Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 27

Lance cowered in bed until his father left for work. Mind empty, unable to think, he dressed, downed a couple of tabs with a swig of whisky, felt a little better, and went over his story for the hundredth time. Panic welled. He couldn't face school – couldn't stay home. His father might come back during the day. He never wanted to see him again. As soon as the thought was out he began to cry, blankly, standing in the middle of the cold kitchen, letting the wetness flow over his cheeks. He didn't know why he was crying and eventually the tears stopped. He felt no different. A mounting fear that the cops had got his number and would come to ask about the jacket, drove him from his sanctuary. He couldn't face them alone!

Robert hunched on the edge of his seat in the assembly hall. Breathing ragged, heart thumping, pounding in his head. He looked around. No! It couldn't be! Lance was leaning against the wall at the back of the gallery, staring at him. Robert quickly looked away. Something had gone wrong! Lance was supposed to be locked up! How could…? Why hadn't…? A cold sweat of fear added to his discomfort, and the tightness in his chest became a steel band. As the school stood and the teachers walked solemnly up the aisle on to the stage, he swayed slightly, squeezed his eyes shut and with all his force willed it to have been a horrible dream.

Eyes opened to the jarring truth. The headmaster wasn't there! Everything had happened! It hadn't been a nightmare!

Poor Robert. He imagined he had outfaced his 'devil' the night before, but his torment was only beginning.

The deputy headmaster, not a man to mince words, stood solemnly at the lectern.

'Last night the headmaster was murdered,' he said evenly. 'Remain standing for a minute's silence.'

After an audible intake of breath, the school stood for a stunned minute, and then, for once, sat quietly.

'There will be a memorial service for those who wish to attend later in the week. School will continue as usual, except for the presence of the police who will need to ask questions of a great many people. I expect your full cooperation.'

Robert thought he was going to vomit.

Helen nudged him. 'Are you all right?' she whispered. 'You've gone all white.'

'Yeah, fine. Just a vivid imagination. I hate violence.' He took a large breath, smiled palely, and Helen was appeased.

Lance's hate-filled stare bored unnoticed into the back of his enemy's head.

Nigel and Ernest scuttled furtively from behind a large potted shrub as Robert crossed the quadrangle. They kept their heads down, matched their steps with his, and muttered, 'He's done it! The crazy fucker's topped old Nikelseer!'

'What makes you think it was him?'

'He's always going on about what an arsehole the old bugger is and threatening to get him.' Ernest nudged Nigel, who swallowed twice, looked around slyly, and in a nervous rush asked the question that had been plaguing them all morning. 'Are you going to tell the cops about us?'

'What for? If they suspect Lance he'll be throwing as much shit as he can to divert attention from himself. Anything they hear about you will be from him - or yourselves if you're stupid enough to blab. Act dumb. It's the only thing you do well.'

'Thanks.' Nigel's relief was evident. 'How about you? You look a bit sick, mate.'

'It's being near you two.'

'Yeah, well, see ya.'

They scuttled away to class.

Solid doubts were clunking into Robert's gut, and he paid an urgent visit to the toilet. It didn't help, but while there he wrote a note to Bart, which he delivered during the first period as though it was official.

The police were a tangible presence in the school. Officers hunched over too-small desks in the drama room, making copious notes and recordings; typing countless facts and opinions into lap-tops. Interviews had started at eight that morning in every available space, and continued with no breaks till five-thirty. No one dared complain in case it was seen as a sign of guilt. Everyone was asked variations on the same questions, and everyone gave a version of the truth. Several red herrings were dragged across the trails, and innocent people drew suspicion upon themselves. Fortunately, their interrogators were intelligent and well practiced in sorting wheat from chaff.

'Where were you last night?' 'Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to murder the headmaster, no matter how flimsy your suspicions might seem?' 'Can you think of anything, anything at all that might help the police with the investigation?' 'Was your disagreement last week with the headmaster resolved?' Thus it continued - exhaustingly and seemingly interminably, as every student or teacher who had enjoyed more than casual contact with the headmaster was questioned. Uniformed police officers were mobilised to check out alibis and stories.

