The Elephant in the Fire

The dead man lay, face up, half buried in dry mud. The parts of him that were exposed were blackened and thinned, charred by the fire that had ravaged the land for miles around. The parts of him that were buried in the dried up creek bed, protected by the clay, were still largely intact. These were the parts that the two detectives hoped would provide them with some answers.

The body had been found just short of a culvert from which a thin stream of water trickled. The creek bed was over five feet wide, but there was barely a thread of water running along the bottom. The culvert carried the the water from the creek under a rough farm track that the two detectives had walked down from the main road at the crest of the hill.Elephant-1 Bill Flynn and Jemimah Hearn, known to their colleagues as Blowfly and Jerm, were examining the corpse. Or rather, Blowfly was down in the creek, doing the examining while Jerm stood up on the bank above him, smoking a cigarette. This was a habit of hers. She insisted that, as senior officer, she needed to stand back and get the overview before getting her hands dirty.

‘You should put that out,’ Blowfly said, as he finished taking his photos.

‘The damage is done already, don’t y’think?’ Jerm replied solemnly, expelling some smoke as she gestured round at the blackened slope, the charred stumps of bushes and the scorched skeletons of a few scattered gum trees. This had been the worst bush-fire in the region’s history, claiming over a hundred lives and leaving a landscape of ash, charcoal and burnt earth.

She was tall, with dark brown hair worn short and untidy, framing a face that Blowfly thought of as an attractive undertaker’s. He was a couple of inches shorter than her, with faintly Oriental features and an Irish accent; a trim, neat man with a manner to match.

Blowfly sighed and shook his head, before handing the camera up to his partner. She put it back in the toolbox that lay at her feet. Her partner had recorded every detail of the scene with photos. Now he needed to see how much of the body had been preserved. They were part of a new international unit formed to investigate crimes with far-reaching consequences, but had worked together for some time before that, so they were well used to each other’s habits.

They were here in the Australian state of Victoria because of the thousands of lives that had been directly affected by the fires and the environmental damage they had caused. Though they were not Australian, the two detectives were here in this dried-up creek on a slope covered in burnt vegetation, because Victoria’s police were accepting all the help they could get in investigating the causes of this catastrophe, and this man’s body had been found close to one of the points where the local fire brigade’s captain said the blaze had started. Which possibly made this unidentified man both its first victim, and an arson suspect.

Bush-fires were a fact of life out here – a part of the natural cycle that scoured the landscape to clear the ground for new growth – but when they got of out of control, they could grow into firestorms that destroyed homes and communities and could threaten towns and even cities. And as climate change made the extremes of wet and dry weather worse, these infernos were becoming more common.

It was extraordinary that people sometimes set fires out here on purpose, with the deliberate intention of causing this level of destruction. Elephant-2Jerm inhaled smoke and reflected on the kind of mind that craved the hell on earth these firestorms could become.

There was hardly a trickle of water in the creek, though there must have been a pool of water left where the man lay, before he died, because half his body was embedded in the cracked surface of the creek bed, a situation that would have been impossible if the mud had not been soft and several inches deep at the time of his death. There was a small backpack embedded beside him, but Blowfly left it there for the moment, focussing on the corpse first.

‘So what’ve we got?’ Jerm asked. ‘Who is this guy? Where’s he from?’

‘Face and skin are too burnt for me to guess at his race but I can see the remains of tattoos on both arms,’ Blowfly replied, carefully scraping back the clay with a small trowel. The body couldn’t be moved from here until the coroner arrived, so he was careful to do as little as possible to disturb it. ‘This one on the lower right arm looks like an Aboriginal design. The one on the upper left looks Irish . . . maybe Scottish? From what I can see of the skin under the mud, it looks dark but not black – Asian, maybe? Could be a dark white guy or a light black guy.’

‘If he’s got a record, maybe we can ID him off the tattoos,’ Jerm muttered. Elephant-3She pointed to a spot about two metres from where Blowfly was crouching. ‘What’s this stuff down here?’

‘Why don’t you get down and see for yourself?’ he asked.

‘No point two of us getting our shoes wrecked,’ she answered, holding up the cigarette. ‘At least not until I’ve finished this.’

Blowfly moved down to where Jerm had pointed and found a number of objects. They too were scorched or melted where the heat of the blaze had crossed over the creek. But as Blowfly tenderly unearthed each one, he found pieces of them untouched by the fire. Laying out a sheet of plastic, he laid the items on it, one by one.

