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Authors: Dorothy Johnston

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The White Tower

BOOK: The White Tower
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Wakefield Press

The White Tower

The first of my mystery quartet,
The Trojan Dog
, was joint winner ACT Book of the Year, and the
gave it their ‘Best of 2000' in the crime section. It was published in Australia by Wakefield Press and in the United States by St Martin's Press. The second,
The White Tower
, was also published in Australia and North America, and the third,
, appeared in 2007. All three feature the cyber-sleuth Sandra Mahoney and her partner, Ivan Semyonov, along with Detective Sergeant Brook, of the ACT police. The fourth book, which completes the series, has an environmental theme, and is about who is going to win the battle for our seas and oceans. Each in the series is set during a particular season, hence the title of autumn:
The Fourth Season
. All four are available as ebooks.

I'm currently working on a sea-change mystery series, set at the home of
, the TV series, on the south coast of Victoria. The first of these is called
Through a Camel's Eye

Two of my literary novels,
One for the Master
, have been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. I've had numerous short stories published in magazines and anthologies, and I regularly review fiction for Fairfax newspapers.

I'm a founding member of the influential ‘7 Writers' group, which began meeting in Canberra in the early 1980s, and continued as a writers' workshop and discussion group for almost twenty years. A subject which continues to fascinate me from a literary point of view is Canberra, Australia's national capital, where I lived for thirty years before returning to Victoria. I'm also a member of the Australian Society of Authors and Sisters in Crime, Victoria.

You can find out more about me and my books by visiting my website:

By Dorothy Johnston

The Sandra Mahoney Quartet

The Trojan Dog

The White Tower


The Fourth Season


Tunnel Vision


Maralinga My Love

One For the Master

The House at Number 10

Short Stories

Eight Pieces on Prostitution

Wakefield Press

1 The Parade West

Kent Town

South Australia 5067

First published 2003

This edition published 2013

Copyright © Dorothy Johnston, 2003

All rights reserved. This book is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced without written permission. Enquiries should be addressed to the publisher.

Cover design by Dean Lahn, Lahn Stafford Design

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Johnston, Dorothy, 1948–    .

The white tower.

ISBN 978 1 74305 280 8 (ebook: epub).

I. Title.


To my father, Eric Johnston, 1919–2001


I'd like to thank the Australia Council for awarding me the grant that enabled me to write this book. Thanks also to friends who read early drafts, made ­suggestions and argued points with me, to Lois Murphy and Michael Bollen for their thoughtful and insightful editing, to members and retired members of the Federal police for their help, to my family for their patience, and the ACT public libraries for the great service they provide.

The White Tower
is a work of fiction. Though real places are used, the ­characters are entirely imaginary. I do not intend any reflection on actual security arrangements at the Telstra Tower.

Dorothy Johnston


Grey castle walls rose from sheer cliffs. I felt as though spires of salt water were constantly washing over me, as they washed and worried the sharp rocks at the cliff's base. Intense cold entered my body through my fingernails and ankle joints, and I forgot I was standing in a room in Canberra, staring at a computer screen. Whoever had created the scene in front of me had drawn the walls and rocks as though they were almost one—straight grey smoothness of the walls, more variation of colour in the cliff face—inseparable and yet not quite. I felt that he—for I knew the artist's name—had intended both rocks and walls to rise from the ocean as though the whole of Irish history could be made ­contingent in the blinking of an eye.

Yet I stared for a long time at the dividing line, as though it was the picture's most important feature. Directly below it was the body of a young man, his blond hair a single spot of brightness on the screen, long enough to cover his face, and flowing over one dark shoulder. He lay on the spray-wet rocks with his left arm bent underneath his head. A single, hurried glance might have left the viewer with the impression that he was asleep, except for the impossible angle of his legs, spired rocks that gave no quarter.

He wore a black shirt that might have been a uniform. I imagined him standing on the castle wall, looking down, or up, in that last moment before he jumped, a person whose decision, or blank despair without decision, had got him that far, to stand above the ocean on the thick waist of an ancient building.

I turned to the woman standing next to me, realising that the grip of cold came from her as well.

I was aware that Moira Howley, the mother of the young man whose computer we were looking at, in fact wasn't looking at it, hadn't looked at it since she'd led me to her son's room and switched it on. While I'd been staring at the screen, she'd been standing with her head down, one hand resting on a black table.

‘Is this all Niall left? No note? No other message?'

‘No,' Moira said. ‘Just this.'

‘What about a will?'

Moira did not so much shake her head as her whole body. She turned from the computer to stare out a window at a square of grass. A magpie hopped across it, dragging a tangled piece of string.

‘It's a nightmare,' she said softly. Her eyes were swollen, yet suddenly full of pride.

‘But you kept it?'

