The Lies in the Air

The two detectives stood over the autopsy table, regarding the remains. The dead man had been Caucasian, middle-aged, overweight and balding. The body had a flattened, burst look, the flesh of the torso split in a number of areas. The intestines had already been removed, most of them having to be brought in separate from the body. The left arm was connected only by tendons and strands of muscle. As the coroner sprayed the corpse, cleaning it down, the water ran red with blood onto the stainless steel table and down the drains set into its surface. There were ligature marks on his wrists that indicated they’d been tied, and the man had a strange blood-bruise that circled most of his face, the face itself misshapen as if something had tried to suck it into a hole.

The coroner was a lean man with African features and a bass voice that sounded suitably sombre as he spoke into a recorder about the each step of the post-mortem. He spoke in German, his diction clipped and precise. The room was chilly, its surfaces all white tile, steel work units and painted concrete walls. The coroner said something to his assistant, a sallow, pinch-faced young woman, who handed him a scalpel. He began to make a Y-shaped incision down the torso, preparing to open up the chest cavity.

Unlike scenes in so many films, when a body falls from a great height, it rarely lands intact. It is, after all, a soft container of flesh whose shape is reinforced with rather brittle bone that tends to break on impact. The overall effect is that of dropping a meat balloon full of blood. The two detectives watched with detached interest, as a customer might watch a butcher prepare joints of meat. This was not their first autopsy.

Bill Flynn and Jemimah Hearn, known to their colleagues as Blowfly and Jerm, were part of an international unit attached to Interpol, tasked with investigating crimes with far-reaching consequences. They were in this room in Berlin today because the dead man might have a connection with two open, and possibly connected, cases. Lies-5Blowfly was neat and trim in dress and looks, his Oriental features stretched over fine bone structure, his manner still and relaxed, a faint Irish lilt to his voice. Jerm had a more neutral English accent, was more restless, and taller and more angular, with cropped dark brown hair which was never quite brushed into place. Her face had a subdued, dour expression without seeming cold, though whether that was from her job or because of her character was anyone’s guess.

‘So this guy fell from this building, TV Tower,’ Blowfly said.

He’d only arrived half an hour ago, having come in on a different plane to Jerm. He was still catching up.

‘Yeah,’ she replied. ‘The Fernsehturm. One of their most famous buildings, overlooks Alexanderplatz. His name’s Erich Ulbricht. He was a broadcaster, but he didn’t work in the tower himself.’

‘What’s with the mark on his face?’ Blowfly asked.

‘Oh, you’ll love this. When he hit the ground, he was wearing a gas mask.’

‘What?’

‘You heard me. A gas mask. The guy was wearing it when he was thrown off.’

‘We sure he was thrown?’

Jerm had a picture of TV Tower ready on her phone to show him.

‘Oh yeah, I know it,’ he said, nodding.

It was straight and thin, tapering to a point like a needle. About two thirds of the way up was a sphere, with another, rectangular structure above it. Most of the rest above that was an antenna.

‘See the glass ball?’ Jerm said. ‘That’s where the restaurant and viewing gallery are. Usual deal with these things, great view of all the big stuff nearby, you know; the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz . . . And it turns too. These restaurant places always have to turn now. Anyway, whoever did this to the guy, hung him by his feet down over the ball bit here. He was hanging right down in front of the windows of the restaurant.’

‘Kind of like . . .’

‘. . . A public hanging? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. There’s a definite punishment vibe coming off this thing. So he’s let hang there, his wrists tied behind him, wearing this gas mask and he’s thrashing around . . . Some of the staff think to run upstairs to see if they can pull him up. But when they get to the office he’s hanging from, they throw open the door and it’s . . .’ She paused. ‘The door was rigged. WhLies-6en they opened it, it released the end of the rope.’

Blowfly looked back at the corpse on the stainless steel table.

‘How high?’

‘Two hundred and ten metres, give or take.’

‘That’d do it all right.’

Neither of them spoke for a minute. Blowfly already knew why Jerm had taken an interest in the case. Erich Ulbricht worked for Hewbrys Holdings, or at least, the radio station he worked for was owned by the company. Hewbrys Holdings was connected to two of their other cases; a bush-fire in Australia and a terrorist attack on the Thames Barrier in London. And now this.

‘Different M.O.’ Jerm commented. ‘Completely different situation. Again. But it’s got the same stink off it. Someone’s playing games.’

‘Yeah, I’m having a theory,’ Blowfly said.

‘Great, I’ll call the press.’

