Turn a Blind Eye

Prologue

Melbourne, Australia

March 31, 2016

 

Brian Monroe gripped the steering wheel with both hands, looked up at the evening sky and shivered.  A storm front had moved through the city earlier that afternoon, the brief squall had cleared the air and cleansed the streets, leaving in its wake a cloudless sky and a brisk evening.

          – Can I turn on the heater?

The older man turned slowly, a piercing glare his only response.

          – I guess that’s a no.

 Brian surveyed the dashboard.  He had stolen the late-model Jetta earlier that afternoon from a parking lot at the Northland Shopping Centre, then swapped out the registration plates with those of an abandoned vehicle at his cousin’s scrap metal yard.  He liked the styling of the German vehicle, it didn’t have the power of the Caprice he’d had earlier in the week, but the handling was smooth and responsive.  Brian was disheartened knowing he’d have to torch it at the end of the evening, but better safe than sorry.

Nine o’clock and the Thursday night traffic was light on Johnston Street.  A smattering of parked cars stood outside Abbotsford’s Yarra Hotel.  Inside, a band entertained a small crowd.  From their vantage point across the road, the sound was too muffled to be able to make out any of the tunes.  Just a low-pitched hum from the bass guitar and the soft thud of a drum kit seeped into the cabin to break the silence.  Occasionally, when the front doors swung open, above the music and crowd noise, they could make out some of the vocals.

Their target had entered the bar a little over two hours ago.  A tall, thin, young man.  Collar-length brown hair.  Casually dressed in blue jeans and a black leather jacket.  A perfect match for the man in the photo that lay in the glove compartment.

They now waited impatiently for him to depart.

***

Steve Slattery slunk into his tenth-floor office.  He dropped his battered leather briefcase to the floor beside his desk.  Then collapsed his wiry 178-centimetre frame into the high-backed leather chair behind it.  For the Acting Chief Commissioner of the Victoria Police force, it was another far too early start to the workday.  At least, it being a Friday, the prospect of a peaceful weekend away from it all beckoned alluringly.

He also thought acting was an accurate description of his current role.  An imposter.  A man that wished to be anywhere but where he found himself.  Slattery presumed he’d be able to survive the ordeal relatively unscathed until one morning he awoke, peered wearily into his bathroom mirror, and a stranger stared back.  The lines on his face grew deeper and longer by the day.  Lines deeply etched that read like a road map of his life.

He hadn’t gained weight like many blokes his age, but as the final kilometres of middle-age disappeared in the rear-view mirror and the road ahead angled down sharply towards the valley of old-age, he knew someone, somewhere, was playing fast and loose with the laws of gravity.  Skin and muscle were losing the battle against time.   Even his once taut, rosy, cheeks had turned an appalling shade of grey and had begun a slow migration southward.

          – Jowls!

He’d moaned.

          – I’m getting bloody jowls!

 He’d become an “in his day” man.  He’d been:  handsome, a decent club-cricketer, bloody good detective – in his day.

The Chief Commissioner had retired at the end of December, and for the past three months, Slattery had been struggling mightily to keep the behemoth that was the Victoria Police department afloat until the Premier selected a full-time replacement.  As the former Chief’s deputy, this should have been the opportunity of a lifetime.  A chance to prove himself, to grab that brass ring.  To prove to the politicians that he had the mettle to succeed and was more than up to the task.  He lacked just one essential ingredient – ambition.

Slattery had been protected from much of the day-to-day political minutiae by his good friend, the now retired Chief Lay, allowing him to do what he did best, lead his men in his inimitable hands-on style.  There was no guarantee the new Chief would maintain that status quo.

He would celebrate his sixtieth birthday this September.  The force had been his life for the past forty years.  But as the days passed, trading in his tenth-floor office for his bungalow down at Rye became an increasingly enticing proposition.  The fire in his belly no longer sufficient to power the engine of commitment.  Though not a messy divorce, no bitterness, more a long-held passion that no longer responded to nurturing and had died on the vine.

He dreamt of having nothing more to do than dig his toes into the soft sand, read a good book and with only the rousing crash of surf meeting shore followed by the soothing hiss of its retreat to invade the silence.  Then, of an evening, as seagulls searched for their dinner amongst the shallows and rock pools, he imagined walking the trails along the coast that wound through the sand dunes dotted with spinifex and tee tree.  Pirates Bay lay twenty minutes to the north-west, where the waves crashed violently against the rocky outcrops.  And to the south-east, St. Andrews beach, where the surf approached the shore with far less anger.

