Cigarettes and Roses, by Ben Peek
The Desertion of Corporal Perkins, by Bill Congreve
The Hours Before Sunrise, by Bill Congreve
The Mullet that Screwed John West, by Bill Congreve
2005 short fiction (pdf)
2006 short fiction (pdf)
The Hours Before Sunrise
by Bill Congreve
Copyright © William D. Congreve, 2005.
Father Luigi Calvino believed in evil, and in individual responsibility. He believed in freedom of choice, and in the choice of the individual to become evil. This conflicted only slightly with his faith, which dictated that original evil was intrinsic to all human life. Either way, how could evil of the complexity he had witnessed exist in one so young? Had evil been born to this girl, or had she chosen it?
Perhaps it had chosen her.
"Tonight felt like a test. Still does," he said, standing outside Barker's office. "Like someone examined my soul, and found it wanting."
"We're all being tested, Father," replied Barker, holding the door.
The priest stepped inside. The detective looked up and down the corridor and pulled the door shut behind them. "If we don't test ourselves, then others will test us."
"Screw the philosophy. What I want to know is how the hell I'm going to write up the report?" Constable Leigh Millward was already in the room.
Calvino accepted a chair from the constable and sat facing Barker's desk. The two policemen were very different. Barker was tall, neat and reserved. Millward was thickset and earthy. Calvino watched him grab another chair and sit in it back-to-front with his arms across the backrest. Millward's fleshy thighs tautened the fabric of his uniform trousers. Sweat stained in patches by dirt subsisted in the armpits of his shirt. "Jesus, I could do with a beer. Sorry mate."
Calvino shivered. He was dressed in formal white shirt and black trousers, a sign that he considered the night's activity part of his official duties. Like Millward, dirt and sweat stained his shirt, but more from stress than exertion.
And Barker, it was as though Barker, with his chinos and business shirt still pressed and clean, had only stepped out the door for a moment. The detective paced the office with controlled intensity, picking up objects — a delicate but empty lead crystal vase, an old painting of a young nun in a pewter frame, a set of balancing scales once used for calculating postage, marble bookends — and putting them down again, shifting them to the precise spot from which they had been lifted.
The detective, Calvino thought, existed in the room, but refused to live in it. Barker's office was tidy: a small bookcase of files, references and source material stood in one corner, a coat-rack supported a tweed jacket and a set of dusty rosary beads. A filing cabinet beside the window kept an aloe barbadensis in a fired clay pot near the light. The desk was cluttered with work-in-progress, including a well-leafed Bible and, beside it, sealed in a plastic evidence bag, a leather-bound business diary. There were no photos, the priest noticed; nothing to indicate family or friends. The air was warm and still, and smelled faintly of dust and old wood.
Barker stopped pacing and stood staring out the window. "Are we all agreed on what we saw?"
"God help us!" said Calvino, looking at Barker. The detective stared back intently, then nodded.
"Bugger that! Did you see the way she had that old drunk stamping his feet and holding his wrists out through the bars? Like a teenybopper at a rock concert!"
"This is a murder investigation, Millward, not a sideshow."
"But the look on her face? Like a predator, glowing? What d'you reckon, Father. That dero safe back there?"
Calvino shuddered. Yes, he had seen the girl's face, but the look on the homeless man's face disturbed him as deeply. Some members of his congregation had that same look of ecstasy when they lined up and received Holy Communion. "When you moved him away from her, to the cell at the other end of the corridor, he didn't look rapturous any more, just terrified."
"That's a word we can use in the report, 'rapturous'."
"I'll use whatever words I have to use."
"Coroner would like that word."
Barker ignored him.
"There's more to this, things you haven't told me," said Calvino, now certain.
"It's been going on for months, slowly getting worse." Barker crossed from the window to his desk. He pulled a notepad from the top left drawer of his desk. "It didn't just begin with the murder —"
"O'Grady is a parishioner of mine."
"Attends Sunday services, is generous with the plate, often took it around himself. Supports, ah, used to support church activities."
"A nice guy, eh Father? Bullshit!" said Millward. "That rape case last year? We had a confession! The guy broke into her apartment and raped her at knifepoint. We even caught him inside the place for Christ's sake! O'Grady gets him off on diminished responsibility 'cause he just broke up with his girlfriend! Community service, bullshit."
"He used to paint when he was younger. Landscapes and things. I've seen them."
"Him? A bleeding heart artist type? Must have been a bloody long time ago."
"I'm not defending him, I'm simply saying there was another side to him. But there were other things..." Calvino said, and shrugged. "Neither of you recognized her?"
"Finding out who she is shouldn't be difficult." Barker smiled, no warmth, nor humanity, in the expression. "Now that we've got her."
"She's O'Grady's daughter, Cassie."
"What? The one pissed off to Kings Cross a year ago? Why'd she kill her old man for?" Millward asked.