Blowfly didn’t rise to the jibe. He was well used to his partner’s sarcasm. They were both about to say something else, when the coroner lifted his head and pulled down his mask for a moment.

‘I just thought you’d be interested to know,’ he said to them, his English spoken with a trace of American twang. ‘The gas mask had its breathing tube sealed. He wouldn’t have been able to breathe while he was wearing it. My preliminary examination of the lungs confirms it. He was asphyxiated. Even if he hadn’t fallen, he would have been dead within a minute or two.’

‘Any idea why?’ Jerm asked.

‘I believe that would be your job,’ the coroner replied. ‘Though I’m sure the Berliner Polizei will already have a long list of suspects. Mister Ulbricht was a divisive figure in Germany.’

‘How so?’ Blowfly said.

‘He was what you’d call a “shock jock”. Paid to spout offensive opinions. Even the name of the radio station, “Schutzwall“, is intended to get a rise out of people. Strictly translated, it means “rampart” or “protective wall”, but you would just call it, “the Wall”.’

‘That was the name of the Berlin Wall in German,’ Jerm told Blowfly. ‘Der Antifaschistischer Schutzwall. The Anti-Fascism Rampart.’

‘Yes,’ the coroner said.  ‘Though, perhaps it’s intended to be ironic, given Ulbricht’s politics and those of the station generally. He was the poster boy for every right-wing, reactionary campaign over the last few years. Lies-3He would have had plenty of enemies already, but after the guest he interviewed last week, well . . . there are probably thousands more.’

‘Why’s that?’ Blowfly asked.

‘The living aren’t my problem,’ the coroner said. ‘They’re yours. The interview got posted everywhere online. You should hear it for yourselves. You’ll understand.’

Giving them a grim smile, he pulled up his mask and returned to his work.

 

Erich Ulbricht’s fateful interview had been with a Polish woman named Dominika O’Reilly. She was an environmentalist who had been brought on to talk about the pollution in China’s cities; she had written an article about it in one of Germany’s newspapers, comparing it with the pollution Berlin faced in the seventies and eighties. She was thirty-six years old; a lean, active looking, slightly unkempt woman, her straight blonde hair cut in a bob just below the jaw-line, the features of her face blocky but strong and attractive, prematurely lined by what appeared to some underlying anger or frustration. Her eyes had the intensity of a campaigner.

‘Ulbricht brought me on to his show to make a point,’ she told the two detectives, her accent a light-sharp, chirping mix of Polish and Irish. ‘I was there to talk about climate change, but he wasn’t really interested in anything I had to say. He just wanted an excuse to go off on a rant about China.’

They were sitting down at a wooden table and benches outside a café beside the Documentation Centre at the Berlin Wall Memorial. O’Reilly had chosen the location, saying she did not want to be interviewed in a police station. She had had bad experiences with the police in the past. Blowfly and Jerm were inclined to agree. They had already checked out her criminal record, which listed a series of arrests for various extreme protests, ranging from chaining herself to mining machinery in Australia, to hanging off a bridge in the path of a container ship carrying toxic waste down a river in the US. She was now a German citizen; seemingly the only country she’d lived in where she’d never been arrested. Blowfly had a latte in front of him, Jerm had a black coffee and was lighting a cigarette. O’Reilly had only asked for tap water. She didn’t look too happy about the cigarette smoke, but she didn’t say anything.

‘When we talked on the phone,’ Blowfly began, ‘you said you weren’t surprised to hear Ulbricht died wearing a gas mask. Hearing that someone’s been thrown off a building with a gas mask on would be pretty surprising to most people.’

‘I’m not most people,’ O’Reilly replied. ‘Perhaps I was being insensitive about someone who’d just been murdered. I don’t particularly care that he’s dead, but it’s horrible how he died. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. The reason I said I wasn’t surprised was because of his background. You said you’d listened to the interview?’

‘Yes,’ Jerm said, exhaling smoke, ‘but we’d like to hear the story straight from you.’

O’Reilly sipped her water, tilting her head back to look at the sky. Across from them was one of the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, complete with one of the old watch-towers. It was there as a monument now, a reminder. But Berlin had moved on, consigning that part of itself to history.

‘It’s funny, how different things are normal in different places,’ the young woman said. ‘Fifty years ago, that wall dividing the city was normal. Stasi surveillance and all its informers, the horrible paranoia, was normal. Life recovering from the world’s worst war was normal. City streets obscured by a choking smog was normal. Now we think this is normal, what we have now. And yet this has only existed for such a very short time. I like this normal – here, now, in Berlin. The environment is taken seriously.’ Lies-7She gestured over her shoulder at a billboard on the wall. It was for an organization called Naturschutzbund Deutschland, and showed a boat passing through water whose surface was carpeted in garbage. ‘It’s part of normal conversation. People don’t consider you a nut for talking about conservation, climate change, that kind of thing.’

