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Trisha Hughes

CHAMELEON  EXCERPT

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Chapter 1

 

 

Don’t make a sound! 

My mind was screaming the words over and over in my head.

I was crouched in an industrial bin up to my knees in God knows what muck while a man by the name of Jimmy Preston paced around outside my foul-smelling sanctuary with a long-blade knife, looking for me. 

As I moved my hand slightly, I felt something ooze gently between my fingers and a pathetic yelp escaped my lips, just loud enough for Preston outside to hear.

The lid of the industrial bin suddenly opened, allowing me enough light to squint and see his silhouette seconds before his hand grabbed my hair, yanking me out headfirst to land in an untidy heap at his feet.

Being an ex-policeman, I have been well-trained in weapons and hand-to-hand combat, but it’s been a while since I’ve had to perform anything like a direct skirmish and I’m sorry to admit I’m not as toned as I’d like to be. To tell the truth, I wasn’t ready for the pure panic, the tingly, unpleasant numbness in the legs, the way adrenaline mixes with fear and drains your strength.

True fighting is nothing like you see on TV. You would never, for example, mess around with a high kick to the face and you would never try anything involving turning your back on an opponent, spinning and leaping like they do in movies. Even as I think about that much activity, I break out into a sweat and imagine the next six months spent in traction.

Think about the physical altercation you may have seen in a bar or at a sporting event. The battle almost always ends up in an untidy grapple on the floor. On TV, people stand and hit each other and no one ever goes down. In real life, one or the other ducks down and grabs the opponent and they fall to the ground and wrestle untidily. It doesn’t matter how much training you have, if the fight reaches that stage, I would always lose. 

All of these things ran through my head at the same time but instead of immediately kicking behind me, trying to take out a knee or stomping down on an instep, I worked on instinct and used both my hands to pry my hair from his grip. It did not work.

Okay, next move. You aim for the vulnerable spots on the body. The nose was good and it usually makes your opponent’s eyes water, which is when you make your move. The eyes, of course, are also good. A gouge to an eye can shut down any will to fight further. The groin is, well, obvious. You always hear that. But the groin is a difficult target because a man is prone to defend it. It’s usually better as a decoy move. Fake there, and then go to one of the other more exposed, vulnerable spots. But if an attacker knows what he’s doing, every move you make becomes pretty close to useless.

While these thoughts stumbled around in my head, Jimmy had his other hand on the base of my head, holding my skull in a vicelike grip. I could feel the fingers of one hand digging into my gums and pushing against my teeth while the knife in his other hand bit deep into my cheek. His hands were so powerful that I was sure he could crush my skull like an eggshell. I felt a trickle of blood run down my face as he squashed it hard up against the industrial bin.

Jimmy must have read my mind because his legs tensed so that I couldn’t go for his groin. His small beady eyes and uneven teeth were pressed close to my face and his breath smelt of malt liquor and a range of other odours I didn’t have time to identify. There was dirt under his nails and a rash on his neck, the heads white, as if he’d shaved with a blunt razor. A tiny scar on his forehead, blended into the creases.

I was familiar with the Jimmy Prestons of the world. Jimmy was poor and dangerous with some wild idea that the world owed him something. The threat of violence hung around him like a cloud, obscuring his judgment and influencing others so that when he stepped into a pub or picked up a pool cue, sooner or later trouble would start. Jimmy didn’t pick fights. Fights picked Jimmy.

So far, he hadn’t killed anybody and nobody had managed to kill him. I’d heard people describe him as an accident waiting to happen, but he was more than that. He was a constantly evolving disaster. 

I knew a little about Jimmy’s past. He had a rap sheet a mile long that began when he was in school, from disrupting classes to petty larceny to DUI, receiving stolen goods, assault, trespassing and disorderly conduct. The list just went on and on. He was an adopted child and had been through a succession of foster homes in his youth, each one only keeping him for as long as it took the foster parents to realise that Jimmy was more trouble than the money from social services was worth to them. That’s the way some foster parents work: they treat the kids like a cash crop, like livestock, until they realise that if this chicken acts up, you can’t cut its head off and eat it. 

