheek.

Ranked behind Suzi were the families, her parents and Owen’s holding the second child, a baby, and then Curtis’s
next to them, with Curtis’s brother. I shook all their hands, and they said they recognised my name and knew I’d been a good friend to the two young men.

Anna was outside the church, standing in the shade of a large tree, the morning sun turning hot.

‘Hi,’ I said. ‘You okay?’ I saw that she’d been crying too, a little smear of make-up in the darker skin beneath each eye.

She hunched her shoulders. ‘Did you see Damien?’

‘Briefly. He seemed in a rush. He said a few words about the boys and then grilled me on my CV. Very focused.’ I was remembering a more carefree Damien, a lad with an eye for the girls, who fell for him with bewildering speed. We never understood why because he wasn’t particularly good-looking. We’d quiz the women afterwards, but they didn’t seem to know either.

‘That’s what happens to us,’ she said. ‘A couple of months filling in six-minute charge-out time sheets and calculating his Christmas bonus, and Damien has turned into a wage-slave like the rest of us.’

‘True enough. Want a bite of lunch?’

‘I haven’t got long before I have to get back to work,’ she said, checking her watch. ‘Let’s talk over a sandwich, then you can drop me at the station.’

We found a café not far from my car, and sat at a window table. She ordered turkey on Turkish with a mineral water, and I a large cappuccino and a ham sandwich.

‘Did you get a chance to read the cuttings?’

‘Yes, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said. It seems to me that Curtis and Owen felt that they’d been negligent in some way. Maybe they persuaded Luce it would be easier if she unclipped her harness, or maybe they had an argument about something that made her go off on her own.
I don’t know, it could have been a dozen things, but when she fell they blamed themselves. They were ashamed and didn’t mention it at the inquest, and so, in his dying moments, Owen felt compelled to say that they’d killed her, and that it hadn’t happened exactly as they’d said. But they didn’t
murder
her, for goodness’ sake. Nothing like that.’

She stared at me for a long moment, considering this, and then she said quietly, ‘Are you really sure about that, Josh?’

I had a sudden feeling that I’d underestimated Anna all those years; that, from within the shadow of more glamorous friends, she’d learned to observe and become rather more perceptive than I’d given her credit for.

I shrugged. ‘I just think, maybe that’s the best thing we can believe.’

She frowned, then shook her head. ‘I want to know the truth. I owe that to Luce. I think we both do.’

I winced, bowed my head. ‘Yes.’

‘The thing is, if we can’t rely on what Owen and Curtis said afterwards, then we really have no idea at all what happened to her. All we can say for sure is that she disappeared.’

I was struck by her choice of words,
disappeared
rather than
died
. ‘But is it possible to know the truth now? What can we do? If you go to the police with your story of Owen’s last words, I’m sure they’ll just tell you to forget it.’

‘I know.’

‘Tell me, why didn’t you speak to Damien about this?’

She looked uneasy, poking at her food. ‘Maybe I’ve been letting my imagination run away with me, I don’t know. But if we can’t rely on what Owen and Curtis said, can we believe Damien and Marcus either? They all stuck together at the inquest, told exactly the same story. Perhaps … there was some kind of cover-up.’

I gaped at her. ‘A conspiracy? Oh, come on now, Anna. That is getting a bit wild.’

‘Yes, probably.’

We ate in silence for a while. When we were finished I wiped my mouth and said, ‘So, what can we do?’

‘I was thinking—the police prepared a very detailed report of the case for the coroner. It contained transcripts of all the interviews they conducted, diagrams, timelines, everything. I saw it at the inquest, a big fat document, the coroner referred to it all the time. If we could get hold of that, we might find something.’

‘Okay, yes, we could try.’ I was trying to sound encouraging, just to satisfy her, but it sounded pretty hopeless to me. ‘Any idea how we could get hold of a copy? Do we apply to the coroner’s office or something?’

‘I thought we might ask Damien to get it for us. I thought it might be a sort of test.’

I laughed. ‘You devious …’

‘Only it won’t work if I see Damien on my own. He’ll just laugh at me and brush me off with some condescending remark.’

I thought she was probably right about that. There had always been a slight undercurrent of antagonism between them, something to do with Damien’s rather cavalier approach to the opposite sex, I assumed.

‘He gave me his card.’ I reached into my pocket and showed it to her. She nodded and looked expectantly at me. I hesitated, then decided that Damien was probably the only one who could reassure her. I took out my phone and dialled his mobile number.

‘Stokes.’

