Novel: Black Gold / Chapter 21

Chapter 21 — Stamps
… In which Paul Nouveau leaves Greenleaves’ place and returns to the Advertiser office. There he meets Jimmy Skylark with a bluetongue lizard, and Jimmy tells Paul that he has found his tracks at the back of the boarding house, and that Paul is under suspicion for the murder of Verhereen. Paul talks Frank into visiting Solomon Goldstein, the pawnbroker, and discovers that Verheeren had tried to pawn some stamps. They go back to Verheeren’s room and Paul discovers that the stamps on Verheeren’s letters are not genuine, and are in fact very valuable. He has been collecting rare first editions and misprints, and no one has guessed that the stamps are not the real thing. Stern and Constable Sloessor arrive, and they take Paul off to the Police Station to answer some awkward questions. Just as Sloessor is starting to question Paul, a distraught youth arrives with an urgent message: two masked men had knocked out the stable boys and made off with two horses. Paul is locked in the cells and Sloessor goes to investigate.

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Greenleaves was moved by the memory of these events. Paul found the story soaked in pathos to an unusual degree, but otherwise not very interesting. The uncle seemed to be one of those dilettantes and failures who had so annoyed him in the literary world of Paris. He was about to comment that the story was ironic, but Greenleaves would have expected him to say that, so he held his tongue. He felt uneasy, as he often had in this situation. Someone related an experience that had affected them deeply, but it failed to affect Paul at all. Was there something missing from his feelings? Or were other people sometimes too sentimental, as he suspected? Greenleaves didn’t seem that type — he had a healthy streak of cynicism and kept his distance from human folly. But then perhaps, in his uncle’s story, Greenleaves had been given a vision of his own fate — living on without friends or family in his mouldering mansion in the bush, talking to his parrots, playing chess against himself, poring over old writers whose reputations had sunk into oblivion, and finally growing old alone.


Mary appeared at the door to thank Greenleaves for his hospitality. Her frank manner, her clear eyes and skin, the light timbre of her voice all helped to dispel the bitter mood that had gripped Paul. He stood at the window and watched the children running down the path, laughing and yelling to each other. ‘I must go too,’ he said to Greenleaves. ‘The past, that’s finished. Here the sun is shining, and a man has been murdered. You heard about the old Belgian?’


‘Yes, Mrs Emmott was full of it. She’s normally a reticent soul, but this morning she delivered herself of a long complaint about the police and their failings. It sounds a nasty business.’


‘I talked to Verheeren only the other day. I should like to find out more about him. Thank you for the coffee, and the talk.’


‘It was my pleasure. Do call by again, Mr —’ he gave a slight smile and a little bow — ‘Mr Nouveau.’


Paul found Frank chatting to Jimmy on the front veranda of the Advertiser office. Jimmy’s pup was not in evidence; instead, he was holding a large lizard in his arms and stroking its back gently. It seemed to be asleep. It was fat, banded with grey-blue and black, and about a foot long: it reminded Paul of an engraving he’d seen in a book of animals of the world: the poisonous Gila monster of Arizona.
[image – bluetongue]


‘Does that thing kill people too?’ Paul asked.


Frank laughed. ‘What do you say, Jimmy? He looks mean enough, but I don’t think Jimmy would be buddies with him if he were poisonous.’


‘Old Bob’s not harmful, Mr Nouveau,’ Jimmy said. ‘I found him asleep in the sun out the back, where he’s liable to get run over by a dray. You’ve been up to see that Greenleaf bloke.’


‘Greenleaves,’ said Paul. ‘News travels fast; I’ve just come from there.’


‘You carrying the tracks with you,’ Jimmy said, pointing to Paul’s boots. There was a faint line of white clay around the front of the left boot, where Paul had stepped in a puddle. ‘That’s white pipeclay from the side of the hill,’ Jimmy said. ‘My people used to have a need for that, once upon a time.’


‘Well, Jimmy’ said Frank, ‘if the printing trade takes a down-turn, you can always get a position as a detective.’


‘I turned up for my lesson this morning,’ Paul said. ‘I couldn’t seem to find you.’


