Liar's Candle – Excerpt

1.

The house is pale-brick, mid-fifties suburban, perched on such a breakneck slope that climbing the front stairs feels like mountaineering. Before I’m halfway up, I smell it. It hits me in the face on a breath of cold wind, driven ahead of eucalyptus and old rain. Nothing else in the world smells like death, but each death invites its own comparison. In this case, it'll be a while before I'll eat a devon sandwich again.

The handover officer at the door looks ridiculously young, head too small for his hat, which is perched on his ears. I introduce myself, show him my warrant card. "Detective Sergeant Paula Connor."

"Constable Ryan Hughen…" He trails off. If I'd been a man, he'd have called me Sir. If I was another constable, it'd be just plain Connor.

"It's fine. Paula." I put the card back in my wallet and take a look around. Nothing out of order on the doorstep or balcony, except the front window flyscreen is propped up against the sill a few feet away. The first responders broke in. "Am I last on deck?"

Hughen swallows and gives a little nod. "Dr. Degan and the Forensics unit got here first…" Still that unhappy little trail-off where Sir should go. If he calls me Marm, I'm going to smack him. 

"So you've got doorknocking underway, then." The street's a steep little cul-de-sac of perhaps twenty houses, all up. Directly across from us, an officer in uniform's standing on the front veranda of a shabby Commonwealth cottage. The night’s so quiet I can hear him ringing the doorbell. Another officer is standing at the letterbox of the house next door, talking to an elderly lady in her nightie and dressing gown. Probably the one who called it in; I make a note to check. She's lighting a cigarette and maybe thinking about bringing a thermos of coffee out to the kerb to watch all the fun.

"Yes, er, Paula. Detective Sergeant McMannis sent them out. He's inside… er." Hughen's debating whether to call me Paula again, and decides against it.

 The poor bastard's been in there, seen the source of that smell. The pinched mouth is a dead giveaway. He doesn't say anything more, though, just lets me through into a beige living room, wider than it is long, lit up by angular spotlights. Mushroom-coloured walls and a beaten-up old lounge with pine arms and cushions the colour of cat spew. The carpet is littered with yellow, numbered triangles pointing out spots of evidence. According to the neighbour who called it in, a woman and three children left the house shortly before eleven p.m., looking like all the devils in hell were after them. Funny, though—they turned all the lights off and locked the front door before they left.

The little house is full of people, mainly crime scene techs, and beneath that delicatessen smell is the bitterness of blood and something musty, like clothes left wet in a washing machine for too long. Two techs in full scrubs are on their knees on the living room floor, supplicating evidence out of the carpet. Neither of them look up.

I close the screen door with the back of my hand—fingerprints—and hear a shrill whistle. Only one person I know whistles through his teeth like that. Only one person I know puffs and grunts through his adenoids so you always hear him before you see him. Sure enough, Roy Degan—seventy-four, a relic of the 1950s, and the finest crime scene examiner God ever put on this earth—appears in the hall doorway to my right. 

"Stop," he says, holding one hand up like he's directing traffic. "Gear up, Paula, love. There's stuff right there on your left. Thanks!" Then he's gone again, back to the delights of whatever I'm about to find up that hallway.

"Degs, you're going to have to stop that 'love' stuff; she'll do you for sexual harassment." Judging from the echo in Brian's voice, he's in a bathroom. "Hey, Paula! Where've you been? Get stuck in traffic?"

"I took the scenic route, just for fun," I say, twisting a blue boiler suit around my ankles and pulling it up over myself. "What's happening up there?"

"Male, thirtyish," he calls back. "Knife job."

"Great. Do we know who it is yet?" I move over to the hall doorway at a shuffle, and not just because I'm trying to avoid the evidence on the carpet. I feel like I'm wearing a parachute. All I can hear is the rustle of the hair-cap over my ears, and I don't like it. Homicide investigators are hunters. Hunters need to hear in stereo.

"Yeah," Brian says, appearing in the bathroom doorway and beckoning to me with one plastic-gloved hand. "Putting together the pictures on the walls and the bills near the phone, our victim is some poor bastard named Trevor Manning. Married to Cheryl. Three young kids."

"And it was Cheryl who took off not long ago." I pretend to be examining the handle of the hall door, of the linen press to my left, even though door handles are Fingerprints 101 and Degan's work experience kid knows to dust them. What I'm really doing is delaying going into that bathroom. The smell's blasting out of the open doorway in shock waves.

"Looks likely. The neighbour said she wouldn't have mistaken her for anyone else." Brian pretends not to notice me buggering around. "I've put out a notice for highway patrol to keep an eye out for the car… 1985 maroon VK Commodore, according to the insurance papers."

