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Blood is a Stranger
By Roland Perry
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 1988 Roland Perry
All rights reserved.
Ken Cardinal didn't want to look at the body. He could feel the chill in the ante room of the morgue, and he fought hard to control himself. The trolley was pushed towards him and the three men from the US Embassy by the coroner and an assistant. The sheet was pulled down. Cardinal grimaced. The face had been blasted away.
The more he looked, the more his fears surfaced. The height, the colour of his hair, and the shape of the body confirmed the Embassy people's claim, based on fingerprints, blood type, and dental records, that it was Harold Ian Cardinal.
He examined a scar on his son's right shoulder caused by an operation after a football injury and searched for another mark from a fall on his right elbow when he was only twelve. It was there, thin, long and almost indiscernible. He noticed a gold ring on the small finger of the left hand and examined it. It was engraved HIC. Cardinal stood back and nodded.
'You're sure?' the coroner said.
'Yes,' Cardinal said, making an effort to keep his voice steady.
'The police will want you to be certain,' Bob Paton, the Embassy man from Canberra said to Cardinal. 'Take your time. If you have any doubts, we can come back later.'
Cardinal shook his head.
A police officer who had entered the room behind them said, 'You have no doubts at all?'
'It must be him. The records say ...'
'I'm not concerned with the records,' the officer said.
'I want to know what you think.'
'It's him.' Cardinal nodded again.
The police officer eyed Cardinal and the Embassy men around him. He seemed agitated. The coroner's assistant began to cover the body.
'You said there were other wounds,' Cardinal said, glancing at Paton.
'He was also shot in the back,' the coroner said as the sheet covered the body again. Cardinal stared at the coroner.
'I want to see it,' Cardinal said. The assistant whipped the sheet back and flipped the body over. There was a hole about two centimetres in diameter near the base of the spine. Cardinal leaned over it and noticed other marks he had forgotten about. The birthmark like a tiny map of the US just under the right shoulder blade; the mole in the small of his back.
'He was shot by two people?' Cardinal asked, looking at all the other faces.
'Most likely,' the coroner said. Cardinal watched as the sheet went over the body once more.
'It seems he was shot by two weapons,' Cardinal said. He undid the buttons on a tight-fitting sports jacket to reveal the beginnings of a middle-aged paunch, against which even solid daily exercise was losing the battle. He turned to the officer. 'The head looks as if it took a shotgun blast. But the spine wound is from a smaller gun.'
The officer nodded. 'At about five paces,' he said. 'The head wound was at point-blank range.'
'The shot in the back must have been first,' Cardinal said, running a hand over his face. His ruddy, vein-streaked complexion became palid.
'We haven't ascertained that yet,' the coroner said.
'You don't blow a person's head away,' Cardinal said, 'and then shoot him in the back!'
'There's no telling with terrorists,' Paton mumbled as he took Cardinal by the arm.
The trolley was pulled away as he and Paton walked towards an elevator.
'There are a few details,' Paton continued intimately, 'but the most important is what you want to do with your son. You can either send him to New York or have him cremated here.'
'I just don't know,' Cardinal said huskily. 'What's normal?'
They reached an elevator.
'It's better if he is cremated here,' Paton said. 'Having the body flying all over the place can be distressing for the family.'
The lift came, and Cardinal found himself alone with Paton.
'Funny isn't it?' Cardinal said. 'Harry was born twenty-five years after me. It's wrong.'
'We're doing all we can,' Paton said, staring blankly at the floor numbers as they flashed on and off.
'We had little in common,' Cardinal continued, 'but in an odd way we were close. We fought a lot, but there were no grudges.' He glanced at Paton who was trying to look sympathetic. 'He was headstrong. He was probably doing something crazy when he ...' Cardinal paused.
'We think he was doing something courageous,' Paton said. 'He was trying to stop the abduction of one of his colleagues.'
The lift stopped.
'Have you any friends here you want us to contact?' Paton asked.
'Not really,' Cardinal said. 'There were a couple of Aussies I fought with in Korea.'
'Do you remember their names?'
'Willow Wilson and Ernie Stone,' Cardinal said. 'They both lived in Melbourne. But, hell, I haven't been in touch with them for thirty years.'
They stepped out of the building into brilliant spring sunshine. Cardinal strode off, and the short, podgy Paton had trouble keeping up with him.
'I could brief you now if you wished,' Paton said. Cardinal shook his head. He had not slept for forty hours, and he wanted to be alone to think. He wandered back to the Sheraton Wentworth Hotel in Elizabeth Street.
* * *
His restless mind darted over what he knew of Harry's work in search for some clues. Harry had been approached by some people from the federal government for an assignment in Australia, but he had shown perverse delight in keeping the details from his inquisitive father.