Jimmy looked down at the ground. ‘Oh, I’m real sorry about that, Mr Nouveau. You see, Constable Sloesser wanted me.’


‘Oh? What for? Nothing bad, I hope.’


‘No, no. He’s trying to find that murderer feller. He had me take a look around the back of Miss Mackenzie’s place. Looking for tracks.’ Jimmy spat on the ground. ‘He should have thought of that on Thursday morning early, right after it happened, not today. Place was a mess. Tracks everywhere.’


Paul felt a chill go down his spine. He licked his lips. ‘Did you — did you find anything?’


‘Nothin’ much. There were tracks there from the people who live at that place. My own tracks, from when I was cutting blackberries there.’ He looked up at Paul. ‘And your tracks, Mr Nouveau.’


‘Of course. You remember, I called there yesterday with Miss Bell.’ Paul could hear his blood pounding in his ears, and for a moment he imagined that Frank and Jimmy could hear it too.


‘Well, that’s the problem, Mr Nouveau. You see… these tracks of yours were out the back, around the back yard and the veranda there, and beside the water tank. That was where the feller climbed up onto the roof, I reckon. He must have cut himself on a nail: he left a smudge of his blood there, quite fresh, on that nail. Now, I recollect I was working at the side and the back of the house, and I don’t recall you or Miss Julie going around the back yesterday.’


‘But I did. I went out the back to look around, just for a minute. You must have been somewhere else at the time.’ He felt himself flush, and hoped it might be taken for anger.


Jimmy shrugged. ‘Well, whatever you say. I’m just the tracker, I just tell what I see. It’s up to them fellers in uniforms to make use of it.’


‘The police, they’re hopeless,’ Paul said angrily. ‘They should be looking for that outlaw.’
[image – police]


‘Who’s that?’ Frank asked.


‘That Heeney, the brother. You know he attacked me that night. He is the brother of the man I killed, one of the bushrangers. He was roaming about that night, looking to murder someone. He has already killed a man, with a shotgun, arguing over some horse out the back of a grog shop in Jerilderie. That’s what that Barnaby fellow said. Everyone knew the old Belgian had money of some kind; it is obvious that some criminal like that did it. Why do not they track him down, and bring him in?’


‘Old Sloesser never said anything about him,’ Jimmy said. ‘There were some tracks there I couldn’t be certain of. Anyhow, I got to go. Come on, old boy,’ he said to the lizard, and went into the printing shop.


Paul took a few deep breaths, and tried to calm his racing pulse. ‘Ah, this town,’ he said. ‘It looks so pleasant, the farms, the river with its willow trees brushing the water. But I didn’t come to the country to find things like this.’


‘Like what?’ Frank asked.


‘Things like bushrangers, and murders.’ He wiped his forehead, and looked around. ‘That boat will not wait for me.’




‘I have a job on the Trade Winds, the ship is sailing back to Marseilles, I have to get back to France. Johanssen said he’d keep the job for me, for two weeks, then the ship sails with or without me. They had to get the steam engine repaired. It will be fitted, and the ship loaded and ready to sail, on Tuesday, only a few days away.’
[image – sailing boat, harbour, steam]


‘Didn’t you say… didn’t you say Sloesser wanted you to stay in town until then, to speak to the Police Magistrate about the holdup?’


‘Oh, damn Sloesser! What, am I his servant, to wait on his pleasure?’


Frank looked down at his feet. ‘Whatever you say.’


‘I do not want to speak to Police Magistrates.’ Paul could hear his voice getting louder than he meant it to sound. ‘You do not know what it is like, those people are like spies, they follow you around, they take down each scrap of evidence, they try to trap you with some little thing you may have said, some harmless remark about the weather, where you were one morning, what you said, joking, to a friend, they weave it into some plot of their own.’ He paced up and down the veranda. ‘You mention the slightest thing, they make something of it that was never there, they concoct some fantastic story that has coils and suckers like an octopus, that wraps its arms around you and drags you down. It is far better to stay out of their reach. Because they are always thinking of some crime done in the darkness, and you are just talking about innocent things done in the light of day. They are like a master criminal, wise and powerful, and you are like a baby, smiling and babbling silly things that they use, they use these things to incriminate you.’ He brushed back his spiky hair. ‘The boat, I do not know what to do. It is like a lifeline to Europe, to my home.’


