Dome of Death

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 7


'Peter! What're you…? What…?' Hank frowned and looked nervously up the drive. 'The police have just gone. They…they...'. He shook his head worriedly. 'You'd better come in.'

We stood in the hallway - awkward.

'Who is it, Hank?' Celia's voice was faint and tremulous.

Hank coughed uncertainly and didn't reply.

I wanted to shout, It's me! Peter! But controlled myself and said quietly, 'We couldn't let you know we were coming. Things have been a bit dodgy.'

'So I believe.'

I couldn't work out what was happening. Hank seemed almost unfriendly, suspicious, uncertain.

'Who is it?' Celia again; voice cracked, querulous.

'It's Peter.'


Lack of sleep, festering wounds and physical exhaustion had me out on the edge. I looked at Jon in despair.

He took my arm and said quietly, 'We've arrived at a bad time, Peter. Let's go.'

'Peter.' Celia came in and stood beside her husband, voice low and serious, eyes fixed on mine. 'The police have just left. They came to tell us that Frances is dead. They said you murdered her.'

I suppose I looked as blank as I felt.

'That's bloody ridiculous!' shouted Jon. 'How can anyone who calls themselves a friend…'

I put my hand on his. 'And what do you think, Celia?'

'I find it difficult to believe.'

'How difficult?'

She burst into sobs and hugged me, burying her head in my chest. 'Impossible! You could never do such a thing. Forgive me. It's just that the police were so insistent and… and Patrick isn't answering our calls.'

I looked over her shoulder at Hank.

He frowned deeply and said apologetically, 'In my heart, I knew it was ridiculous, but the police are adamant it was you. They say they have proof!'

'Proof? What proof?'

'MacFife saw you and… and your friend driving away from the gallery in the early hours of the morning – just after Frances was murdered.'

It was too stupid for words. 'But I didn't even know she was dead! How could…'

Jon interrupted brusquely. 'I'm Jonathan, Mr Fierney, Jon Moore. Remember we met the other day at Peter's. I didn't realise who you were then, but I knew Max. He befriended me when I first arrived on the coast. I worked for him.'

Celia gazed at Jon, uncomprehending, then took hold of her husband as if for support. 'You knew Max?'

'Yes. He was the kindest and best man I've ever known – until Peter.' Jon hurled the last two words like missiles, then stood still, daring them to disagree.

Hank and Celia stared, searching his eyes for something. They didn't find it and with a small cry Celia turned away as if ashamed. Hank bent to comfort her and suddenly I realised they were old - old and tired.

'Peter's on his last legs.' Jon said gently 'His wounds need dressing and we're both hungry and thirsty. We've just walked from his place.'

They looked up sharply.

'And neither of us is a murderer.'

'No. No, of course you're not.' Hanks' voice was almost inaudible 'I'm sorry. Terribly, terribly sorry. Come through… come through…' He turned and shuffled into the lounge.

We followed, embarrassed. I was light headed, dizzy, and couldn't think what to say.

'Mr Fierney,' Jon said firmly, 'can you look after Peter? I'll help Mrs Fierney prepare something to eat and drink, and then we'll tell you what really happened.'

He took Celia by the hand to the kitchen where crockery was soon clinking. Hank led me into the bathroom, visibly startled when I stripped. He bathed, disinfected and dressed my wounds and expressed concern about the infected ankle, but asked no questions.

The sandwiches were superb, the tea a fragrant elixir. We ate like starvelings. Afterwards we carried the dishes out to the kitchen and helped wash and clean up. I wanted to re-establish our old easy friendship before returning to the lounge and telling them Max's death had been murder, not an accident.

They listened to my tale quietly, too miserable to react. Hank was the first to break the silence.

'It makes sense,' he said wearily. 'Max was a mountain goat. He'd never have lost his footing. It had to be something like that. They found an old broomstick on the roof, I remember.'

I nodded miserably.