‘Okay,’ he said, touching each one as if it was a holy relic. ‘So . . . we’ve got the remains of a tablet – a Nexus, I think. A green fleece and this light blue hoodie. A piece of a paper bag that looks like it’s from the A1 Bakery . . . Isn’t that the Lebanese café in Brunswick, in Melbourne? Anyway, there’s also these coins; two from Holland and three from Germany. The kind of small change left sitting in his jacket pocket after he’d been abroad, maybe? There’s a plastic water bottle, or what used to be one at least. Elephant-6And what looks like a letter in Chinese, but to be honest it could be Japanese, Korean . . . Someone back at the office will know. I’ll send them a photo.’

‘No ID?’ Jerm asked.

‘Nothing here,’ Blowfly said. He put each item in a separate evidence bag, labelling them all as he did so. ‘Could have burned in one of his front pockets.’

‘So what was he doing out here on his own?’ Jerm wondered aloud. ‘We’re miles from the nearest house in one of the hottest, driest summers on record. It’s hardly backpacking territory. There was a bit of forest before the fire, but mostly it was just scrub, bushes and the odd gum tree. There’s no sign of a truck or a bike . . . What’s his story?’

She wasn’t expecting an answer and Blowfly wasn’t about to offer one. That remained to be found. Jerm was just thinking with her mouth, as she sometimes did.

‘So let’s say he was here when the fire started, either because he was a firebug, or because he was stupid and lit a campfire in a place and on a day that only a complete idiot would light a fire. There were even signs up in the towns warning people not to light fires. A “Total Fire Ban”, they call it, and they don’t kid around with that stuff. So he lights a fire . . . not here – further upwind, near the road is where the whole thing kicked off. The grass catches and then some of the scrub. He’s got no transport, so he panics and runs, but why did he come here? If you’re going to run, you’d head down the main road. It’s not far from where the fire was lit and he’d get a head-start on the blaze. Instead, he comes here and dives into the creek.’

‘Panic,’ Blowfly suggested. ‘You ever seen how fast one of those fires can spread once it’s going? Faster than a man can run, if the wind picks up. It can fan out at up to fifty miles an hour. With the vegetation as dry as it was, embers blow ahead on the wind and light new fires in spots all over the place. Even firemen with years of experience can get cut off.’

‘The area had rain earlier this year,’ he went on. ‘A surge of growth in the vegetation on the slopes. Then the summer dried it out, which basically made more fuel out of it. You had square miles of dry tinder just waiting for a match. Within minutes the smaller bushes around him could be burning. In twenty minutes, this whole slope would be an inferno. This guy would have been running ahead of a wall of flame. The heat was intense, it melted parts of the machinery on that farm in the next valley. It’d be like being chased by a blast furnace. He sees the culvert, the only cover in sight, and goes for it. Even if the water in this creek was deep enough to submerge – and I doubt it was – the heat would have cooked him or, more likely, he was suffocated by the smoke.’

‘But the fire wouldn’t have cut him off that quickly. He still had time to get further. The wind was blowing the fire away from the road,’ Jerm muttered. ‘Unless he just stood around watching it, getting his thrills. But that’s why the location’s bothering me. If he was a firebug, he must have had a car or bike. Elephant-4He’d be ready to escape. The fire brigade would be racing out here as soon as someone spotted the smoke. So maybe he was a walker who lit a fire . . . or there were others with him and they did a runner in the car.’

‘They left him to burn?’ Blowfly frowned. ‘That’d be harsh.’

‘We need an ID,’ Jerm said, clucking her tongue. ‘Even knowing his race would be a start. Where the hell is the coroner?’

‘Busy,’ Blowfly said quietly. ‘They’ll be finding bodies for days yet.’

They both stared at the corpse embedded in the clay.

‘Aboriginal and Irish tattoos,’ Jerm murmured. ‘A dark white guy or a light black guy. Ate recently in a Lebanese place. Had Dutch and German coins on him and a letter written in an Oriental language, which suggests he could read it. Who was this guy?’

‘He’s an elephant,’ Blowfly remarked.

‘What?’

‘You know that old story, the blind men and the elephant?’ Blowfly asked. He received only a blank look in reply. ‘Three old men . . . or maybe there were four, I don’t know . . . Anyway, they’re standing round this elephant, and each feels a different part of it, trying to figure out what it is. The first one feels the trunk and says it’s a snake. The second feels the leg and says it’s a tree. The third one feels the tail and says it’s a rope. Individually the parts don’t make sense, because they can’t see the whole thing. No one piece can give you the whole picture, you know?’