‘Well, that’s your decision,’ Frank said. ‘By the way, what do you think of Greenleaves?’


‘Greenleaves? Oh — he’s an odd bird. We had a good long talk. He — he had been in Paris when I was there. You know he has one of those writing machines. Huh — you should see it, it prints like a newspaper.’


Frank smiled. ‘I see enough of print right here, thanks.’


Paul seemed to have calmed down. ‘Frank, I want to ask you something. Do you know the pawn shop in Wagga?’


‘Old Solomon’s? Sure thing. Why, are you short of money? Don’t be embarrassed to ask. I could lend you some.’


Paul laughed, and put his hand on Frank’s shoulder. ‘Oh, Frank,’ he said, ‘you must never go into your family business. You would give all the money away.’ Frank gave a half-hearted grin. ‘No, I want to follow up a suspicion; what you would call a hunch. Stern mentioned that Verheeren had made a visit there last week: I wonder why. From what I heard of him in Java, he had no need to go to pawnbrokers. I should like to pay a visit to Mr Solomon.’


‘Sure, it’s only a block or two. I’ll take you there.’


The shop was in a side street in an unassuming part of the town. Willow trees drowsed in the heat. A bell tinkled over the door when they entered. The room was small and dim, with a glass-fronted display counter that offered a violin with no strings, a backgammon board, and a case of surveyor’s instruments. A battered bugle hung on the wall. There was a large bird-cage by the door at the back, and a fat grey bird with a pink head bobbed and weaved on his perch, alarmed at the intrusion.


‘That is a beautiful parrot,’ Paul said.


‘It’s not a parrot, exactly; it’s a galah,’ Frank said. ‘They’re supposed to be very stupid.’


‘Ah,’ said Paul to himself. ‘So this is the galah.’


The owner came out slowly from the back room, followed by a smell of frying onions. He was a short balding fellow of comfortable girth, wearing a flannel pyjama top, old trousers held up by braces, and carpet slippers. He needed a shave, and the grey cardigan he was pulling on had holes at the elbows. ‘It’s all right, Fritz,’ he said to the bird, as he passed. ‘Just some gentlemen come to visit.’ The accent was tinted with something European, and a touch of American. ‘And what do you want, gentlemen?’ he asked. ‘To sell or to buy?’ His voice was friendly, but his face was expressionless.


Paul explained the purpose of their visit.


‘The Belgian, or the Dutchman, whatever,’ said Solomon, and scratched his chin. ‘Yes, he came here once only, poor man. A week ago. What do you want to know, did he pawn something? Why else would a man come here?’
[image – stamps]


‘What was it he wanted to pawn with you?’ Paul asked.


‘Are you interested in stamps?’


‘Stamps?’ asked Paul. ‘You mean, collecting them, for a hobby? Not really; no.’


‘That’s what he offered me: stamps. An album of stamps.’ Solomon hooked his thumbs in his braces. ‘That was a fashion for a while in Europe, ten or fifteen years ago, but it never made much of an impression here in the back of beyond. I said to the Dutchman — he looked tired and unhappy — I said to him, there’s not much interest hereabouts in stamp collections. It was a craze for a while, and now people are tired of it. But he wanted to sell. It’s not bad, considering.’ He drew a large red-bound book from under the counter, and opened it for them to see. ‘It’s quite a large collection. And many exotics.’


Paul turned a few pages. ‘It’s beautiful,’ he said. ‘All those different stamps, all the colours.’ He turned another page.


‘There must be hundreds of them,’ Frank said.


Paul traced his finger lightly over the page. ‘Luxembourg, Great Britain, Dutch East Indies. Dark green, orange-red, yellow, black. All the different countries in the world.’ He stared at the page for a while, then gathered his thoughts. ‘Might I ask what it’s worth, Mr Solomon?’


The pawnbroker frowned and scratched his chin again. ‘Solomon Goldstein,’ he said. ‘Well, I hadn’t thought of a value for it yet. Oh, I could let you have it for — say — twelve guineas’.