He could already smell the lamb chops searing on the barbecue, the pop and crackle of fat dropping onto the fire.  Visualise the vegetables softening and turning ever so slightly translucent as he sautéed them off to the side.  And taste the earthy, pungent, tones of a bold Heathcote Shiraz.

No meetings to attend, budget reports to prepare, personnel issues to quell, or the need to kowtow to pampered politicians.  The cumulative effect of all that bullshit, he knew, was slowly transforming his brain into something resembling chocolate pudding.  Hell, if he wished – a man could dream – not even a computer or mobile phone in sight.

Nirvana.

***

Brian Monroe checked his watch, 10:30 turned to 10:31 and he was growing impatient.  His fingers beat out a steady tattoo on the steering wheel to a tune only he could hear.  He craved the action and adrenaline rush that his chosen profession provided; however, he bemoaned the monotonous waiting game that he often had to endure.

          – How much longer do you reckon?

 Again, the icy stare.

          – As long as it takes, you just be ready when I say go.

He’d picked up the older man that morning from outside The Blarney Stone Hotel.  Just minutes, ironically, from where they now sat.  Brian mused that the dozen words the old bloke had just uttered were the most he’d gotten out of him the entire day.  He’d also been his driver earlier in the week, but the old bastard – as Brian considered him – acted as if they’d never met.  Brian bristled at the lack of manners; no name offered, no small talk, just spitting out orders in that Irish accent of his.

Brian turned away from the slight man in the passenger seat and concentrated his attention on the pub across the road, looking into those wild eyes for too long did strange things to his guts.  The older man was short and wiry, not an ounce of fat to be found.  His thin mousy-brown hair shot out at various angles like he’d played chicken with an electrical socket and his eyes were best described as being bat-shit crazy.  And judging from the sickly pallor of his skin, he looked like he’d spent a lot of time indoors, the kind where you can’t go outside anytime you wish.

Brian had given it some thought over the past week and determined the old man looked like that bloke in the movies:  What was his name?  He was in Fargo, played the crazy bastard that stuck people in the wood chipper.  Steve . . . something.   It would come to him sooner or later.  No, “Steve” wasn’t the type of bloke he’d willingly have a beer with, but this was work, and none of the niceties mattered.

***

Slattery smiled at the prospect of being “electronics free,” until the sight of the blank monitor on his desk dragged him back to reality.  He punched the power button, leant back in his chair and stared out the window to the city below.  It was the beginning of another gorgeous Melbourne day, an endless blue sky above, with wisps of high white clouds off on the horizon.  The northern suburbs of Melbourne stretched out like a tapestry before disappearing below the horizon.  The perky Channel Seven weather girl on last night’s news promised a high of twenty-four Celsius.  Summer may be over, yet Autumn was in no hurry to make an appearance.

The rising sun had not yet peeked over the buildings on Spencer Street yet below; Victoria Harbour, Etihad Stadium and the Southern Cross train station were streaked with intermittent bands of sunlight that had found their way through the canyons of concrete and steel.  The hustle and bustle of the awakening city were mute to him, only the hum of the central air-conditioning system and the computer’s hard drive broke the silence.

Slattery had only himself to blame for his current dilemma.  His fatal flaw – being good at his job and unable to say no to a superior.  At age twenty-four, after just four years as a Constable, he became one of the youngest Homicide detectives in the history of the force.  For the next twenty-three years, he worked Homicide, then in 2003 was tapped on the shoulder to join Taskforce Purana.  Slattery spent the next five years investigating, and bringing to justice, many high-profile gangland figures.  His strong work ethic, and unimpeachable integrity, did not go unnoticed.  His appointment to an Assistant Commissioner position soon followed, culminating in the Deputy Chief Commissioner position in 2012.

The higher he climbed, the more political his role became.  And his rancour grew.  In his mind, he was no longer a cop.  Just another paper-pusher.  An administrative flunky.

The street was his true love.  He could still remember his first homicide case – the Mitak case – and the thrill of the chase.  Of course, it was one of the more sensational crimes of the past few decades.  Threatening, for a time, to expand into a full blown civil war between Croatian and Serbian gangs on the streets of Melbourne.  Five murders in all before they were able to extinguish the flames.

***

Brian straightened in his seat, clutching the steering wheel to pull himself forward.  The front door of the Yarra Hotel had swung open, and three patrons stepped out.  Two females stood on the kerb facing each other as one dug desperately in her purse, but Brian’s attention was elsewhere.  The third, a male, turned away from the females and began walking briskly along Johnston Street.

Brian was the first to speak.

          – Is that him?

The young man wearing jeans and a black leather jacket, collar raised against the chill, had turned to his right and was quickly heading away from the Jetta.  A passing Silver Top Taxi momentarily blocked their view, but even from fifty metres, they were sure they had their man.