Jerm thought about the other two cases they were still working on; one that concerned bush-fires in the Australian state of Victoria, the other the Thames Barrier in London. Both had an environmental facet to them, though she and Blowfly had been unable to establish that as a solid connection.

‘You very worried about climate change?’ she asked.

‘I should be,’ O’Reilly answered. ‘But I mustn’t be worried enough.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because it’s so serious, I should be out planting bombs to stop all this coal mining and oil drilling. I should be helping to blow up these mines and oil rigs. That’s how serious it is. It’s going to bring down civilization as we know it, so I should be doing anything possible to stop it. But I don’t. I should be willing to go to prison to make change happen, but I’m not. I don’t go far enough.’

‘You’re not going to do anyone any good in prison,’ Jerm remarked bluntly. ‘Tell us about the circumstances leading up to the interview.’

‘Yes, the interview,’ O’Reilly said, grimacing. ‘Not that it was an interview at all. I’d been asked to talk about my article on air pollution in China. In some cities, on some days, they have to wear masks when they go out on the streets. That was what I wanted to talk about. I mean, it’s only a symptom of the level of carbon in the air. You know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached four hundred parts per million?’

‘I’ve heard it,’ Jerm said, ‘but . . . well . . . I don’t really know what it means.’

‘It hasn’t been that high in the last three to five million years!’ O’Reilly exclaimed, her voice taking on the tone of an evangelist, her hands clasped in the air. ‘Back then, sea levels could have been thirty metres higher than today. The atmosphere’s been doing its thing, changing ever so slowly over all this time and then the industrial revolution comes along and suddenly the carbon levels start rocketing . . . It’s not just a few shifts in the weather we’re talking about here. Lies-2We’ve affected the air and the seas so much, we’ve changed the Earth’s future capacity to support the world as we know it. That’s how big a deal this is. That’s what I wanted to talk about . . .’

Pausing, she lowered her hands, giving the two detectives a sheepish, but bitter smile.

‘You see how I get. Anyway, I knew Ulbricht would ambush me, turn it into a chance for him to launch into some tirade against China. I’ve been caught out by people like him before. They don’t want real discussion or debate, they’re not trying to draw out the truth. This time, I thought I’d take a different approach. I’d employ some of his own tactics. I’d dig up some dirt on him. I knew he’d grown up in East Berlin, so when I was invited on the show, I contacted someone I know at the Stasi-Unterlagen-Behörde, the Stasi Records Agency, who hold all the old files from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit.’ She rolled the German words off her tongue, as if tasting them. ‘My friend was surprised nobody had done a search on Ulbricht before, given the number of people who hate him, but there you are. Anyone can apply – the MfS files are all open to the public. Or perhaps nobody had dug far enough down. The Germans are keen to let it all lie, I suppose. It’s taken a lot of tolerance for Berliners, living together in the same city, to get past the suspicion, the paranoia that existed back then. Imagine how you’d feel if you found out that your neighbour had informed on you to the Stasi – or even one of your own family? If its people had looked for revenge on one another, Berlin would have descended into chaos. Instead, they had to forgive and forget, to get on with their lives. It’s so complex, so fascinating. And it’s extraordinary, what you can still find in the Stasi files from that time. Did you know they have an archive of sweat and body odour samples? I think it was for when they needed to use tracker dogs. The bastards even recorded your smells . . .

‘Whatever. I learned that Ulbricht had worked for the Stasi. He was an informer first, in university, then an operative, then an interrogator. The last references to him in the Stasi material were in connection with the South African Police. I kept digging and found mention of him in a report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. Apparently, when the wall fell, he moved to South Africa, where he continued to practise his trade.’

She paused once again, for effect this time, to ensure she had the full attention of her audience.

‘Ulbricht’s method of choice was the gas mask. He would put it on the prisoner and, if the victim didn’t talk, he’d block the air tube so they couldn’t breathe. He would do this until they passed out, then open the tube again. When the prisoner regained consciousness, he told them he would do it again, but this time he’d let them suffocate. Lies-8He claimed they never failed to tell him everything he wanted to know. After the fall of apartheid in ’94, he ran back to Germany. No charges were ever brought against him in either country. He managed to successfully build a new life in the media, covering up his past.’