"You mentioned other things, Father?" Barker prompted.
Calvino turned away from Millward and looked up at the dusty rosary beads hanging from the hat rack — unmoved from his single previous visit to this office. "Remember? A year ago I told you about a young girl who had come to me in the confessional. She was scared she had done something wrong because her father was in love with her."
But Cassie had said more than that: A friend at school told me how her boyfriend trembled the first time he got into her bra, the sense of power that gave her. I only knew what she was talking about because my father used to tremble like that before he slapped me and ripped my pyjamas off! How can anybody enjoy having that kind of power?
"The poor child had been so twisted by her father's lies, she thought she was the guilty one!"
"That? Yes, I remember now. But you didn't tell me who she was!" Barker slapped his thigh, suddenly angry. "Shit!"
"I reported her case to Community Services, but that's when she ran away. They didn't come and investigate. She had already gone."
"I didn't recognize her as..." Barker gestured towards the cells.
And there was something else O'Grady's daughter had told Calvino, which he also hadn't mentioned to Barker at the time out of respect for her. She had been playing around on the Internet with some friends at school when they tried to find some on-line porn. They didn't know what they had at first — the heads of the subjects had been blanked out — but one of the younger boys had gasped at seeing a photo of a slender girl with small, firm breasts. Cassie had been about to tease him when she recognized the small mole on the girl's left breast near the nipple.
The site was dedicated to photos of naked children, and Cassie's father had posted there a photo he had taken of her.
Calvino suspected it was this which had initially brought Cassie to him, and which had then forced her to run away: the shame of knowing that her schoolmates were seeing the photos at the same time as they saw a reaction in her, but didn't know the truth behind that reaction. Worse, knowing that others — men and women just like her father — were also accessing the photos. Cassie would have known exactly what effect the photos would have on people like her father — she felt the force of it every night.
What powerful realizations for one so young.
Secrets shared are no longer secrets, but it was evidence which may have stopped all this a year ago. Suddenly Calvino felt very guilty.
"You should have said, Luigi," Barker said, suddenly empathic.
"Cassie O'Grady. Shit! The big city did all that to 'er, eh?" Millward grunted, like a laugh, and shook his head.
"No! Her father did that to her! And we don't know if Sydney is —"
"It's where they all go, mate."
Barker sat down and yawned, the wrinkles around his eyes growing more pronounced. "I wish we could've gotten hold of O'Grady's ex-wife, she must know something."
"She uses her maiden name now," said Calvino. "Try Maureen Sullivan. She moved north along the coast somewhere, but she walked out before any of this began."
"Good, that helps. Leigh, go and try electronic white pages or car registrations, something, will you? See if she knows anything."
"This time of night?"
"It's her daughter."
Millward strode from the office and headed for a terminal in the squad room, leaving the door of the office open behind him.
Barker got up from behind his desk, closed the door and returned to the window.
"Father, how long have you lived in Fawkes Creek?"
"I replaced Father Brookes three and a half years ago, after his heart attack."
"Of course. I was the one who found his body. Father, before you arrived there were three deaths here in town. Brookes thought they were murders, but the Coroner recorded natural causes. They started only a month after I arrived. The first was a car accident, the second was an attack by wild dogs, the third was the publican falling on the scaffolding at night back when the brewery was doing those renovations at the pub. All three involved massive physical trauma and what Brookes thought was an unexplained degree of blood loss. He came to me with his suspicions, and then he died of a heart attack and it all stopped."
Without turning around, Barker waved a hand in the vague direction of the ruffled notepad on the desk. "I thought it had started again, Father, the things Brookes was afraid of. I've been living with this for months, trying to convince myself there must be some other explanation. But I couldn't; I couldn't even bring myself to tell another officer from somewhere outside this station what's been happening here. We're so far from anywhere else in this town!
"And now we've caught her. It seems so simple."
Calvino wondered how Barker could think of anything that had happened that night as simple. Yet he himself had failed both Cassie and Barker, and that was simple too, well, maybe not simple, but straightforward. "Four years ago Cassie was an eleven-year-old schoolgirl living at home with her mother and father."
"I know that, and it scares me. Look for yourself."
Calvino picked up the notepad.
"That first case there involves the old lady who lives next door to me." Barker said. "Her pet kelpie got carried twenty feet up into the jacaranda tree in her front yard. The dog was a bloody pest, but she loved it. A constable climbed up and found the thing had been killed, its throat cut. It was tied to the branch by its back legs. No blood left in the body. There were bare, bloody footprints on the branch below the dog. Smallish footprints. I got a tape measure and climbed up there myself and measured them. Women's size six."
Father Calvino pictured the naked feet of the girl in the cell below. He shook his head.
"At the time I wondered if someone was having a go at me, trying to get at me through my neighbours," said Barker. "But it went on. Somebody systematically killing animals for their blood."