Brian rubbed his hands together, blew into them to generate some warmth, and slipped the gear shift into drive.

The older man slowly arose from his trance, stretched his neck first to the left then the right and sat forward in his seat.  Now fully engaged and ready for the hunt to begin.

Brian eased the Jetta from the parking spot and merged into traffic just as the young man in the black leather jacket crossed Johnston Street 120 metres ahead.

“Steve” rubbed both palms back and forth over his thighs.

          – Looks like he’s heading back to his car.   Easy now, give him some space.

 From the corner of his eye, Brian watched “Steve” come to life, like a bloodhound roused into duty, tracking the scent of his prey.

***

Slattery turned away from the city vista to face his computer screen.  He hunted and pecked his way through three password prompts before he was able to stare at the inbox of his internal Email system.  The depressing sight of 238 new messages greeted him.  He stared for a moment, sighed, then swivelled 180 degrees in his chair.  He selected a CD from the stack on his credenza – Van Morrison’s Moondance – and popped it into his disc player.  Anything to delay the inevitable.  He paused to let Van Morrison begin his tale of a County Fair before he spun back around to face the other music.  An idea flashed through his mind to set up a new task force to uncover the devious bastards that, apparently, got paid per Email.  A vision of bureaucrats pacing to and fro at busy intersections throughout the city wearing signs that read “I’m a serial Emailer” brightened his morning.

But what was he to expect?  Over 17,000 officers and civilian personnel made up the Victoria Police department.  Three hundred plus Stations throughout the State with an annual budget of over $2.5 billion.  And, for the present, it all flowed up to his desk.  He wondered, wasn’t shit supposed to flow in the other direction?  Thankfully the general public didn’t have access to his internal Email address.  After multiple screenings, and with the vast majority delegated off to other departments, only those requiring his attention were tagged with a priority designation and re-directed to his inbox.  Around seventy of these – mercifully none bearing the moniker “high priority” – now stared back at him.  Which is precisely where, he mused, they would remain for another day or two.

Among the remainder, he could tell from the sender’s address that the majority were from internal departments.  The ones with requisition requests attached he quickly forwarded to his assistant so she could sort the chaff from the wheat.  Like a salmon swimming upstream, he was slowly making progress, but even still, more than one hundred remained.

Slattery performed another sort to highlight State government addresses.  He sighed deeply, the sixty-eight Emails from State parliamentarians could wait until after lunch.  It wasn’t healthy to read those on an empty stomach.  He reflected on how many; speeding – parking – drug possession – shoplifting – driving while intoxicated – public intoxication – you name it, cases would he be asked to “take care of” for someone’s little prince or princess this week?

***

With some warmth restored to his hands, the older man pulled the Walther PPX 9mm from his pocket, screwed on the Octane 45 silencer he’d drawn from his other pocket and pulled back on the slide.  His employers had supplied him with the weapon earlier in the week after they’d agreed upon a price for his services.  Although the “agreed” was superfluous.  Sean Costello – though he’d decided the driver didn’t need that piece of information – wasn’t concerned with the money.  Since Sean was knee-high to his Granddad, this line of work was destined to be his calling.  If his employers snapped their fingers, Sean – the ever-faithful – quickly came running.

As the Jetta inched forward along Johnston Street, Sean rested the matte black weapon on his thigh and gently caressed the safety catch with his index finger.

The young man in the leather jacket, hands thrust deep into his pockets, turned the corner, left, into Rich Street.  Sean had no idea what the young man had done to piss off his employer, but it mattered little.  It was enough to know an order had been issued.  And being the ever-obedient good soldier; Sean would carry out that order.

          – Let me out at the corner and be ready. I’ll take him as he unlocks his door.

 Brian slowed to a crawl as he turned the corner and the older man – Steve Buscemi, yeah, that was the name of the actor.  It had finally popped into his mind – was out of the vehicle and stalking his target.

The young man in the black leather jacket stopped beside the front bumper of a Commodore station wagon parked beneath a towering elm and withdrew a set of keys from his pocket.  Holding up the key ring to what little light was available, he searched for the correct key.  From the corner of his eye he scarcely noted movement in the shadows behind him.

***

Slattery was very careful to whom he gave his internal Email address, so the @auscom.net.au address stuck out amongst the remaining Emails like the proverbial sore thumb.

craig.walters@auscom.net.au 

The name rang a bell.  Where had he heard it before?  Slattery opened the Email looking for another clue to jog his memory.