‘Damien, hi, it’s Josh.’

‘Oh, hi, Josh.’ I could hear the surprise in his voice.

‘I met Anna at the funeral, in fact I’m sitting having a cup of coffee with her now. We’ve been talking things over and there’s something we’d like to discuss with you.’

‘Oh yes? What is it?’

‘It’d be better if we sat down together, the three of us. Have you got a half-hour you could spare in the next day or two? We’ll come to you.’

He laughed. ‘Mysterious, Josh. Well, of course, if it’s important. Stirred up a few memories today, did it?’

‘Yeah.’

We waited, then he came back on. ‘How about this evening, six-thirty? There’s a little bar across the street from where I work—Sammy’s Bar.’

‘Fine. See you there.’

As soon as I hung up Anna thanked me and said she had to go. We got in Mary’s car and I drove her to Central to catch her train back to work.

‘See you tonight,’ I said, and she waved and ran off into the crowd.

 

I arrived at Sammy’s Bar with ten minutes to spare and saw Anna already there, sitting at a corner table with a glass of mineral water and a look of lock-jawed determination. I bought a beer and joined her.

‘Your clients all tucked up for the night?’ I asked.

She smiled, looking tired. ‘They’re watching a movie, which means they’ll all be asleep.’

‘So, what’s the approach?’

‘Will you tell him? I think it’ll work better that way.’

‘Fine.’ I took a welcome gulp of cold beer and looked around. The bar was filled with clusters of corporate warriors,
young men and women making quick sharp judgements on the action of the day. They were the same as the people I used to know in London, and as I picked up snatches of their insider chatter I felt like a deserter, absent without leave. There was one table with four girls sitting together. A spotlight overhead caught the hair and face of one of them and she reminded me of someone. At first I couldn’t place the memory, and then it came to me, a girl I’d met not long after I’d first arrived in London. I remembered feeling guilty with her, as if I was being unfaithful to Luce, not realising that Luce was already dead. What surprised me now was how long it had taken me to make the connection, as if my London experiences were already being packed away in mental drawers of long-term memory. Soon it would be as if London, all four years of it, had never happened, and I felt a stab of resentment that Anna was dragging me straight back to the time before I’d left.

‘How’s your love-life these days, Anna?’ I asked. ‘Do you have a partner?’

She shook her head. ‘Not at the moment. You?’

‘No. There was someone in London, but …’ I shrugged. ‘How about Damien? Do you know?’

‘Oh yes, rather predictable really. He married the senior partner’s daughter. Captured her heart within three weeks of joining the firm, I believe.’

‘As soon as he’d mastered the six-minute time sheets, eh? Were you invited to the wedding?’

‘Yes, but I couldn’t go. Owen told me about it afterwards. Very plush apparently.’

‘Kiddies?’

‘I don’t know.’ She glanced over my shoulder. ‘Here he is now.’

I got to my feet and went over to intercept Damien, feeling the need for a little foreplay.

‘Hi, Damien.’ Another firm handshake. He was in shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow, his thick silk tie unfastened, a sheen of sweat on his face as if he’d just walked out of a heavy meeting. ‘You look as if you could do with a beer.’

‘Too right, but better make it a mineral water, mate. I’m in the middle of a conference.’

‘Oh, sorry. Listen, Anna’s just told me you’re hitched. Congratulations!’

He grinned. ‘Thanks. We wanted to invite you, but I didn’t have your address.’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Lauren. Look, I’m sorry, but I can’t stay long. What’s this all about, Josh?’

‘Oh, just something that came up when we were talking after the funeral.’ I paid for his drink and we made our way between the gesticulating combatants to our table. I noticed that Damien, too, seemed unsure how to greet Anna, then braced himself and bent to kiss her cheek.

They exchanged brief compliments about how they both looked, Anna reserved and Damien expansive, trying to gauge her mood.

‘So, what do we need to discuss?’

‘The funeral got us talking about Luce’s death, Damien,’ I said.

‘Oh?’ He looked wary.

‘Yes, about how the two of us weren’t there, with the rest of you, when it happened. And then the fact that she was never found … We discovered that we’ve both been left with a sense that it’s never been resolved.’

‘Resolved? But—’

‘Oh, I know it has in a legal sense, but emotionally, you know? For us. We feel a kind of guilt.’

‘We all do.’

‘But you went through it all at first-hand. It must have been terrible for you, but at least you can feel you did what you could. We just weren’t there.’

BOOK: Bright Air
10.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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