The priest turned to the second page and read Barker's notes of the next case. He had no problems with the old-fashioned but scrupulously neat cursive handwriting. Arrived ten-eighteen am. Present: the vet, Adam Connolly — the new lad up from Mudgee, the farmer — Rocky Maffina, Constable Millward, myself. Connolly showed us a crudely stitched cut on the side on the heifer's neck.
"That second one was strange, Father —"
"Call me Luigi."
Barker blinked, and filled his chest expansively before speaking again. "According to the vet the wound was quite deep, and had been opened and then restitched a number of times. If it kept happening, the wound was in danger of not healing at all. But it was clean. No infection. None at all. I don't know if you know Maffina —"
"That's right. Two of the most vicious and psychotic Rottweilers this side of Sydney. The mailman's afraid to stop his van, let alone get out and put the mail in the box. And the farmhouse is two hundred metres away! One day those dogs're going to tear somebody apart and the court is going to send me out there to put a bullet in them." Barker leaned forward and stared across the desk at Calvino. "Guess, Father. Guess what really happened!"
The priest away from Barker's intensity. He took a deep breathe and forced some of the tension out of the muscles in his back. He put together a string of guesses. "The dogs didn't react to the intruder. Maffina didn't spot the wound for days, tried to catch the intruder himself, and only called you when that didn't work. Do I pass?"
And just for a moment Calvino felt rewarded. Then he frowned. Was Barker trying to manipulate him?
But the policeman continued. "You do know Maffina. I thought that as well, but he didn't mention the vigilante bit to me." Barker laughed and leaned back in his chair. "It goes on. Other places. Always animals just beyond the outskirts of town. Sometimes the animals are mutilated, sometimes care is taken to leave them alive, as though the person responsible is swinging in and out of depression like a pendulum. And always there is blood taken."
"Are you certain Cassie is the killer?"
"This isn't to go outside this room, Father —"
"Please, my name is Luigi."
Barker stared back, and blinked. The intensity returned. "Tonight, Father, I need you to be a priest."
"Four years ago Cassie was, as you say, an innocent schoolgirl. Whatever happened then had nothing to do with her, but now she is something else. Her father was killed in a rage, literally shredded apart. They found his prostate gland in the goldfish bowl, for God's sake! His penis was nailed to a painting, his testicles ruptured and smeared into the same painting —"
The final remains of Calvino's dinner stirred in his stomach. "Which painting?"
"Where we went tonight. The railway viaduct. Is it one of his?"
"Yes! I know that one."
"That's why we suspected the killer might be there. Makes sense now we know who she is. And why. But just before he died he was hung up by the heels, his throat slashed, and the blood collected. We know it was collected, or drunk, but drinking is like collecting, isn't it?" Barker gave off a single cough of nervous laughter. "The doctor said there wasn't enough blood splashed around at the scene to account for the lack of it he found in the corpse during the autopsy. Just like Father Brookes told me years ago. Must have been horrible for his girlfriend when she got home and found him. We suspected her at first."
"But she's pregnant."
"Small town, isn't it."
The woman was much younger than O'Grady, a law student of about twenty-one taking a year off in the bush for work experience, and slender, vivacious and naive — and also physically similar to Cassie, Calvino realized. A surrogate? That was cynical. He was too tired for this.
Barker nodded and continued, "According to her doctor, she'd just gotten her first ultrasound results. It will be a baby girl. They were going to celebrate on Saturday night. She has no motive. None at all.
"Then tonight, only twenty-four hours after the murder, we catch her," — Barker waved his arm in the direction of the cells — "with a plastic three litre Coke bottle half full of blood. Do you doubt whose blood that is?"
"But animals, nothing but animals, and some of them not even killed! Then she suddenly kills her own father?" Calvino shook his head. "I don't believe it! What's the trigger?"
"You've already given us a motive. Her father was molesting her." Barker looked away from Calvino, and stared at a calendar, its pages overwritten with notes in red ink, that hung on the door behind the priest. He turned a ballpoint pen end over end, over and over again, in his fingers. "I've got an eleven-year-old daughter. That girl in the cells out back looks just like I've always imagined Monica will look one day. Then the guys will be interested. Do they always grow up like this? They can't, surely." Barker almost whispered the words. "She is so beautiful."
"I didn't know you were a parent."
"She and the mother live in Mildura."
"Beauty can hide many things," Calvino said. "I've got nephews — twins — five-years-old. One of them is as sweet as can be, the other lies compulsively. One is beautiful, but the other has an insecure habit that makes him seem ugly."
For a moment Calvino thought Barker was going to laugh.
"That's not my meaning." The policeman shook his head. "Father, please. You knew Cassie before. Tell me what I can write on our reports that a jury will believe. That a prosecutor can take to court."