            Chief Slattery,

            I’m hoping you will remember me.  We met recently at La Trobe University when you spoke before the graduating class of Finance majors.  I introduced myself after your presentation and mentioned that we shared a mutual friend/relative.  Years ago, you were good friends with my great-Uncle, Bert Walters.

Bert Walters.

For Slattery, the memories came flooding back.  As a young Detective, he’d resided at a small one-bedroom flat in Northcote where Bert was his neighbour and, over time, became a close friend.  Bert had also been close with one of the victims in the Mitak case.  Slattery reflected, what a strange coincidence.  He fondly remembered Bert as being quite the character.

Bert had passed away in ’94 or ’95 – if his memory served correctly – and Slattery had met Bert’s brother, Les, at the funeral.  Les and his wife had only just moved back to Melbourne after spending eight years in Brisbane.  He and Les continued to meet occasionally for a beer, but having little in common other than the deceased Bert, eventually lost contact.  On the day of Bert’s funeral, he vaguely recalled being introduced to Les’ son and daughter-in-law.  She had a young two-year-old attached to her hip by the name of Craig.

This past December he had spoken to one of the graduating classes at La Trobe.  Afterward, he remembered a tall, shy, kid approach and introduce himself.  When he discovered it was Les’ grandson, Bert’s great-nephew, he was only too happy to sit down and have a chat.  Over scones and a latte, he heard how Craig’s grandfather, Les, had passed away in 2000.  Les’ son – Craig’s father – died in a car crash that same year.  And that more recently his mother had been hospitalised with a terminal illness.  The poor kid had had it rough, he mused, so he left him his business card and an assurance that if he could ever help to get in contact.

***

Sean Costello had closed to within twenty metres of the target when he released the safety.  The pathway remained deserted.  Street lights overhead, diffused by a thick canopy of trees, barely penetrated the deep shadows.

As the young man paused to select the correct key, Sean quickly moved in and from less than five metres squeezed the trigger.  Two nine-millimetre slugs found their mark at the base of the young man’s skull; his lifeless body crumpled to the ground with barely a sound.  Blood and skull fragments sprayed the side of the Commodore and the trunk of an elm tree.  A small trail of blood seeped from beneath the man’s head and filled the cracks between the bluestones lining the gutter.

Sean had not even needed to break stride.

***

 Slattery continued reading.

I hate to impose, but I don’t know where else to turn.  I thought of going directly to the local police station, but I was afraid of not being taken seriously.

I’ve uncovered a conspiracy that goes to the highest levels of power in the State, and I’ve attached some documents to this Email to show you that I am not crazy.  I trust you will take this matter seriously.  The attachments will reveal all.

P.S.      I know that I am in imminent danger.  I’m being followed and need protection.  They’ve already killed one man.  If you’re unable to contact me over the coming days, then I will have suffered the same fate.

Slattery re-read the Email before clicking on the first attachment.  He briefly scanned the document before opening the next.  His eyes glued to the screen, all peripheral vision extinguished, finding it hard to believe what he was reading.  Despite the air-conditioning in his office, he felt a cold sweat prickling his scalp.

***

Brian heard the faint report of two pistol shots from three car lengths away, the sound similar to a nail gun on a distant building site.  He pumped the accelerator and sped forward.  The older man with the wild eyes stepped out into the street from between two parked cars.  He slowed just enough for the man – who looked uncannily like Steve Buscemi – to climb in the passenger side.  Before the passenger door had closed, Brian had turned left into Turner Street and was picking up speed.

As they sped past the gutted shell of the Victoria Park football ground, Brian marvelled at the simplicity of the job.  He also remembered that the football season had started and wondered who Collingwood, Victoria Park’s long-time tenants, played this weekend.

***

Slattery’s hand trembled as he clicked the mouse to open the next document.  The final lines of the Email still ringing in his head.

. . . If you’re unable to contact me over the coming days, then I will have suffered the same fate.

The shaking showed no signs of abating as he reached for the phone.  Slattery called the contact number for Craig Walters listed in the Email.  An automated voice told him the number was out of service.  He disconnected the line and tried again; the same result.

A ceiling tile in the middle of his office sat slightly askew.  Slattery began to process the ramifications of the Email as his eyes bored into the offset tile.  The final strains of Into the Mystic faded from the speakers as the embryonic beginnings of a plan began to form.

He paused a moment to take a deep breath.  It had the desired effect of quelling the tremor in his voice but did nothing to restore his sense of calm.  He lifted the handset a third time.

          – Margaret, please hold all my calls. And please get me Commissioner Colvin with the Federal Police on the phone.  After that, I’ll need to speak with the Premier.  Thank you.

          – Yes, Sir. And, Sir, were you aware of the murder in Abbotsford last night?

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