Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fiction: Man with a suitcase by Deborah Sheldon

The sun comes up and steams dew from the railway tracks. The only person waiting for the train at this hour on a Sunday is a middle-aged man with a suitcase. He is slumped on a bench when the teenaged boys creep down the stairs.

The one with the knife, whose name is George, smirks at his twin brothers and says to the man, "You’re up early."

The man looks them over and says, "I haven’t gone to bed yet."

"Oh, yeah? That can’t be good at your age," George says. His brothers snicker. George drops his smile and lifts the knife. "Let’s have it, mate."

The fight is over quickly. The man picks up the suitcase and takes the stairs out of the station. George stands, puts a hand against his bleeding nose and kicks at his brothers who lie sprawled and groaning.

"Come on or we’ll lose him," George says. "If you don’t get up right now, I’m telling Mum."

They take the stairs to the street. There’s no sign of the man with the suitcase. The brothers jog across the road.

In a parked car, two men exchange glances. "You see that?" one says, and the other nods.

The brothers enter a café and approach an older woman hunched over a plate of cooked breakfast. She is fat and shaped like a beanbag. She throws down her cutlery and scrapes her chair from the table, slaps at George and yells, "Where’s the suitcase?"

The twins back away. George says, "Mum, you didn’t tell us Rudi could fight."

"What? Rudi did this to you?"

"There wasn’t nobody else with him Mum, so yeah."

Mum, stricken-faced, drops into her chair. "Georgie, if we don’t have the suitcase, we don’t have nothing, understand?" The waitress approaches and offers towels to the bleeding brothers. They take the towels without acknowledging her. The waitress retreats to the kitchen and Mum whispers, "Now she’s gonna call the coppers because of you dickheads."

Outside, the men in the parked car are still waiting. The one with glasses is reading a paperback while the skinny one watches the door of a bakery. The man with the suitcase comes out of the bakery, eating a croissant.

The skinny one says, "Sarge."

Sarge looks over his glasses and closes his book. "Well, he’s a lot thinner than he used to be."

"I thought Zef the Clog wore his hair a little longer."

Sarge laughs. "Come on, Nash, a man can’t get a haircut? It’s Zef the Clog all right. Why else would the Frenelli boys be after him?"

"I suppose," Nash says. "Think he’s carrying money or drugs?"

"Who cares, let’s take it whatever it is."

Nash twists the key in the ignition.

The man with the suitcase takes his mobile phone from his pocket. Its display window is broken. He shakes the phone and pieces rattle. He drops the phone into a bin and surveys the road and here comes a yellow taxi. The man waves his arm but the taxi cruises past. He watches it go. A ringing sound turns his head. It’s a young woman on a bicycle, thumbing her bell. He smiles and she smiles back. He watches her as she cycles away.

A car brakes into the kerb in front of him.

Two men leap from the car. Sarge takes him by one arm and Nash takes him by the other and they bundle him through the door of a laundromat.

George is watching from the café window. He says to Mum, "The cops have just nabbed Rudi."

Mum pales and says, "Get Monster."

"Where is he?" George says.

"In the dunny out the back, hurry."

Sarge and Nash wrestle the man to the rear of the laundromat. A young man with his hair gelled into a mess looks up from his washing basket and shapes his mouth into a soundless oh. Nash jerks his thumb at the front door. The young man dashes out of the laundromat.

Now they are alone. Nash stands by the front door. Sarge pushes the man towards one of the plastic chairs. The man sits, places his suitcase on the floor between his feet and puts his hands on his knees.

Sarge points at the suitcase. "You delivering this to the Chinaman?"


Sarge looks around to Nash. They both grin. Sarge says, "So tell me what’s in it then."

"Clothes, toiletries. A present."

Sarge says. "For the Chinaman?"

"No, for my sister. It’s her birthday."

Sarge folds his arms across his paunch and shakes his head.

Nash says, "I read in his file that Zef the Clog was smart. An IQ of 130, wasn’t it?"

A petite man with a crazed look on his face bursts through the doorway, wheeling a one-inch galvanised water pipe in his left hand and a chain in his right. Nash, who was knocked to the floor during the petite man’s entry, gets up and reaches for his police issue Smith and Wesson revolver strapped to his bony hips while Sarge takes a lashing of chain around the back of his skull. The man with the suitcase ducks the swing of pipe and sprints across the laundromat to the door as Nash drops the gun and scrambles for it.

Once on the street, the man hesitates, checks both ways. A sedan lurches to a stop in front of him and the passenger door flings open and rocks on its hinges. "Get in!" someone yells and he gets in, the car taking off before he has the door closed.

The man looks at his salvation. The honey-haired woman in a pants suit twists the wheel, stamps the brake and executes a controlled slide around the corner on the amber light. She guns the car up the road, takes another turn and another, then slows down, eying the rear-view mirror.

He says, "I haven’t seen driving like that in a long time."

"Thanks, but I can’t take the credit, it’s standard training." She flicks him a quick up-and-down gaze. "I expected a woman."

"Oh? Why’s that?"

"Isn’t it obvious?" she says, and takes another corner. "Bent male cops always blab to women, don’t you find?"

"Well, I’ve never really thought about it. So where are we going?"

She shoots him a look. "You’ve got the stuff, haven’t you?"


"Tapes, photographs. The dope on Sergeant Turner and Senior Constable Nash, it’s in your suitcase, right?" When he pats the suitcase, she giggles and says, "Wow, you really had me worried for a second."

One more screeching turn and they’re back where they started, on the same street but further down. She rams the transmission into park and rips on the handbrake.

"You’ve moved the car about fifty feet," the man says.

She points at a glass door in front of them marked ABC Accounting. "They’re in there."