'And they tried to pull the same trick with you and Jon.' He looked at me, face white and drawn. 'Peter! Why do people do these things? What was it all about? And what's happened to Patrick?'

All I could offer was a hopeless shrug. 'I asked MacFife why. He reckoned it wasn't the money, it was the power money can buy.'

'Power over what? Over whom?' demanded Celia.

'Beats me. I've no idea what he wants the gallery for. Selling drugs? Money laundering? Frances was lying to Max when she said they were going to keep their noses clean – she was already in cahoots with MacFife. And when Max refused to play along they arranged an accident and got rid of him. Then they tried to do the same to me. As for Patrick, I've no idea where he might be. All I know is he saved our lives.'

'But… why would they take him with them?'

'Panic? He burst on the scene firing his gun, shouting and yelling abuse and threats. They had to silence him in case he identified them later. But I'm sure he was alive when they loaded him into the car.'

Celia stifled a sob. 'Mr MacFife can have no idea you're still alive, Peter, so that proves his guilt.'

Hank mused over this. 'You're right, Celia. It's a damned clever plot. Accuse a dead man of murder, so when he disappears his friends will assume he was guilty and did a runner. And if the coroner decided Jon's fall wasn't an accident, the cops would assume Peter got rid of him as well as Frances before taking off.'

'But thanks to luck and Patrick, we're still here.'

'And wanted for murder.' Jon muttered sombrely. 'What exactly did MacFife tell the police?'

Celia unwound a little from her cocoon of sadness.

'He told them that he and Frances shared a belated wedding celebration at the gallery that evening with you and Peter. He left the party early, around seven o'clock, to meet someone in Caloundra, and didn't get home till around four-thirty. He wasn't worried about leaving Frances alone because you and Jon were sleeping in Max's old room. He arrived home some time between half-past four and five.

As he pulled into the parking area, you two drove away in the Mercedes. He waved, but neither of you responded. You seemed in a great hurry. Not wanting to disturb his wife he curled up on the sofa in the lounge and fell asleep. At seven o'clock he woke and took her in a cup of coffee, but she wasn't there. He found her in the gallery, at the bottom of the internal staircase. She had been sexually assaulted, tortured, and her neck was broken. He telephoned the police and reported the death.' Celia took Hank's hand, playing absently with his fingers.

I broke out in a sweat. It was too plausible. 'When did she die?'

'Between midnight and four a.m.'

'The story's too good! I was in Frances's bedroom that evening until seven o'clock. There's no way I can prove I was buried alive and trapped in the storm-water drains. Even my alibi with the Alconas doesn't hold up because I didn't get there till after four. We could have murdered Frances, faked my wounds, driven up to the Alconas and, while I was conning Mad and Brian to give me an alibi, Jon could have driven on up to the studio in the Mercedes on his own.

That would cover Scumble and Glaze if someone remembered seeing the vehicle on the road that morning. If anyone heard the gunshots, the neighbours would have assumed I was shooting hares. I often take pot shots in the mornings. As for the all-night meeting in Caloundra, Scumble and Glaze would provide an alibi. I'll bet MacFife's had something like this worked out for ages. Simply waited for an opportunity. He probably turned Frances over to those two animals as a reward when they returned from dumping me.'

'Poor Frances,' whispered Celia. 'As ye sow…'

'The only glitch occurred,' I interrupted, unable to find any sympathy for Celia's ex daughter-in-law, 'when Patrick arrived. If there'd been an inquiry he could've identified them, so they knocked him out and took him away.'

'Poor, silly Patrick,' Celia interrupted sadly. 'So hot-headed. At least some good came of it this time.' When she looked up, tears were streaming. 'Hank confronted him, you know, and he admitted setting your place alight and vandalising the studio.' She shook her head, dabbed at her eyes and blew her nose. 'He has marital problems - not that that gives him the slightest excuse. We hoped he would apologise and make good the damage. It seems he had decided to do neither.' She turned miserably to Hank. 'Darling, isn't it strange he hasn't been reported missing?'

