The Wrong Side of the River:Part One

For days during his last case before the holidays, Beverley Louise Connelly’s husband Michael had said a bullet would have been the best thing for the accused. The case had dragged on and on, ending with a conviction on only one charge. A strong case from the defence saw two of three charges dropped against the Melbourne criminal, Mal Laromo.

Following the angst producing verdict, even after they had packed the car and were ready to leave on the Sunday morning, Michael had still been testy. He tried to appear jovial at breakfast, and greeted his family with, ‘I’ve had a shower, and a shit and a shave, ‘n’ I feel great. Ready for fun, everyone.’ His kids, Sally and Michael Junior (“Mickie”) smiled at him but “Wheeze” as he called her (his pet name for Bev) raised her eyebrows at him. She knew his shoulders were still as tense as a sprung cart.

Mirages hovered over the strips of asphalt as they approached Yarrawonga, and their holiday house. They had been nearby when Michael slammed on the brakes. Everyone in the car gaped at him as he had leapt from the driver’s seat and ran to the boot. He unlocked it and threw up the lid. He pulled out his loaded 12 gauge, and in the silence there was a definite click as he released the safety. At the front of the car, he fired at the Eastern Brown Snake crossing the road. The shiny, sinuous coils were rent by the bullet’s ejection of bloody guts.

Poor bloody snake, R.I.P. January 4 1970, thought Bev.

Bev and Sally had screamed, while Mickie just stared. He reset the safety, returned the rifle to the boot, and then flopped into the driver’s seat.

‘I feel better, Wheeze’, he said to his wife. She shook her head.

‘That’s snake’s relatives need the name of that trial lawyer you’ve been up against.’

He had given a mocking laugh, glared at her, and opening the car door, stomped off. He realized he’d angered her, and rejected the thought that she was justified. A member of the bar firing a shotgun on a public road, without warning his wife or his kids. Irritation and stress were all over him like the leftovers of a honey sandwich. He tried to shake it, but he needed a walk. He headed towards the nearby river.

The air seemed a couple of degrees cooler as he turned upstream, and then took a deep breath. He stomped over the rough grass, and fallen bark. After a while he came to a drop in the riverbank, and saw below a sandy river beach. He picked his way to the sand, and gathered a few river stones and began to toss them out into the water. The second time as he bent to gather stones, and glanced to his right, downstream, he noticed something. It looked like a person lying on their side, facing in the opposite direction. The prone person was dressed in Khaki pants and what looked like a long fishing jacket. Awfully hot to be dressed like that, had been his first thought. Then the lack of a tackle box peaked his curiosity.

He went to the water’s edge, and looked up and down to see if a boat, or another person was anywhere nearby. Nothing, he thought. Nothing is normal about that person lying there. He called out, ‘Gidday’, his voice echoed back to him from the rock and clay walls. He walked to the prone back. ‘ Excuse me, mate’, he bellowed again, and the echo reminded him that he wasn’t an optimist.

Come on, he thought, feel for a pulse. If it’s your day he’ll reach up and slap you. He shook the man’s shoulder and he flopped onto his back. Blood oozed from a slug entry hole in his forehead, and his glassy eyes stared at the sky.

He jogged, his breath coming in gasps, stumbling over broken sticks and dry bark, between red gums and bent wattles, to the car. There he found Bev and the kids drinking lemonade from a thermos in the shade of an old gum. He waved Bev over, ‘We’ve got to get to a phone.’

She looked at his sweaty face, and in his eyes saw fear. ‘What is it?’ she whispered.

‘A body.’

‘A human body, dead?’

He nodded.

She looked down, and dragged the toe of her right shoe in the dust. She could hear Mickie and Sally fighting over the last of the lemonade. His damp fingers trembled in her hand, and she spoke.

‘ My, my, quite the body count today.’

His grip firmed and she sensed his head come up. He snorted; they looked at each other and laughed.

In the end they drove to he police station in Yarrawonga: a small brick building in a side street. ‘Why are we here?’ said young Sally, her voice rising to a squeak, as she kicked her feet against the frame of the driver’s seat. ‘Mickie, spilt some of that lemonade on mee.’

Michael junior (Mickie) shook his head, and elbowed her. He had picked up that his parents were distracted.