"Right." I take a breath, take all those tiny particles of blood and vomit and piss and shit into my lungs, and thank God we found this guy before any serious decomposition set in. "Give us a look, then."

Trevor Manning is now an it. An it slumped sideways into, or rather over, the bath—one of those old-fashioned, deep ones of eggshell blue—head resting up on the splashback next to the soap dish, legs dangling over the side.  Fully clothed, wearing a dappled pair of grey tracksuit pants, striped blue socks and a red-and-white Steelers jumper. Hard to tell if those frills and furrows over his stomach are the bunched-up folds of the jumper or his intestines hanging out, which means they're probably both. Where Brian got the idea he was thirtyish is a mystery—this guy seems at least forty, going by the lines around his eyes and mouth and the salt sprinkled through his dark hair. But then, people always look older when they’re dead.

“Oh, lovely,” I say. And then, “Hi, Trevor. I’m sorry this happened to you, but we’ll at least fix who did it, all right?”

I feel more comfortable working around a corpse when I’ve said hello to it. I don’t claim this makes sense.

Trevor Manning died with his eyes open. I hate it when they die with their eyes open. Eyes shut, you can almost pretend a corpse went gentle into that good night, or at least gave up the struggle peacefully. Trevor's brown eyes and slightly-open mouth seem shocked, like he’s still wondering how the fuck this happened.

"Dead a while," Degan says. "We won't get an accurate time until the autopsy, but going on what I'm seeing, I'd say at least twenty-four hours and maybe as many as forty-eight. The cold might've slowed things down a bit. And let's say, just for fun, that his cause of death was shock or exsanguination after being stabbed six or eight times."

I count eight beats in my head. One-hail-Mary, two-hail-Mary… "Died in here?"

Brian, looking over my shoulder at the corpse in frank unconcern, says, "Kitchen. Someone's tried to clean it up, but you can still see it."

 

 

Brian takes me across the living room and into the kitchen, dingy and low-eaved, barely big enough for two adults. There are dinner plates on the drying rack, and a mismatched selection of knives and forks bunched in the little drying basket. A blue-and-white chequered tea towel hangs off the oven handle, pulled so that the ends are perfectly level. In an overhead cabinet above the breakfast bar is Cheryl Manning's best china and a collection of old-fashioned Coke glasses. The window over the kitchen sink looks out onto the backyard, but the only thing immediately visible is the skeleton of a Hills hoist looming out of the darkness. Tidy and clean, but nothing screams 'murder clean-up' to me. Brian points, and then I see it: what I thought was a shadow on the linoleum floor isn't a shadow. 

"Christ." The stain covers almost the whole floor, expanding in a scuzzy grey patch almost to the cupboards on each side and creeping toward the dining-room carpet. I look for wooden surfaces, anything that would keep a bloodstain no matter how quickly you cleaned it up. Degan and the other crime scene examiners love those. But most of the kitchen is Laminex. "Do we know what the weapon was?"

"Scissors," Degan calls down the hall.

"What," Brian calls back. "You've found them?"

There's a short pause—Degan's a good multitasker, but even he has to queue sometimes—before he says, "Not yet, darl, but I know scissor wounds when I see them. They were open. Both blades used."

At the moment, I'm not interested in whether the killer used one or both blades of the scissors. I'm worried that our main suspect, our only suspect, has taken off with three kids in her car and might have the murder weapon on her.

Presumption of innocence is the basis of our criminal justice system. They remind you of it every day from when you arrive at the Academy in Goulburn till you retire. It becomes second nature on the job, using language like the alleged, and I don't usually have any trouble with it. But I've been in the door five minutes, and already I need to get phrases like ‘What did she do it with?’ out of my mind and off my tongue. We’re dragnetting for a perpetrator right now. For all we know, there was another person here for the past three days. Cheryl and her children could have been escaping a hostage situation.

But that’s speculation, a theory that might fit and might not. What we know for facts are that Trevor's been dead a day, maybe more, and his family were here up until an hour ago. Cheryl Manning and three kids, the youngest one still little enough to need a car seat. 

On the other side of the kitchen, near the back door, is a battered fridge clearly on its last legs; the motor sounds like a lawn mower. I wrap my sleeve over my hand and open it—you never know where evidence will show up—but the contents are meagre and ordinary. The Mannings are, or were, a Coles family, from their butter and cheese to an open can of pineapple sitting innocently on the inside shelf. They keep their Vegemite in the fridge, for some reason. The freezer is tiny and wedged with Tupperware containers of leftovers, smelling of freezer burn. As I shut the door, a note taped to it flaps in my face:

Shopping

Milk

Bread

Smokes

Sausage rolls (NOT THE SMALL ONES)

DO NOT COME HOME WITH ANYTHING ELSE

 

“Wow,” Brian says, eyebrows raised. “Somebody was a bit anal about the shopping.”

