Nick Carter‘s future seemed as bleak as Oakbury’s rainy, pot-holed streets when he stepped off the coach. He had come seeking a reporter’s job, but bus chatter made it plain this was a deadly dull town with more gossip than news. Council was even planning a Boring Festival.
Then there was his accidental vandalism on the coach, witnessed by the paper’s owner whose son also wanted the job and a foolish pact with his disapproving dad that could see him back in Sydney within weeks.
But a big man with a rifle and cartoon character masks has plans, too. His late-night reign of terror will shake the town and threaten Nick’s life.
The wannabe cadet reporter struggles to fit into a weird new world where hoaxes, humiliations, a burning pub, suspected explosive sausage and being shot become part of a day’s work. All that, plus balancing relationships with Sally, who keeps finding him unconscious at her feet, and feisty colleague Belinda.
Who will win his heart? Will the vengeful owner’s son end his career? Will he survive long enough to discover who’s behind the cartoon masks? And will Oakbury ever again be deadly dull, instead of flat-out deadly?
In the kitchen of his unit, the big man ran his fingers along the smooth brown curves. Gently, they rounded a wide, firm area then slid along the dark surface to touch a harder coolness. Then back again.
“So beautiful,” he whispered. “I can’t wait to take you out. Show you off.” His fingers lingered, caressed, rubbed. He chuckled. “They’ll all be struck by your …” He paused. Not beauty. That was for him. “Your menace.”
He picked up his new love, smiled at the deadly symmetry, admiring the skill that created this wood and metal instrument, threat crafted into every surface, curve and crevice. He slowly bounced its full length on outstretched hands, enjoying the weight. No toy this one. He visualised the fear on the faces of his chosen ‘victims’. They would gladly give him every cent they had, intimidated by the dark stare of the thrusting metallic eye.
He sighed and placed the weapon gently back on the black cloth at the end of the table, near two cartoon character masks and a plastic shopping bag. He picked up a red marker pen, unfolded the map of Oakbury and bent over it. His forefinger moved along streets, stopping from time to time to circle an address.
“Half a dozen should do.” He grinned. “For a start.” Now for a restful Sunday afternoon. Tonight he would case the first joint.
* * * * *
The coach arrived in Oakbury at 6.15pm. Sunday. It was dark and raining. The passengers gathered their belongings and tumbled out of the coach. About half a dozen people waited on the footpath, under shelter, to greet loved ones. Nick had left his behind. He sat in his seat while people passed along the aisle. He didn’t want to bump into the owner of the paper and coach line.
… He groaned and slowly stood, picking up his backpack and briefcase. He stepped onto the road, avoiding a puddled pothole. There were several. The road needed repair.
As Nick rushed to get under shelter, Browne walked towards him. Nick, distracted by the man’s approach from the side, stepped heavily into a large puddle. Water sprayed up his trousers, wetting parts he hadn’t soaked earlier. Browne adroitly skipped back, avoiding most of the muddy water. ... They shook, hands touching briefly, like boxers before a fight.
“Dennis Browne.” He wrinkled his nose and took a step backwards.
“Nick Carter.” He didn’t move, thinking it best to keep his scent to himself, as much as possible. …
“Mrs Hopper tells me you’re here for a job interview at The Times,” Browne said without smiling.
“Yes, Sir. For Cadet Reporter.”
“I hope you can behave better than you did on the coach.” Nick moved his mouth, trying to form words that might help. Before he did, Browne spoke again. “My coach business would go down the drain if we had too many passengers as disruptive as you were
Nick wanted to say it wasn’t as bad as Browne had made out: … He just said: “I’m sorry, Sir. Accidental.”
“I wouldn’t want anyone at The Times—which I also own—behaving like that either.” Nick was dumbstruck. “My son Gordon works in The Times’ office. He hopes to change soon. … “He’s applied for the cadet reporter job.”
They were standing in front of the Pack ’n’ Go Travel Agency. Past Browne’s shoulder, colourful posters tried to entice Nick away from the puddled streets of Oakbury with cheap holidays in Paris, Rome, New York, London. The sun shone in each one.
“Oh,” Nick said, hiding his dismay.
“Let’s leave it to the Editor, shall we?” As he turned away, he grinned at Nick and said: “Good luck with the chair.”
Just as he did every night, Joseph Cragnon decided he should start closing earlier. Nine o’clock seemed to take longer to arrive than it used to. When he was younger. When Maisie was here to help. When she was alive. Perhaps, he thought, again, running a convenience store at his age was a bit too much. Maybe close down all together. Sell up.
But, like he did every night he dismissed the thought. What would he do with his time without his little shop and his customers, who included a decreasing number of long-time friends. With his perpetual resignation, Joseph unclipped the open door and pushed it closed. He was reaching for the padlock at the top of the door when it was roughly slammed into him. He fell back into a display of soft drink cans. Some rattled to the floor and Joseph barely kept himself from joining them.
“Steady on,” the old shopkeeper said, pushing back. “We’re closed.”
“Not to me, you’re not,” a deep, male voice said.
The door was again shoved viciously into Joseph, forcing him further back. A tall figure dressed in black and disguised with a grinning rat mask pushed into the store and slammed the door. He held a rifle in his right hand and pointed it at Joseph. With his left hand, which held an empty green shopping bag, he reached up and slid the padlock across.
“Now, we’re closed.”
Who are you?” The old shopkeeper’s voice was steady.
