The Last Newspaper in the World
19 December 2014
20 BRANDSVILLE IN THE RAIN
Harry’s solution was to send us both out to the street where the Brand family lived. He’d listened to Diana’s version of events at the funeral service, including my reaction to the pursuit across the sports centre car park. He looked at me with pursed lips and eyebrows deepening. Running a hand over his prickly head, he suggested it would have been a much better story if I’d stayed put and been rumbled by my pursuer.
‘Really? Besides, that’s an expensive camera we’re using,’ I said.
‘Yea, we wouldn’t want to get the camera damaged,’ Harry said, the tapped his fingers on his desk top.
‘Okay, this is what I want you to do,’ he said, looking at us.
‘Both of us?’ asked Diana, quite quickly as she frowned and looked at me.
‘Yes, do you think you can manage it?’
We both nodded. As I looked at Diana, I was beginning to, if not understand, at least realise the drive she had for the job.
‘This afternoon, see what you can find out about the family – Mrs Brand and the brother, particularly. See if we can find some link to land deals or that other business at the race course. Go out to where they lived and get a feel for their relationships.’
‘Oh I don’t know about that. Do you think people will want to talk to us about this sort of thing?’ Diana said, looking first at Harry and then at me, as if to ask for support.
‘Look, Brand might be our town’s favourite son…’
‘Or might not be,’ I interjected. Harry gave me a swift ‘shut up’ look through his narrowed eyes.
‘…but there will be some nosy neighbours out there who know something useful. So get out there and find out more than we know now.’
‘How do you know what the neighbours know will in any way be useful?’ I asked, and heard a quiet sigh from Diana.
‘Guarantee it,’ Harry said.
When we hesitated in our seats, Harry waved us away with a final ‘now’.
On our way back to our desks we stopped to talk to Glen, telling him of Harry’s plan.
‘Makes sense,’ he said. ‘What I suggest you do is search in the files and online for anything on the two of them. Diana, why don’t you look out for info about Mrs Brand; Bill, you can take his brother.’
We didn’t answer and he asked us if we were okay. For once Diana’s perfect poise looked a bit ruffled, her face reddened. ‘Play nicely,’ Neil said.
Compared to his brother, Steve Brand was practically Mr invisible. Whereas Mayor Barry Brand was all over the place, opening this, closing that, and commenting on everything from helping business start-ups in the town to the growing drug problem, Brother Brand was much more under the radar. A search of official records at the Companies Office showed him to be a director of Coastlands Property Management and a couple of other companies.
Neil came in the office, carrying his usual file of papers and took his desk. I went over to say ‘hi’ to him and asked if I could look through those land documents he’d had earlier. His desk was a mountain of paper but he quickly found what I was wanting.
‘What do you want these for?’ he asked.
‘Well, we’re just having a look at the Mayor’s brother, Steve. Do you know any more about him?’
‘Not really. He’s been around but really in the shadow of Barry, who’s been more out there. Look through those land records if you like. I can’t remember if he shows up. Let me know if you need me to search for anything.’
Glancing at his desk, I saw a cartoon of Harry’s office. Diana and I were standing on either side of his desk, and he was saying something to us I couldn’t quite read. Neil slid his hand over the paper, making it disappear somehow.
As we drove out, Diana told me what we should do. Technically, of course, we discussed it. It was later in the day, around dinner time. Ideal apparently for door stopping, Diana said. I was feeling a bit peckish but I could see the sense.
‘Have you ever done much door stopping before?’ I asked her.
‘Not really but we did a module at school. So it’s pretty straight forward, even for somebody like you. We’re going out to talk to the neighbours but don’t get dragged off into all sorts of side stories.’
‘The interesting stuff then.’
‘No, certainly not, just concentrate on what we are there for rather than being diverted away.’
‘But how will you know what’s important and what’s not?’
‘Look, do you really want to do this or shall I do it on my own,’ she said, as we approached the area.
‘Well, there is a good surf running. Do you think you could manage?’
Diana ignored me and pulled into Brand Place. I asked her if she thought it was a bit weird, the mayor living in a street carrying his family name
‘The Brands were big around here, so I suppose they got naming rights on the streets. You know they created this suburb, Brandsville. ‘I have been doing some research on my own, not just bumming info off Neil.’
‘That’s a bit unfair,’ I said half-heartedly.
We got out of the car. It was already dark and clouds were driving lower to deliver showers. Brand Place was a cul-de-sac, a dead end street lined with what in summer would be quite pretty trees. The sections laid out in the open style with few fences and front yards running right down to the street. We knew the Brands lived right at the end of the street, so we started at the top of the street and worked our way down to the end, me on the right and Diana on the left. She was right about it being a good time to call, in that most people were home around dinner time. What they may not have covered on the module at school was that, for some reason, some people don’t liked being disturbed when trying to digest a winter-time meal. The man who answered the door at the first house had the appearance of what I imagined to be a professor. Cardigan, thinning hair and squinting through glasses, he looked at me quizzically as I tried to explain what we were doing there.