‘Twelve guineas?’ Paul spoke more to himself than to Goldstein. ‘Half a lifetime in Java, and you end up with a stamp collection worth twelve guineas. Is that all?’


Goldstein blinked at him. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘well, I could charge you more, if you insist.’ He laughed; but the joke went nowhere.


‘My father once gave me an envelope full of stamps that he’d collected from around the world,’ Paul said. ‘Algeria, Italy, the Crimea. I thought they were wonderful.’


‘Yes, I gave some to my sister’s kids a couple of years back,’ Frank said. ‘From places I’d been to, in the navy.’


‘I can still see those stamps — I could count them all for you now. They were mainly pictures of kings and queens. I pasted them into an album I made up from an old school book, and I collected coloured pictures of the different countries the stamps were from, and put them next to the stamps. There was a picture of a mountain with snow on it, all in pale blue ink — that’s Helvetia — uh, I think you say Switzerland. A man ploughing a field, with the sun shining through a big cloud on the hill, dark blue and yellow, Great Britain. And a large picture from the Belgian Congo, a steam boat on the river, all purple and jungle green. Maybe I’d see a crocodile hiding in the reeds by the water’s edge: why, I’d grab my gun from the cabin and shoot him, just like that! And I’d never miss!’


He laughed excitedly, and Frank joined in: ‘You’re a sharp shooter, all right!’


Paul stared at the page of stamps, but he was seeing something else: a coach and team of horses in a courtyard; snow was falling from the grey sky. A tall man in an officer’s uniform was climbing aboard the coach. An ostler slammed the door shut and the horses stamped their feet and began to pull; the coach was moving out. A child was running across the cobbled yard, crying out something, and waving. Then the courtyard was empty.
[image – coach in snow]


Solomon Goldstein didn’t know what to make of the silence. He cleared his throat. This must be the Frenchman people were talking about. ‘You the feller that shot them bushwhackers?’ he asked.


They both looked at Paul, but he didn’t seem to have heard the question. Frank answered for him: ‘He sure is.’


‘Yes, I heard about that,’ Solomon said, in his matter-of-fact tone. ‘We used to have bandits like that in California. Back in the gold rush days, that was. It’s all tame, now. Gone to the Devil.’


Paul looked up, interest showing in his eyes. California? It seemed hard to believe that this stooped old man with his moth-eaten cardigan had fought and gambled in the American gold fields. ‘Were you in California, in the gold rush?’


‘Yup. I sure was. I’m from Prussia myself, originally, then I emigrated to America as soon as I was old enough. If you could get out of Prussia, you got out. Some bad things happened; I lost some family there. I ended up in Virginia. That was a mistake. The people there, they don’t like my type. So I pushed on to California, for the gold rush, but I missed it.’ He gave a wheezing laugh and held his side. ‘That’s right, I missed the damn thing! No gold left by the time I got there. Then I came out here for the Australian gold rush, but I must have missed that, too. Couldn’t catch a train, that’s me.’ He laughed, and patted his stomach.


‘Did you ever go to Florida?’ Paul asked. ‘I had a book with some pictures of the Everglades, the swamps they have there. I wanted to go there once.’


‘Florida? Nah, full of alligators. I had a friend once, got bitten by an alligator. Chopped a piece right out of his thigh.’ He made a scraping motion with his hand, like a man scooping a chunk of ice-cream from a bucket. ‘And those water-snakes — ugh! Terrible!’ His hands now seemed to push something loathsome away from him. ‘Australia has enough snakes, thank you very much. Come to think of it, I don’t know why I came here. Or why I stayed.’
[image – Florida]


‘What about New York?’ Paul asked. The stamp album had been forgotten. ‘They say it’s full of foreigners, and nobody minds where you come from.’


‘Don’t you believe it,’ Solomon said. He pulled a cigar from his pyjama pocket and bit the end off it. ‘I heard plenty of bad things about New York.’ He inspected the cigar, stuck it in his mouth, and lit it. ‘I only spent a week there, on my way through to the South, but the folks hereabouts reckon I come from New York. What should I know about New York? Den of iniquity. No, I married a lady there, and went to live in Virginia. I must have been drunk, I reckon.’