Calvino realized the detective's emotions had turned, yet again. The man could turn himself on and off like a metronome. He looked up again at Barker's rosary beads, wondering at their presence, finding it oddly disturbing. He ran his hands against his pocket feeling for his own rosary beads, and took a deep breath. "Do you know how she became like that?"
"How does any person become like that? Is it spontaneous?" Barker leaned towards Calvino. "Remember four years ago. Just a schoolgirl. It wasn't her then. What changed? Has someone given her the power? That's what scares me."
Calvino clenched his fist around his rosary beads.
Barker nodded, the intensity turning to a hearty jocularity like a country publican. "Was it you who made her like that, Father? You, the country priest? But you weren't here, were you? Was it me, the small town cop? Is one of us playing a game here? Or perhaps it was her own father before she killed him? That would be the neat answer. The Hollywood answer, tying up the loose ends."
"This is not the time for games!"
"My apologies, but you must see my point. Who made her what she is? That girl downstairs may not be alone. We may be at the beginning of something, not the end."
There was a knock on the door, and Millward pushed inside. Calvino started, and shifted in his chair, feeling guilty. Barker smiled again. Millward sat in the same manner as before, and looked about with a faint, mocking grin on his face. "Mrs Maureen Sullivan, she still calls herself 'Mrs', was real pissed off at me ringing at three-thirty am. She rents a flat in Taree now, and she's got no idea where her daughter is, hasn't seen her for three years. When I asked her if she wanted to know how the girl was getting on, she said: 'Not if she's one of them maridja-wani' — that's exactly how she pronounced it — 'addicts. No, don't tell me what she's done. That's all over now.' Then she hung up on me. I didn't get a chance to tell her, 'er old man got killed. Locals can do that in the morning. I'll give them a call. Sounds like she couldn't give a shit."
"We'll need her full name for the charge sheet," said Barker, more businesslike.
"Cassie was short for Cassandra. Cassandra May O'Grady. She was intelligent, good at school. A waste," said the priest, glad for the sense of normality brought back to the office by Millward's return.
"Cute too. Did you see the legs on it?"
"That will be enough, Millward."
"I said 'it'. I meant 'it'. What do you reckon father, does she have a soul?"
Now Millward was the one playing games. Calvino forced himself to relax, consciously not reacting. He had spent only a short time in Barker and Millward's company since Cassie's capture. It was, 'Clues, and a bit of research in the town archives,' as Barker had said, that had led Barker and Millward — with Calvino unwittingly accompanying them — to a disused storeroom in the base of a sandstone pylon, part of a convict-built, nineteenth century viaduct carrying the town's disused rail link into the mountains to the east.
Cassie had shown absolutely no respect for the fact that one of the men was a priest and that the other two were armed. Looking back on it, Calvino wondered for a moment why Barker had asked him along. Then he realized, rubbing the bruise on the back of his head, that this was the kind of uncertainty that Barker had needed to plan for in advance, given the things he knew.
1.11 am Tuesday morning
At first, Calvino had reacted to the night's excursion as a kind of enigmatic male bonding adventure, like teenage boys on an unsupervised hunting trip, or men on a night-time fishing expedition without their wives. It was a ritual — a competitive exercise in whatever force in human nature drew small town authority figures together and established hierarchies during times of crisis. Here he was, plunging through dense scrub after midnight with two police officers, one of whom who had insisted that he needed a priest, and that only the events of the night could show why. Was it a dying criminal? Were Last Rites needed? Why else drag a priest through the bush in the dark when he should be in bed asleep? The mystery of it had won him over.
"This is the place," Barker whispered. "I found it this afternoon, but she wasn't here then."
There was no sound: no hooting of owls, no movement of lizards or small mammals in the bush. The night was empty. Calvino felt the slow touch of cold air flowing down the hillside, and shivered. Barker and Millward had turned their torches off five minutes earlier, putting them in the backpack Millward carried. There was no moon, no clouds, only the loom of black trees against the stars, the darkness and the laboured breathing of three men wishing they could be more quiet.
An orange light flickering against a sandstone brick wall and the aromatic smell of eucalyptus wood-smoke betrayed the existence of a small fire. Millward drew his firearm, and Calvino wondered if the two police officers intended to shoot first, and have him offer Last Rites second. But then he would be a witness to their actions, and they would have to do something about that... He nearly laughed at the conspiracy theory building in his mind, and was glad when Barker moved stealthily towards the flickering light.
It was a camp fire.
The space under the pylon was tidy and bare. There were no cooking utensils, no plates, no billy for tea, and no food. The fire was small, comforting and neat. Beside it, her head leaning away from the smoke, a girl sat on a makeshift swag. A half-full three litre Coke bottle leaned against her left leg, and she was holding open a diary so she could read by the firelight. She couldn't have lived there long; the only other sign of habitation was an old foam mattress rolled up and jammed in one corner next to a cardboard box of rubbish.
