The Last Newspaper in the World
Chapter 2 THE BODY IN THE DRAIN
Stead looked agitated, as if he was going to get into one of his rants but then said: ‘Got a camera?’ ‘Yeah, but it’s at the office’ ‘Good, it’s not much use there, follow me.’ He walked down the road and I stood there for a moment, stunned. ‘What’s he up to?’ I asked Jimmy, who shrugged. ‘He’s the boss here, you better go. I have to stay here and man the roadblock.’ ‘I’ll come around to your place later.’ ‘Yeah, be careful with Stead. I don’t know what he’s up to.’
I quickly walked after Stead who was now making his way down a track off the road on to a flood bank dividing a low-lying paddock and an outlet stream. He waited for me as I leapt over the wire fence on to the bank beside him. As I stood up straight I realised we were about the same height, except I was weedier, while he had been thickened out by whatever it is that some cops do to make them look like they’re one step away from being steroid-induced musclemen.
‘Before we go any further, I’m only doing this because I owe your dad one,’ he said, giving me a hard look. ‘One what?’ ‘One whatever, come on.’ What did Stead owe dad? I filed this for discussion with the old man, but only if I could get really interested.
We walked along a narrow track on the bank. It was damp and I was suddenly feeling the cold. Not long ago, I had been sitting on my board in the middle of a winter stormy and only felt cool but warm. Now, here, walking down the track behind Stead, I felt chill. As we came to the end of the drain, I could see blue tarp half in the drain and half up the bank. We stopped and looked down the bank. I looked at my watch. It was 9.30 but it didn’t matter, it was only a nervous reaction, because I knew dad would be ‘holding the front page’ as he liked to say in his hushed, dramatic tone.
‘Okay Stead, what’s the story?’
‘Wait there,’ he said.
Scrambling down the bank, he gently lifted up a corner of the tarp. Lying on his back, head down towards the drain, was Barry Brand, the mayor of our little town. He had a neat hole right in the centre of his forehead. His arms were spread in an L formation not unlike the big, dead bird. Stead had his back to me as I got my phone out of my jacket pocket and shot off a picture with the camera. Stead heard the click and lunged back up the bank.
‘Give me that.’
‘Too late, Stead, I’ve sent it already.’
He got up really close to my face, almost nose-to-nose.
‘Well, tell Harry if he uses that, you’ll be banned.’ ‘Sure, but I’ll say you approved and actually led me here.’ Stead said nothing, but jerked his head towards the road and we walked back along the flood bank. I was suddenly feeling warm.
Jimmy was still at the barrier where a couple of other cars with the logos of city media outlets were parked.
‘Jesus, this is going to be a bloody circus,’ I heard Stead say behind me. He grabbed my shoulder and said quietly, ‘just go straight through, in your car and get out of here. And remember, no photo or else.’
I shrugged his heavy hand off my shoulder. I told Jimmy ‘catch ya later’ and he gave a nervous look behind me. Media teams were getting out of cars now and starting to shoot questions to Stead. Luckily, as it turned out, I’d come straight from my morning session in my own car. With jeans and jacket, and salt mangled hair and board in the back of the wagon, I was just some dude who happened to be out at the scene. I gunned the car down Drain Road and felt alive. Before heading out into the highway back to town, I pulled into the gravel on the side of the road and sent the pic to dad, saying ‘Harry, check this out.’ Okay, I hadn’t sent it back at the drain but how’d you know, right?
Driving back into town I saw how the clouds had started clearing and tried to think about how a change in the wind would clean up the waves. Might even be good for a few waves later that day, I thought, but dad will probably go nuts with this story. So maybe tomorrow morning would be soon enough. I kept on thinking about the surf and by the time I had reached our office the story had written itself. Although I didn’t really have any passion for the news business, I really just hung around town for the surf, I did have that lucky knack of being able to write stories without really expending too much effort. This infuriated dad, of course, his first love being the ‘word’ and all that. At least once a week we had one of those ‘get a life’ moments, where we reached a stalemate in an argument over a story. Usually he’d just end up shrugging his shoulders, telling me to ‘well, fuck off and do some filing or whatever.’
The newsroom offices were upstairs. Downstairs were the advertising and subscription services and out the back was the printing hall. The narrow wooden stairs went straight up, so when I was a little kid I had the sensation of climbing up into another world. When I reached the top, I went over to see Glen, the chief reporter. He’d been around the paper as long as dad, but they were an unusual team – Glen being as quiet and amusing as dad was vocal and abrupt.
‘Hello wanderer, how’s the surf?’ Glen asked. He should’ve been stressed out because we were already running over deadline but he seemed remarkably calm.
‘Crap really, but it’s good to get out. I saw…’
‘So what’ve you got for me? There’s a small hole on the front page waiting your offering.’