Despite the deputy headmaster's injunction, schoolwork was disrupted and little of educational value was accomplished. The police investigation, on the other hand, despite its time-consuming and repetitious nature, was productive.

Inspector Kareltin was pleased.

'Robert! We must show the cops the video. They need all the help they can get!' Bart was exasperated.

'I told you! If they know we were spying with that camera, they'll think we're juvenile crap-heads. It's entrapment, probably illegal, and will only distract them. I think we should let it lie.'

'But they have to know.'

'Nigel and Ernest will spill their guts.

'And Murray?'

'You've already been to the cops with our suspicions about that.'

Bart frowned. 'So when the cops ask if we knew Lance was planning to get us, what do we say?'

'We'd been told, but thought it was just Lance mouthing off. And when this blew up it hardly seemed fair to distract the cops on the basis of what is probably a lie.'

'It does make us appear super cool.'


The two police officers flashed their identification. 'Sorry to trouble you, Mr Osbairne. We're making routine inquiries about an incident, and wondered if you might be able to help us.'

'If you're quick.'

'Where was your son last night?'

'Lance? What's the stupid prick done now?' Too late, the words were out. He was getting as careless as his son, but he recovered quickly. 'Don't tell me someone's taken to him again? It's only a couple of days since the Karim kid decided to use him as a punching bag. I should have listened to the headmaster and laid charges.' That should cover the blooper, he thought, wondering why, despite his resolution, he was defending the little turd.

'We don't know that he's done anything. We simply wondered where he was last night.'

'At home.'

'And you?'

'None of your business.'

'What time did you arrive home?'

'Just before midnight.'

'And your son was home then?'


'Is there anyone who could vouch for his presence at home?'


'Did you buy him the blue Suzuki?'

'He could hardly afford it himself.'

'You obviously want the best for your son?'

Arnold glared at the bland faced young woman, unsure how to take that, so he grunted.

His unwelcome guests left, leaving him none the wiser, so he telephoned the school and asked to speak to the headmaster.

He put the telephone down quietly and sat thinking for a long time.

By Friday lunchtime, Inspector Kareltin and Constable Jurgenz had narrowed their field of suspects considerably, and began interviewing some people for the second time.

'Sit down, Mr Vaselly. Sorry to trouble you again. We've a few new things to talk about, but mainly it'll be going over the same ground as last time in the hope of shaking out new thoughts. Try to answer the questions as though you're hearing them for the first time.'

Bart nodded.

The inspector looked as neat and fresh as he had at the beginning, his air of confidence suggesting he had already solved the case. He scanned a paper, looked quizzically across at Bart, flicked at it nonchalantly, and stated, 'The headmaster wrote a letter about you recently to the Department of Education. Do you know why?'

Bart's heart missed several beats. Surely they didn't know about the incident in his office! He blushed hotly and shook his head, not trusting his voice. Apart from the usual address and greeting, the page contained nothing but a short, non-rhyming, oddly arranged collection of thoughts. He read it through.

Teacher profoundly physical
Mine heart knows no peace.
Wild thoughts I beg
Your round me roaming end!
Beloved of pupils – why I not cherished so?
Dear God my heart remains but yours
So must I purge my soul before my
Soon retreat from active fight.
Mea culpa.

'Does this make sense to you?'

Bart hoped his grin looked like incredulity rather than relief. 'I think it's supposed to be a poem. There's a bit of Hopkins there. The round me roaming end bit.'

His interrogator looked hopeful. 'Hopkins?'

'Gerard Manly. Dead Irish priest. Wrote obscure poems. Perhaps the old man was trying to be a poet?' Bart's relief was short lived.

'Do you think he fancied you?'

'Who? Nikelseer? Hardly!'

'But you are loved by your pupils?' Was there a slight stress on loved?

'As I'm sure you've discovered, I'm the most feared teacher in school.'

'What is your relationship with Robert Karim?'