The options are limited in the case of a problematic, delinquent child and no one had any idea how to handle Jimmy. There was evidence of abuse by many of his foster parents and suspicion of serious sexual abuse in at least two cases. With issues like that, it takes some pretty special skills to tame these kids and not too many people can claim that ability.

Jimmy was one of the ones who had not been tamed. They say that some men carry their personal war with them all of their lives and some men can put it behind them like an old pair of shoes. And then, I guess, there are others who go on fighting even though they have no idea who they are fighting with or why it’s so important not to give up. That was the Jimmy breathing in my face me now.

He wasn’t bad looking if you could get past the bad case of acne, which comes from using steroids. He was twenty-nine, built like a bull, his greasy shoulder-length blonde hair parted in the middle with a definite resemblance to a young Viggo Mortensen I’d see in some movie not so long ago. The muscles on his arms were like huge hams, his hands thick and broad and his fingers almost swollen in their muscularity. 

One of his hands was clasped hard around my neck and as I stared into his bloodshot eyes, he forced me upwards, my toes barely touching the ground. By now, the knife had pressed deeper into my cheek beneath my left eye and I could feel blood dribbling to my chin, taking my mind off the odours from his snarling mouth. Rancid onions and garlic, I thought. And blue cheese.

While my mind was registering just how bad an idea it had been to cross Jimmy, he pulled me forward and slapped me hard across the head, open palmed, with his enormous right hand, then pushed me up against the side of the bin again, his huge forearms holding me in place. My head was ringing from the blow and my ear ached. I thought my eardrum had burst but then the pressure on my neck started to increase and I realised I might not have to worry about my eardrum for much longer.

The knife twisted in his hand and I felt a fresh burst of pain. The blood was running freely now, spilling from my chin onto the collar of my white shirt. Jimmy’s face was purple with rage and he was breathing heavily through crooked, clenched teeth, spittle erupting as he wheezed out. He was completely focused on squeezing the life out of me. 

I managed to move my right hand to the inside of my jacket and miraculously, I felt the cool grip of my gun. I wrenched it free and moved my arm enough to stick the muzzle into the soft flesh beneath Jimmy’s jaw before I passed out. 

“Don’t make history,” I squeaked.

Jimmy went crossed-eyed trying to focus on the gun. 

“I’ve never shot anyone before. Not even when I was a cop.” I’ve actually killed a couple of people when I was a cop, but Jimmy didn’t need to know that. “You’ll be my first.” 

We eyed each other silently for a good five seconds, the red light in his eyes flaring briefly and then fading.  

“We all need to step back and think about this for a bit,” I wheezed.

His arms were frozen as he stared at the barrel of my gun then up at me, then back to the gun again. He looked like he had the shit scared out of him. I was feeling a little rattled myself.

“Put the knife down Jimmy.” 

I sounded tougher than I felt and it must have made an impression on Jimmy because his head nodded slowly and the pressure on my neck eased. Finally, the knife slid out of the wound and I slumped to the ground, still keeping the gun on him even though he’d turned away. My throat ached and I pulled shallow, rattling breaths into my starved lungs. Now that his tide of rage had begun to ebb, he seemed unconcerned about the gun and about me. 

He took a pack of cigarettes out of a hip pocket along with a bic lighter and shook a cigarette out then lit up. He leant down and offered the pack to me, a friendly gesture that belied the fact that he’d been trying to choke the life out of me two minutes ago. I shook my head slowly so that it didn’t fall off my shoulders and land at my feet. When the pain in my ear started raging again, I decided to stop shaking my head.

“You shouldn’ta got me fired, man,” Jimmy muttered as he raised his head and exhaled smoke into the night air. 

That’s how this had all started. I’d been doing some private detecting work for the Vikings Surf Life Saving Club at Elephant Rock in Currumbin. Bazza, aka Barry Nesmith, had noticed that things weren’t adding up in recent weeks. They were making a lot less money and the bottles of Scotch were not making the same number of drinks that they used to. Something didn’t add up.