‘Yeah, I’ve got some stuff from out Drain Road. How’s Harry?’
Glen looked over to the office where dad was staring intently into the computer he always seemed to have an uneasy relationship with.
‘Okay. Check with Diana what she’s got from the cops and let’s get this paper out quickly.’
I walked over to my desk and was just about set to write when I heard the sound of a chair crashing from dad’s office.
‘Jesus fucken Christ.’ Harry stood in the doorway of his office. He wasn’t quite as tall as me, and was squarer with his tightly cut grey hair matching his close cropped beard. He was now looking intently at me, as the room went quiet. ‘What is this you’ve sent me? You’d better come in here. You too Glen’
Glen shook his head as I passed his desk on the way into the office. ‘Sorry Harry, I thought you’d have seen the pic already,’ I said as we went around dad’s desk and looked at the screen. Actually, the picture hadn’t come up too bad and was quite sharp given it was shot off in haste from a phone. I heard Glen give an intake of breath.
‘So you’re telling me we are looking at a picture of this town’s mayor with a bullet hole through the middle of his head? When were you going to favour us with this unimportant slice of news? Glen, did he tell you?’
Glen was blinking rather rapidly. ‘Well, yeah, he said he had something for us.’
‘Bullshit.’ Dad didn’t buy that.
‘Not a bad pic isn’t it,’ I said hopefully.
‘So who was out there?’ he asked.
‘Stead. He took me down the drain there.’
‘Why’d he do that? It’s totally out of the ordinary.’
‘Harry, he said he owed you one. Didn’t say what though.’
‘Sure, he owes me. Did he let you take the pic?’
‘He wasn’t too happy about it.’
‘I bet he wasn’t. Glen what do you think? Should we use it?’
‘Well, there’s a small matter of good taste isn’t there. And did he say we could use it?’
Glen and Harry looked straight at me. I don’t know why, maybe just because I suddenly could feel Stead’s hard face right in mine. I said he hadn’t said we could use the pic but, then again, he hadn’t exactly said we couldn’t. Dad closed his eyes for a moment then said: ‘Ok let’s use it Glen. Just block out the eyes and the top of his head. Get going and let’s see some copy.’
Before going back to my desk, I went over to see Diana and checked out what she had. I should point out here, right now, that Diana was favoured by dad. And he didn’t have favourites. He never swore at her and only ever discussed her in a quiet manner. She was a university graduate with an inquiring mind. What was not to like for dad, I suppose. It did raise the question of why Diana was here working on Harry’s ‘last newspaper in the world’. She was the daughter of an old friend from ‘back in the day’, as dad continually recounted. Her desk was orderly, almost too much so. She was very good at working the phones and researching stories online. ‘Just leave her alone and let her do what she’s good at,’ dad would say to me when I mentioned Diana didn’t get out a lot. Like I said, he seemed to favour her, as he was always too willing to kick me out of the office, even if it was just for a local dog show. Technically, although I had been rubbing along with Harry in the business since I was kicked out of my last school and had more experience, Diana was the better journalist. Not that I’d ever say that out loud but she did have a real interest in the whole process. If I was texting my mates to see if the surf was running, she’d be online checking out the news of the world. As she alternated between her screen and note book, the blonde bob of her hair swung backwards and forwards. I looked over the shoulder of her paisley sweater to see what she was doing.
‘Bill, I’m just finishing this up. If you have anything you want to add from the scene, you’d better enter it now.’
‘Yeah, I’ve got something.’
‘What, a description of the drain?’ I gave her a quick look but she was concentrating on her screen and there was no sense of sarcasm, just a statement of fact. I read what she had so far:
Police are investigating the death of a man after a body was found near Drain Road this morning.
The opening line said.
The body was found by farmer Elliott Hape in a drain when he was on his way to clear what he thought was an obstruction to the outlet.
And so on. All good facts.
‘So why don’t you change that?’
‘Ok, to what? What’d you pick up out at the drain?’
‘Do you mind,’ I said and reached over to her key board. ‘How about this?’
Mayor found slumped in drain shot between the eyes.
Diana’s head jerked back and she looked around at me.
‘What are you saying? You’ve seen this? When were you going to tell me?’
I shrugged. ‘Well, at least this combines both our stories. I didn’t know he was found in the drain. When I saw him he was on his back beside the drain with his brains blown out.’
Diana’s face had changed from one of efficient order to actual concern and she reached out a hand to lay it on my left arm, asking me how I was coping. Soft like. I shrugged, again, and said I was fine, which I was really, even though it’s not every day you see somebody you know with a hole in their forehead. I don’t know why I wasn’t more upset actually, or ‘shocked and appalled’ as Glen was apt to drop into the opening pars of stories for us. I just thought how beautiful Diana looked at that moment, before she turned back to her screen.