'His secretary will probably assume he's taken the day off, she's getting used to coping, and he's been sleeping in the flat above his office so Margaret and the children won't have missed him yet. I'll ring and make certain he hasn't returned, and then report him missing.'

'And if he turns up dead, you know who'll be blamed!' snapped Jon. 'The way Patrick arrived, shouting, cursing and letting fly with his rifle, it was perfectly obvious he nursed a deep grudge against Peter. The cops will assume Peter got rid of him too, because Rory and Lida, the neighbours, also know that it was Patrick who trashed the place.' He stopped abruptly, embarrassed. 'Sorry, I told them about our suspicions. It wasn't till I phoned Peter on Sunday evening that I realised I should have kept my mouth shut.'

Tears ran unheeded as Celia buried her face in her husband's arms. He stroked her hair helplessly. My brain was churning, trying to find a flaw, a chink in the case against me. I couldn't.

'The awful thing is,' I said, 'that it doesn't really matter to MacFife that Jon escaped. He'll still have the murder pinned on him, and when I don't turn up he'll be charged with murdering me as well. Have you an alibi for Monday night, Jon?'

He shook his head angrily. 'After telephoning you at five, I worked till it was dark then took a book to bed.' He shook his head in disbelief. 'MacFife looks so charming and pleasant.'

'Perhaps being able to murder at will is what he means by power,' said Celia chillingly.

I looked around. We were a tableau of impotence. I ran through everything again in my head, but MacFife had it all sewn up. It seemed impossible that it was less than forty-eight hours since the orgy in Frances's bedroom and Glaze had shoved me onto the beach.

The memory of the Alconas' generosity sent a spurt of shame. They'd be worried if they didn't hear from me. And we had to plan. It was impossible now for us to stay with Hank and Celia. They were exhausted and needed to be alone. And the cops were sure to return, knowing we were friends. I excused myself and telephoned from the kitchen.

Brian answered, the obvious relief in his voice exacerbating my guilt. I apologised for my tardiness and asked if he'd heard about Frances. After an alarmingly extended silence he said carefully, 'Yes. It was in the paper and on the news. You and a Jonathan Moore were named as being required to help the police with their inquiries. Anyone who knew of your whereabouts should contact the nearest police station. I'll read you a headline, Brutal Murder of Recently Married Gallery Owner. Police seek Director and Manager. I was waiting to hear from you before contacting them. You might need us to vouch for your whereabouts.'

'No good. I arrived at your place too late.'

Another weighty silence.

'If that's the case,' he said ponderously, 'then it would be better, in the short term, for you to remain dead – in MacFife's eyes – and on the run as far as the cops are concerned. I have every confidence in our police force, but they are under extreme pressure at the moment, what with all the looting and other fallout from the floods, and it's not inconceivable that MacFife's money and position may influence them more than your sincerity.'

'I'd decided the same thing and we've already made plans to lie low for a while.'


'I'll let you now.'

'Which means you've no idea.'

'I'm not an idiot.'

'No, you're not. That's why you'll stay with us until the matter's cleared up. The police are certain to be keeping an eye on Max's parents' place, in case you go there.'

I hesitated.

'When and where do we collect you?'

'Jon's with me. You can't take him as well, so thanks for the offer; it means more than you could ever guess, but honestly… we've got everything planned and… I'll keep in contact.'

Silence. Then, 'Would Jon fit in … with us?'

'As well as I do.'

'I'll trust your judgement. Jeff will pick you both up this evening at seven o'clock. Give him directions.'

Jeff came on the line bubbling with relief. 'Peter! I've been shit scared something had happened to you. Your Mercedes passed me as I turned on to the highway. I've been going nuts worrying, and…' Muffled voices interrupted him and he came back, 'Dad's just told me to shut up and listen. I've got a map and pencil and paper, where's the rendezvous?'