Sweat was running freely. Soon it would show through his shirt. 'I taught him to wrestle last term. We went to the competitions on the Gold Coast during the holidays together.' He gave a rueful smile. 'I'm obviously not much of a teacher; he's decided to take up karate instead. You could say we're friends. I also know his parents so we see a fair bit of each other.'

Inscrutable didn't even begin to describe his interrogator's face as he sorted through a sheaf of papers and drew one to the top, stabbing at it with his finger.

'When I showed you these copies of records from central files yesterday, you reiterated that, in your opinion, Lance Osbairne was partially responsible for the death of a student last term. Do you stick with that?'

'Yes. Murray Corso was tormented by him in the playground, and I suggested that the death might be suicide, not an accident.'

'The boy was a screaming queen?'

'Occasionally flamboyant.'

'Subsequently, there was an alleged murder attempt on you at your unit.'

'As I told you, I wrote an account of the incident, which I took to the police station for signing as they instructed. I've got it at home. In it, I suggested that the attack might perhaps be retribution for voicing my suspicions about Murray Corso. However, the officer convinced me it was more likely to be disturbed burglars.'

'How are your car's brakes?' It was the first time the other officer had spoken. Her soft voice startled Bart, who had been running out of easy, surprised looks. This time he was genuinely astonished. 'How did you know? I haven't reported anything?'

'Why not?'

'It was an accident. In good faith I lent it to my neighbour, who narrowly escaped injury when the brakes failed. It ran backwards into a power-pole. No one was hurt. No damage was done to anything except my car. It was a write-off and not insured, so why bother you people?'

'Where is the car now?'

'Spare parts in someone else's old bomb, I guess.' He gave the name of the wrecker and uttered a silent prayer.

'How do you get to work now?'

'I've started a part-time delivery job, so I use the van.'

The inspector took over again. 'Who are your employers?'

'Skeldrake and Karim.'


Bart pretended not to hear.

'What do you know about the shed being burnt at the end of last term?'

Bart repeated again what they had decided on.

'Did you hate the headmaster?'


'Have you had any disagreements with him recently?

'No.' Bart was sure he had hesitated, but the inspector continued without pause

'Has his death upset you?'

'The manner of it? Yes. His death? No.'

'Why not?'

'He was an unpleasant man, lost in the past.'

'What were you intending to do about Lance's recent death threat? The other officer again took up the questioning.

Bart stuttered, blushed, and appeared to be searching for a response.

'You did know about it, I believe?'

'Yes. Yes of course. Robert told me what the two kids said.'


'We thought it was a bit far-fetched. It was either a lie, or Lance trying to set us up as burglars or something.' He looked across at the inspector. 'We were going to report it, but when all this blew up we decided not to.'

'Why on earth not?'

Bart shrugged. 'Like I said – it was probably a load of nonsense. We thought you people had more than enough to do.'

'Magnanimous.' She waited expectantly, but Bart could think of nothing to say.

The inspector broke the silence. 'We have checked with the Karims, and they confirm you were with them on the night of the murder.'

Bart nodded dumbly.

'But their son wasn't.'

His spirits sank.

'That will be all for the present, Mr Vaselly.'

Bart walked to the van and, trying to look as though he was searching for something, rang Monique on the company mobile. 'Monique? Bart here. Have the cops seen you and Sanjay? Only that one check on my whereabouts the other night? Good. When they do, make absolutely certain that you do not mention the argument Robert and I had with Nikelseer on the morning of the day he died. Nothing at all! Not a word! It didn't happen! Can you talk yourself into thinking that?'

She was certain she could.

'Ring Sanjay immediately and pass it on. Don't stop ringing until you've got him! I'll explain tonight. Bye.' Nervously, he dialled Ron's Wreckers. 'Hi, Ron? Bart Vaselly. Have the cops been on to you about the brakes on my Toyota? Shit, that was quick. What did you tell them? You're a beaut. Owe you one. No way! Yep. You too… Cheers.' He heaved a sigh of relief. Why, he couldn't have told himself, but pressure was building. It had something to do with Nikelseer's ridiculous poem. He gave up trying to think and returned to class.