The men moved into the space, Barker bare-handed and Millward with revolver in right hand spreading themselves across the entrance to prevent the girl's escape. Calvino realized he was imitating them, and shuffled towards the girl, breaking the line.
The smoke drifted out into the night sky above their heads. A dog barked in the distance.
"You came. I knew you would," the girl said, and turned her face up at them, the light glinting off the tracks of tears on her cheeks.
Calvino didn't see her move. But then she wasn't sitting there and he had been lifted and thrown back against the bricks with casual yet irresistible force.
He confused Millward's first gunshot with the pain in the back of his head. The girl screamed.
The second shot came as Calvino forced his body to its feet. "Stop!" he shouted, and staggered forwards.
The girl stood swaying before them, patches of blood over her shoulder and her breast. It was her posture that gave away the lack of serious injury; she stood on the balls of her toes, poised like a cat ready to spring. She straightened, and Calvino thought she was about to lift her head and laugh in relief when Millward's third shot took her in the neck and a fourth punched a ragged hole in her breastbone. The girl fell.
Calvino knew she was dead. The hole in her chest was small, but tiny splinters of bone reached up out of it, and blood flooded the ground beneath her. He rushed to where she lay and knelt beside her. She still breathed. The bleeding stopped as he watched.
Calvino looked up at Barker. The detective hadn't moved, standing frozen in shock, Calvino thought until he saw the slight smile, the arms hanging loose and ready, and the weight poised over the balls of the feet, with one foot slightly ahead of the other.
Then Millward pushed him out of the way, secured the girl's hands with cuffs, and tied her arms and legs with a stout length of rope.
1.39 am Tuesday morning
More than once Calvino asked the policemen what they were doing, but they ignored him. Drawn in by the earlier feeling of camaraderie, he helped them carry the girl back to the patrol car, where Barker and Millward wrapped her in a blanket and tied her with even more rope. They threw her in the back seat trussed like a mummy, and still strapped her down with a seat belt. Calvino watched, confused, and wiped blood off the weeping bruise on the back of his skull.
"Why are you doing that? We should be going to the hospital."
"You don't think we should tie her up? Say so. You're sitting next to her!" said Millward.
It was then the girl opened her eyes, blinked and said: "Fuck you!"
Millward dropped the Coke bottle on the seat beside her. "Tastes better than animal blood, don't it, darling?"
Barker stood back and smiled.
It was that unconcerned reaction on the part of the detective that focussed Calvino's thoughts. There was too much going on that he didn't understand. He would have to wait. With those injuries the girl should be dead. But she breathed and had sworn at them with anger in her voice, but no pain. How could that be?
Barker had to help him into the back of the patrol car. "Now do you understand why I asked you along tonight, Father?"
Calvino shivered and shook his head. "What's happening?"
"We'll talk about it back at the station."
Millward drove fast with no siren through the darkened countryside and then the outskirts of the town. The girl spent the first half of the journey hissing at the police in the front seat, or staring longingly out the window at sleeping households. Then they passed the church, and she turned her gaze on Calvino and glared at him without blinking.
Calvino pushed back against the door and clenched his fists in front of his chest, sweating. He tried to turn away, but couldn't force the movement. The muscles in his neck trembled. His injured head throbbed. Hot and cold flushes streaked through his body and he felt ready to faint.
Memories flooded in.
The first time his father had taken him out on the farm to shoot kangaroos, he had been eight. "Make a man of him," his Dad had said to his mother, and Luigi had been glad of the chance to be a man and make his father proud. When the rifle kicked his shoulder and his first ever kill went down, young Luigi had felt a euphoric knowledge in his mind, and a power capable of dispensing life or death in his veins. "Great shot, son! Now cut its throat, let the blood out so the meat doesn't spoil!" his father called. But when his tenth animal died — this one a young feral goat — he had vomited his mother's lunch into the scrub. "Be strong!" his father had said. Luigi tried, but the magic that had flooded into him for so short a time now deserted him, leaving him bereft — both of his past and of the future on the land that his father had planned for him.
Now Calvino relived that day, his mind returning time and again to the dead and dying animals: how he had cut their throats and watched their blood flow through the thin grass onto the ground where it clotted, leaving behind an ugly red-brown mud cake.
But then he remembered. As a child he had turned his eyes away. He had not looked at the blood. He had even nearly cut his own finger off not watching what he was doing. He focussed on that thought. Even though some of that blood was his, the memory lied. He had not looked at the blood.
The girl laughed at him.
In the past only his own faith had such a power to force him to question himself.
Then the girl turned her gaze towards Barker. Calvino slumped against the car door, his mind released from the power of the past as easily as a page turning in a photo album. He looked up again, for a moment hating everything the girl represented — the terrible power of youthful beauty, the teenage innocence corrupted, the force of personality, all of it.
Barker turned in his seat to gaze back at the girl, calm and unperturbed, and winked. After a minute she looked out the window, sweating.