Frank had been browsing through the album, and he looked up. ‘Did you bring her with you to Australia?’ he asked.


‘Nah, she left me. The marriage didn’t last. Religious differences.’ Solomon tapped the cigar against an ash tray, a florid piece of pink venetian glass with flowers painted around its bowl. ‘There’s so much individuality in that country, people can hardly bother to say good morning to one another. Every man for himself, shark eat shark. That’s why I packed my bags and got on the move again. I didn’t belong. I was feeling lost, at a loose end.’


‘But in America —’ Paul began, but Goldstein was sick of it: ‘Oh, America,’ he said, brushing the topic away, ‘I want to forget America. And Prussia, Europe, all of it. That’s why I settled in this place, miles from anywhere. There’s no past here, just the future. I want to forget everything. Do you ever have that feeling? That you want to bury it all, and walk away?’


‘Oh, yes,’ Paul said.


‘Maybe you could beat him down on the price,’ Frank said. ‘There are some stamps missing there.’ He pointed at a page with two conspicuous blank spaces.


‘Hmmm, you’re right,’ Paul said. ‘There are two missing.’ He took the album and turned the page. ‘And here, a blank space where another one has been taken out.’ His eyes narrowed, and he turned another page. ‘And here, three more. Every page has one or two missing.’ His voice had an edge of puzzlement and tension to it. Frank looked at him, and then at the album, trying to see what the puzzle was.


‘Well,’ said Goldstein, ‘maybe the Dutchman had a couple of favourites he wanted to keep for himself. Maybe someone had sent him a love letter, and he wanted to keep the stamps for sentimental reasons.’ He began to laugh at his joke, but Paul’s voice cut the laugh short.


‘What? What did you say?’


Now he was confused. ‘I, uh, why, I just said —’


‘Of course!’ Paul said, slamming the album shut. The galah shrieked in his cage, and danced with anger. ‘I knew there was some trick to this.’ He dropped the album onto the counter and grabbed Frank’s arm.


‘I don’t know what you’re up to,’ Frank said, ‘but I suppose I ought to tag along.’


‘But gentleman,’ Goldstein said, ‘the stamps! You’re forgetting the stamp album.’ They were already at the door, and he raised his voice: ‘All right, for you, ten guineas!’ But it was too late. The bell jingled, and the door slammed. Through the window he could see their figures hurrying across the dusty street.


‘Ah, Fritz — people these days,’ he said to the galah. ‘What’s the use? Always rushing somewhere different. What’s wrong with them? It’s like they can’t wait for the end of the world.’ Fritz bobbed his agreement.


The room was quiet and still. The pool of sunlight from the window had moved across the floor and now glowed in the centre of the carpet where Verheeren had fallen. The letters were where they had been left, scattered on the desk and across the floor. Paul dropped to his knees and gathered some of the envelopes, tossing the letters away. ‘See?’ he said. ‘This letter, posted to his wife. His address is given as Batavia.’


Frank picked up an envelope from the desk. He examined the stamps, and looked across at Paul’s. ‘So the stamps should be, what — Dutch East Indies, right?’


‘That’s right. But look — one English, an old one too. And this one from Western Australia — “4-d” — quatre denier, denari — that’s four pennies, isn’t it?’ He squinted at it closely, and held the envelope out for Frank to see. ‘You can see the outside frame of the stamp has been printed upside-down.’ He took it back, and looked at the third stamp closely. ‘This one’s from Belgium. They should all be Dutch East Indies stamps, but they’re not.’


‘And this envelope, from Sulawesi, it says.’ Frank held it out. ‘But the stamps are from Luxembourg and British Guiana!’


‘Let me see.’ Paul looked it over. ‘That Luxembourg one, see? The printing is wrong. The orange ink is crooked. This envelope was never posted like this. It was never meant to be posted.’


They scrabbled among the scattered papers again. ‘Look at this,’ Frank said with real excitement in his voice. ‘An American Confederate stamp! Can you believe it? A Confederate stamp! And I didn’t even notice it before!’ He stared at the stamp as though it was a calling card left by a visitor from another world, as in a way it was. He turned to Paul, who had just about finished collecting the envelopes and separating them from their contents. ‘How many’s that now?’