I gave him directions to the place we'd been dropped that morning. As I couldn't pinpoint the exact spot, I told him to cruise up and down a couple of kilometres each side of it with the interior light on. We couldn't guarantee to be there exactly at seven because of the long hike down. We'd hide at the side of the road and flash a torch at him.

'Gotcha. See you in about three hours.'

I replaced the receiver shakily. What had I done to deserve such friends? I wondered whether I would behave as well if the roles were reversed. I told Jon and Celia the news while Hank telephoned Patrick's secretary, and Jill, his wife. As neither woman knew his whereabouts, he informed the police Patrick was missing, taking care not to mention he'd been to my place. He appeared slightly calmer when he returned to the lounge. The process of righting wrong had begun.

Talk on other topics was impossible, so we went over the details again and again as though trying to undo the past and unlock the key to future justice. Hank, aware of the power of moneyed crooks, agreed it would be better to await developments before going to the police with our tale. Celia looked less than convinced.

'But, Peter,' she implored, 'why would Mr MacFife do that to Frances?'

'Would you like to live with her?' asked Jon tersely. 'He married her, so he'll inherit the gallery and all her assets. Why keep her?'

'Terrible. Terrible,' she murmured.

'Human nature asserting itself,' muttered Hank. 'Never underestimate the depths to which the avaricious will descend.'

'It's as if there are two totally different types of human beings – evil and good.'

'More like a continuum, from the inexpressibly horrible to the unimaginably good,' Hank said quietly. 'We each wobble around on a spot somewhere along that line, tending to meet similar types, insulated from people who are completely different. Lawyers, social workers, soldiers and police are among the few who get to see, first hand, the horrors humans are capable of.'

As though emptied of life, the elderly couple sat, softly sad. Polite protestations over our imminent departure couldn't conceal their relief at not being required to take responsibility for another two souls. We didn't tell them where we were going, and they didn't ask. Hank gave us his mobile phone number.

'I still have a few contacts. I can find out what, if anything, the police are doing, and perhaps some useful information. So you must keep in contact.'

There was time for a lie-down and meal before setting out to cross the rough terrain we had so laboriously traversed only six hours previously. Just after seven o'clock, sweaty, scratched and nervous, we hid ourselves in the long grass at the roadside. A couple of minutes and about ten cars later, the Volvo appeared, interior light burning. As I flashed my torch Jeff was passed by blinding headlights and missed the signal. A short time later he returned, saw our beacon and drew into the side of the road.

Jeff drove straight into the garage and closed the doors before putting on any lights. Jon and I unwound from the floor where we'd been concealing ourselves, and went through to the entrance hall. Jeff took the internal staircase upstairs. We stripped, hung everything in the vast wardrobe and, slightly nervous, let ourselves into the living area.

Until that evening I'd not talked about the Alconas to Jon, they'd been my secret to savour in miserable moments - proof that the entire human race wasn't composed of mindless consumers of self-destruction. I hadn't even introduced him to them at the opening of Mad's exhibition - we were still a bit wary of each other at that stage. So while we were resting on the spare bed at the Fierney's before going down to meet Jeff, I'd filled him in on the most important details.

'The Alconas are nudists. We'll have to be naked too,' I said casually.

'Good one. Hope they keep the place warm.'

Encouraged by his easy acceptance I told him about Hank's bad back, Mad's hairless body and Jeff's unrequited love life. He had nodded perfunctorily, emitting the usual grunts and responses we make when hearing news about mutual friends. Lastly, I described Der and Dra, the word-games they played, their light-hearted seriousness, and as though it was an unimportant afterthought added, they're very much in love and sleep together.'

Jon looked across at me with a dreamy smile, ran a finger softly across my cheek and whispered, 'That's beautiful. Remember I told you I moved my bed out to the washhouse?'

'Yes. Your homework.'

