Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 15

During a week in which Robert's throat slowly healed and preparations for the trip to India occupied most of Monique's waking hours, Sanjay found time to continue his investigations. Under the pretext of needing someone to collect rents while he was away, he made an appointment to see Arnold Osbairne, using his mother's surname. The elderly receptionist clearly didn't believe that a man of his ethnicity could be called MacDonald, but sent him through to the Osbairne inner sanctum nonetheless. Arnold offered a moist, soft hand. He was a heavy man of medium height with no visible neck, whose solid was running to fat. Receding hair lent the pale head an innocent blandness.

On the wall behind the desk hung a framed world map on which red lines had been ruled from city to city and continent to continent. Sanjay asked the significance of the lines. His dividend was a twenty-minute replay in the gravelly harshness of Arnold Osbairne's hectoring tones, of every overseas trip taken in the last ten years. Every problem, harassment or other misfortune caused by customs, border police and other erring, non-white, non Anglo-Saxon Protestant officials, was detailed with mind-numbing precision. Sanjay's muted response was heroic, but he became increasing alarmed for the multicultural future of his country and decided it probably wasn't worth his while to talk to this man about his son's budding business empire. Mr Osbairne didn't invite even sympathetic criticism or advice.

On the way home he called in at Oz Dry-Cleaners. The roller-doors were up, half a dozen overall-clad workers of both sexes pushed hand trucks here and there and three vans were waiting at the loading dock to deliver or pick up bundles. Sanjay parked down the road and walked back. No one took any interest. He entered the poky office and asked if he could have a suit dry-cleaned, only to receive a blank stare followed by slow-motion enlightenment. 'Sorry, mate, not that sort of place. Bulk commercial. Overalls and stuff. The Village is the nearest.'

Sanjay nodded and withdrew. This was probably a goldmine. No frills, few overheads and incredibly busy from the look of it. Mr Osbairne probably made his money legitimately.

The meeting with the police was unsatisfying. Sanjay had thought deeply on the issue and decided it would be unfair to Monique not to mention the possibility of arson and their suspicions. By a coincidence, his interlocutor was Senior Constable Ponto, who had investigated Bart's night of horror. They traversed a noisy corridor and seated themselves at either end of a scarred table jammed against one wall of an interview room, bare except for a stack of metal chairs under the windows and a tape recorder on a stand beside a blackboard. The police officer listened calmly to Sanjay's story of his son's incarceration and near immolation, face expressionless apart from a slight narrowing of the eyes when Sanjay mentioned his suspicions about Lance.

Ponto shuffled his papers together, spread them out again, referred to a note in a margin, harrumphed twice and then spoke placatingly. 'This is a different tale from the one we were told by the school authorities.' He scratched his head and looked at Sanjay speculatively before asking, 'I imagine the groundsman - Mr Boreham, was a bit excited when he got to the shed?'

Sanjay shrugged his shoulders in assent; the question was more or less rhetorical.

'Mmm,' the Senior Constable mused, playing briefly with his pen before gazing speculatively at Sanjay. 'The shed was old with wooden rafters. White ants? Dry-rot? Maybe it was starting to sag? It's quite possible the door jammed? Mr Boreham could easily have imagined the bolt was across. He used a handkerchief because of the heat, so he wasn't able to see the bolt. In the extremity of fear and excitement the mind can play tricks?' He looked up as though seeking confirmation of his hypothesis in Sanjay's face. When none was forthcoming he again gathered his bits of paper.

'Thank you for taking the trouble to come and see us, Mr Karim, and giving us the benefit of your - ah - opinions. We rely on such assistance from the public' The officer clasped his hands together on top of the file, leaned forward in his chair and fixed Sanjay with a dry eye. 'Your son and Mr Vaselly have twice before alleged that Lance Osbairne has committed offences.' He selected a piece of paper. 'Here we are: - tormenting Murray Corso until he committed suicide,' he looked up with a quizzical expression. 'Even though both the headmaster and the boy's parents are satisfied with the Coroner's verdict of accidental death.'

Sanjay's face remained impassive.

The officer's voice was entirely without inflexion as he continued. 'On another occasion they suggested it might have been Lance who brought two others to Mr Vaselly's apartment in order to push the teacher under the railings to his death.' He paused for effect, and if there wasn't just the hint of incredulity on his countenance then he had been born with an unfortunate face. 'I am told that over recent years school pupils have become more difficult to control,' he continued. 'Not what they were when you and I were at school. But that much out of control?' He shook his head and sighed heavily with the air of a man who needed to get something off his chest, but wasn't sure whether he ought to.

Sanjay guessed correctly that silence was the best way to keep the other man talking.

'Policing is difficult,' sighed the officer. 'And getting more so. Suspicion, hearsay, rumour – none of those things are sufficient to warrant serious investigation. But that doesn't mean we don't keep our eyes open. I talked with Lance Osbairne, unofficially, after the Corso accident and…' the policeman paused as though searching for the right words, 'I had occasion to visit his father soon after the attack on Mr Vaselly.' He pursed his lips and looked straight at Sanjay. 'When asked to recall the evening in question, Mr Osbairne confirmed that his son was at home that entire evening. Do you understand that I have no choice but to let the matter rest?'