‘Ah — twenty-four envelopes, with the two you have there. Each one has two stamps; some have three. Altogether — fifty-four — fifty-five stamps.’


‘What are they worth? Do you know?’


‘No, I’m not an expert. But I know this one — from Western Australia — it’s worth hundreds of pounds. The British penny black, maybe thousands. And this blue Belgian twenty centimes — you can see it has been printed twice by mistake. That makes it rare, and valuable. Altogether, a lot of money; but how much, I couldn’t guess.’


Frank sat in the captain’s chair, and leaned his arm on the desk. He looked around the silent room: the empty bed so neatly made, the motionless pool of sunlight, the belongings of the dead man spilling from the desk drawers, the bow on the floor and the poisoned arrows from Borneo hung on the wall above the mantelpiece. And the square of oilcloth covering the blood-soaked carpet. It seemed unreal. Perhaps it hadn’t sunk in properly yet: the strange murder, the treasure hidden so cunningly. ‘I wonder how he collected so many different stamps, while he was living in Java. He must have been obsessed with the hobby.’


Paul didn’t answer for a moment; he was thinking. It all made a beautiful pattern, to him. The mark of the man was on everything he did, the way a man’s signature and his ordinary handwriting were intimately linked. The culture taught you to write in a certain way, to form the letters like so. The muscles of the arm and hand then responded and formed the letters slightly differently for each person, like so. The style was imposed from the outside, and the interpretation of that style answered from the inside of the body, and where they met, there was the handwriting, there was the signature.


‘The stamps?’ he said. ‘No, no. I don’t think he even cared about the stamps. They were simply a way of making sure his earnings were safe. A diamond trader is always at risk. This way his profits were safe from thieves — who would steal some old letters? And of course safe from customs and tax inspectors, who like to know about such things as pearls and diamonds. Verheeren had spent half a lifetime in trade and travel, moving back and forth across the world. He had endless opportunities to work out ways of concealing his business.’ Paul thought for a minute, and said with disdain: ‘Of course his girls, he could not bring them.’


‘His girls?’


‘Verheeren owned brothels in Batavia and Semarang. He had something like thirty girls, altogether. He was making a lot of money.’ Paul thought of Dewi for a moment, in a room lit by a flickering lamp, combing her long dark hair in front of a mirror. ‘Of course he was giving bribes to the Police Inspector in Batavia, but he got greedy and tried to cheat him. You don’t cheat people like that. So he had to get out of the East Indies in a hurry.’


Frank shook his head. ‘I had no idea he was that kind of a man. He did a bit of accounting work, and he kept to himself. Always rude and argumentative to the men, always flattering to the ladies. And running through his mind all the time must have been this other life he’d left behind.’


Paul gave a bitter laugh. ‘He wasn’t the kindly old Dutch uncle that Miss Mackenzie imagines, puffing on his pipe and dreaming of the windmills of Holland. Well, perhaps he was puffing on a pipe; an opium pipe. And he was dreaming of something quite different from windmills. It’s all part of the colonial way of doing things. First you get your army to conquer a less advanced culture. Then you get your slaves.’


‘Slaves?’ Frank was perturbed. What was this talk of slaves? The Dutch had never been involved in the slave trade, not as far as he knew.


‘The Dutch,’ said Paul. ‘You know they have turned the whole island of Java into slave labour for their sugar plantations, and spices. God help me, my job as a soldier was to keep the slaves in line. And if someone like Verheeren wants to have his own private slave girls working for him in a brothel, why, the Dutch think it’s fine, as long as they get their cut of the profits.’


This sounded like French Communard politics, and Frank wasn’t comfortable in those murky waters. ‘I’m still trying to figure out.’ Frank said, ‘how he managed to collect so many different valuable stamps, while he was in Java.’


‘I think he converted his earnings into rough diamonds, then he sent the diamonds to Amsterdam to be cut. And then he exchanged them for the stamps. Maybe his wife managed that side of it, from Antwerp. I imagine she would have quite a collection, too’.


Frank looked at the heap of worn and grubby envelopes on the desk. ‘What do you think we should do with them?’