Blowfly and Jerm had already heard the story, and Ulbricht’s apoplectic reaction to it during the interview, which had resulted in the show going off the air while O’Reilly was escorted from the building. Ulbricht had been placed on a leave of absence until the issue was resolved. Even a controversy-courting station like Schutzwall FM couldn’t employ someone who might have once been a torturer.

‘So a guy whose job it was to torture information out of people became an interviewer on the radio,’ Jerm sniffed. ‘Nice.’

‘He polluted the airwaves with his filthy arguments and accusations,’ O’Reilly said, scowling. ‘He used his position to humiliate others, to inspire fear and hatred and to denounce decent people with his propaganda and to undermine scientists who were warning against climate change, which was one of his pet hates.’

‘As I said, I’d never wish that kind of death on anyone, but I’m not sorry he’s dead. Whoever did this, they’re making a point. A bit heavy-handed, I’ll grant you . . . and unlike me, they’re not compromising. To be honest, I’m surprised someone hasn’t already claimed credit for it. This isn’t a normal murder, I think it’s the act of a terrorist. And terrorists want publicity.’

The three talked for a little while longer and then Blowfly and Jerm thanked Dominika O’Reilly for her time and she left. The two detectives regarded each other for a moment.

‘Definite pattern around this climate change thing,’ Jerm observed. ‘They’re all aspects of global warming, aren’t they? You get more bush-fires in Victoria, more storm surges along the Thames. And now this: a climate change denier who’s also a torturer, outed by an environmentalist.’

‘There’s something else,’ Blowfly added. ‘I think there’s something here about the classical elements.’

‘The what?’

‘The classical elements, the four states of matter . . . y’know; earth, air, fire and water. Earth is solid, air is gas, fire is plasma and water is liquid. Although sometimes there’s five, if you include the quintessence, or aether.’

‘Oh, sure. Right.’

‘No, listen,’ Blowfly persisted. ‘The first victim, Cameron Davis, burned to death. The second, Antonia Abbot, drowned. This guy, who “polluted the airwaves”, fell through the air while suffocating . . .’

‘Yeah, yeah, I get it. But . . . so what?’

‘So it’s symbolism of some kind. Like O’Reilly said, someone’s making a point. Yes, it looks like the work of terrorists, but where are the claims of responsibility? She’s right; terrorists want publicity – that’s what it’s all about. I’m betting there’s going to be another victim, possibly two. And the next one’s likely to be something to do with earth.’

Jerm slapped the table and blasted smoke from her mouth.

‘Goddammit, Blow! You’ve cracked the case! We just have to stop someone dying of earth and we’ll nail the bastards who are behind this.’

‘You’re such a piss-taker,’ Blowfly sighed.

‘You’re such a bullshitter,’ she retorted.

‘It’s why we make such a good team,’ he replied, grinning.

She smiled back, picking up her case and taking out her tablet. Opening a window, she typed in Ulbricht’s name and the words ‘climate change’.

‘Let’s see if he pissed off anyone special with this denial stuff,’ she said, tapping the screen. ‘The violence against the victims has all been up close; it feels more personal than your average terrorist. I’m betting it’s someone who actually met him – maybe someone who featured on his show . . .’ A photo caught her eye and she stared at what had appeared on the screen. She spread her fingers over it, zooming in on the picture. ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’

‘No question o’ that,’ Blowfly murmured.

‘Smart-arse. Look at this.’

The photo was only tagged with Ulbricht’s name, but the image showed four people. The detectives recognized three of them. The image was a scan of a newspaper article about a group that had been assembled by the CEO of Hewbrys Holdings to ‘investigate the possible effects of climate change on air quality in Central Europe’. The people standing next to Erich Ulbricht in the picture were named in the newspaper’s caption, but it was just part of the image; the words wouldn’t show up on a search of the web. Next to the radio presenter was Hewbrys’ ‘Environmental Affairs Spokesperson’, Antonia Abbot and ‘Atmospheric Chemist’, Cameron Davis. The fourth person was a ‘prominent environmentalist’ named Michal Jánošík. Jerm went on to do a search for Michal Jánošík online, while Blowfly opened his laptop and checked him out on the Interpol database.

‘He’s got a record,’ Blowfly said. ‘Numerous arrests; most seem to be for protests of one sort or another. He’s got a sheet longer – and more extreme – than O’Reilly.’

‘He’s also dead,’ Jerm declared. ‘Murdered last year. Looks like we’re going to Poland.’

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.