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There are four types of murder. Accidental: where your car inadvertently slams into another resulting in a death. Justifiable: as in self-defence. Second degree: where recklessness has a big part to play. And of course, first degree: which requires premeditation, wilfulness and malice aforethought.
I’ve always prided myself on having an inbuilt instinct when it comes to sleuthing. After all, uncovering the truth was what I used to do. But if you’d asked me which category Joe belonged in before the events following that fateful night, I’d have said none of the above.
So much for instinct.
I was sitting on my back deck in a mild state of melancholy when the first shrill peel of the phone sounded. My head snapped towards the sound penetrating the silence and a phrase my mother used floated across my consciousness. “There is no such thing as good news in the middle of the night.”
The first heavy drops of rain had begun to fall and I was fully expecting to be sitting in the darkness for another hour or so, a beer in my hand, listening to the mozzie zapper crackling and the gutters overflow as lightning illuminated the steel-grey night sky above the mountains. Even the crickets were chirping wildly in anticipation of a deluge.
I could make out a few trees and a couple of straggly looking dogs sniffing a rubbish bin amongst some philodendrons and bromeliads in the neighbour’s yard behind mine. Occasionally, I could hear a car slosh past and somewhere in the distance, a baby was crying. The scattered lights of a few houses and a streetlight shone like a halo through the moist air as I sat absently staring into the darkness.
That’s when the phone rang.
I pushed through the screen door, dodging the cat as he fought to be the first inside the house, and paused to switch on the kitchen lights. Squinting at the sudden brightness, my eyes glanced at the clock on the wall above the fridge just as the shrillness sounded for the second time. 11pm. With my heart beating hard in my chest, I reached over to grab the mobile phone resting in the charger on the bench.
Joe stuttered four desperate words to me. “Please help me, Jack.”
The words jarred me because Joe didn’t need anybody’s help. Especially not mine. But the desolate tone of his voice was enough to send me rushing from my home through the quiet streets of Coomera Waters, pushing every speed limit, despite having downed three beers in the past hour. The frantic tone of his voice and his despairing words had sobered me instantly.
Twenty minutes later, I found him naked and slumped over on the front steps of his house with his head buried in his hands as rain fell softly on his shoulders.
This was not the way I was used to seeing Joe. He was a confident, poised solicitor I’d known for years, sure of himself, sure of his place in society and sure of his promising future. Everyone looked at Joe and wished their life was like his. I liked Joe and he is one of the few friends I have.
Looking at him now, I suspected the worst.
“What the hell are you doing out here in the rain, Joe?” I managed to say as I looked around.
A curtain twitched in a house across the road, but the interior remained in darkness. Luminescent eyes peered timidly out at me from beneath a parked car, tense and ready to run if even the slightest danger was suspected. The street was quiet except for rain gurgling down drainpipes, the soft patter of rain on the paved driveway and Joe’s trembling voice.
“I didn’t do it. I swear I didn’t.”
Joe was shaking his head and sobbing the words repeatedly over and over in a voice wracked with emotion. As his body trembled, his voice rose like the whimpering of a broken dog.
“I loved her, Jack. I wouldn’t…I would never,” he wept.
I stood staring down at him, silently watching his shoulders rise jerkily up and down as rain dripped off his forehead. He looked up at me, desolation written all over his face.
“You know that, Jack,” he pleaded. “I really loved her.”
That’s when I noticed a gun by his feet.
I raised my eyes to the house and saw the door was open and I had this terrible, sinking feeling in my gut. I knew something bad lay inside that door and all I could do was stare at it. I was almost too scared to go inside to see what lay in there, because in a world full of uncertainty, there is nothing more certain than death.
I found I’d been holding my breath as I stared at the open door and to get the blood flowing through my heart again, I took a deep breath. There was a whooshing sound in my ears now like wind blowing in seashells. My palms felt clammy, opening and closing at my sides, and I could feel a balloon of heat rising from my stomach into my throat. The rush of blood to my temples pounded and a chill ran down my back.
I leaned over and picked up the gun by the trigger guard, not willing to leave it within Joe’s reach. God only knew what more damage he could do with it. I placed it in my raincoat pocket and looked up at the house again, the rain bouncing off my face. After one more glance at Joe, I slipped past his heaving body and stepped towards the house.
Later on, the press would describe the house as a lover’s nest but that raises images of red silk sheets, velvet wallpaper and a mirrored ceiling. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was just a modest stucco house in a quiet suburb on the Gold Coast with no pictures on the walls and sparse furnishings. There was a cheap pseudo-suede lounge suite sitting in the lounge room and a smallish television resting quietly on a wooden unit. In the bedroom, I knew there would be some build-it-yourself chest of drawers bought from either A-mart or Ikea, a desk in the corner with papers and bills lying on the surface, a chair and a double mattress on the floor. In the ensuite, I knew there was a spa. The furnishings made you believe you were biding time or making do until real life began and the real furniture arrived. Either just moving in or just moving out.