Paul gave a nasty laugh. ‘Well, his wife can have the letters. Why not? But the envelopes, and their stamps — they represent the profits of an evil life.’ He gave Frank a long stare from his serious blue eyes. ‘What do you think we should do with them, Frank?’


Frank shifted in his chair. ‘Well,’ he said. He felt uncomfortable. To steal from a thief — it had a certain moral aptness to it. ‘Well, I — I don’t know. It’s up to you, Paul. You were the one who worked it all out.’


Paul was about to speak when the door opened. Once again, it was Stern who stood framed there, scowling. Paul felt a wave of anger wash through him: they had already been through this ridiculous charade.


‘So here they are,’ Stern said in his hard voice, ‘just as Miss Mackenzie said. Searching through the murdered man’s belongings.’


The anger was like a drug; Paul he felt his breathing quicken and his hands clench. ‘What are you doing here, Stern?’ he spat out.


But there was another man pushing through behind Stern, a chubby man in a dark blue uniform. Paul recognised him as the police Constable who had taken his deposition a few days ago.


Stern stood aside to let him past, and pointed at Paul: ‘There you are, Constable. Arrest this man.’


The Constable cleared his throat. ‘Mr Nouveau,’ he said. ‘I’d like you to come with me, sir, to the Police Station.’


The words were ridiculous. The light seemed to fade, and the room whirled around him. ‘What do you mean, come to the Police Station? What on earth do you want with me? Why aren’t you out looking for Heeney? He tried to murder me the other night.’


‘Never mind about Heeney. It’s you I’m interested in, sir. We have found certain tracks at the rear of the building. I’d like to satisfy myself as to your whereabouts at the time Mr Verheeren was murdered. I’d like you to help me with certain inquiries, sir.’


‘But this is ridiculous,’ Frank said.


The Constable was unperturbed; he didn’t look at Frank, but kept his gaze fixed on Paul. ‘And I’m afraid I must confiscate your revolver, sir. Would you be carrying that, at the present time?’


‘My gun is at Doctor Bell’s house,’ Paul said angrily. ‘I do not usually carry it about with me. But why are you doing this?’


Stern spoke: ‘You’re a foreigner, Mr Nouveau, if that’s your name. We don’t know who you really are, or where you come from, or what your business is. To put it politely, Nouveau, you’re a suspicious character. Is that right, Constable?’


‘That would be one way of putting it, sir. No one in Wagga has any idea who the murderer might be. It’s not a local person. They’re decent people around here, and that would be very unlikely. So we’re looking at a stranger as the likely suspect. You fit that description, as well as being foreign. I feel obliged to make thorough enquiries.’


‘At the urging of Mister Stern, I see.’ Paul’s jibe was pointless; things had been arranged.


‘You’ve shown that you’re capable of cold-blooded killing, Nouveau,’ Stern went on. ‘It was only yesterday that you shot and killed two men.’


Frank appealed to the Constable: ‘But that was self-defence. I was there.’ He swung on Stern, who looked away. ‘Those two men, they were murderers! Mr Nouveau was protecting the lives of the other passengers — one of whom was your fiancée! Do you realise what might have happened if those bushrangers had found us unarmed and helpless?’


None of this had any effect on the Constable, who might as well have been deaf. He had made up his mind long ago. ‘Don’t make it difficult for yourself, sir. It will only take a day or two to look into the matter.’


‘Very well. I shall come along with you, Constable. Oh, Frank. I should be glad if you could clean up the mess we have made here. I would not want Miss Mackenzie to think that we had left one of her rooms in a state like this.’


Frank looked around at Verheeren’s clothes spilling out of the open drawers, at the letters scattered about the floor, and at the pile of envelopes on the desk. He glanced at Stern, but Stern was staring at Paul, a triumphant sneer on his face.


‘Yes, of course, pal,’ Frank said. He looked at Paul. ‘I’ll see that everything’s tidied up.’


Miss Mackenzie’s guests stared as Paul was led from the house. He had not been handcuffed, but the Constable held his arm in a firm grip, and Paul was very much a man under suspicion.