“About the money,” I say, going over to where Brian’s already raided a pile of mail looking for details on the car. 

“We were poor when I grew up,” Brian begins.

“I know.” 

Brian’s already regaled me with tales of Growing Up Poor, when white bread slices doubled as hot dog buns, and baked beans on toast was a perfectly acceptable dinner three nights a week. From what I can gather it wasn't desperate poverty, just the garden-variety penny-pinching of two parents and five kids trying to make do on one fortnightly paycheque. Brian plays it up a little, both to congratulate himself on working his way up the social pecking order and to make every second suspect think he understands them in a way I can't.

“So we didn’t buy fancy stuff at the shops," he says. "But if Dad had left Mum a note like this, he’d have heard from her, real quick.”

“Maybe Cheryl left this note for herself,” I say. “You know, if she’s got an impulse-buy problem or the kids whinge at her for lollies at the checkout. Or she could have written this note for Trevor.”

“I’ll bet you ten bucks she didn’t.”

“No thanks.” 

Brian and I have bet on things before, from whether we’ll find porn in the late vicar’s bedside table to whether the accused is going to tell the magistrate to fuck off in court. But I don’t like my odds here: the Mannings don’t seem like a family who cheerfully bounce around traditional gender roles.

“Come have a look at this,” Degan calls, and we troop back up the hallway, me in the lead, dodging techs and evidence all the way through until we’re back to where Degan’s trying to get to his feet. Brian grabs his arm to give him a hand up.

“Thanks,” he says, puffed, and sits down on the edge of the bathtub, so close to the corpse—Trevor—that he’s practically parked his arse on Trevor’s shoulder. He lifts his dead arm, with its clear plastic crime-scene baggie taped to the end of it. “See,” he says. “Or don’t see. Fingernails clean as a whistle.”

When I first started in the police force in 1978, we’d never heard of DNA; the best you could hope to find under a murdered person’s nails in those days was a blood group. Now, though, science is starting to do the work for us. Degan sometimes whinges that it’ll do him out of a job, even though he should have retired ten years ago anyway.

“No defensive wounds,” Brian says. “Someone stabbed him eight times, and he didn’t put his hands up to stop them?”

“We’ll have to wait for the autopsy,” Degan says, letting Trevor’s arm drop. “But I think this wound here…” he points to one particularly savage hole in the dead man’s chest, big enough for me to slip two fingers into it… “was the first one, and the wound that killed him, PDQ. The rest are overkill.”

I look at Brian. “Someone hated him,” I say. “Really hated him.”

“Or was really afraid of him,” he returns. “I’ve seen Mum beat spiders and cockroaches with a shoe until they’re mush. Adrenaline, either way.”

I need to get out of this bathroom, because if I look at Trevor’s face for much longer I'll see him blink. I’m not allowed to touch the overhead light yet, and Degan's spotlight blasts the bathtub and its contents and throws the rest of the bathroom into deep shadow. I get a pen-torch out of my belt and flick it on, looking around at the mirror, the shower recess—still wet—the toilet with its pink kewpie doll hiding a roll of paper on top of the cistern. "Brian," I say. "Is this the only toilet in the house?"

 

Brian's already done a tour of the house. One toilet. He's sure. For my benefit, though, we do another walk-through. To the right of the bathroom is a bedroom, with a pair of single beds made up in heavy purple knit coverlets and a dark, looming wardrobe on the opposite wall. It doesn't look like a kids' bedroom, but it must be. There's another next to it, forming the end of the hall—just the one bed in there, a brass-and-gold deal with a frilly tulle skirt around the base. In the opposite corner is an ancient cot, once painted white and now showing patches of pale grey wood here and there. In it is an immaculate white mattress and a grey stuffed mouse with paisley ears and a black felt nose.

The master bedroom is across from the bathroom. The door is ajar, and when I shine the torch on it to show Brian the best place to push it open, we both see rust-brown stains on the frame. 

"Ruin those bloodstains and I'll kill you both," Degan says cheerily.

Brian says, "Oh, Jesus", but he's not talking to Degan, and he's not referring to the stains.

She's made the bed. You could bounce a dollar coin off the doona.