“Don’t you recognise Roger Rat when you see him?” A harsh laugh, then back to business. “Give me your money.”
“We don’t have robbers in Oakbury," Joseph said.
“Do now. The little town has joined the big time.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It hasn’t been a good day. Not many customers.”
“Don’t muck about. Put it all in my bag,” He waved the rifle sideways.
“I only have … well … less than $20.”
The robber went to the counter and leant over to see the cash. “How can you only have that bloody miserly amount to show for all those hours? … He pushed his black rat face closer to Joseph, who slowly shook his head.
“Business is bad. Should sell up.” The robber banged the rifle butt on the counter.
Joseph counted $18.35 into the bag and passed it to the frustrated man in the Roger Rat mask.
“Eighteen dollars and thirty-five cents,” Joseph said. “Sorry. Would you like a few chocolates? Jelly babies? Creaming soda?”
Jimmy was nowhere to be seen. Neither were the firefighters. The hose was moving into the hotel like a giant boa constrictor searching for prey. Jimmy? Nick followed the path of the snake, treading from one side to the other as it wobbled around. He went into the bar to be confronted by a garish tableau from the netherworld.
Four sweaty firemen were grouped in front of the bar, each frozen in a dramatic pose, each coloured by the quivering flames. Smoke wafted around them like a dark fog from hell. Two held the hose, aiming water onto a burning corner. Another stood to the side, axe poised over his head, ready to strike who knows what. The fourth was beside the hose stream, pointing with his right hand and wiping his brow with a handkerchief in his left.
They were all looking, not at the fire, but at Jimmy, who was standing in the middle of the room, camera raised.
“That’s it. Mike, can you actually hit the bar with your axe.”
“I don’t want to damage it,” Mike said.
Nick looked around the smoke-blackened room with fire licking up the walls and thought it was a bit late to worry about a bar being damaged.
“Just touch the bar, swivel the axe so the blade shows more. Right. Right. You two with the hose, can you aim it a bit higher, Don’t want to put the fire out just yet.”
“We better get on with our job,” one of the hoseholders said. “Boss’ll be back down soon.”
It was as if Jimmy didn’t hear. “Just all look away from me. At the flames. Except Mike. Look at the counter.”
The camera clicked several times. The men relaxed and looked at Jimmy.
“We gotta go, mate,” another hoseholder said.
Mike said: “I think I had my eyes closed when the flash—"
“No worries,” Jimmy said.
Sergeant Lawson came in, Belinda stood behind him. She looked at Nick and opened her hands out to indicate she couldn’t control the policeman’s movements.
“Hey, you. Jimmy, isn’t it? Get out of here.”
Belinda said: “Jimmy, I told Sergeant Lawson you could take his photo for the story. I got some quotes from him.”
Jimmy turned reluctantly and walked towards the door. Nick followed, but suddenly stopped and listened. Some out-of-place sound. He rushed to the far end of the bar and went behind it.
“I meant you, too, sonny,” Lawson snarled.
“Nick, what are you doing?” Belinda went to step inside but the sergeant put his arm out like a carpark barrier.
Nick was out of sight, bent down behind the counter. Belinda ducked under the arm barrier and ran to the counter, ignoring Lawson’s commands. The sergeant didn’t enter the burning room.
Nick popped up, holding a cage. There was an agitated cat in it.
“Hey, Nick,” shouted Jimmy who had re-entered, sensing another picture opportunity. “Go over there, near the fire in the corner.”
“Don’t be stupid, Jimmy,” Belinda said.
“Get out here,” Lawson roared.
“Better pic, Nick. Puts cat in context.”
Nick slowly moved towards the near end of the counter, closer to the fire. Jimmy fired shots off. The cat meowed louder. Piteously.
Click flash. Click flash. “Great. Great.”
The cat, already alarmed by the repeated flashes, went berserk as they moved closer to the flames and Nick struggled to hold the jumping, jolting cage.
“It’s OK, cat,” he said, wishing it was. “I’m getting you away from this heat.”
“Come away, Nick.” Belinda cried out. “Poor thing’s terrified.” She retreated to the pub’s door next to Lawson.
“So’s the cat,” Jimmy said, grinning at Belinda. Click flash. Click flash. Click flash.
Nick had almost reached the end of the counter when he tripped on something behind the bar. His right arm flailed out and the cage banged on the counter. The door burst open and the cat leapt out. Its feet scrabbled on the wet counter, slithering, barely moving forward until its claws gripped and, screeching, it shot off the end like a stone out of a slingshot. It hit the floor a metre away from the counter and ran for the door.
Nick, unable to get a grip on anything with his left arm, fell out of sight. Belinda screamed. Lawson grabbed her arm to stop her rushing back into the bar.
Jimmy tried to refocus as the cat raced in his direction and he swung the camera down and sideways. The floor was wet. His feet slid from beneath him as he swivelled desperately to get a photo. His grip accidentally triggered flashes as he fell, propelling the cat into another burst of speed towards the door. Belinda and Lawson jumped aside as it disappeared into the street.
Nick’s head appeared over the counter. He lifted the heavyweight he had tripped over. A man’s head appear above the bar. Then more of him. Held up by Nick’s right arm. Both men staggered out from behind the bar. Nick wasn’t sure if the man was unconscious, dead or drunk. But he knew he needed someone to help get him out of the pub.
“Help. This bloke was on the floor. Sergeant!”