“Whatcha lookin’ for, mate?”
A dead body, Greg thought as he stared into the dense tangle of vines and mangroves. Out loud, he said, “Just something I … thought would be here.”
Greg shook his head. “I’ll be all right.”
“It’s no problem.”
“I said …”
Greg had been squatting on his haunches in the middle of the muddy vegetation, his back to the concrete path which wound its way alongside the riverbank nearby. Now he rose to his full height, turned around, and glowered at the person who had interrupted him.
“I’ll. Be. All. Right,” he growled, glaring at his interlocutor, a short, chubby man, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, leaning on the metal fence that bordered the path some metres away from Greg. Just one of the many joggers making the most of the pleasantly cool autumn evening.
Greg bunched his fingers into fists and rested them on his hips. He raised his shoulders, lifted his chin, and transfixed the jogger with a fierce scowl.
The jogger recoiled. “Just trying to help,” he mumbled as he trotted off. He accelerated into a run and vanished around the corner.
Still frowning, Greg glanced back at the undergrowth nearby. The body was supposed to be right here. And if it had been, the jogger could have helped a lot. By finding the body and calling the cops. So the police would come and set up a nice crime scene. Which would attract the media and sticky-beak gawkers who would upload videos and selfies onto Facebook. So that everyone would know the guy was good and dead and wouldn’t be making trouble any more.
But that wasn’t going to happen. Because the body wasn’t there.
Cursing inwardly, Greg picked his way through the dense scrub to the footpath. He vaulted over the metal fence at a point equidistant between two signs warning people against trespassing into the fragile wetland ecology. Which was also the blind spot between the security cameras perched atop the signposts. When he ambled in front of one of the cameras, all it picked up was a tall, wide-shouldered, heavy-set man, with a craggy, lined face and black hair greying at the edges, wearing a tan-coloured windcheater unzipped over a light-blue T-shirt and dark-blue jeans.
Greg strode along the path, the river on his left, houses and occasional unit blocks on his right, passing joggers, power walkers, mums with bubs in prams, and tired office workers in suits. The setting sun glowed behind the tall spires of the city ahead of him, casting the sides of the towers facing him into deep shadow.
After a few minutes he turned off the riverside path and onto a bustling street full of cafes and restaurants. He ducked into a cafe that advertised gourmet burgers, strode past the tables and service counter, and pushed through the door marked “Staff only”. The kitchen staff ignored him as he squeezed past them to another door at the far side of the pantry. He took a key from his pocket, unlocked the door, stepped through it—and stopped dead in his tracks.
The dead man was in the room. The guy who was supposed to be dead, that is. Except he was very much alive. And sitting in a chair in the middle of the room. And surrounded by men with eyes that were wary. Or angry. Or hostile. Or some combination of all three.
“Shut the door!” one of the men snapped. He was wearing a charcoal-grey suit over an open-neck white shirt.
Greg kicked the door with his heel. He heard it slam shut and the click of the lock. “What’s going on?” he asked, his eyes flicking from face to face.
“What’s going on,” the man continued, “is that Chris here has ratted us out.”
“Ratted us out?” Greg echoed as he took a couple of steps forward to join the circle of men around the chair. On it sat a small man with curly brown hair and a frightened expression. He was bound to the chair by two straps, one around his arms and chest, another around his thighs.
The man in the suit glared at Greg. “You turned into a parrot or somethin’? Chris”—he poked a finger at the chair-bound man—“has burned our business! He’s talked to the cops!”
Greg slipped his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He surreptitiously took hold of the phone in his pocket and pressed a sequence of buttons.
Chris stared at Greg. He opened his mouth, hesitated, and then spoke in a low voice.
“I wanted to give you all … one more chance.”
“What …?” Grey suit scrunched up his face in a puzzled expression.
“Give up,” Chris whispered, his eyes boring into Greg’s. “The cops know everything. If we hand ourselves in, they might treat us nice.”
“Treat us nice?” Grey suit shook his head. “I dunno, brother,” he said. He reached his right hand into the left side of his jacket. It came out holding a black Glock pistol. “We was never nice to our customers.” He dipped his left hand into his trouser pocket and pulled out a long silver tube.
Greg stood motionless, mimicking the stillness of the men around him. But his eyes were flitting around the room, calculating distances, estimating angles.
“I mean, we sell ’em white powder that makes ’em happy,” grey suit continued as he screwed the tube onto the gun. “And they give us big bills that make us happy.” He tightened the noise suppressor. “But it’s not about being nice.” He paused, the weapon cradled in his hands, and glanced around the circle of men. “Any of you wanna be nice?”
Greg joined the other men in shaking his head. He realised his palms were damp. He could feel his heart hammering against his ribs.
“Sorry, mate.” Grey suit racked the slide, chambering a round. “No one nice here. So, Chris, my buddy boy …” He bent close to the man trussed to the chair, and shoved the gun’s elongated muzzle into the man’s ear. “Go. To. Hell.”
The gun discharged with a balloon-like pop. Chris’s head snapped to the side. The chair toppled over and clattered to the floor.
And then the door behind Greg crashed open.
“Armed police!” a voice boomed. “Everybody down, down, down!”
Greg spun around to see the kitchen staff racing in, brandishing pistols, shotguns and assault rifles, with blue body armour over their aprons and waiters’ uniforms. Emblazoned with the word POLICE.
“Armed police! Down on the floor, now!”
The man in the grey suit stood over Chris’s body, eyes wide, gawking at the assault team, before two of the cops tackled him to the ground. Others were shoving the men in the circle to the floor, making them kneel, cuffing their hands behind their back.
Two men emerged from the kitchen door, unarmed, and dressed in street clothes. They rushed straight for Greg, grabbed him by the shoulders, and propelled him at a fast jog-trot back through the door, through the empty kitchen, past the surprised faces of the patrons in the burger restaurant, and out onto the pavement. A silver Lexus SUV was double-parked at the kerb, engine idling, yellow hazard lights blinking. One man yanked open the passenger door, the other shoved Greg inside. The first man slammed the door shut after him as the car accelerated away from the kerb.
Greg whirled to face the man driving the car. “Why’d you guys take so long?” he barked. “Just one second earlier and you could have …” His voice trailed off as he punched the dashboard in frustration.
“We had to tool up!” the driver snapped back. “What do you expect us to do? Come running in with rolling pins in our hands and colanders on our heads?”
Greg dropped his head into his hands and groaned. “We had it all worked out,” he mumbled into his fingers. “He was going to lie down in those marshes and play dead. And I was going to call you guys in.”
“And we’d come and slide him into a body bag and take him to the mortuary,” the driver continued. “And from there to a safe house. Where we could take as long as we liked pumping him for info.”
“While I went back to the boys in the burger joint. And told them I’d plugged our leak.”
“So why did he go back to them?”
“I don’t know.” Greg sat back with a sigh. “I think he was trying to help them. Trying to get them to give up their evil ways. Before we descended on them and fried their butts.”
“Help that bunch of dirtbags?” The driver’s lip curled in a sneer. “What an idiot.” He gestured at Greg’s chest. “You got the recording?”
“Yeah.” Greg reached up to the collar of his windcheater. He yanked at what looked like the cord that secured the jacket’s neck, and started unspooling the tiny camera and audio that had been inserted there. “Plenty of incriminating info.”
“Well, that’s something,” the driver muttered. “At least he didn’t sacrifice himself for nothing.”
They sped onto a bridge which arched across the river. Greg glanced back towards the dense vegetation along the bank. In the fading light, a deep shadow lay across the place where a dead body should have been.
Kamal Weerakoon was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Australia. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church.