The man was striding purposefully along the pavement of the deserted shopping precinct, keeping close to the building line to avoid the chill wind blowing directly into his face. He was not dressed appropriately for such hostile weather conditions and the turned-up collar of his once fashionable suede jacket provided little in the way of comfort or wind-resistance. Nor would his open-neck lightweight cotton shirt defy the arctic assault on his person. However, sanctuary appeared within reach as he spied the warm lights of hospitality cutting into the night some two hundred yards away.
In a township of some two thousand residents, many of whom were wowsers and killjoys, one can’t expect more than token commitment to the necessities of the average working man. In this regard, Mother Tucker’s Country Hotel shone like a beacon in the night, especially in June when the nocturnal winds howl like a banshee and the comforts of home are best appreciated with mates rather than kinfolk. The original proprietor of the hostelry had established a magnetic retreat, offering succor and solace for present and future generations, as long as the price of beer remained competitive.
The stranger found the lonely end of the bar and immediately and discreetly surveyed the room for any signs of discontent or objectionable comment. You get that sometimes when you are in a foreign environment, even if you’re not a Mormon. The barman’s name was Bill, and he happily complied with the order, double bourbon with a beer chaser, and recognized this tipple as a popular option of the serious drinker. A welcoming smile might have made him eligible for a small gratuity but he didn’t bother. The stranger didn’t look like much of a tipper. Barmen know and understand these things.
Mother Tucker’s pub is a Federation building, which means it has been around for quite some time. The former proprietor was not well remembered, having departed the scene some two decades earlier. He had deflowered one of the local virgins and departed the district with the parents in hot pursuit. The current owner was not only a woman but a woman of some substance, who had worked hard to establish her credentials in a town awash with discrimination and pejorative perception. These folks were prepared to think ill of anyone. The licensee was presently unmarried and proudly independent, possessing capable management ability, which she generously applied to community issues, if asked.
If the stranger had been more alert, he might have spied the proprietor’s name on the entrance plaque near the front door, and even marveled at the style and grace of this den of antiquity. However, when one is tired and thirsty, comfort and hydration become urgent issues. The man’s priority was to catch the eye of the barman, rather than absorb the architectural wonder of this heritage classic.
Not all heritage classics boast a balustrade that overlooks the room below but this one did, and mine host Fran Webster frequently parked herself by the banister to scrutinize her customers in the saloon bar and evaluate the size of their wallets. Some of her skills were uncanny and she frequently anticipated the amount of the day’s takings by watching for less than ten minutes. Her presence on the poop deck also curbed Bill’s profit-sharing inclinations as he sometimes had his hand in the till when the ponies weren’t running his way.
The appearance of the new arrival at the end of the bar was an unanticipated pleasure by the woman on high. Perhaps it really wasn’t a pleasure—more of a shock. He was leaner than he used to be and might have been down on his luck, but she still recognized his confident demeanor and practiced awareness. The fellow had his back to the corner wall, but his perimeter sweep was one dimensional. If the stranger had glanced up, he would have locked eyes with his ex-wife and ordered another slug of whisky.
For the damsel with a degree in détente, the descent from the second floor was slow and considered, giving her time to cogitate on the likely reason for this unannounced visit from her most irritating paramour. There had been no bitter parting and relations were cordial, further sweetened by the passage of time and the fact that he was unaware of her place of abode. It had been seven years since the little woman had loaded all her belongings into the back of her recreational vehicle and headed for the countryside, leaving the aforementioned paramour comatose in their apartment. After much effort and soul-searching, the lady had realized she was no match for her salacious competitor, the ubiquitous Jim Beam.
“Hello, Jack. Long time no see.”
Jack’s reaction to her greeting was genuine surprise, on the back of initial confusion based on lack of recognition. Her blonde highlights and curled extensions were a recent grooming choice and lavishly recommended by Kyle, the main man at The Mane Salon on Main St. This didn’t look like the gal he married but she was still an attractive woman.
