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.

Colouring Judgement

 

The man gulped air like a fish thrown onto the deck of a boat. Which was ironic, given that he felt as if he was breathing water. A humid summer day in Melbourne. The air was so thick he wished for gills. He had been here less than a week and this was the second time the weather had caught him off guard.

His face, arms and the back of his neck were salmon pink with sunburn after wandering around the city the day before. The straps of his small backpack made his t-shirt feel like sand-paper on his shoulders. The damp air had deceived him. The clear heat of the summers in his own country did less damage than the radiation that scorched your skin here. In the soupy atmosphere, he had burned before the heat had offered any warning.

Today was worse. Walking around with the backpack, sweat clung to his back and armpits as the oppressive humidity filled the air like a fog. Walking down Swanston Street, he listened to snatches of conversation from the people he passed, trying to pick up English phrases, but the language was as difficult to understand as the air was to breathe. The man felt he was wading sluggishly through both. It seemed Australians did not speak the kind of English he had learned in his classes back home. They used phrases he had never heard: ‘As full as a boot’; ‘A face like a dropped pie’; ‘I’ve got to hit the frog and toad’; ‘As useful as an arsehole on your elbow’. He did not understand these phrases.

Also, his teacher had spoken with an American accent, teaching her students to speak in the same way which, combined with the man’s own accent, was apparently making it hard for anyone here to understand him. Even though he and the Australians were speaking the same language, they were each making very different sounds. And then there were so many other nationalities here, with different accents of their own, some of whom had English only marginally better than his. And Australians spoke too quickly for him. He had to keep asking people to repeat themselves, which made conversation a strain.

Without fluency, his language was crude and mechanical and now, unaccustomed as he was to this smothering weather, he knew he looked out of place, as well as sounding it. A sunburnt, sweating, awkward, clumsy-tongued foreigner. To those who didn’t know him, he seemed a very different person to the man he actually was. It was exhausting, trying to be himself in this other place. This environment made him someone else.

Strewth!’ he exclaimed, wiping his forehead as he gazed up at the unrelenting blue of the sky.

His sister, who watched a lot of Australian soap operas, had told him that if he wanted to speak like an Australian, he had to learn to swear like one. He wasn’t sure the list of swear words she had given him was that accurate . . . or up to date. But they were easy to pronounce and he was fond of swearing, and he thought they were improving his Australian accent, so he had made a conscious effort to use them whenever he could.

Bugger!’ he muttered, shifting the straps on his shoulders before he started walking again.

He had forgotten how sore sunburn could be. And it was starting to itch like crazy. He had not put sun-cream on yesterday – he hated the stuff and hardly ever used it at home. His sister had told him Australian sun was different. Something about the hole in the ozone layer. The UV rays were stronger. She had warned him not to be macho and stubborn and to wear the bloody sun-cream. Well, now he was burnt. ‘Dumb as a box of rocks’, as the Australians said . . . according to the soaps. He could imagine the self-righteous cow folding her arms and jutting her chin out in satisfaction. He rubbed the back of his neck and winced at the warm sting of it. He’d put the bloody stuff on today, all right. Pain was a great persuader.

He caught a few people smiling at his glowing pink skin and scowled to himself. Yes, yes, he had been caught out. What of it? Let them try living through one of the winters at home and see how they fared. He remembered a time when an Aussie immigrant he knew was out in sub-zero temperatures, working on his car. Library-1The idiot had put a bolt between his lips to hold it while he went to undo a second one. And then was shocked to find the bolt had frozen to his lips. He had quickly stopped the Aussie from trying to pull it free, telling him to take a drink from his mug of coffee instead, to warm the freezing metal. Pulling the bolt free would have torn the skin off his lips.

The man shook his head at the memory as he came to another cross-roads of wide streets – they were all wide streets around here; if there was one thing this country wasn’t lacking, it was space. Looking across the junction, he saw the state library on the opposite corner. People in brightly-coloured clothes sat out on the grass at the front and skateboarders practised their moves along benches and kerbs on the wide pavement. To his left, he saw a building that look like it had a roof built out of plastic frogs.

Bloody hell!’ he muttered.

That was another thing here; the colours. People seemed to be able tolerate the most garish colours in the most prominent places. The television in the mornings was filled with images coloured like children’s toys. Was that an effect of the sun too? Did it dazzle their eyes so much, they could only see in primary hues? Or was his own judgement ‘coloured’ by the light back home?  Could an entire nation’s taste be influenced by its weather? He supposed it could. Compared to the muted tones he was used to at home, this place looked like a crèche, but then there were some who might find his home town a depressing place. He often did. It was one of the reasons he had accepted the job with the mining company here.

Walking into the library, up the steps and past the pillars that towered over its entrance, he was awestruck by its scale. This was not a palace or a corporation headquarters but a place for holding books and information, a place people could just wander into and use. And yet it was a majestic place. Instead of one great hall to impress visitors and then, as you might expect, a collection of smaller, more utilitarian rooms, the place seemed to consist of one spacious, individually designed room after another. An architect’s showcase.

Crikey!’ he gasped in his thick accent.

The air was cooler and clearer here and the man breathed easier, strolling slowly, his head turning from one side to the other constantly as he took it all in. And the books, of course. This was not a borrowing library, but still, there was plenty of space to sit and read, there were plenty of computers to use. Library-2This place seemed created to remind him that reading was a chance to share in the thoughts of others, but at his own speed. He did not have to be hurried by the pace of someone else’s speech.

He walked through a gallery space that looked like it had been transported from one of the great old galleries of Europe and transplanted here. In a smaller chamber off to one side, he was surprised to find an exhibition of illustrations from children’s books. Moving from one to the next, he was more touched by them than the grander oil paintings in the room beyond. Simple, but nuanced; bold, but delicate, they were so like the pictures in the books he had grown up with. Sitting here, surrounded by these images from Australian children’s books, he felt strangely at home. A tension dissolved out of him and, without thinking, he sat down on a bench to let the moment take effect.

Why had he never learned how to draw? Why was it not taught as a language in schools? Everyone understood pictures. Library-3He had enjoyed it when he was a child, but he had not kept it up as he got older. Looking at these pictures, he regretted that decision, if it had been a decision at all.

You little rippers!’ he murmured, with a faint smile.

After nearly fifteen minutes of just sitting there, enjoying the lightness of the room, he moved on and found the yawning space at the centre of the library, beneath the giant dome. Walking in, he tilted his head back, his neck straining to let him take in the full view above. The sky was an aching, intense blue framed within the panes of glass. My God, that blue! How had he not noticed it before? Was this what it took to for him to truly see it? Did it have to be framed like this, like a piece of artwork? At this moment, at home, the winter sky would most likely be overcast or a pale blue at best, but this colour was like a force of nature, holding onto his eyes. What a blue!

After leaving the library, he found a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Sitting down, he took his notebook and pen from his bag. When the waitress came over, he ordered some noodles, pointing to the menu when the waitress failed to understand the words spoken in his strong accent. When he was about to ask her another question and realized he didn’t know the right words, he opened his notebook and drew a very rough paintbrush and pallet.

Oh, art supplies!’ she exclaimed with a smile, nodding and taking the pen from his hand. ‘Yes, there’s a shop nearby. Here, I’ll draw you some directions . . .’