‘So you’re here to dig up the dirt on our mayor and his poor family?’
‘No, no, no, we just want to get more background on his life and times for a tribute to him.’
‘Who is it, dear?’ a woman came up behind the prof. She was much younger than the man, long black hair falling over a pullover. Tight jeans only accentuated her trimness and heavy glasses only highlighted the interest of her eyes.
‘Some guy from The Last Newspaper in the World. Wants to dig up some dirt on the mayor and his family.’
‘No, no that’s not right,’ I protested but he had already shut the door.
The next couple of houses had drawn pretty much the same result, so I was getting a bit desperate by the time I got down to the last three on my side of the cul-de-sac. Looking across the road, I could make out Diana standing in the light of a doorway, chatting away to an elderly couple. Peels of laughter waved at me and I could see her hair flash as she rocked her head back. I knocked on the next door and it was immediately opened by a middle-aged guy in a black singlet, shorts and fluffy socks. The house was brick, flat and ran a long way back on the section. I could see down a hallway into a lounge, where a big screen television dominated, giant rugby players seemingly screamed out of the wall. He thrust his head out around the doorway and jutted it upwards in the direction of Diana and her new best friends.
‘What’s going on over there? A party or something?’
‘Yeah, looks like it. Nah, we’re just chatting to people about the tragic death of Mr Brand. I’m from the paper.’
‘Our one?’ I nodded and hoped, and then he asked me what I wanted to know. I wasn’t quite ready for that.
‘Oh, how’s the rugby going? Who’s winning?’
‘Nobody. It’s pretty tight.’
I thought he was going to close the door, and invoked a good Harry swearing in my head.
‘This won’t take long. We just want to paint a bit of a picture of the Brands, you know, happy families and all that.’
‘Happy families? You are joking aren’t you?’
‘She’s all cool there, right?’ I offered.
‘She’s cool alright,’ he said, rubbing the bristles greying across his cheeks. ‘Nah make that hot, she’s real hot
‘You are talking about the family, right?’
‘Mrs Brand, yeah she’s pretty hot.’
‘And the family? How’d they get on?’
‘Hot and cold, I’d say.’
Wanting to break out of the code words, I decided it was time to plunge in, hot or cold.
‘So it wasn’t all happy families at the Brands then?’
‘Far from it, at least recently, I’d say,’ he said and looked over his shoulder towards the lounge.
‘What do you mean?’
‘The police were called a couple of times. I don’t know if he hit her or not but she wouldn’t come out of the house for a couple of days afterwards. Cars coming and going. That sort of thing. Have you seen their place yet? Hard to know what goes on in there.’
I was scribbling away and trying to order my thoughts at the same time. Nobody had mentioned any incidents involving the police at the Brand house. Located at the end of the street it was surrounded by high concrete walls, like a compound, with gates across the front.
‘Police eh. Don’t think I’d heard anything about that,’ I said, taking the risk of putting out there my ignorance. The guy didn’t seem worried.
‘Why would you?’ he said and shrugged. I heard a roar from inside. ‘I better go, it looks like it might be getting interesting,’ he said. I took his name and contact number, swearing not to use his details.
The door wasn’t answered at the next house, even though the lights were on and I could hear the game in the background.
One household to go and I could see Diana had two more to work through. The last house before the Brand’s was wedged on a triangular section between the previous section and the walled property beside it. It was probably no less in size but seemed dwarfed by the scale of additions to the multiple stories of the mayor’s house. The concreted wall hung like a giant wave waiting to crash on the street around it. I walked down the footpath, passing a tidy garden. A lone lemon tree sat in the middle of a neat lawn. A ginger cat sat curled on a well-swept and clean front porch. The presentation suggested pride in their world.
The door was answered by an elderly man, sort of plump in the way of more mature guys but I guessed he had probably been short and round for much of his life. His wife came down the hallway behind him, wearing heavy glasses and touching the wall with one hand. I introduced myself and, in the spirit of Diana, tried to make a joke, it didn’t work but the old girl invited me in for a cup of tea.
Stan and Eileen had lived in Brand Place since it was formed 20 years ago when the suburb was developed by the mayor’s father.
‘Good bloke he was. Not like his son,’ Stan said as we walked into the kitchen. ‘This is bit of a mistake. It could take hours, so I hope you’re not in hurry,’ Stan said, nodding towards Eileen as she worked her way to the kettle, filled it with water and plugged it in.
‘Not bad for a blind old girl, are you honey?’ Stan called out to his wife, adding quietly to me. ‘I’ve got to let her do these things or she gets cranky with me.’