'That was the excuse. The real reason was because I had to share a bed with my brother and was worried I was turning into a pervert. I kept wanting to stroke and kiss him, lie against him and.... He's better looking than me. If I rolled over against him during the night he went berserk and used to hit out. I always acted bewildered innocence, but if Dad had discovered my feelings he'd have killed me.' Jon looked away. 'Literally. He would have killed me.' He turned back, smiling quietly. 'I think it's excellent about Der and Dra, and the whole family sounds very interesting, very pleasant and very special. So don't worry. I'll neither gossip nor disgrace myself.'

'I didn't think you would, but…'

'But you want to protect your friends. That's to be proud of. The large bedroom sounds cosy and loving. I haven't had much unconditional love in my life,' he murmured pensively, 'but enough to realise it's the only truly precious thing.'

The family was standing in a tight, nervous circle. Equally nervous, we stood before them.

'This is Jon, everyone. Jon, this is Mad.'

Jon took Mad's hand, smiled and said, 'You're as perfect as your drawings.'

She laughed lightly, and plonked an impulsive kiss on his cheek.

Brian's still fragile spine was supported by a surgical corset. Jon asked after his back, complimented him on what he'd seen of the house so far, and then twinkled, 'I love the lingerie, swap you for my bra.' We all burst out laughing. It was a ludicrous sight – a couple of naked men, one in a brassiere of bandages, the other in a corset.

Brian curtsied awkwardly, 'Wait till you see my bottom drawer.'

We all cracked up as Jon turned to Jeff. 'Chauffeur extraordinaire. You've saved my life twice in the last forty-eight hours. If I wasn't already spoken for I'd be yours.'

More laughter. It wasn't what he said, it was the way he said it. When he's in the mood Jon can make even the most banal sentence sound witty. He deposited a noisy kiss on Jeff's forehead and turned to the twins.

'You're exactly as Peter described,' he said seriously. 'Two halves of a perfect whole. Plus and minus, joy and solemnity, tension and relaxation. Wise indeed are those who know when they have found their mate.'

They stood before him; mystical celebrants, eyes shining, laughter on lips. For although it reads like sentimental tripe, as the words slipped from his lips they fluttered light-heartedly about the room, enchanting their targets. Suddenly shy, he turned to me for reassurance.

A babble of relief. By artlessly suggesting his hosts' anxieties were groundless, Jon had granted them absolution. Their fears had been exposed as phantoms. From that moment he was one of the family - a state he accepted as perfectly natural, whereas I'll go to the grave wondering how I deserved such friends.

All eyes turned to me, mainly because of the blood dribbling onto the polished floor and also because I fainted. It was partly the warmth, partly the stress of wanting Jon to be liked, and mostly everything that had happened over the last two days. I came to my senses on a plastic sheet on the dining table, encircled by concerned faces as Brian removed dressings, looked up seriously and said, 'Now, if this were a dog…'

'Hey! Watch it,' I grunted. I'm not…'

'Not much different. People think vets aren't as qualified as doctors, but we have to know the physiology of lots of different animals and perform surgery quite as complicated as most surgeons do on humans. I'd like to see them make an accurate diagnosis for a patient who can't tell them where it hurts.' He gave a snort. 'So watch it, Corringe, or we'll witness an amputation.' He looked up seriously. 'Speaking of which, this ankle is badly infected, it might be simpler if I did remove the foot. What do you reckon, Jeff?'

Jeff nodded. 'Off with it. Clean break with the past.'

Everyone else laughed, I couldn't. A sudden wave of nausea engulfed me as Brian swabbed and inspected.

'I'm sure it wasn't so bad when I dressed it,' murmured Mad.

'You were hardly expecting him to traipse fifty kilometres across rough country. He deserves what he gets, treating his body in such a cavalier fashion.' Jon took my hand and the pain lessened.

'It'll have to be stitched,' Brian murmured. 'I'll give you a local anaesthetic, but it could still hurt a bit.'

It did hurt, but not unbearably. He scraped everything out, tidied up the ragged edges, doused it with peroxide and sewed it back together. 'You just missed the tendon,' he announced cheerfully, snipping off the last thread. 'Another millimetre and you'd have been a cripple for life.'

