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Dead Heat

Emma hefted a pile of verbiage towards the Pending Tray, and wished for a desktop fork lift truck. She scribbled a connected set of four letter words on a pad, then looked around before reaching for the next bundle of briefing papers. A sea of leather lounges stretched into the distance, cut off abruptly by a wood grain bar.

The phone buzzed, then two massive male figures, one in a suit, the other in overalls, stalked through the door, parking themselves at each end of the desk, hunched, ready to sell insurance. Emma’s personal assistant, a well-built blonde, hovered tentatively near the door.

Emma signalled him forward. "Charles, I’d like you to meet Des and Robbie. I’ve got no idea why they’re here." Charles’ outstretched hand slipped from Des’s limp offering, to be caught and crushed by Robbie.

"We need some information," Des said, straightening his tie.

"Facts," said Robbie. "Real information. Not some pissfarting position paper."

Emma waited.

"Have you heard of Milbi?" Des asked.

Emma nodded. "Mother-in-Law’s Birthday Island. In the middle of the Indian Ocean. Named by some unliberated explorer who’d run out of saints days."

"They’re contracting out their police force," Robbie said.

"Robbie’ll make a great police chief," Des said.

"You mean, built like a brick shithouse, and talks real slow ..." Emma suggested.

"Me mates’ll make great cops," Robbie said.

"Half of them’ve got bikes, and they’re all looking for work," Des said.

"And what’s your role?" Emma asked.

"Organising equipment," Des said. "Helicopters, loud hailers, flashing lights, fluorescent yellow vests ... And I’ve got a line on those big armoured cars with the squillion litre tear gas tanks like they’ve got in South Africa."

"So what do you want from me?" Emma asked.

"Background," Des said.

"So we write our application right," added Robbie.

Emma looked at Charles, her eyes narrowing a little. "The first question you need to ask," she said, "is ‘What happened to the last police force?’"

"We were told that they’d been disbanded for corruption," Des said.

"That’s one way of putting it," Emma said, "though dismember, disembowel or disembody might be more accurate."

Robbie frowned. "So what did they do to them?"

"You’ve got to understand," Charles said, "that the island is in a strategically important location. The port is a transshipment point for all the world’s major value added cargoes — arms, drugs, toxic waste... There has been a long association with American democratic institutions, so there is a powerful and active death squad movement. Soviet influence has resulted in the death penalty for economic crimes like buying, selling, having money, not having money... And a British sense of fair play has resulted in an impressive and totally ineffective set of checks and balances, the most important of which is the Independent Commissioner for Evaluation of Executions, with its own private police..."

Robbie was starting to twitch, and Des had made at least two lunges towards his mobile phone.

"Listen," Emma said. "Charles might be a bore, but he knows his stuff."

Charles continued, oblivious of the interruption. "The commission’s job is to examine all court cases that have resulted in a death penalty, and see whether the verdict was sound ..."

"A sort of appeal process," Des said.

"Only posthumous," Emma said. "So that their neutrality is not compromised by political or public pressure. They’re a kind of legal pathologist."

"And what happens if the verdict wasn’t sound?"

"Then everybody involved in the trial — police, witnesses, lawyers, judge, jury — is guilty of murdering an innocent person, and is summarily executed."

"An’ that’s what happened to the cops," Robbie said. "Don’t like the sound of that."

"Is that what happened?" Des asked.

"Sort of," Emma said. "But let Charles finish the story."

"You’ve got to remember," Charles said, "Milbi’s a pretty small place. Okay, it’s multicultural, rich expatriates and grinding poverty for the locals, but really it’s run by one family, called Kavanagh. Aldo was the Mayor, Alvin was the Police Chief, and Alaric ran the bank. They’re quads, but the fourth one’s a girl, Alice, who’s retarded. They reckon there was a vicious piece of perinatal bullying. The boys stepped on her umbilical cord, trying to get out first, so she was oxygen starved and brain damaged. She’s as bright as a button, but her mental age is about eight.

"And up in the big house on the hill was the mother, Gabrielle, big and fat and like a spider."

"She was murdered, wasn’t she?" Des said. "A cyanide laden custard pie in the face at a literary luncheon... It was on the News."

"She wrote reviews in the local paper," Emma said. "All of them nasty. She didn’t ever read anything. Just flick through it until she found something she didn’t like, then write the review on that."

"She did over Aldo’s collected poems Odes to the Municipal Tip. Either she didn’t realise they were his, or didn’t care," Charles said.

"So Aldo pied her," Robbie said.

"That’s the problem. The three brothers are identical, and they dress the same. They thought it was Aldo. And his alibi was that he was at his desk, playing a car racing computer game from a town called Edselburg in the US. But they take long lunches in the Mayor’s office, and there was no-one else there. And when they got the times back from the US and converted them, it was half an hour different from what he claimed, and didn’t cover him at all. So chop."

Des looked at him. "And ..."

"It’d been a pretty rough old trial. Witnesses vanishing, witnesses changing their minds, Aldo’s secretary claiming to be in bed with two people at once, police records of interview changing faster than airport departure boards, police burning their notebooks in courtroom corridors... But Alvin reckoned he was safe because they’d fixed the Independent Commission for Evaluation of Executions. They’d made Alice, their sister, the Commissioner. And there was no way that she’d see anything wrong with what they’d done. She never had before."

"Alvin — the Police Chief — did it then?" Des asked.

Charles nodded his head. "Him or Alaric. We can’t be sure. They both wanted to be Mayor. And Alaric gave evidence at the trial."

"So what went wrong?" Des asked.

"What are eight year olds good at?" Emma asked.

Des scratched his head.

"Facts," Robbie said. "How many warts on a cane toad. What’s the period of rotation of Jupiter’s thirteenth moon. What’s the furthest anyone has fallen from an aeroplane and lived."

Emma nodded. "And she knew about Edselburg, where Aldo’s game was."

"Knew what?"

"Edsel. Ford Edsel. Cars. It’s not on the local Standard Time. Because standard time’s railway time, and the railway didn’t come to Edselburg. It went down the next valley, and they’ve never forgiven it. The first freeway in the world was in Edselburg, five miles from the Town Hall to the drive-in theatre. They tore down the whole main street, so now they’ve got to drive eighty miles to buy a carton of milk. But noon in Edselburg is when the sun’s overhead, and that’s that."

"How different is it from the Standard Time?" Des asked.

"Twenty six minutes and thirty five seconds."

"And that proves Aldo’s alibi?"

Emma nodded.

"And so Alice had everybody involved in the trial executed?" Des said.

Charles nodded. "That’s what she was supposed to do. But since all police look alike in their uniforms, and all lawyers in their wigs, she did a bit of a clean sweep." He smiled. "Though I hear that she was a bit puzzled the following day, when the looting started in the main street, and the police didn’t come."

"So there’s no Kavanaghs left," Des said.

"Except for Alice," Charles said.

Robbie looked at Des. "Maybe you’d better go for Mayor," he said.

Emma shook her head. "You’ve been gazumped," she said. She picked up a fax from her In tray. "Alice has decided it’s her turn," she said. "And she’s going to be Police Commissioner, and run the bank too."


Copyright © D.W. Walker, 1994

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