Calvino looked frantically from one to the other and then leaned forward into the foot-well of the police Commodore and dry retched.
2.51 am Tuesday morning
"Down there in the cells, I held my rosary up to pray —"
"The old crucifix trick? Jesus! What did she say? Take me to your blood bank?" And Millward laughed.
Calvino stared at Millward until the policeman subsided. "No. She told me: 'I'm fifteen years old Father! I'm supposed to be looking for a boy to lose my virginity with. I can't do that because my father started fucking me when I was twelve! Now do you see why I killed him?'"
"A bit risqué, Father?" asked Barker.
"She's a teenager. I get worse in the confessional once a week! But that was the moment I recognized her — O'Grady's daughter!" Calvino again faced Millward. "Of course she has a soul!"
"It's like giving her a Turing Test," said Barker suddenly.
Startled by the concept, the priest looked from one policeman to the other.
Millward looked surprised, then pulled out a battered spiral notebook. He turned it to a fresh page half way through and looked up at Barker. "What's a Turing Test?"
"Imagine you're sitting alone, carrying on a conversation by sending and receiving messages on a computer," said Barker.
"What's so hard about that?"
"You have to decide if the entity you're communicating with is intelligent, or simply a computer program that mimics self-awareness and intelligence."
"Or if it's a guy and he's just a complete moron. Gee, I wonder that every time I phone the Zone office."
"Father, a thought experiment for you. Can you re-construct tonight's events in your mind? Think of what she's said and done since we found her. Ignore the image, the flesh. Put up a wall in your mind with nothing but her words and actions on the other side. I want you to tell me if that girl has a soul."
Calvino thought of the young schoolgirl in his confessional a year ago, of the same girl in the police car that night — much older and no longer innocent — and what she had done to him, making him hate both her and then himself, and the same girl only minutes later in the cells downstairs, with her powerful, manipulative sexuality. He shuddered. "This is just an intellectual game to you, isn't it? This doesn't change anything."
"I did say that tonight I needed you to be a priest."
The intensity had returned to Barker, full force, and Calvino found he couldn't deny the detective. He should have seen this coming, or something like it: the bonding ritual, the games, the intellectual exercises Barker had led him through, subterfuge and manoeuvre, all of it building to the one extraordinary question.
He began by dissociating his emotions, thinking of the question as a simple exercise in logic. He cast his mind back and thought, not only of the night's events, but of the outrageous arrogance the very concept a Turing Test for a girl's soul revealed.
"It builds, Father, doesn't it? I can see it in your face."
Calvino stared at the same window Barker had earlier stared through, but saw only the reflection of the interior fluorescent lights against the glass. If he moved, he would see his own reflection, but wasn't sure he wanted to at the moment. Cassie was certainly self-aware; she had free will and was capable of initiating social interactions. She was intelligent, imaginative, creative and capable of compassion and revenge. But was that enough? Was that what Barker wanted?
"I'm not sure what you want from me..." Calvino stopped and took a deep, shuddering breath, struggling for calm. "Tonight, in the cells, Cassie also asked me how my head was. She knew she had hurt me. She told me: 'I lashed out, Father. You were the only one I had the power to —'"
"Artifice?" Barker interrupted.
"Was it? I don't know how appropriate this kind of exercise is once you apply it to a living being, a real intelligence. You're talking about a contrived intellectual exercise intended for machines."
"Of course it's contrived!"
"Put Cassie behind one wall; put another girl her own age behind another. The answers you get will be more less innocent, more angry —"
"Innocent?" asked Barker.
"Surely you can't equate the lack of a soul with a loss of innocence!"
"I'd fail that test," said Millward.
"And yet you're human, you have a soul."
"But does he, father? Do I? Do you? Can you prove it?"
Where it was easy to put aside Millward's comments, Calvino still found it impossible to deny Barker. Cassie had played with his mind, like it was a toy, conjuring fake memories of his youth. But she had kept her pride. She had cared for herself. Only their struggle with her in the dark had dirtied her jeans and bloodied and torn her cotton blouse. Her hair had been hacked short, but was clean and brushed straight. Also clean were her face, hands and teeth. He had had good reason to notice — she had clean teeth. A bubble of laughter nearly escaped him. Conflicting urges to both hate her and to protect her warred in him, and he didn't understand where either came from.
"I taught Cassie her catechisms. And all the rest of her class. Her actions indicate she is using her intellect. She's sensitive, honest and human! She's a lonely child trying to deal with particularly horrifying circumstances, and she is on her own in this. Despite what she has become, I believe she is alive! Of course she has a soul."
"But are you thinking of tonight, Father, or are you simply remembering the past?" Barker stood and once again began pacing the office.
"Nothing in this is simple!"
"You're giving me a picture of a sweet schoolkid! Think of that guy in the cells, chewing at his wrists so that they bled, holding his arms out across the corridor, offering her his adoration and his blood." Barker turned and faced the priest. "Now, Father. Right this moment! Does she have a soul?"