During his first interview, Lance had surprised himself with his sang-froid. The cops had simply asked him lots of questions and believed everything he'd said. They had hardly seemed interested in him, so he approached his second interrogation with careless bravado.

Kareltin and Jurgenz had gone over everything several times. Jurgenz still thought it had been silly not to have mentioned any of the crimes suggested in Nikelseer's letters at the first interview. He would have immediately accused the young lout of the murder of Corso, three counts of attempted murder, and one of planning a felonious act. However, his superior officer had insisted those charges would wait. He wanted the young man to feel relaxed and secure.

Lance swaggered in and sat down without waiting to be asked.

'Sorry to trouble you again, Lance,' Kareltin smiled, 'but we'd like to go over it all again. You never know, you might think of something new.'

'Sure thing, boss.' Lance relaxed back into his seat.

A twinge of pity pulled at Jurgenz' chest as the Inspector smiled and continued. 'The day before the murder, Mr Nikelseer invited you to his place to cheer you up after you had been knocked around by Robert Karim?'

Lance nodded.

'That's when you left your Jacket?'


'On the afternoon of the murder you received a note asking you to go to his house at eight-thirty p.m. Yet the copy in the computer asks you to be there at eight o'clock.'

'Like I told you – it's got to be a set-up.'

'Any more ideas about who?'

Lance had given this a great deal of thought. There were quite a few bastards who'd like to see him in trouble. He scratched his head. Ernie and Nigel hated his guts, the girls were sick of him. The rest of his class had been pretty bloody unfriendly lately. Brown-eye sure hated him. He looked at the policeman warily.

'Plenty of people. Jealous because my dad's rich.'

'Name the most likely.'

'That black faggot, Brown-eye Karim, and his mate, Vaselly.'

Does – did the headmaster always tell you to burn his letters?'

'What're you getting at? He's never written to me before! He just talks to me at school.'

'You don't seem upset about Mr Nikelseer's murder.'

'What's to be upset about? He was a stupid old fart. Got up everyone's noses.'

'I thought he was your mentor?'


'He took an interest in you – ran your bible studies.'

'I hated that. Dad made me go.'

'Who would want to kill him?'

'Lots of people. Ask Karim. Like I told you, Nikelseer was going to expel him for bashing me up.'

'Not according to the deputy headmaster.'

Lance blinked. This was the first time his story had been questioned, and he didn't like the tone.

'On the night of the murder, you said you went to the house, and when no one answered the door you drove away.'

Lance nodded.

'Surely you thought it odd that the door was open?'

'I thought the old man had forgotten about me and had gone for a walk.'

'You didn't go inside?'

'No way!'

'Why were you in such a hurry? You nearly ran a police car off the road.'

'I wanted to get home to watch TV.'

'Read these.' Constable Jurgenz handed Lance copies of the letters to him, from the headmaster.

Lance's jaw dropped, his face lost what little colour it had, and his hands were trembling well before he had read them all. He was unable to speak, simply sat there, mouth gaping.

'Let's take them in order. The first one suggests you arranged for the murder of Murray Corso.'

'I didn't!'

'Nigel and Ernest say you did.'

'It was those two cretins! They did it, I tried to stop them, but they're crazy – always talking about raping and murder and…' Lance eventually wound down and sagged back onto his seat.

The inspector remained ominously calm. 'The second letter suggests it was you who attacked Mr Vaselly at his home.'

'I don't even know where the fucker lives,' Lance snarled.

'Why did you lock Karim in the shed and set light to it?'


'When you tampered with Mr Vaselly's brakes, you nearly caused the death of an elderly woman to whom he had lent the car.'

Silence. Then, 'I want a lawyer' – the reflex response of an American TV addict.

'And you shall have one. But first, why did you murder Mr Nikelseer?'

'I didn't! I didn't!' Lance was yelling hysterically. 'I fucking told you I didn't! But if I had, I wouldn't have just stuck a plastic bag over his head, I'd have…'

The silence was shocking. Jurgenz went to the door and beckoned in a constable.