‘I've stared at it till I was sure I was going mad. That's why I phoned you.'

‘What did the police say?'

‘A suicide note,' Moira said, finally looking at me. ‘That was

‘Did you attend the hearing?'

‘I couldn't. Bernard did.'

‘But you—'

‘The coroner said he was satisfied that Niall had taken his own life.'

I didn't know why my questions were making Moira impatient. She looked top-heavy and yet frail, a house of cards that was about to topple over, a house a child had made and then forgotten, that the first breeze from an open door might send scattering. Part of it was winter clothes too thick for a September morning, a morning people were celebrating all over Canberra, throwing off jumpers, getting out of doors.

Her only son had killed himself on the night of the winter solstice, and she shivered in remembrance. Her brown woollen cardigan had wide lapels and sagging hip-length pockets. A long skirt, colour of mustard that had been in the fridge too long, was designed to be worn with boots, yet Moira had on thick white socks and a pair of dark blue clogs. When she'd brushed her hand against mine, it felt like I'd put my hand in a freezer.

After my mother died, I'd wrapped myself in layer after layer, and trembled underneath them.

‘I want someone who can find out what my son was doing.' Moira's breath strained as though she, and her words, moved forward in spasms. ‘Who were these people he sat up half the night playing that game with? What did they do to him?'

‘Didn't the police follow that trail?'

‘Not that
know of,' Moira said dismissively. She smiled. ‘It's all right. Sandra. God knows, I've spent enough time working myself up to this. I have cousins called Mahoney. Did you—?' She bit her lip without finishing her question, but I realised that my Irish surname was the reason she'd picked it from the phone book. ‘How about I make some tea?'

I smiled back encouragingly. ‘While you're making it, I'll copy this.'

Moira left me alone in her son's room and I copied the castle scene, not quite sure why I was being so careful, since I intended asking her if I could take the computer home, so that my partner, Ivan Semyonov, could go through the hard drive.

I closed the image file. All that remained was the single icon Niall had chosen to leave on the screen. The white tower.

Moira didn't return, and I found my own way back to the front of the house.

I didn't have to hesitate over where to sit because there were only two unmatching chairs squatting in front of a television set. The room reminded me more than anything of a flat my girlfriend Lois and I had rented when we'd first moved out of home. Fully furnished, the newspaper ad had said, and you couldn't complain, Lois had pointed out, because it wasn't actually missing any of the essentials. Two plates and coffee mugs, two forks and spoons. Two beds with identically sagging mattresses, and these unwholesome, vinyl-covered chairs.

I chose the one facing away from the door.

Moira appeared, weighted down with clothes, carrying a tea tray. She told me she'd been home alone when the police had come to inform her of Niall's death. Her husband, Bernard, had already left for work. There'd been two of them, a woman in uniform and a detective in a dark grey suit. They'd stood there and words had come out of their mouths and after the first few her mind had shut down.

‘It's still like that.'

The policewoman had sat with Moira while the man phoned Bernard at work, and he'd gone to identify Niall's body.

‘I've been unable to focus. Remember even simple things.'

‘Have you seen a counsellor?'

She nodded indifferently.

I asked her for a photograph of Niall, and an address book, notebook, something with his friends' phone numbers, then watched the back of her head as she left the room. Her hair was uncombed, uncared for, an ingrown nest. She came back carrying a medium-sized envelope between her thumb and forefinger.

‘It was taken on Niall's birthday.'

‘What about the phone numbers?'

Moira cleared her throat. ‘You see, Bernard and I think Niall must have destroyed everything, you know in preparation—'

‘What about bank or cheque books? Financial statements?'

‘We closed Niall's account. The bank gave us a final statement.'

‘Could I see it please?'

Moira looked as though she was about to ask me why. She left the room again, and came back with a single folded sheet of paper. I sensed she didn't want me looking at the photo, even at her son's last bank statement, in front of her. I put the statement in the envelope, saying, ‘I'll return them next time I see you.'

‘Niall was very tidy,' she told me, hesitating, then with more determination: ‘I never had to nag him. He was always neat. And quiet. He hardly spoke to us those last few weeks. We hardly saw him. He'd come home from work, go into his room. He didn't even want to eat with us. Bernard said he was angry with me. With us. For prying. For trying to control his life. Bernard said we should leave him alone, not pester him, that we had to let him go. Well, Niall had made that clear to us himself—very clear that he was only coming back home for a few weeks, till he found somewhere else to live. Bernard said we should make sure he understood that he was welcome at home, but not put any pressure on him to stay.'

‘Where had your son been living?'

‘With Natalie. His girlfriend Natalie.'

‘They broke up?'


‘Was Niall upset?'

‘Well, yes, but it was his decision. He left her.'

‘And that night?'

