Lethe – Chapter 2
A soft touch
Hot. Airless. Dark.
Had he been here days – or just hours? Specks of dust twirled and twinkled in the tiny shafts of light that merely made the darkness deeper. He tried not to notice the stench of his own filth: it made him gag and he was scared that he might choke.
Instead, he tried to focus on what he could hear. The incessant cooing of pigeons, far away. Out there. Enjoying the daylight, air, freedom. Bastard pigeons. Listen to them, cooing away without a care in the world.
What was that?
Something scratched, scrabbled in the darkness. A rat? He hated rats. He tried to kick out, but it was hopeless. ‘Rats attract snakes …’ he thought; tried to unthink it. ‘A big, fat carpet python slithering …’ Stop it.
They’d done a thorough job on him. Hands pinned behind his back with — wire? cord? cable ties? Probably wire, like his ankles.
The chain around his throat made it impossible to drag the heavy workbench without throttling himself. Still he had tried, to the point of blacking out. Sitting on the concrete floor was a constant agony through his coccyx, and his spine felt as if it were on fire. When the back of his head touched the edge of the bench, he sobbed in pain and self-pity.
‘If you’re ever down Five Rivers way, my folk are a soft touch,’ Bob had said. ‘Sitting on fifteen million, the mugs. Prime river frontage. Homestead 150 years old. Twenty million, more like. House full of antiques, family jewellery. Rotting away, all of it, while they just sit there, going gaga, watching the river go by. Probably twenty-five million.’
Wes had lost track of Bob, after his cellmate had been transferred from HMP Barwon, but the recommendation had stuck in his memory all these years. Finally his parole had come through.
The property hadn’t been difficult to find from Bob’s description. It was an isolated parcel of land far from the highway, on the banks of the Lethe River. It had once been the centre of the big Five Rivers Run, but most of the land had been sold off to encroaching settlers by earlier generations of Grants.
Bob’s description hadn’t done the homestead justice. It was a bloody beauty.
Wumindjika1 was a double-fronted, single-storeyed rectangular house with tall, elegant brick chimneys. It was extended to the rear left by the former cookhouse and laundry, latterly guest accommodation, now boarded up. Out the back, once-gracious rose-lined gardens ran down to the river, named Lethe by the early settlers for its inky, tannin-stained water. A wraparound veranda with cast-iron lacework provided welcome shade in the midday heat.
The place reeked of faded glory and old money.
The old folk were doddering and senile. Wes introduced himself as a former business associate of Bob’s and was welcomed in for a cuppa and a chat.
Social niceties and chitchat dealt with, he span an elaborate yarn about how Bob owed him money. Being temporarily short of funds, Bob had indicated – no promised – that his parents would help him out. Then he had unaccountably disappeared: done a runner, so to speak, haha. A loveable rogue, was old Bob, eh?
It soon became apparent that he could tell them anything he liked: they weren’t going to remember it anyway. Credulous? This was going to be too easy.
Wes spoke of ‘a few thousand’ first; this grew rapidly in the course of telling to fifty thousand, which – of course – was just a down payment on the full sum. Legal proceedings were mentioned, which – of course – could be avoided by coming to a sensible arrangement. After all, Bob was an old mate.
The old couple looked like stunned mullets; gawped at each other and stuttered some bullshit about not having any money. Wes suggested having a look around the house: as an antiques expert, he could give a reliable valuation on any items they might be able to part with. The market for jewellery was particularly buoyant at the moment ...
Reluctantly the old bloke agreed to show him round.
After an hour of dusty rooms, rusty junk and long-winded explanations, Wes was no closer to his goal, and his limited patience was exhausted.
He decided to expedite matters by slapping the old bugger around a bit. In doing so, he took his eye off the old baggage, and that had been his mistake.
Now here he was, trussed up like a turkey waiting for Christmas, with an aching head, hungry and parched, sitting in his own shit in some torture chamber. Turned out the olds were psychos. Who knew!? Fuck you, Bob.
Wes’ bitter recriminations were interrupted by a rattle of locks and bolts, a creak of rusty hinges and a blinding light.
‘Now then, young fella? How are we doing?’ Reg wrinkled his nose. ‘Smells a bit ripe in here, if you don’t mind my saying ...’
‘Please ... just fucking let me go,’ croaked Wes. ‘I swear I’ll never come back.’
‘What’s that? No, can’t be letting you go until you learn to mind your manners. The missus is on the warpath, I’m afraid. Never mind: I’ve brought you some tea and biccies. Might as well make yourself comfortable.’
With a kindly smile, Reg set down the tray. ‘Night night!’
‘But I can’t ...’ Wes started to say, as the door swung shut. He hung his head, as far as the chain would allow, and wept.
Next week in Lethe:
Chapter 3 – Forgetting
A peaceful conclusion, for some …
Wumindjika – ‘welcome’ in the language of the Taungurung / Daung Wurrung people (traditional owners of a swathe of central Victoria north of the Great Dividing Range and east of the Campaspe River)