'Thank you, Lance,' said the inspector sadly. 'Even if you are telling the truth about the headmaster, you have many more questions to answer. I'd like you to accompany Constable Sastre to the police station.

Lance slumped in his chair, too stunned to cry, too numbed to speak, too miserable to think. He had never felt so alone.

Robert was enduring another grilling and Constable Jurgenz was snappy.

Why had he stopped Lance from attacking Corso? Was it because the kid was a homosexual? How had his parents reacted to the letter condemning him for calling the doctor? What had happened at Bart's on the night of the attack? Who did he think the attackers were? Why didn't he admit he had been smoking pot in the cricket shed and set fire to himself? How well did he know Ralf Boreham? What was his relationship with Bart Vaselly? What was his relationship with the headmaster? Had he had any disagreements with him lately?

To these and many, many other questions, probing looks, pregnant silences and sudden demands from both inspector and constable, Robert answered thoughtfully, succinctly and calmly. On his way to the interview he had blanked out the mess and created a picture in his mind of himself as he thought he had been before everything went wrong, and acted that part. It was convincing. He appeared concerned, polite and honest. He made no bones about his admiration for Mr Vaselly, his liking for Mr Rands and Ralf Boreham, his dislike of Lance, and his distaste for the dead headmaster.

'What do you know about....' the constable consulted his notes, 'Ernest Borg and Nigel Bradwin?'

'They're Lance's bullyboys at school. They helped bash up Murray.'

'According to them, they talked to you last week.'

'Yes, They told me Lance was planning to kill me.'

'Just you?'

'And Bart Vaselly.'

'Why didn't you tell anyone?'

'I did. Bart and my parents.'


'And we intended to go to the police. But then this happened and I talked them out of it.'


Robert gave a rueful smile and shrug. 'We've already made two accusations against Lance. I didn't want the police to think we made a habit of it. It was probably a lie from a couple of thugs who'd had a run in with their leader.' Robert gave a cynical smile on the last word.

'I was under the impression you didn't like Lance.'

'I don't.'

'Tell us again exactly what you did and where you were on the night of the murder.'

No one could have misinterpreted Robert's look; it was that of every usually well-behaved school kid, caught out the only time he has ever played truant.

'Like I told you yesterday, I was suddenly sick of school and took off at interval. Stupid, I know. I went home for a bit, decided to go back to school, then changed my mind and went and sat up on the hill by the monument till school got out. Then I caught the train into town, mooched around there, got a bite to eat, took in a movie, came home and went to bed.' It came out as though he was recalling it to mind as he talked. As though he had been unprepared for the question to be asked again, and was oblivious to the significance of his having been out on the night of the murder.

'Do you know what I think?'

Robert shook his head.

'I think you had a grudge against both Lance and the headmaster. I think you murdered Mr Nikelseer and set Lance up as the patsy.' Inspector Kareltin sat back, folding his arms in satisfaction.

Ice formed in Robert's lungs and belly. He didn't dare move a muscle. His face froze. Surely they didn't know? Had someone seen him? Were they bluffing? What should he do? He was on the point of shouting Yes! I killed the horrible old man before he could ruin Bart's life! But as he opened his mouth he remembered Michael's advice; Never give anyone ammunition. He shut it again. His face felt like stiff clay. Slowly he looked from the constable to the inspector. Goose-flesh ran up his back and over his scalp when he realised how close he'd come to disaster. It was a trick! They were bluffing! A vertical frown creased his brow as he said nervously, 'I didn't get back from town till after ten-thirty. Was Mr Nikelseer murdered after that?'

'That's none of your business.'

'Sorry. I only asked because, if he was, then you're right, I could have killed him.'

'What do you mean?'

'I could have jogged past his place on my way home after the movie – I suppose.' Robert had no difficulty appearing worried.

'So, you're sticking to your tale about a movie in the city?'

'It's true.'

'So far, we've only had your word for that. Can you prove it?'

'I don't know. You should have asked me yesterday. I usually stuff tickets and things in my pockets and forget about them. Makes Mum mad when the bits end up all over the washing machine. I can look tonight if you like?'