Bazza employed ten part-time bartenders in his establishment, a couple of them he paid in cash and off the books. Jimmy was one of them. It worked for both parties. Jimmy didn’t have to declare an income and pay tax and Bazza didn’t have to pay money into a superannuation fund for Jimmy. But very quickly, I zeroed in on Jimmy who was taking the odd bottle or two home with him. 

When I told Bazza my conclusions, I don’t think he believed me at first. His eyes narrowed but otherwise he remained stone-faced. Then his jaw tightened. He nodded sadly. The surprise that had washed over his face a moment ago transformed into something else.

“I trusted him, Jack,” Bazza said.

“Don’t take it personally. It happens.”

The disadvantage for Bazza of paying Jimmy in cash was that it was illegal. It also meant that Bazza couldn’t go to the police and charge Jimmy with theft without putting himself in hot water as well. His hands were tied.

He stared down at the top of his desk and shook his head. Outside, Jimmy was tending the bar as we sat in the office deciding his future.

Bazza’s eyes returned to staring at the door and I had a pretty good idea what he was thinking. Jimmy was history. I had hoped that Bazza would leave my name out of it. Obviously, he hadn’t.

Jimmy took another drag on the cigarette as he watched me slowly uncurling my body and rolling over, trying to get to my knees. I pushed my butt in the air and as I did, something furry brushed my face and I stifled a yelp. I managed to duck walk up to a stand, holding on to the dumpster to support myself.

“Ya gonna get me another one?” he asked.

I didn’t want to sound offhand about him losing his job and get him agitated again but I really didn’t want to get in to it with him either. The human brain is an amazing organ that no computer can duplicate. It can process zillions of stimuli in a hundredth of a second with a curious mix of chemicals and electrodes. We understand more about the planets and the cosmos than we do about the brain and its workings. And like any tricky compound, we are never sure how it will react to a certain catalyst. 

“You’ll get another job, Jimmy. Just don’t rob the guy that pays your wages, that’s all.”

“I never robbed him! I never took a cent of his money!”

I remember a psychological term I’d heard when I was beginning my police training. It involves unintended acknowledgement of guilt through the expression of denial. Like when Lee Harvey Oswald was in custody for killing President Kennedy, he answered truthfully most of the questions asked by cops and prosecutors. But he continuously refused to admit ownership of the rifle found on the 6th floor of the Texas bookshop. It was the one piece of evidence that linked him unquestionably and inextricably to the crime but he continually denied it. Jimmy was doing the same. He lifted booze not money but Jimmy didn’t see that as stealing from Bazza. 

I brushed my hands together to dust away the remaining gravel and mushy bits of banana skin, trying to breath evenly at the same time. It wasn’t easy.

He took another drag of the cigarette and watched me silently as the first soft patter of rain made tinging noises on the dumpster.

All I wanted to do was go home and have a hot shower, get something to eat and a cold beer. Not necessarily in that order. My head was aching but I didn’t want to get him upset again. I was pretty sure he was in what I call, the ‘bozone’ layer. It’s the layer that surrounds stupid people and it stops any bright ideas from penetrating into their brain. 

“You need to be smart about this, Jimmy. Just turn around and start again somewhere else. Maybe go to Sydney.” 

“I tried Sydney,” he mumbled. “Didn’t like it.” 

“Fine,” I sighed. “Try Melbourne. Just don’t rob your next employer,” I repeated.

A couple of minutes later, I left Jimmy to his thoughts and limped to my car with the full intention of heading home.

 

As I turned the key in the ignition, lightning blistered the sky. Ten seconds later, as I pulled out onto Pacific Parade, making my way to the Gold Coast highway, trees and buildings seemed to shudder as a loud crack reverberated, like the mantle of the earth had split. Seconds later, rain began to fall with tropical intensity as my car splashed along road. In this deluge, it would take me almost an hour to get home.