With a double mattress on the floor, maybe the press would get it right after all. Maybe it was a lover’s nest and maybe the mattress on the floor was the dead giveaway, excuse the pun. What would true lovers need with fancy furnishings and fussy wallpaper and what would true lovers need with a hand-carved mahogany bed supporting a canopy of silk hanging over it? Such luxuries are for those who need more in their lives than love. True lovers need only a mattress on the floor to make the world slip away.
Rain dripped off my coat as I inched my way along the quiet hallway. There was no need for caution, I knew that, but I still had to fight the urge to tip-toe. As I neared the bedroom, I slowed down even more because a complex scent pressed itself upon me like a smothering pillow. I could smell the sharpness of cordite and something sweet beneath it, something coppery and sour. As an ex-cop, it was a smell I knew well. In a few more steps, I’d be in the master bedroom.
A dim light from inside the silent bedroom allowed me a glimpse of the corner of the mattress on the floor. My heart skipped a few more beats because I knew that’s where I’d find her.
As I turned the corner, shallow breaths shuddering in my chest, there she was. Her frail, pale body was twisted strangely among the bloodied sheets, her hair fanning the pillow, now askew. A quilt covered her legs but it was pulled down far enough to reveal her body in a silk, black teddy. Crimson spotted the luminous white of her skin and the teddy was stained around the heart. Her dragonfly pendant had fallen to the side and the diamond that was the eye glinted through the cascade of her tousled black hair.
There would be no need to check for a pulse.
I stood there for longer than I can remember, just staring at the sight of her still body, my breath still trembling in my chest. As I stared silently at her body, a suffocating sense of futility suddenly enveloped me. Her posture, the colliding scents of gunpowder, pot, blood, her perfume and the brutal mark on her chest was almost overwhelming. I can’t tell you exactly what was whirling through my mind because I was lost to the moment but when I recovered enough to function, I’d made a fateful decision.
I’m not sure how, but I know why. I certainly know why. I made the decision and I have never regretted making it, except for the part that made me look like a hypocrite. Just two short months ago, I had been a police officer, sworn to uphold the law, and what I was about to do was nothing short of tampering with evidence. Pure and simple. But I knew for my own survival it was necessary and for the rest of my involvement in her death and the aftermath of it, that decision has guided me every step of the way.
I took a deep breath and entered the bedroom. Squatting down shakily, I leaned over the mattress as I touched her jaw with the back of my fingers, still slightly warm, but perfectly slack. I noticed the skin at the bottom of her arm had turned a purplish red and as I pressed a finger into the skin, I watched it whiten for an instant before the colour returned. She had been dead about an hour, I calculated. Still squatting, I leaned further forward and let my eyes roam over her beautiful face one last time. Someone was making a low moaning noise and it took me several seconds to realise it was me.
Her name was Shannon Connor. Black hair, blue eyes, long-necked and pale-skinned. Even in death her mouth was set in that expression of hurt and abandonment I knew so well. She had been thirty-one years old and stunning, and while she was alive her beautiful eyes had peered out at the world with a sort of indifference. She had seen too much of life to expect anything other than blows and her mouth curved so achingly, you couldn’t look at it without wanting to kiss it. And her stare, her mesmerizing stare, daring you to hold her gaze, could weaken knees. To gaze at Shannon was to experience your throat tighten with wanting. And not just sexual wanting, though of course that was part of it, but something else more powerful. Believe me, I know.
Some people spend their lives hoping for something to happen that will change their lives. They look for power or love or the answers to their biggest questions. What they’re looking for is another chance. Some way to lead another life where all the mistakes they’ve made will be erased and all their possibilities are still in front of them. Before the phone call that night from Joe, I thought I’d found my chance. At least I was hoping I had.
There is a gap, I suppose, between all we ever wanted and all we will ever have, and that gap can sometimes be a source of bitter regret. But sometimes, just sometimes, there is a glimpse of hope that the gap might narrow and might even be eliminated in one brilliant magical moment. In Shannon’s beauty, and the silent dare to break through her barriers, I had experienced that glimpse of hope. A desperate yearning that her detachment and her barriers would not prove absolute. To hold her, to kiss her, to win her and make her mine seemed like a chance to conquer life itself.
Yes, she was achingly beautiful, and she had drawn Joe Banner away from his wife Sarah, from his mini-mansion on the water at Sanctuary Cove, from his fine furnishings onto a mattress on the floor of her small stucco house in the suburbs. And now, I suppose, as was inevitable from the very beginning, Joe had crashed upon the rocks.
On the floor by the mattress, along with her black-rimmed glasses, an alarm clock, a lamp and a couple of books, sat two phones - a small red mobile phone and a walk-around landline.
If anyone had seen me arrive at the house, I didn’t want too much of a time discrepancy between when I entered and when 000 logged my call. I picked up the handset of the landline, dialled 000 and reported the murder. Then I went to work.
The first thing I did was grab the red mobile phone lying on the floor and drop it in my pocket with the gun. Finding it on the floor like that had been a lucky break for me because it had been absolutely crucial that I find it. Then I took a quick look around.