'What were you wearing?'

'School uniform. I'd intended to go back to school, you see. Hang on, I'm wearing it! This is the only one I've got. Mum has to get it washed and dried overnight if I get it dirty. The trousers haven't been washed since, but the shirt has. Maybe there's something still there. He rummaged through his pockets. Several coins, a handkerchief, a small screw and a tightly rolled up and partially shredded train ticket, were exhumed from the back pocket of his trousers. A ballpoint pen, a washed but still recognisable movie ticket, and a note about homework, the paper felted and most of the ink illegible, were fished out of his shirt pocket. 'That's about it,' he shrugged with a nervous smile, pulling his trouser side-pockets inside out, apparently not noticing a screwed-up paper that fell to the floor as he shook the tips of the linings.

The constable swooped on it. It was another train ticket. He smoothed everything out, slipped the evidence into an envelope, labelled it, and warned Robert that they would need to talk to him again.

Robert nodded thoughtfully, left the interview room, ran to the toilets, dry-vomited, rinsed his face, and sat despondently in a stall until his heart and breathing slowed and cold fingers stopped grabbing at his entrails. When blood returned to his face, he forced himself to relax. It would be pointless to have given a good interview if he was subsequently seen looking like death warmed up. Suddenly he couldn't face schoolwork, so walked to the grandstand where he slumped on a bench overlooking the playing fields. A shadow blocked the sun. He looked up lethargically.

Ralf stared into his eyes, took hold of his arm and muttered urgently, 'Get a grip on yourself! Come with me!' He led Robert to his tiny office and shoved him roughly inside, closing the door firmly.

Robert shook his head dazedly. 'What's the matter, Ralf? Are you mad at me? Sorry. Whatever it is, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you.'

'Shut up and drink this.' Ralf handed him a cup of hot sweet tea from his thermos. 'What did you have for lunch?'

'Didn't feel like eating.'

'Eat!' He thrust a couple of cheese sandwiches at him, then sat on the other stool and glowered while Robert chewed and chewed but couldn't swallow.

'Bloody drink and swallow. You've chased that around long enough.'

Robert finished the food, and felt a little better. 'Thanks, guess I was getting hungry. I never realised.'

'Where've you been?'

'Third degree with the cops.'

'Did they see you like this?'

'Don't think so. I fooled them.'

Ralf looked startled, was about to say something but bit his lip. 'Well you'll soon un-fool them if you go round looking like that. What's the matter with you? You look as guilty as sin. Do you want them to think you're the flaming murderer? Pull yourself together!' He slapped Robert hard on the shoulders. Robert looked up in surprise, suddenly wary.

'What're you on about?'

'Look at yourself.'

He handed Robert a mirror.

'Shit!' His face was white and drawn, the top lip twitched and dark rings were appearing round the eyes. He stared at himself, wondering for the umpteenth time whether he'd got it wrong.

'I've no idea what's the matter, but you need help.'


'I don't want to know!' Ralf snapped. 'I just want you to survive. Cops are human – they need a culprit.' He placed both hands on Robert's shoulders. 'Promise me you'll look after yourself and not let this get you down?'

Robert nodded.

'Keep your pecker up. Right? If you need me, I'm here. Got that?'

Robert nodded again, close to tears.

'I'll be off then. Stay and finish the tea. I'll tell Bart to pick you up from here when he's ready to go home. Shoulder your problems like a man. When it's too late to go back – go forward!'

Left alone, Robert's thoughts tumbled. Was what he had done really self-defence? Did Lance deserve to have the rap pinned on him? It had all seemed straightforward when he was working out his plan, but he hadn't understood then that he would have to live with the results. The uncertainty. The fear of involving his family and Bart. The shame they would suffer if... That was what Mr Osbairne would be feeling now…

Once more Robert ran his mind over all his reasons, reminded himself of what might have happened if he hadn't stepped in, and once more managed to quell the demon plague of doubts. But each time it got harder. Much harder. He didn't want to think about tomorrow.

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