Sanjay nodded, aware that the Senior Constable was telling him quite a bit more than necessary.

'Can you offer me any shred of evidence to support this latest suspicion? Anything at all which might encourage me to investigate the fire further?'

Sanjay shook his head.

'Can you suggest a convincing reason for his wanting to do away with your son and the teacher?'

Sanjay thought quickly. 'Perhaps he is angry at the accusations against him? Perhaps there is some truth in them and he doesn't want it to get out?'

Ponto shuffled his papers again. 'As I said before, and I meant it, thank you for your time and trouble.' He gave a sigh of resignation before continuing. 'Please do not hesitate to contact us should you discover anything, anything at all to substantiate these further allegations.' He stood. 'I can see you are unsatisfied – so am I. I dislike mysteries.' He nodded his head briefly and was gone through a door marked No Entry before Sanjay had time to pick up his brief case.

It was a depressed but resigned group around the dining table that evening after Sanjay had given them an account of his interview.

'Stay totally away from Lance and anyone else to do with school over the holidays. Do you understand, Robert? You too, Bart!'

'Oui, Maman.'

'Yes, Monique.'

The temptation to laugh was very slight. Something in her tone made everyone's flesh creep a little. Robert had never seen his mother quite so determined or serious. She looked intently at her two young men. 'Promise me,' she insisted. 'Promise me you will do nothing stupid! I do not want to go into mourning. I look terrible in black.' Her slightly mocking smile chilled their hearts and extracted the promise.

At the Bon Voyage dinner on Thursday evening, Susie made no effort to conceal her curiosity. Bart took to her immediately, countering inquisitive coquetry with gallant attention and an apparently bottomless pit of good humour. He had a weakness for theatrical women and Susie was at her melodramatic best in an electric-blue caftan bordered with gold and ivory ibises, topped by a matching turban. Ivory and gold bell-earrings tinkled at every toss of the head. She should have been peering into a crystal ball in a zodiac-decorated tent instead of regaling Bart with saucy anecdotes, outrageous flattery and a promise to tell his fortune when they had an hour alone.

Robert was more pleased than he could have imagined that Bart was so obviously liked. He marvelled at his witty repartee, at how he deflected compliments and questions by including others; asking questions and appearing interested in everything and everyone. Along with pride came a creeping fear that he was out of his depth. This was a Bart he'd not yet seen; charming, witty, and relaxed with strangers. How many more Barts were there? Wasn't he too young and boring to keep the interest of someone like this?

'You're quiet,' Susie whispered. 'What deep, dark thoughts hold sway?'

'None. It's just... Bart's so... I'm surprised he wastes his time on me.'

'Don't be silly. You are just as engaging. You complement each other. Yin and Yang if you'll forgive the Seventies sentiments.'

Robert continued to frown.

'Fear, Doubt and Jealousy are the three great spoilers of joy. Avoid them by knowing what you want, wanting what is possible and, most importantly, realising when you've got it!'

'Sensible Susie.'

Her smile was enigmatic.

Sanjay agreed to Jeff's request that the boys should run a few errands for the company during the holidays if they were in town, and the young men were happy to deliver a parcel to a shop in Maroochydore on their way North.

The meal was a pleasure for eyes, nose and palate. A spicy goulash with all the trimmings that Susie assured them had been passed down through the family for centuries and been simmering on her stove for the last four days. It was followed by a mulberry mousse, five different cheeses, and fruit.

The Skeldrakes were told about the two attacks on the boys. Jeff looked worried. Susie rubbed her chubby hands together in uneasy agitation, hoisted herself to bejewelled sandalled feet and stood behind the two young men, laying a palm on each head. A wrinkle of disquiet flickered unseen by them across her brow. When she spoke her voice contained the hint of a warning.

'You'll both live. Could be some fun and games before the end of the year, though. Come and see us if you need anything. Anything at all, my treasures.' Jeff nodded his head vigorously in assent and Susie bestowed the kiss of a witch on each young cheek and changed the subject.

At six-thirty the following evening, Bart and Robert stood in the observation lounge watching the jet lift into a darkening sky. Bart had relayed details of the final assembly for the term during the drive to the Airport. Robert's brush with death had been dismissed by Mr Nikelseer in a brief homily suggesting that if students wanted to break school rules, then they should accept the consequences. There had even been a suggestion that the bill for replacing the structure might be forwarded to his parents. Rules were not made to be broken and it was dangerous to break into locked sheds for any reason. When the miscreant returned to school he would have to face the headmaster. There had been no mention of Ralf's timely intervention, without which there would have been a second death. The rumour department had been working over-time and all the teachers Bart spoke to assumed Robert had been in the shed smoking dope, setting the place alight himself. The Bible reading appeared to support to the headmaster's lack of sympathy.

For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge

Of the truth, there remained no more sacrifice for sins,

But a certain fearful looking for of judgement and fiery indignation which shall devour the adversaries!

As soon as the plane was out of sight, Bart and Robert joined the trek to the car park and drove home through the remains of the rush hour.

'Two weeks – two weeks of bliss,' chanted Robert as they sped back to the house.

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