"The Feds, who else?" Her smile fades. "You know, you never gave me the code word."

The man gets out of the car and shuts the door. He scans the street both ways. She gets out the driver’s side, yelling, "You’re under arrest, whoever you are."

He says, "Wait," because across the road coming out of the café are the fat woman and her three sons and they’re looking straight at him.

A marked police car, lights flashing, parks outside the cafe. Mum and her boys start crabbing sideways along the footpath.

Mum hisses, "I told you that waitress was gonna call the coppers, didn’t I? Now look what you’ve done."

"Sorry, Mum," George says.

"Get in here," Mum says, and she ushers her three sons into the newsagency. She peers through the floor-to-ceiling window at the man with the suitcase backing away from a woman in a pants suit who’s waving a pair of handcuffs in his face. Mum puts on her glasses, looks again. "Now just hang on a minute," she says, and grabs at her huge bosom where her heart might be. "Oh sweet Mary, that’s the bloke? The tall one with the suitcase?"

"That’s him," George says.

Mum slaps him hard enough to stagger him. "That’s not Rudi, you buffoon."

Two uniformed officers get out of the police car. They adjust their utility belts and straighten their hats and saunter towards the cafe. A scream spins them around. Across the road, a mother with a pram, still screaming, is running from a group comprising a man with a suitcase, a woman in a pants suit, and a petite man holding a pipe and a length of chain. The three are circling each other.

Then the woman in the pants suit pulls a Glock semi-automatic pistol from the holster hidden within her jacket and aims it first at the petite man and then at the man with the suitcase like she can’t make up her mind. Other pedestrians, the few out at this early hour, shrill and scatter.

The uniformed officers draw guns and duck behind their parked car. One of them shouts, "Police! Drop your weapons!"

The woman in the pants suit lifts both arms. "Federal police officer!"

"Holster your weapon!"

And she does.

"You with the pipe and the chain!" a cop shouts. "Drop ‘em and get on the ground!"

Mum leans from the newsagency door and shrieks, "Monster! It ain’t Rudi, it ain’t him!"

The uniformed officers wheel around. Mum and her boys startle and duck back into the newsagency at a run, aiming for the rear door. One of the uniformed officers gives chase. Out on the road, Monster has turned on his heel and is dashing along the footpath with surprising speed for someone with such delicate legs.

"I got him!" the woman in the pants suit yells and bolts after him and the remaining uniformed officer jumps up and follows her.

The man with the suitcase takes the car belonging to the woman in the pants suit. He doesn’t speed. He stops at the red light. He scrolls through the radio stations until he finds a song he likes. He puts a hand on the suitcase lying next to him in the passenger seat.

The light turns green and he drives off. It’s still early and there is hardly any traffic. He notices in the rear view mirror that a car is closing the distance at a rapid rate. Then the speeding car pulls up alongside and taps its nose against his boot. He loses the back end, spins the car, ploughs it up the footpath and spreads the bonnet around a telegraph pole.

The air bag deploys. Then he lolls back in the seat, blood coursing from his lip, as the car behind him screeches to a stop and parks. His door opens and Sarge and Nash pull him from the vehicle and fling him onto the footpath. The man rolls onto his back and stares up at them.

"What’s so funny?" Sarge says.

"Nothing," the man says.

Sarge and Nash look at each other. Both are dishevelled, bruised and bleeding.

Nash reddens and says, "He had a pipe and a chain and he came out of nowhere."

Sarge shoves at Nash. "Shut up."

The man gets to his feet. Sarge eyes him through bent and broken glasses. Then Sarge grabs at the man and runs him against the ruined car. The man bounces off and ends up on the footpath again.

"I ought to put a bullet in your back," Sarge says.

The man sits up. Nash takes the suitcase from the passenger seat and places it on the bonnet of their unmarked squad car and opens the suitcase. Nash and Sarge lift out items one at a time and drop them to the road: shirt, jocks, t-shirt, a pair of socks, another shirt.

"What the hell is this?" Sarge says. "Some kind of joke?"

The man shrugs. Sarge holds up a little box wrapped in gold paper and tied with ribbon.

"That’s the present for my sister."

Sarge drops it to the ground. "Oh crap."

"I told you his hair was too short," Nash says.

"Shut up."

Nash goes to the back of their squad car and takes out an expanding manilla file. He opens it and riffles through it while Sarge glares down at the man sitting on the footpath. Nash finds what he’s looking for. He walks the photograph over to Sarge and they both study it for a long time.

At last, Nash says, "It’s not him."

"Christ!" Sarge doubles over as if hit by pain. He straightens and stamps around in a circle, cursing, then turns to the man. "You stupid bastard, I ought to shoot you."

"Maybe you should save your strength for Zef the Clog," the man says.

Sarge lunges but Nash manhandles him to the squad car.

"You’d better get out of here," Nash yells. "And don’t tell anyone about this, all right? Don’t even try it."

Their car peels away from the kerb in a bloom of tyre smoke. The man gets up, repacks his suitcase and closes it. He walks back along the street to the strip shopping centre. He stops at a public phone housed inside a half-egg of plastic perched on a pole. He puts the suitcase next to him and thumbs coins into the slot and calls a number. It answers on the second ring.

He says, "Cat? Dog. Uh, sorry, can’t remember what I’m meant to say next. What? No, the mobile’s broken." His mouth sets into a line. "Okay, look Penelope, I know it’s you, you know it’s me. Yes, I’m late. Yes, I’ve still got it. All right, I’ll see you in half an hour."

His only warning is a creak of unoiled gears and then the woman on the bicycle leans over, snatches the suitcase and pedals away. The man is too surprised to call out. He barks into the phone, "Give me an hour," and he drops the handset and sprints after the bicycle.


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