‘I can hear that you know,’ Eileen said, looking in our direction. She waved a hand lightly in a cupboard and found some biscuits.
‘She’s got much better hearing that I have,’ Stand said.
‘Yes and I’m not as blind as you either,’ she said.
Stan shook his head to me.
I was wondering where this was going to go, thinking of the time.
‘Did you hear much from your neighbours?’ I tried.
‘Lots of cars coming and going at all hours,’ Stan said.
‘I don’t think the young man was talking about cars, Stan,’ Eileen said. ‘You know, we’ve lived next to them for 20 years and hardly ever speak to them. Of course, Mr Brand was there for years but she’s new. I sometimes wonder why they got married. They do, I mean did, seem to talk a lot in loud voices.’
‘Even I could hear them and I’m the deaf one,’ Stan said.
‘It’s not about you Stan. It was worse recently, she would start off at him and he would try to keep his voice low. You could tell he was struggling, because the more she said, the louder he got, until they were both at it. Eventually she would go quiet and he’d have the final say.’
‘I reckon he was a proper bastard, I don’t care how you media guys write him up,’ Stan said.
‘You said the noise, arguments were worse recently. Anything different around the place?’ I said, thinking ‘please give me something’.
Stan tapped his fingers on the table, while Eileen sat and started to pour the tea. Holding on to the cups, she was able to guide the stream in without a miss and feel the hot measure as it neared the top.
‘Are you going to tell him?’ she said to Stan.
‘Yes but it might be nothing,’ he said.
‘Don’t worry Stan, this is between you and me, no names and all that,’ I said.
Stan shrugged. ‘Things seem to have been worse since his brother has been on the scene.’
‘Oh, why’s that?’ I said, trying to casually take up one of the biscuits Eileen offered.
‘You know the Mayor was out of town for that trip to China a couple of weeks ago? So Gerry, that’s his brother, seemed to be around a lot during that time. It was only a week, so I thought he was just around looking after things or doing something. But then Eileen said one morning she hadn’t heard his car leaving, so he must’ve been there all night.’
‘He wouldn’t know,’ Eileen said, gesturing at Stan with a crumbled biscuit of her own. ‘Sleeps like a log, snoring his jolly head off all night long.’
‘Maybe Gerry just stayed late, had a few drinks and didn’t want to drive home,’ I said.
‘Maybe, but there weren’t any raised voices but lots of laughing during the time the mayor was away,’ Stan said. ‘Isn’t that right, Eileen?’
‘And other noises too,’ she said. Her tiny face was pinched into a tight smile as she leaned forward. ‘I said to Stan ‘Stan, I think those two are up to no good’.’
‘So what do you think?’ Stan asked me.
‘Well guys, very interesting,’ I said. I slurped my tea as I thought it was more than very interesting, more like ‘bloody interesting’ as Harry would say.
‘Then there was that Stead, wasn’t there Stan?’ Eileen said. She raised one thin arm and waved tiny, creased fingers at her husband.
‘Yes, yes. Eileen didn’t see him but I saw him coming and going, like the big man in his police car.’
‘How’d you know Stead?’
‘Oh he used to go to school with our Tommy. Hope you don’t mind dear, but he was a total prick.’
‘I didn’t know Stead was from around here?’
‘He’s not, we sent Tommy away to finish school in Auckland. Didn’t want our Tommy roughing it with the others at Coast High did we Eileen.’
‘He’s a nice boy our Tommy.’
The front door bell rang an old time ‘ping, pong’.
‘I think I know who that is. I’d better be going. Thanks a lot of the tea and bikkie.’
Stan walked me down the hall, while Eileen cleared away the dishes. I heard one or two fall into the sink, but nothing broken.
As we reached the door, Stan gently held my elbow. ‘Now remember, Bill, please don’t use our names. We don’t need the trouble.’
‘Sure, sure, it’s what we call ‘on background’,’ I didn’t know if it was called that but I had seen it somewhere in a book.
‘Good man, good man,’ Stan said, and we shook hands.
Diana was standing on the path looking up at the porch. The rain was coming down now and sweeping through her hair as it picked up the porch lights. She didn’t look very impressed. The collar of her snug red coat was pulled up around her neck, and I tugged my jacket hoodie over my head. We walked shoulder to shoulder up the street; as though our combined effort could pinch open a narrow alleyway through the wind and rain.
‘How’d you get on,’ she called, grabbing my arm to bring my head closer to her.
‘Yeah, okay, quite interesting stuff,’ I replied, as the scent of her perfume struggled with the smell of her damp coat. ‘‘Lovely couple weren’t they.’
I turned to see if she was saying this in jest, saw that she wasn’t, and then cursed to myself, as the movement had flicked back my hoodie and rain was now going down the back of my neck.