The entire room is spick-and-span, the carpet lickable. It's a feminine room: white doona cover festooned with green vines and purple violets, white-painted wardrobe, dresser, bedside tables; dinky little ceramic bedside lamps with roses painted on the bases. Trevor probably hated it. On his side of the bed is an alarm clock; on hers is a framed studio photo of the kids. I lean in to have a look without touching it. It's over a year old: the little girl, who the neighbour said is up and bouncing around on her own two feet by now, shows in the photograph as a bald six-monther, her gender only obvious from her pink dress and fuchsia bow bigger than her head. She's sitting on the lap of the older girl, a stocky, broad-faced child of ten-ish, wearing a stiff, ugly dress of magenta tartan. The boy is a ferret of five or six, shrinking back from his place on the stool next to his sisters, like he's trying to dodge the camera. All three kids have fair hair, almost white. Trevor's is dark. I wonder if there's a story to that, or a story to the sewing table and machine shoved into the far corner under the window. Blue-and-white gingham fabric hanging from the fold-down table, anchored by a chunky pattern book. Plastic box of pins to one side. No scissors.

"How much do you know about sewing?" Brian asks me.

"I sewed a bag in Home Ec once. And then, for extra credit, I also sewed my finger." I hold it out to show him the scar. "But I can figure out what's missing from this picture, Brian, I’m not thick.” The machine’s plugged in and the outlet’s switched on. I lean over and press my foot to the pedal. Nothing happens.

Brian goes to lean against the doorframe, then thinks better of it. He's tired already, though; contemplating asking Degan if he can sit down somewhere without contaminating 'his' crime scene. "Okay," he says. "Whoever killed Trevor got the scissors, probably from in here, but stabbed him in the kitchen, and he ended up in the bath."

He ducks back through the doorway and looks down the hall, where Degan's people are still examining the carpet. "How much blood was on the carpet, Degs?" Too late to check now; the techs are cutting out huge patches of it with Stanley knives.

"Not as much as you'd think," Degan calls back. We hear a violent thwwwwwp sound from the bathroom, like he’s just brought out the world’s biggest roll of duct tape. "A few dribs and drabs in the high-traffic area from the kitchen to the bathroom. See for yourself."

Brian shoots another look at the techs. He's not going to waltz over there and stare at the floor in front of them. "I'll believe you," he mutters.

I pull open the drawers of Cheryl's bedside table in turn, looking for anything that will help us understand who she is, and more importantly, where she is. The top drawer holds a jumble of old receipts, prescription medication—expired repeat of Amoxycillin, Phenergen, but nothing for mental health, and no Pill either—and loose AA batteries rolling around. In the second drawer, a neat pile of instruction manuals for the fridge, the TV, and a CD player. In the third and bottom one, more junk—a power board that's probably dead, a Mills and Boon novel—and stuff her kids have made: blobby preschool paintings, a rock covered in glitter, a keyring with a hideous yellow and orange woollen pompom hanging off it.

"Get onto Foreign Affairs," I say, shutting the drawer. "We need to know if Cheryl or the kids have passports."

"Already on it—"

Down the hall, the screen door rattles. We go out to where one of the uniformed officers—the one who was chatting with the old lady next door—is standing. He looks like he's about to apologise for the rain.

"O'Reilly, is it?" Brian says. By now, one of the techs has put elevated squares of thin metal down on the carpet as stepping stones between the hall and the front door to protect the crime scene. Brian clanks along them and opens the door for him. "Get anything good?"

"The woman next door, Sir." O'Reilly shakes the rain off his hat and puts it on again cock-eyed. "She's the one who called it in. Said she's happy to be interviewed."

I'll just bet she is. Tomorrow she'll ring the Mercury and ask if they want her exclusive scoop on the murder; if we blow off her attempts to 'help' us tonight, there'll also be an editorial on police incompetence and/or corruption, whichever fits the story best.

O'Reilly glances back over his shoulder, as if worried she's watching him. "Do you want me to take an official statement, or…?"

Ordinarily, I'd expect Brian to tear this kid a new one. What the hell is he knocking on doors for, if not to take statements without either of us holding his hand? He's got a good point this time, though, and we both know it. It's quicker, easier and might find Cheryl Manning faster if we go over and talk to this woman in person. Brian and I do a good double-act in looking after the little old ladies: he plays up the gallantry, and everyone seems to think I'm sympathetic because I wear lipstick.

That passport business is worrying me. If they've all got passports, they could be on their way to board an international flight. Once they're gone, we're stuffed. Getting them back could take years.

"Not a lot more we can do here until Degan's lot have been through," Brian points out, as if he heard those thoughts. "And highway patrol's out looking for the car."

When you put it that way. "Fine." I pull at the collar of my boiler suit with latex-clumsy fingers. At least an interview will give me a breather.

As we reach the bottom of the steps, I look back up at the house, spilling light through that open front door. It reminds me of a smiling mouth with a front tooth knocked out.