"Of course she has a soul!" Calvino pulled his old rosary beads from his pocket and gripped them so tightly he punctured his skin. He stared at the tiny drop of blood welling out.
"I can see the tension in you, Father. Are you just telling me that because your faith expects it of you?" Barker spoke quietly and gently, as if to a child. "Let me ask you another question, and you don't have to answer me. What did she do to you that made you vomit in the car?" Barker moved away from the priest and sat behind his desk. "Constable Millward is a champion pistol shot. He's not at Olympic standard, but he's won the rapid fire event at the last three police state championships."
"I put four bullets into that girl tonight, Father, two of them killing shots," Millward said, pushing his jaw aggressively forward and waving his arms. "She should look like a sieve. Little holes on one side and big holes on the other. She should be dead. Instead the bullets barely knocked her out long enough for us to get a rope around her."
"Think, Father Calvino. Is there something inside her which will survive beyond the day she dies? Think of those deaths four years ago. They weren't her! Think of what may happen if she is not alone. What do we face? Does she have a soul?" Barker demanded, his voice again intense.
The priest remembered the blood that had flowered from Cassie's neck in the fight under the rail line. Then he thought of the small, red, puckered wound, as though she had stabbed herself a couple of days earlier with a letter opener, that he had seen in the same spot when they bundled her into the cell not half an hour later. He remembered the splintered pieces of her sternum sticking out of the hole in her chest — a wound which no longer existed. He remembered the blood flowing from the cut throat of a baby goat, blood he had never seen but which he remembered as clearly as if it were his own. "I don't know. Yes! I must believe she has a soul!" He rubbed at the blood in his palm until it dried on his skin.
Millward awkwardly patted the priest's shoulder. "What did she say to us?"
"She didn't say anything to you at all."
"Take notes will you, Leigh?"
Millward turned his notebook to a fresh page.
"Ever since that night, Daddy ignored me during the day. Except to give me presents, the bastard. I think Mother knew, but she never did anything..." Barker dictated.
"Gee, is that Freud, or Oedipus?" asked Millward.
"Why don't you care?" Calvino shouted at Millward. "Why are you saying these things in front of me?"
Barker began again. "Father, the thing I'm worried about, the thing that must be answered, is what might happen after she's —"
"Her name is Cassie, damn it!"
"— after she is placed in a detention centre. When there are other children, other human beings, around her. You know what she is. What will happen then? What will she do then?"
"God have mercy on our souls."
The men sat in a silent circle for several minutes. Father Calvino watched the policemen and prayed. Millward ran his thumbnail under his fingernails, picking out dirt and flicking it on the carpet. Barker stared out the window, then turned, lifted the bookends on his desk, and wiped away the lines of accumulated dust from around the places they had rested.
Millward stirred and went outside. He returned five minutes later with three cups of steaming black coffee.
"I care about innocent people, Father," Barker said. "That's all."
Father Calvino stood. "I want to leave now."
"Perhaps you should." Barker pulled an envelope from a desk drawer and held it out to Calvino. "For tonight, Father. A donation. For the Church, for the youth group. You decide."
Calvino looked at the envelope for several seconds before accepting it. Barker had obviously put it aside earlier in the night, before they had gone out into the dark chasing Cassie. "For the youth group, for helping run the fete." He put the envelope in his shirt pocket, stood and buttoned his jacket. He left his coffee untouched.
"Hey, leave your crucifix behind, will ya, Father?"
"Come to mass in the morning. I'll give you one for free."
"Easy for you to say. You're the one walking out."
3.17 am Tuesday morning
'Easy for you to say.' Calvino knew that Barker and Millward had no alternative. He could only pray that tonight would be an end to it.
'You're the one walking out.' But within moments of walking out, he knew he would have to return. In years to come he would look back on this night, and either he would feel sad and accept that the three of them indeed had no choice, or he would feel a desperate, life-altering guilt that he could never confess. Perhaps both. On his deathbed he would have his answer. For now, he was too close to it.
Cassie's need was too great to run from. Simply walking alone in the clear air gave him the chance to realize that. He had to be there when they did it.
Millward would be disappointed when he returned. Calvino grunted a laugh at that. But there was time yet. Time to think, time to pray, time to find some relief.
Barker would not kill her yet.
And to not be present for Cassie when he did kill her would be cowardice.
He left the monolithic block of the police station and walked through the deserted streets, looking up at the varying darkness of the clouds scudding across the face of the stars.
His church was small and elegant — convict-built, with sandstone blocks, timber beams and a slate roof on an acre of neatly sculpted land to one side of the main cemetery. In one corner of the grounds, under a grove of she-oaks, lay a dozen well-tended graves, most dating to the first settlement a hundred and eighty years earlier. It was always peaceful in the grove, and Calvino sat amongst the graves with his back against a tree trunk, listening to the omnipresent soughing of the breeze amongst the she-oak needles, the most calming sound he knew.