As we neared the top of the road, I saw the slim figure of the woman from the first house coming out to the footpath. She had a long black rain coat on and a black shawl tied around her head. When she waved at me, I indicated to Diana she should get into the car.
‘Who’s that?’ she asked.
‘Not sure, no point in you getting wet,’ I said, and walked over to join the lady in black at the letterbox.
‘No mail at this time of night,’ I called as I reached her.
She laughed and brushed back a strand of her long black hair as it escaped in a frizz from under the shawl.
‘I just wanted to say I am sorry about Alistair before. He can get a bit testy,’ she nodded slightly towards the house, where I could see the occupant pulling aside a lounge curtain to sneak a look at us. Up close, she did seem to be too young to be with such a grumpy old fellow but I thought ‘it takes all sorts’.
‘It’s a bit wet for apologies. What’s up?’ I asked, immediately regretting the sharpness of the question as she looked a bit deflated, rather like a wet ball at the end of a winter game. But she got her puff back quite quickly and she stood closer to me so I could hear clearly.
‘I’ve got something to tell you about the Brands but I can’t tell you here, now.’
‘Can I come in then?’
She shook her head.
‘Is there somewhere we can meet tomorrow morning?’ she asked, holding on to the side of my jacket to steady herself against the wind. ‘Not in town? What about that café over at the beach?’
Perfect, I thought, I wanted to see Angelique there and then but tomorrow morning would be fine. We arranged to meet at 9 am, and she ran back inside as I crossed the road to the car.
‘What was all that about?’ Diana asked, as I tumbled into the passenger seat.
‘She wants to have chat but not here, so we’re meeting in the morning.’
‘Oh, Bill got a new girlfriend. I hope Angelique is okay with that?’
I just laughed and looked over at her. She had taken the time while I was talking for a quick tidy up. Her hair was perfectly formed once again, and new lipstick added colour to her look, reflect the coat, tidied and straightened up.
‘When you said the Brands were a lovely couple, you were joking weren’t you?’ I asked. We were driving down the hill from Brandsville and entering the back end of the town. The wind seemed to have fallen away.
‘No, why? Everybody I talked to couldn’t say too much about how they were loving and great neighbours. No problems apparently.’
‘Are you sure about that?’
‘That’s not the impression I got.’
‘Who from – your new best friend?’ Diana said, with what almost looked like a smirk, but I may have been mistaken.
‘No, no, a couple of people I talked to.’
‘God, you’re hopeless. You’ve got it completely wrong.’
I looked out the passenger window as we approached the parking space where my car was sitting. In the rain and the wind, the only car on the street, it looked as lonely as I felt. Maybe I did get it wrong. But I had the interviews in my notebook. Maybe I had only heard what I wanted to hear.
‘We’ll meet with Harry in the morning and put our story together,’ Diana said as we pulled up. Suddenly she seemed to be speaking from on high.
‘Remember, I’ve got a meeting so let’s meet afterwards.’
She shook her head in the kind of affirmation people give when they don’t really care. As she took off in the office car, I climbed into mine and sat for a minute pondering what had happened. I was cold now and gave a shiver, so started the car to help warm me up.
Harry was zoned out in front of the TV when I got home. Something to eat was in the microwave. It might once have been a stir fry and I must admit it didn’t taste too bad once I heated it up.
During an ad break, Harry asked me how we got on. When I said we’d had mixed results, he said ‘yeah, Diana told me’, and held up his phone where I could make out a text, adding: ‘We’ll sort it out in the morning.’
I told him I had to meet somebody at Gordon’s café first, which seemed superfluous since he probably knew already, then looked annoyed when I didn’t even have her name. It did seem careless but when I told him where she and the old guy lived, he knew immediately who they were.
‘That’s Professor McGuigan. Alistair. Fell in love with one of his top students and ran off to the coast with her. Left his wife and kids. The whole lot, gone, silly old fool. Mind you…,’ he said, bringing back the sound as the ads finished.
‘How do you know him?’ I said through a mouthful of rapidly cooling stir fry.
He gave me that look he does when you know immediately he’d be swearing and saying ‘that’s a dumb question’ but he didn’t say anything.
‘Okay, just asking.’
‘Now that you mention it, I did meet them at an art show a while ago,’ Harry said.
‘When did you go to an art show?’
‘You know, it was that thing a few weeks ago when you went AWOL.’
I remembered it now. A big surf was holding up around the coast and, at short notice, I had to take off. As it turned out, I missed the best of it by a day but it was still good.
‘Now shut up and let me watch my programme,’ Harry said, turning the sound up as a way of putting a full point in the conversation.
Published by BMS Books
An imprint of Business Media Services Ltd
The Last Newspaper in the World
Copyright © 2012 Mick Stone
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