After several teasing conversations, Cardinal gleaned that some US Strategic Defence Initiative – Star Wars – contracts had secretly gone to Australia. Harry was to be involved in a clandestine venture using his expertise in lasers. It meant a minimum of two years based in Sydney and work at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor. But after a year, the Australian government changed, and the Star Wars contract was dropped. It seemed the prodigal would return home. It was about this time that he began to have money problems. He asked for help, and his father obliged to the tune of about five thousand dollars over a few months. Cardinal then feared that Harry might return to his drug habit, which he had started when he was at Stanford. He had been using cocaine heavily for some time and had drifted into drug dealing to pay for his costly habit. But then the pleas for money in letters and reverse charge calls from Australia stopped abruptly. Harry boast' ed about a new – unspecified – job, still at Lucas Heights. He mentioned a salary increase and some new play things: an expensive sports car and a power boat. There was even talk of his buying the seven hundred thousand dollar house he was renting in Bronte.
Cardinal thought about his confused feelings for Harry, his only child. They had been drawn together eight years earlier when Cardinal's wife had died of cancer. But, even then, it was a battle. They were polarised on so many issues that Cardinal had joked that Harry could not possibly be his progeny. Politics, particularly, was a sore point. Cardinal was apolitical but voted Democrat; Harry made Reagan look like a Marxist.
Cardinal had pushed him into Radley, a leading British private school, for two years and had made sure that he travelled widely through Europe. Just when Harry's views seemed to have been tempered, Thatcher launched Britain into a nasty war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
Harry experienced the UK's jingoistic fervour, and this kindled his passion for the US to smash somebody – anybody. When Reagan biffed Grenada, then Libya and Iran, Harry was ecstatic. But Cardinal was worried. He was a highly decorated Korean war veteran wary of over-exuberant American foreign policy. While Harry waved the flag and screamed for action from the safe confines of Scarsdale, New York, his father spared a thought for the guy on the front line. He had been there.
Yet, despite differences, Cardinal loved his son, and lived in the hope that he would bury his politics, marry and mature into a compassionate and good scientist.
The thought that this dream was dead depressed and tired him on what seemed to be the longest day of his life. He told the reception desk at the Wentworth to hold all calls, and was asleep within minutes.
* * *
Rhonda Mills let go an inner whoop of delight as she spotted the BMW pulling up in South Yarra's Anderson Street and began walking towards Bill Hewson, her best Intelligence contact, as he got out of the vehicle. He was tall, thin and gaunt with a shock of fair hair, which, even as she watched, he gave an habitual push off his forehead.
Rhonda waved to him, but he ignored her as he slipped through the least conspicuous entrance — gate 'C' — to Melbourne's Royal Botanical Gardens.
Mid-afternoon on a fine spring day, it was perfect for such a meeting. Rhonda, a TV investigative journalist, was blonde and attractive, with large green eyes and a button nose. Her figure vacillated between shapely and plump, depending on her discipline and diet. She had long ago capitulated to a penchant for fine food and wine, which, coupled with her thirty-seven years, threatened her career. It was one reason she had to keep up her professional reputation through contacts such as Hewson, who were invaluable for leads and expert verification on espionage or foreign political stories.
Rhonda followed Hewson through gate 'C' and was surprised not to see him waiting for her. She hurried along the right fork of an asphalt path that meandered around the gardens, featuring towering oaks, Chinese palms, English elms, and sprawling Moreton Bay figs.
Rhonda stopped when she was confronted by an angry black swan watching over its fair chicks. She retreated past a grass tree shaped like a huge bottle brush, only to feel strong arms wrap around her. It was Hewson.
'Christ, three eyes!' she snapped. She pushed herself free. Hewson smiled and touched the rim of his dark sunglasses, which he wore to hide a wandering eye.
'I don't like frights, thank you,' she admonished him. She squinted at a sign near the grass tree. 'Especially under a Xanthorrhoea australis.'
They strolled down the path and on to the central lawn, where young couples braved the crisp air by taking off sweaters to soak up the warm, late September sun.
Rhonda recited the generic names of the trees: 'Myrtaceae ... Rosaceae ... Papilonaceae ... Moraceae ... Cupressaceae ... Palmae ..." She spotted a tourist, who seemed to be photographing a sprinkler on full blast.
'Sprinklus maximus,' she observed, and drew a rare laugh from Hewson.
'Did you manage to find out what that 'D' notice was for?' Rhonda asked.
'You're the only journalist we know who seeks info every time Canberra slaps on press censorship,' Hewson said. He spoke in a voice that always sounded as if he had swallowed ground glass. 'Who tips you off?'
'Now, Bill,' Rhonda smirked, 'you know I never betray confidences.'
They passed a small Indian pavillion, almost hidden by the spring-flowering climber, Lincoln Star, and violet blue Japanese Wisteria opposite Tennyson Lawn. A Merton Hall schoolgirl was sitting alone inside having a casual cigarette.
'Can you speak about the 'D'?' Rhonda persisted.
'This is the most difficult one you've been onto,' Hewson replied. He glanced at her and added, 'I was wondering why you thought Lucas Heights might be involved.'