I went back to my desk and reeled off the relevant facts. Glen pulled our words together to merge our varying stories. Harry and he agonised over the final result for a few minutes but the office door was closed, so I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying. Anyway, time was against them and eventually Harry pressed the button so it was gone. The murder was biggish news that night, although not quite leading the news and not quite making the top story for the stuff news web site. A body found in a drain wasn’t totally big news when murder was an everyday event. Of course, nobody else had the fact that we had. Even I was puzzled as to why Stead should do what he did. I wondered what he ‘owed’ dad for that was so big that he’d break with the normal practice of shielding a victim’s identity.
I found out the next morning. The wind had dropped away to the south and I was on my way to be beach, so I could just about see the clean lines of surf in my mind as I drove over the hill. My phone went. It was Harry.
‘Your friend Stead has dropped us in it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve just had that prick Fish Marren on the phone saying we’re banned and will get no further information of help from the police on this story.’
‘He reckons Stead didn’t show you the body and he certainly didn’t clear you to take that pic.’
‘That’s bullshit,’ I protested but added, ‘he certainly took me to the body and lifted the tarp.’ ‘And the pic? Did he let you taken that?’
‘Well, he knew I’d taken it.’ ‘Come in now and we’ll see what we can do.’
Back at the office, it was all very quiet. Diana was staring intently at her screen as I walked by her desk.
‘You’re in early,’ was all Glen said, without looking up at me. I automatically closed the door when I went into dad’s office. Harry was chewing hard and one hand was hovering over a bag of peppermints ripped open on his desk. He looked at me with the disappointment parents reserve for their kids.
‘Ok, we know this is bullshit but the photo was dodgy wasn’t it?’ He looked at me and waited for an answer. I just nodded.
‘I’m sorry. I just messed it up. It’s just that that Stead’s such an idiot. I couldn’t help myself. Besides, he owed you one, didn’t he?’
‘Yeah. He owed me one alright. I just hated giving old Fish an opportunity to shove one up me.’
Steve ‘Fish’ Marren was the local police commander and dad had run a number of columns snidely comparing rising crime rates locally to the time in lieu days Fish spent out chasing yellow-tail tuna. It didn’t help when Harry ran the headline ‘Coastlands Police – we never catch our man’ after one criminal case was chucked out of court.
‘Come over here.’ Harry got up and went over to one of the arm chairs to the side of his office, motioning me to sit in the other.
‘Ok, I’m going to tell you something now and I don’t want you to repeat this.’
‘Sure, sure,’ I said.
‘Bill, I’m not mucking around now. Are you listening? Do you know what I mean?’
Now, I suppose I can tell you as I feel I can trust your judgement. What dad told me was this: As I’ve already said, Diana came to work for Harry because he was an old friend of her father, Bob Macdonald, who was now a high-level political lobbyist. So he trusted Harry to take his daughter under his wing on her first flight out of university life. Macdonald also knew Stead back in the day, so it was natural that he should invite Diana for a drink at the bar where the local cops regularly hung out after their shifts. Dad wasn’t that keen, as the place was a bit sleazy, but Stead was an old friend of Macdonald’s, so he dropped her off at the bar after work.
At about 10 that night, the phone went. It was Diana, she was sobbing. I was in my room looking at a movie on my lap top. I heard the door slam and Harry’s car leave but didn’t think anything of it. He was quiet when he came back and didn’t say anything. Now he told me he found Diana in a distressed state. After a few drinks, Stead had taken her back to her motel room and invited himself in for a cup of coffee. Harry didn’t go into details, but basically Stead had raped her.
‘I asked her what she wanted to do but she was too confused and didn’t want me to tell anyone, particularly not her dad. I wanted her to lay a complaint but she didn’t want me to because Stead was a family friend and it would destroy everyone concerned.’
‘So what did you do?’ I asked.
‘I went to see Stead the next day. He’s such a cold bastard. He just said that she’d given him the go signal and maybe they’d both got mixed signals. Didn’t seem to see the fact that Diana was his old pal’s daughter as a real problem at all. I threatened to take it to his boss but he argued that that’d destroy not only him and his family but also Diana and her family. I guess I was persuaded, fuck it. He said he owed me.’
‘So him allowing me to sight the mayor was payback, or payoff.’
‘Looks like it but I’m guessing it was meant to be without a pic of Mr Brand actually lying there dead.’
The next chapter of this book will be posted next week
The Last Newspaper in the World
By Mick Stone
Published by BMS Books
An imprint of Business Media Services Ltd
The Last Newspaper in the World
Copyright © 2012 Mick Stone
All rights reserved.
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