They walked in silence. He knew it would be futile to plead with either of his gaolers; they would enjoy mocking him. As they trudged down the dusty sunlit street a few people looked from the safety of their verandas, and pointed and talked. Men stopped on street corners and stared after them until they passed out of view. The afternoon sun was warm, and Paul felt sweat prickling on his neck. He wanted to take his jacket off, but said nothing. When they got to the Police Station in the centre of the town Stern left them. ‘Half my sheep are starving, and I’ve business at Redding’s feed store,’ he said to the Constable. ‘Now mind, I want you to get the dirt on this fellow. And keep your eye on him.’ He spat on the ground, and glared at Paul. ‘He’s as sly as a rat.’


They went inside; Sloesser called for the clerk and asked him to bring pen and paper. ‘We’ll have a little talk,’ he said to Paul, ‘and the clerk will write it down, like we did before. I intend to get to the bottom of this business, to dig out the facts of the matter, like Mr Stern said. I want to know where you were at every moment for the last few days, witnesses, that sort of thing. For example, you were seen in the vicinity of the Chinaman’s place the other evening. You were seen wandering in the bush on your own, carrying something heavy. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll say no more. But when it’s all written out, a pattern will show up. We’ll track down your movements, all right.’


Paul scowled and swallowed, but said nothing. His brain was whirling with a mixture of fear and rage, and he sat on his hands to stop them shaking.


‘There’s the pearls, too. Now what do you know about that?’


‘Pearls?’ asked Paul. ‘What are you talking about?’


‘The old Dutchman. He had a money purse clutched in his hand. Now what do you think was in it? Eh?’


‘Why, some money, I suppose. What else?’


‘There were two pearls in there. Worth a few quid.’


Paul’s blood ran cold. The amulet!


Sloesser was watching him closely. ‘I reckon you know something about those pearls.’


‘If I did know something about it, and if I murdered him, then why did I not take the pearls? Am I supposed to be stupid as well as criminal?’


‘You could have left them there to throw people off your trail. You’re a peculiar character, very deep. Don’t you worry, we’ll get to the bottom of this.’


Sloesser was settling himself in his chair, preparing to start the interview, when a distraught youth appeared with the news that there had been a fire at the stables, deliberately lit, and that under cover of the commotion two horses had been stolen. ‘Two of the stable boys were knocked down and hurt,’ he said.




‘Bill and Ben, the Pollock boys,’ the youth said. ‘Ben’s unconscious and bleeding at the ears. You’ll have to come.’


Sloesser hit the desk with the flat of his hand. ‘Hell and damnation! Who did it?’


‘No one’s sure who did it — there were two of them, and they had their faces covered. Mr Birtwhistle reckons they aren’t locals.’


‘Did they use firearms?’


‘One of them was carrying a gun, but he didn’t fire it. He hit Ben with the butt, gave him an awful crack across the side of the head. You should have heard it. Whack!’


Sloesser cursed. ‘Why does it always have to happen just when the Sergeant’s away with the other men? I’m blowed if I know. And who are these bloody horse thieves? Probably the very blokes the Sergeant’s looking for over at Hay, more than likely.’


‘That is Heeney, I am sure of it,’ Paul said excitedly. ‘He killed Verheeren, can you not see that? And he knows he has to get away from the town before he can be caught. That is the reason why he stole the horses.’ He was shouting in his excitement. ‘Go and catch him! There you will find your murderer!’


‘Don’t try to tell me my job,’ Sloesser snapped. ‘Damn and blast it. I’m short-handed. I’m going to have to lock you up.’


‘But there are no charges against me! You can question me if you like, but to lock me up like a criminal? What sort of justice is this?’


‘Now don’t you worry about what sort of justice it is. This is a proper Police Station, and we have proper procedures here. The clerk will write it all down in the Register Book.’


‘How dare you —’


‘Don’t get shirty, son, it’ll do you no good. It’s just for an hour or so. You’re my main suspect for a case of murder, and I’d look a bloody fool if I let you slip away now. God knows where you’d end up. The clerk will be in the other room, minding the place, so don’t try any funny business. Come on now, don’t make trouble, or you’ll regret it.’


He led Paul to a cell at the back of the building and locked him in.
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