In the bathroom, soapy water still filled the spa. A set of earphones and an ancient portable CD player sat on the floor along with a small plastic bag of weed with a pack of papers inside. I left the CD player and the earphones but stuffed the weed inside my pocket as well. Joe didn’t need anyone finding that. I didn’t need the cops taking Joe in on a drug misdemeanour because there were things he and I needed to talk about first.
I picked up a sock from a pile of clothes on the floor in a corner and placed my hand inside before I opened up the medicine cabinet. I ignored the cosmetics and over-the-counter medicines and went right to the plastic bottles one by one. Valium prescribed for Shannon. Prozac prescribed for Shannon. Nembutal prescribed for Shannon. The whole Marilyn Monroe adjustment kit. And then sitting to the side sat the Viagra for Joe.
Back in the bedroom, I worked quickly, opening the drawers of a dresser looking for something but not knowing exactly what I needed to find. Not much other than clothes, loose change and condoms. Under the clothes was an envelope filled with money. One, two, maybe three thousand dollars. I eyed it for a second then put it back.
The top drawer of the desk held a coffee mug full of pens, post-it-notes, golf tees, loose batteries, rubber bands, paper clips, an old driver’s license and knick-knacks. I picked up the license and examined it. It was Shannon’s license, but the picture didn’t really look like her. Her hair was flat and dull looking and the glasses she wore were less than flattering. Shannon was glamorous, but this picture made her look anything but. Still, I took it and put it in the pocket with the rest of the contraband. You just never know.
Then I spotted a little wooden box filled with more change, paper clips and keys. Car keys, a house key, filing cabinet keys and I used my sock hand to rummage around. I was tempted to take them all, willy-nilly, because you never know what lies behind a lock. But I had to leave something for the cops to find so I only took one key, the one I wasn’t sure about, and slipped it into my pocket before closing the lid.
As I hurriedly searched, I tried not to think of the body on the mattress behind me. When I think back, I am amazed that I could still function and make such snap decisions no matter how wrong I knew them to be. I know I wasn’t thinking clearly otherwise I would have taken the money too. Even so, what I took proved to be invaluable and I am stunned at my level of functioning, given the circumstances.
It all sounds deliberate and cold-blooded, but then this account is only the voice of remembrance. I can assure you my knees were trembling uncontrollably as I moved around the room. Tears were running down my face and my stomach was turning over from the scent of her perfume, blood and the sickly-sweet smell of marihuana. Grief, I’ve learned, is just another expression of love. It’s all the love you want to give but can’t. It’s that unspent love gathering in your eyes, the lump in your throat and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with nowhere to go.
I wiped my face with the back of my hand and mentally shook myself. I had made a decision and that calmed me a little, but I was still only seconds away from vomiting all over the crime scene. The Forensic Team would have been pleased about that.
Then it was time to go back outside to Joe. Standing at the door, I turned and took one last look at Shannon.
We all want to go back in time for some reason or other. It has to do with the illusion of control that we all want to use against helplessness in a world that we can’t really control. But there are no guarantees in life and rubbish gets thrown at all of us at some time in our lives. How we deal with it is who we are. All it takes to change a life in a split second is a single phone call in the middle of the night and there you are.
I wiped the tears away from my eyes and took a deep shuddering breath. In movies, you see people walk away nonchalantly from crime scenes but it’s not like that at all. Everyone who leaves is in shock of some sort. It can feel as violent as a physical blow that weakens a person and it can result in a physical collapse or depression. Hell isn’t a place. It’s a state of mind.
In the hallway, I opened a closet door and took out a raincoat.
Joe was still collapsed on the steps, naked and drenched. I gently placed the raincoat over his shoulders and squatted beside him like I had squatted beside Shannon. It was strangely quiet and peaceful in the street at this time of night except for the stutter of rain and Joe’s crying. The world smelled fresh and clean.
I stayed silent for a moment and let the rain cleanse the tears from my own eyes.
“Why Joe?” I said finally in a voice barely loud enough above the rain.
There was no answer. He just sat there sobbing.
“Joe. Why did you kill her?” A little louder this time.
Still no answer.
I smacked his head with my open palm and said harshly, “BLOODY ANSWER ME!”
“I didn’t,” he said through the wracking sobs. “I loved her. I...gave…up…everything…for her…and…and...now….now…” His voice trailed off with a fresh wave of sobs.
I stayed silent and let my own emotions settle.
“I gave up everything for her,” he repeated quietly.
I reached down and put my hand on his shoulder. “I know you did Joe. I know.”
“I swear… I didn’t … I didn’t.”
“Okay. I believe you for now.” Of course I didn’t, but it wasn’t the time to go down that track right now.
“Oh God. What am I going to do? What? You have to help me, Jack.”
“I’ll do what I can, Joe,” I lied. “The police will be here any second. They’re already on the way. Do NOT talk to them. Do you hear me? Don’t say a word until I find you a lawyer. I’ll do what I can.”
“I loved her.”
“Jack. God. I loved her so much.”
“I know, Joe. I know. That was the problem.”
Joe was always one step ahead of me, even with shitty luck.
I was still squatting beside him when the police cars arrived with their sirens and their flashing lights and the three of us, Joe, me and Shannon were no longer alone.