The clarinet solo from Rossini's Variations filled the stillness, soothing shattered nerves with its daring.

When all my external bits had been stitched, cleaned and patched, Brian hoisted my legs. A collective sigh settled over the watchers.

'Jeeze, Peter, how have you been able to shit?

'I haven't dared.'

Apparently it looked worse than it was. Brian held a mirror and the pulpy, empurpled mess made me want to chunder. I wished I hadn't seen it.

'No splitting of the rectum, merely fissuring, minor infection, bruising and so on. Another couple of days and you'll be back to normal. Was it a hard or soft dildo?'

'Purple vinyl. Translucent and hugely realistic.'

'In the bad old days they were made of hard plastic and there were occasional cases of perforated rectums, or is it recta? Even bruising of the pelvis. Next time you visit MacFife get in a few rehearsals beforehand with a cucumber.'

My nether regions became the butt of several more tasteless jokes before I was released from the stirrups and helped to the sofa while Jon's bruises were checked, ribs strapped, and he was pronounced battered but healthy. A pair of crutches appeared for me and, after a much needed sponge bath and shave in the downstairs bathroom, we found ourselves tucked into bed in the study, sipping a warm milk drink.

'Had you planned that excellent speech?'

'No. I can never think of what to say till I'm in front of someone.'

'You've a silver tongue.'

Jon seemed pleased at the idea. 'As soon as I saw them I knew I liked them - so it was easy, thanks to you telling me about their little quirks. Without that I'd probably have made a balls-up.'

'Not likely. Any way, I'm proud to know you.'

'Now, that's a right purty thing to say to a simple country boy. Sweet talk like that deserves a little reward.'

It had to be very little; the flesh was willing but the spirit weak, and sleep almost instant.

The next four days were bliss. When we weren't on voyages of mutual discovery in bed, I rested my mistreated body on the lounger by the pool while Jon chatted to Mad in the studio, worked out on the home gym, swam, and prowled through the house. He kept returning to regale me with details of the ingenious design, excellent workmanship and cunning devices that made the house so special. Max had designed the place, and his brilliance showed.

Every day I telephoned Hank. He had nothing to report and Patrick had been declared a missing person; one of several hundred. Bodies were being washed up daily along the riverbanks or left behind by receding tides. One newspaper had labelled the area Corpse Coast, an epithet that might be hard to dislodge. Our conversations were short. I could think of nothing to say to relieve his misery and he never tried to prolong the call.

When the kids and Brian returned in the evenings, we played cards, talked, argued, discussed, and solved the major problems of the world. On Saturday, Jon and I received the ultimate compliment; trusted to be alone all day in the house while sports, markets and other family business took precedence.

On Sunday we drove about fifty kilometres into a National park; Jon and I hiding under blankets at the back until we were out of town. Towering, dank and fecund rainforest, a perched lake of crystalline amber, wildflowers on the wetlands and transparently clear skies transported me to a realm bordering on dementia. Jon was as bad. We held hands, flitted from tree to tree, hugged ferny tree trunks, swam and threw water at each other, burrowed under mountains of leaf-mulch, sang and laughed.

I'm not sure what the Alconas thought, certainly nothing censorious or I'd have felt it. It was a day for loving. Der and Dra took off somewhere, Mad and Brian wandered around dreamily, and Jeff disappeared for a while. I worried he might feel forlorn, but if he did it didn't show.

'I like being on my own from time to time,' he answered with a whimsical smile when I asked if he wanted to join us.

As always, the joy of forest, fresh air and freedom was overlaid with the melancholy of transience. But perhaps it's the impossibility of holding such experiences beyond the present moment that makes them priceless, as does the knowledge that every year these few wild spots are slipping from our grasp as they succumb to the predation of alien plants, animals and humans.

We returned refreshed, tired, sad, happy, and ready for revenge. It was time to make plans.

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