‘I thought we were going to the house Dad, and I’m hungry. Let’s stop at the bakery,’ Mickie whined. Bev shook her head raising her eyebrows at him. ‘ You’re always a—hungry, my son.’

Michael spoke to Bev. ‘I’ll go in. This could take a while.’ He reached for his wallet, and pressed some notes into Bev’s hand. Bev reached her hand behind his head and kissed him. Her lips were warm, and tasted tangy from the lemonade. He kissed her with passion. ‘ Just as well, you kissed me like that. With this much cash I was gonna disappear to Lorraine’s boutique for a serious shopping session.’

He turned and smirked at her, ‘If she has any tiny polka dot bikinis, I could cope with that.’

She gave him a grin.

He got out and walked toward the police station. He heard Bev start up the car, and the kids both talking at once. Michael saw a note attached to the police station door: the officer was at lunch, but in an emergency he could be contacted at 12 Piper Street. He knew that was the street that ran behind the station, and he walked south, making two left turns. In a few minutes he was at the door of Number 12.

The policeman looked up from his lunch in surprise when Michael tapped on the rear wire screen. The policeman waved him to the seat opposite and kept chewing. Michael introduced himself, stated he was a holidaymaker, and then as the Senior Constable sliced into a perfectly pink lamb chop, said, ‘I found the body of a man, bullet wound in the head, on the river bank about 10 miles from town.’

The Constable stopped, his mouth half open, mid chew, and then swallowed noisily. ‘Oh— can you describe the victim; I had a report about a missing person a couple of days ago. Look’, he grabbed paper and a pen from the sideboard, and thrust it at Michael, ‘write down what you saw, give me an outline for the report’, and added as he went to the sink to wash his hands, ‘I’ll telephone the Sarge.’ He walked through the door of the kitchen and Michael heard the whirr and click of rapid dialling.

He shook his head— country policing seems pretty casual, he thought and began writing: Caucasian male, European appearance, hair: grey, approx. 5’ 10 ‘ tall…

Ninety minutes later, having heard that a detective, and a police surgeon, would arrive from Wangaratta, Michael stood on the sand, near the body of the victim, with Sergeant Paulson, and Senior Constable Knight. It was still hot and still, but a northerly was gathering momentum across the river, and was providing some discouragement to the flies. The body was encased with a miasma that surrounded those close to the body. ‘I would say the victim hasn’t been here more than 24 hours’, said the Sarge. ‘ I don’t think that it could be any longer in this heat, or it would be hard to stand this close, also this is a spot pretty popular with fishermen. Someone would have discovered our victim sooner.’

He looked at Michael. ‘How come your were walking down here?’

‘It was a long trip from the city. I was stretching my legs before we drove the last bit to the holiday house, and when I came down to skip some stones—’, he gestured toward the body, and reached into his coat pocket for a cigarette. This was the first time he had been closer to a victim’s body than a photo: inspected weeks after a murder, and in an air-conditioned office.

‘ He matches the description from the missing person’s report’, Senior Constable Knight said. The wife and son are travelling up, tonight, from Melbourne to confirm his identity.’

‘Yes’, said the Sergeant, ‘Knight, what was his name, again?

‘Carrera, Joey Carrera.’

Michael looked startled. ‘ Did you say Joey Carrera? I’m a prosecuting attorney for the Attorney General’s department, and that name came up in a case I’ve been working on.’

Knight nodded. ‘ Could I ask you a favour?’ said Michael.

Two hours later, Michael’s offsider Mason, and a detective from Melbourne were on their way to Yarrawonga. In the meantime, the detective from Wangaratta, had finished the inspection of the body in locale, and had it moved to the Morgue at the local hospital. The light was changing and the sandy beach was in shadow. Despite this, the Wangaratta detective had ordered the two police officers with him to comb the beach, and the area between it and the road, for any sign of a murder weapon, or other evidence: drag marks, cigarette butts or materials that might have recently been torn from clothing. Their orders were to work until dark, and begin again at first light. Senior Constable Knight was assisting them. Joey Carrera had apparently spent one night in a motel on the north edge of town. The detective had gone to speak to the staff at the motel, and follow up any leads.

Michael paced on the edge of the road.

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