The nearest grave was recent, that of a teenage girl he had buried as his first act as a priest on arriving in Fawkes Creek. She had died of anorexia, and her parents had wanted to bury her with copies of her favourite magazine. The forces that had played with that teenager were powerful and varied, and perhaps, Calvino wondered, not so different from the forces that had made Cassie into what she had become.
Cassie was a lonely child under threat from an authority that would never leave her alone — and that authority was, in turn, in fear of her.
Yet O'Grady's girlfriend was pregnant with a baby girl. Is that what the trigger had been? Why Cassie had finally turned on her father? To protect her unborn sibling from an abusive future as terrible as her own past had been? He would never know, but that was a more comforting thought than the one of mindless revenge and violence.
He remembered Barker's question: 'Who made her what she is?' There were many answers: O'Grady, her school, the animals she had fed from, her power, even Calvino himself and the Church he represented had contributed. But who had been the first — who had created her in this mould?
And Barker's other question: was she alone? 'I lashed out, Father. You were the only one I had the power to attack,' Cassie had said to him. In the pylon under the disused railway, Millward had used his revolver. But Barker had stood there unarmed, but poised and ready for... what?
Why had Cassie thought she couldn't attack Barker?
Then he remembered: It was Barker who had arrived in Fawkes Creek just before the suspicious deaths four years earlier. Barker who had found Father Brookes. Barker who wanted to do something about O'Grady the crooked lawyer. Barker who had access to Department of Community Services records. Barker who had been totally immune to Cassie's power. Barker who had interrupted him, preventing him from saying it, thinking it back at the police station — '... the only one I had the power to attack.'
And Barker didn't care if he knew these things!
Calvino pushed himself to his feet and began walking. He forced himself to think it: why did Cassie have to die? And everything came clear in his mind.
Heart pounding, the priest ran.
3.43 am Tuesday morning
The doors were locked, the lights out, the building deserted, the car park empty. Calvino banged on the doors and windows, and shouted. No answer. But Cassie was in the cells, and the homeless man... Regulations demanded that somebody, anybody, be on duty while prisoners were in the cells. Something was very wrong. This wasn't just in his mind.
He ran around the building, up the slope, and along the sandstone brick walls until he stood outside the window to Barker's office. He lifted a chunk of sandstone from the garden.
Three more hammering blows and the bars inside the window dropped to the floor of the office. Ramming the sandstone side to side along the window-frame took care of the few glass shards.
He looked around. The jacaranda on the far side of Station Street shed its fern-like leaves under the light of a single streetlamp. Nobody was in sight.
Calvino climbed inside.
The office was empty. Barker's rosary beads and Bible were gone. Empty coffee cups sat on the desk next to Barker's notebook.
The upper level of the police station was deserted.
Calvino turned to the back of the station and the stairwell that led to the cells. The fire-door was closed. He pushed it open and descended, flicking light switches as he went.
The homeless man had gone. His cell door stood open, the cell empty.
He turned to Cassie's cell.
Cassie was dead.
Calvino had no idea if it had been the weight of Cassie's body hanging from the legs of her jeans over the rafter which had killed her, if hanging by the neck was even capable of killing her, or if the cause was something else that Barker might have done — he would certainly know how — but she was dead, and that's where her body was.
He pushed the cell door open.
Millward lay in a pool of blood against one wall, his brains shattered, his service revolver falling limply from his right hand. Calvino hadn't expected that. But it was another loose end — an inevitable one in hindsight — tidied up now that a new murder had reawakened old suspicions in the town. Barker was nothing if not neat.
Millward's left hand held a note, printed out from a computer:
I have a soul!
So the staging for the authorities was this: Millward kills Cassie and suffers an attack of guilt.
Calvino let out the breath he had been holding. That meant Barker had gone, and he would live just a little longer. What other investigators would think of as Millward's suicide note had a meaning intended solely for him: 'If Cassie has a soul, then so do I.' And that was another charade, another layer of Barker's game.
Calvino reached into his pocket and pulled out the envelope the detective had given him. Inside, there was no money, just paper cut and folded for bulk, and a note.
Come and find me, Father Calvino. I have another test for you. Are you smarter than me?
The note had been written before the events of the night had even occurred. Outrageous arrogance? Yes. And Barker had begun it all a year earlier, knowing that he must eventually leave Fawkes Creek and move on, knowing that he risked discovery, but chancing that for the excitement, for the challenge — a charade from the moment he had turned Cassie from abused schoolgirl to, what? Instrument of vengeance? Plaything? Those options covered some of it, but not all.
Calvino retched in a corner. Then he lifted Cassie from her noose and laid her next to Millward. He began Last Rites for them both.
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