'A hunch. A murder so close to the most important nuclear reactor in the country. It was worth a few phone calls to see if there was a link.'
'Who mentioned murder?'
Rhonda looked away. 'I was informed that a body was taken from the scene.'
They approached the kiosk on Ornamental Lake.
'Perhaps you could tackle this from another angle. Try Missing Persons.'
At the kiosk, swans, ducks, coots, moorhen and sea gulls mingled with the tables on the lake's edge. About twenty people were taking tea.
Rhonda remained quiet for several seconds. She worked through Hewson's oblique remarks. It was always the way with ASIO contacts. Clues to pieces in a jigsaw were about all you ever got, and you had to work hard for them. You wondered if it was the truth and why the clues had been given in the first place.
'When you say Missing Persons,' Rhonda began cautiously, 'do you mean from Lucas Heights?'
They stood near a table. Hewson was not interested in having a snack. He looked uncomfortable in full view of the people in the kiosk.
'I mean missing persons,' Hewson repeated. They reached Eel Bridge. An Indian woman in a cobalt blue sari was leaning over the rail throwing breadcrumbs to the eels congregating in the water below. Hewson looked at his watch. This was the sign that he was not going to give any more. He turned and began walking towards the pine lawn.
Rhonda tried a long shot. 'A year ago there was a rumour that the US had got us into the Star Wars programme. Has this incident got anything to do with that?'
'We are not involved in the US Strategic Defence Initiative.'
Hewson quickened his step up the eastern lawn and back towards gate 'C'
'I must be going,' he said.
When they reached Anderson Street, he shook hands with her, and leant forward to kiss her cheek.
'I'm confused,' she said, 'at a higher level, of course,' and then watched a little helplessly as he drove off in the BMW.
* * *
Cardinal awoke at 4 pm from a dreamless void, but the torrent of waking thoughts made him wish he was dreaming. He wondered if the faceless body would haunt him forever. The most pressing thought was his need to visit Harry's house.
Cardinal showered and dressed in faded-blue jeans and sneakers. He made black tea in an attempt to help himself over his jet-lag. Then he went out wearing his favourite white 'Bogart' hat, and hailed a taxi. The ride west from Elizabeth Street in the city's heart to Bronte, next to Bondi, took fifteen minutes. Gardyne Street, where Harry lived, swept down to a park, then a surf beach. A score of surfers and surf-boarders were braving the cool, late afternoon to catch waves. The surf was up.
Cardinal left the taxi at the top of a steep climb. As he walked down and checked numbers, an Asian girl carrying a camera came out of a house and marched briskly down the road away from him. Cardinal took little notice until he realised that she had been at number 53A, Harry's house.
By the time he reached it, she was well on her way down a sloping lane to the beach. Cardinal shielded his eyes and watched her until she was out of sight. He pushed open the gate, which was practically unhinged, and hesitated at the sight of sixty high steps to the front of the federation-style brick house, built, he imagined, around 1910, on the nob of a small hill. The front lawn, which was more like a wall, hadn't been cut for months.
No one answered his knock at the front or back doors. He peered in through a kitchen window and could see a surfboard. He tried windows and, when he could not get in, decided to track down the Asian girl. He walked to the beach and spotted her taking photos. He moved closer but still could not place her nationality. She was dark and sensual, if a little plump, and wore tight jeans and sweater. Her face was a saucer shape, her eyes wide and her lips full. Her expression had an overall vulnerability, and she seemed evasive, if not secretive.
The girl had watched him for some time. He was the only person on the beach apart from the hardy surfers.
'I saw you come out of number 53,' Cardinal said, pointing up to the street. 'Do you live there'
The girl looked apprehensive as she stood on rocks only a few metres from Cardinal.
'Could I speak to you,' Cardinal said. 'I'm Harry Cardinal's father.'
The girl was taken aback. She took a few steps towards him.
'Did you know him?' he asked.
'I lived at the house. Harry was a good friend.'
Cardinal frowned. 'You were his girl?'
The girl blinked and seemed reluctant to answer. 'We only lived together for a few months,' she said.
Cardinal threw out his hand. 'I'm Ken Cardinal,' he said in an effort to relax her.
'I am Kim Lim.'
'Few people guess right.'
Cardinal frowned. 'Was it serious?' he asked, 'I mean, were you planning to marry?'
Kim hesitated. 'We had discussed it.'
'Then you must feel the loss I do,' Cardinal said, dropping his head.
'Could I have a look over the house?' he asked. 'I just want to see how Harry lived.'
'It's very messy,' she said, as they began to walk from the beach. 'The police went through it.'
'I'll have to sort out his things,' Cardinal said.
'I recognise you now,' she said with more composure. 'Harry showed me photos. He was very proud of you.'
'In a strange way we were close,' Cardinal said. He trudged up the steep lane to Gardyne Street, and then on to the house.
Excerpted from Blood is a Stranger by Roland Perry. Copyright © 1988 Roland Perry. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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