‘And the elephant stays still while these blind men are groping it?’

‘Christ . . . Jerm, it’s a bloody fable. You’re not supposed to take it literally.’

Blowfly stepped over the trickle of water running down the centre of the creek to where the backpack lay flattened in the mud. He gently lifted the backpack, peeling it up, some of the clay still damp beneath it. He opened it up, but it was empty, apart from some moist dirt inside.

‘The guy holding the “snake” didn’t notice it was breathing rather heavily?’ Jerm asked.

‘Give it a rest,’ her partner growled.

‘Was the elephant ticklish?’ Jerm persisted. ‘These guys could’ve got themselves trampled, fondling it like that.’

‘We’ve got a dead man here,’ Blowfly said sharply as he handed the limp backpack up to her. ‘I don’t think you’re treating this situation with the gravity it demands.’

You’re the one who brought up the bloody elephant!’

‘Take a look at that,’ Blowfly told her, gesturing to the bag. ‘These footprints on the bank look odd to me. I want to dig up his feet.’

Jerm stubbed her cigarette out on the bare earth and carefully placed the butt in some tin foil and put it in her pocket. She may have had little control over her habit, but she had enough sense not to contaminate the crime scene. Elephant-5As she put on some latex gloves, she thought about the mentality that would set fire to a land and if it bore any relation to the mind that would breathe cancer-causing smoke for pleasure. Different breeds of the same madness, perhaps.

Spreading out another plastic sheet, she laid the backpack on it and went over every inch of it while Blowfly continued to examine the body. There were a few more items in the side zip-pockets of the bag: a pack of tissues; some sachets of sugar from a café in Melbourne; a sodden street map of Sydney. The main section of the pack was empty, but running her gloved fingers around the inside, she found grit from the creek bed and, to her surprise, a few small stones too. They couldn’t have been washed inside, not by the trickle of water that was running down there now. And the mouth of the bag had been pointing downstream.

Jerm gazed down at the objects Blowfly had spread out on the ground in the creek bed, chewing on her lip.

‘He wasn’t a hiker,’ Blowfly announced, having dug up one of the feet.

There was a light, thin-soled sandal on the foot. Suitable for strolling around on city streets for the day, but useless for walking any distance out in this kind of country. He stood up, looking down at the body.

‘And look at these footprints he’s left,’ Jerm said, pointing. ‘He didn’t just jump down there and dive into the water. He climbed in and out a couple of times. He could easily have made it to culvert if he was just going for cover.’

‘And if he wasn’t a hiker,’ Blowfly added, ‘then there was definitely a vehicle. So somebody left him here. Was he dragged out here by force? Can’t pin the race down; Aboriginal Irish who’s spent time in Thailand and Germany, eats in a Lebanese café and can read an Oriental language?’

‘Sounds like a typical Australian to me,’ Jerm sniffed. ‘There’s your elephant. Listen, Fly, I think we’re missing something here. Our guy dumped his stuff out of the bag. Just threw it all into the creek. There was still odds and ends in the side pockets, but the main part of the bag was empty. I think he was using it.’

‘For what?’ Blowfly asked.

‘To pick up water,’ she replied. ‘The lining’s waterproof. I think he was using it as a bucket. That’s why he came to the creek instead of running down the road. He was trying to put out the fire.’

They both regarded the body of the dead man, seeing him in a new light.

‘So he or one of his friends started the fire, maybe by accident, maybe on purpose,’ Blowfly said quietly. ‘He stayed to try and fight the fire and whoever was with him jumped in the car and left. Maybe they could have beaten it if there had been enough of them, but he didn’t stand a chance on his own. Firemen with tankers of water struggle to fight these fires. If these gits knew anything at all about bush-fires, they killed him as sure as if they’d poured petrol on him and lit a match.’

‘We need an ID,’ Jerm said.

‘We’ll get one,’ Blowfly said with certainty. He cast his eyes around the burnt landscape. ‘And when we know who he is, we’ll find his friends. I want to find out what kind of maniac starts something like this.’

‘Coroner’s here,’ Jerm announced, seeing a car coming over the top of the hill and turning down the farm track towards them.

Stripping off her latex gloves, she slipped them into her pocket. Then she lit up another cigarette.

‘You should put that out,’ Blowfly said.

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