‘He came home. Well, before that, he phoned me from work to tell me he was meeting a friend for a drink. I wasn't to keep dinner for him. I was so grateful that he'd phoned, so pleased. You see, half the time he didn't come home, but I'd cook dinner anyway, cook something he liked. He'd turn up at ten o'clock or later, and head straight to his room. And he didn't go to bed either. I'd see his light on. He sat there playing that game. I don't know when he slept.'

‘That night?' I repeated.

‘Oh yes. Well, he phoned from work. He sounded different. He even called me Mum. Usually he didn't call me anything. I said that was fine. I tried not to gush. I said I'd see him later.'

‘Did you?'

‘That's the terrible thing. He
come home. It was seven, shortly after seven. Bernard and I were in the living room. We don't have central heating or anything. We only heat one room in the evenings. Niall didn't come in. He went straight to his room. I wanted to go after him, but Bernard said no—if he wanted to say hello to us, or get something to eat, he would. I should leave him alone. So I didn't go. I just sat there, even though I felt it wasn't right. And after about half an hour, I heard his footsteps in the corridor, and then the front door. He went out, and—and that was it. I never saw him again.'

I put out my hand. Moira let me take hers and I patted it awkwardly.

‘I'll have to talk to Natalie. And to the friend Niall met that night. Who was it?'

‘Eamonn. Niall worked with him at the hospital.'

‘Could you make me a list? Friends, work colleagues, anybody your son talked about or saw, anyone you remember phoning him here in those last few weeks.'

Moira looked puzzled and I sighed inwardly. She didn't realise that, for me, any investigative work meant going over the traces bit by bit, turning over every stone. Most of my work, since Ivan and I set up our consultancy, had involved standard white collar crime. It hadn't been difficult. Most people who commit crimes using computers also commit elementary errors. But this was different. We weren't talking about cheating an ATM, or skimming a few thousand bucks from social security.

We agreed that I would find out what I could about the MUD, and that Moira would pay my standard hourly rate. I said goodbye and left, tucking the envelope into my shoulder bag.

. . .

As soon as I'd driven round the corner, I pulled up and ripped it open.

Niall Howley had been a nice-looking young man, small and neatly made. He faced the camera with his shoulders back and arms relaxed by his sides. I turned over the photograph. On the back was the date, 9/1/1997, and underneath it ‘24 today'. As a birthday snapshot, it had nothing of the strain of an adult son posing for his parents, performing a ritual years ago outgrown. The Howley's garden, where I presumed the shot was taken, was in full summer leaf. Niall's last birthday, though his mother could not possibly have known it then.

Moira. The name had a pleasant ring to my ear. Had Niall called his mother by her first name?

I've sometimes wondered, watching my son Peter with his friends, or running across the high school oval with his dog, whether anyone would ever pick him for mine. Peter has his father's brown hair and eyes. His nose and chin, all the cast of his face and body are his father's. Studying Niall's photograph, I wondered the same about him and his mother. Moira was middle-aged, burdened with sorrow, but even imagining a younger Moira, shoulders back, looking briskly at the world, it was hard to see what features she had shared with her son.

I started up the car again, remembering the dry ice of her hand, her lumpy body and stiff yet pleading words, the whole so tense and brittle that the lightest kiss of wind might bring it to the ground.

My first investigation involving a death. But instead of dwelling on this, my thoughts, as I negotiated the afternoon traffic on Northbourne Avenue, returned to my own family, Peter and my baby daughter Katya, and the business Katya's father, Ivan, and I were trying to run.

Ivan and I had had great hopes when we'd started. We'd moved his computers and fax machine into my house while my ex-husband, Derek, and I were working out our divorce. Peter lived with me most of the time, spending Wednesday nights and part of every weekend with his dad. It was during the year Derek had been away that I'd met Ivan, who was—what? Lover, business partner, the father of my daughter.

We'd had cases and we'd solved them. A few public service fiddles. Enough to keep us from chucking it in. I'm not knocking the fraud stuff. That and Ivan's stints as a techie at the Australian National University had paid our bills. Ivan's six month contract with the ANU was the most job security either of us had enjoyed in quite a while.

Then there was Katya, our woolly-headed baby. There's an irony in having borne two children who physically owe a great deal to their different fathers, and practically nothing to me. Getting pregnant had been an accident. When I'd found out, Ivan and I had both been against going ahead with it. Peter had desperately wanted a baby brother or sister when he was younger, but had grown used to being an only child. Unhappy in my marriage to Derek, I hadn't wanted a second child and, in my mid-thirties, was determined to make a career for myself.

But the night before I was due to keep my appointment for a termination, I announced to Ivan that I'd changed my mind. He fought me tooth and nail for forty-eight hours, then gave in with bad grace. Now he was in love with Katya as I'd never seen him in love with anyone before.

BOOK: The White Tower
5.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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