“Bloody hell!” gasped the perplexed lawyer, for that’s what he was: J.T. Webster, mouthpiece for the mob and delegate for the dispossessed, dispirited, and dysfunctional. It is hard to know whether he really was pleased to greet his former wife, who would surely seek an explanation for those alimony checks which always seemed to get lost. Maintenance support for one’s ex-spouse is so important these days. In this case she had given up her promising career as an exotic dancer to help him advance his professional aspirations.
“You look fabulous, sweetheart, but what are you doing in this backwater? I’m on the run but what’s your excuse?”
“A business venture, my darling! My partner moved on to his celestial reward and I was left this place which, at the time, didn’t seem like a generous gesture; but I have turned it into a nice little earner. I see you and Jim are still pals.”
If ever Jack needed Mr. Beam by his side, this was the time. He hadn’t counted on meeting any old friends and he knew the woman standing beside him boasted a social network which included bad people with big mouths. He wasn’t sure how sympathetic she would be when he told her of the gangsters who were after him with evil intent. Why didn’t he try harder with his alimony payments?
“Probably the only mate I have left. I’ve screwed-up, Fran, and my life is in danger. You can’t tell anyone you’ve seen me—even your cousin Rebecca. I’ll bet you’re still in touch.”
“We are, actually. The fact that you were boning her behind my back is of no consequence. Family is family. I gather this is also where your trouble lies.”
The legal eagle stared blankly into her eyes and marveled at her intuition. Yep, Sammy the Snake was supposed to be mafia and one of the scariest mobsters in town. Jack felt he should keep a lid on the intimate details, but it is always best to be honest. After all, he was a lawyer.
“I’m afraid so. One of my clients was unaware I was taping all our meetings. It was inevitable that regrettable indiscretions would find their way onto the recordings, but I didn’t anticipate being exposed. How was I to know my secretary was on Sammy’s payroll?”
The lawyer misinterpreted Fran’s sigh to be an indication of sympathy, but it was probably a taciturn lament harvested from historical memories. Her former husband’s reputation as a clever clogs may well have been self-promulgated because he had a knack for getting himself into trouble; and she had seen it all before. The offer of temporary refuge was testimony to the lady’s benevolent nature, or was it a reflection of the realization that if it were not for this man she might still be an exotic dancer?
“It’s a sad tale, Jack, but not so surprising. Although I may regret it, I am happy for you to hole up here until the dust settles. You can work off your rent by helping Bill with his duties. Your digs are in the basement, not on the executive level.”
The murder of a controversial figure in a public place creates nervous tension at police headquarters. Chief Inspector Dave Klingendorf and his offsider from the Homicide Squad, the enigmatic Rachel Lyons, fight to keep the case alive while others try to bury it.
The underbelly of one of Australia’s most sedate and conservative cities is uncovered to reveal dark secrets and gruesome revelations. The investigators look to the growing mafia influence in the city while those in Chinatown ponder the possibilities of extending their power base.
About the Author
Gerry Burke was born in Healesville, Victoria, the home of one of Australia’s quirkiest animals, the platypus. He was educated at Xavier College, before taking-on an accountancy course while employed by an international mining company. This was a commitment that lasted for twelve years, partly spent in New Guinea. Dramatically, the author then switched careers and joined an advertising agency in Melbourne, as a copywriter.
Gerry’s advertising career took him to Britain, America, Hong Kong, Singapore and a number of Australian cities. He was employed by some of the world’s largest ad agencies before branching out and starting his own company on his own terms. GerryCo provided advertising, marketing, film and video production to local and overseas clients.
In parallel with these activities, Gerry maintained an on-going interest in the thoroughbred horse racing industry, as an owner and breeder. Today, he continues this love affair, which has outlasted his dedication and devotion to the world of advertising. With friends, he has raced over twenty thoroughbreds.
The author’s humorous stories and commentary were first made available for general consumption in 2009, with the release of his first book, From Beer to Paternity. A number of short story collections followed, in which the ubiquitous discount detective Paddy Pest was introduced to the unsuspecting public. The Hero of Hucklebuck Drive was the author’s first novel in 2015 and Be Dead and Be Damned will be his fourth. Six of his books have received international awards in the categories of General Fiction, Humor and Science Fiction.
Gerry is single and lives in Melbourne, Australia.