the shark net

di Robert Drewe

It’s a different sunlight-harsher , dustier, more ancient looking?that enters courtrooms. Streaked by this ominous light, guarded by two big uniformed cops and hunched in his old-fashioned blue pinstripe suit with the curling lapels, the prisoner looked different, too. He was uglier, smaller, and, with the eyes of the courtroom on him, even more self-conscious than usual. He looked like a criminal in a B-movie or in Dick Tracy . He really was the stereotype of a crook. Even so, for my own reasons I was having trouble fitting the headline MANIAC KILLER AT LARGE to him.

    The hearing droned on, the murder evidence piled up, and the voices of authority and retribution slid back into the warm hum of a Perth spring afternoon. In the dusty sunbeams my Pitman’s shorthand symbols danced before my eyes. I was writing something down, recording some legal side issue which the prosecutor and the magistrate were batting back and forth, and my sentence just petered out. I stared at my notebook thinking how strange those hieroglyphics were, those funny upward-and-downward chicken scratchings. And then they didn’t seem odd at all. I didn’t see them anymore.

    I was so keyed up, so confused, depressed and, yes, also elated by recent events, so tired of experiencing the extremes of emotion, that my mind had given up and drifted off into a semiconscious daze. For a while I forgot where I was, what I was doing, what was happening.

    It felt like I’d been out of it for at least an hour but it must have been only a minute or so before I snapped awake. The tapping of the court typist, accusingly loud, brought me around. Then everything flooded back. The dry legal voices rang louder in my head. I heard again the car horns out on the street, the trucks rattling over the Barrack Street Bridge, the screech of a train’s brakes in the station below.

    How could I do that? I felt my heart pounding. Had I fainted? Had anyone noticed? It didn’t seem so. Up there in front of me again was the focus of all the room’s?and the city’s?attention and emotion. Of course he hadn’t gone away; he wasn’t going anywhere.

    Everyone believed he was as good as convicted of multiple murder. I was trying to stay objective, but I thought so, too. Then again, I told myself, put anyone in the dock and they look guilty of something; especially those middle-class first-timers who sprang blithely up the steps?the spruce church wardens, scoutmasters, and stockbrokers. The instant they gripped the dock rail and faced the music their faces went red or ashen.

    This instantaneous blushing or blanching?like the ominous sunlight?was one of the many interesting courtroom observations I’d made in my short time as an apprentice reporter on the West Australian . From my Press table vantage point as assistant to the police-courts reporter, Jim Dollimore (a shorthand wizard of twenty-three), I’d noticed how the most minor petty-sessions court, the most trivial charge, had the same humbling effect. Even a negligent driving charge in the Fremantle traffic court would do it. It didn’t take the presiding presence of a magistrate or judge. Well before the start of proceedings, the courtroom’s stern demeanor and furnishings and coat of arms?that powerful combination of law, history, punishment, and varnished timber?had awed and mystified them. As much as by their current adverse circumstances they looked crushed by important looking wood.

    This certainly applied to the small, frowning figure in the dock. Only because I knew him, and he was sitting up there in front of me, living and breathing and looking anxious (if oozing criminality!), was I able to still give him, if only for a second or two, the benefit of the faintest doubt.

    The odd thing was that after nearly two days of undramatic and convoluted detective-speak (“Whilst in attendance I ascertained that a male person had been shot in the head whilst lying in bed by a person in that immediate vicinity”), and the prosecutor’s low-key delivery, it was strangely, cruelly, easy to forget that the charge he faced involved someone else I’d known, a boy who was now dead.

    But then, like some legal afterthought, the victim’s name would suddenly come up again in proceedings. Oh, yes … him . And with a sickening shock I’d remember that the subject of the police photographs on the court clerk’s table, Exhibit 14?the shattered head, the blackened mess of blood and matter?was a friend of mine.

    Throughout the first day of the committal hearing in the Perth police court the top photograph of Exhibit 14 was visible from my seat. It wasn’t one of the more grisly ones. This wasn’t one of the full body or head shots. It was an 8 x 10 inch glossy print of my friend’s narrow wooden bed on the back veranda of the student boarding house where he was shot that summer night?the evening of Australia Day?while he was fast asleep.

    I couldn’t stop glancing toward the photo even though members of his family were in the court and I felt bad about them catching me looking.

    The sheets, mattress, and pillow in the photograph were black with his blood, and more blood was pooled on the cement floor. The veranda was narrow, more an open porch leading from the kitchen door to the laundry and lavatory, and the bed-head was only about three feet from the lavatory door. There was barely room for the bed and a small table and a couple of unmatched cane chairs at the foot of the bed. It was rudimentary student accommodation, and hot-weather student accommodation at that.

    In front of the bed a clothesline had been strung between two veranda posts, and a sheet was pegged to the line as a makeshift curtain, perhaps intended to give a little privacy to the outdoor sleeper but more likely in this case, I thought, to keep the sun’s rays from waking him too early after a late night.

    To get uninterrupted access to the boy on the bed, some person had hurriedly twisted the sheet up on the line rather than remove it altogether. It hung there like a chrysalis. I wondered if this person had been a detective or an ambulanceman. Or the murderer.

For efficiency’s sake the authorities had decided to try the prisoner on this particular murder charge alone. In the unlikely event that it failed they had plenty of other charges to fall back on. During the first day and a half of the hearing I almost forgot about the other murders.

    I was also forgetting the detailed confession. I remembered it, however, late in the afternoon of the second day The prosecutor was outlining how cooperative the defendant had been, how thoroughly he’d reenacted his crimes for the detectives, how willingly he’d revisited all the murder scenes and even recalled the exact light stanchion (No. 324) nearest to where he’d thrown one of the rifles from the bridge?enabling the police divers, after three hours’ effort in sixteen feet of water, to recover it from the silt of the riverbed.

    As this helpful act was revealed?the barnacle-encrusted rifle was lying there on the exhibit table, next to a bloodstained dressing gown?a strange expression spread across the defendant’s face. In my experience of courts, brief as it was, your average alleged murderer would have shaken his head at this point, or frowned, or simply looked blank. But this one looked grateful. His frown vanished and his mouth twisted into a modest but comradely grin. He nodded his head in agreement. As odd as it seemed, he cheered up.

    More than anything his manner reminded me of one of those unspectacular but useful utility players interviewed by a sportscaster after a winning football game. One of the team at last, and quietly pleased and proud to have his efforts finally recognized.

For security, I supposed, as much as for architectural reasons, the windows of the Victorian building housing Perth’s petty-sessions and committal courts, as well as the State’s police headquarters, detective bureau, and central police station, had been built high in the thick stone walls, about twelve feet off the floor.

    Opening on to a grim asphalt yard, where the prisoners brought from Fremantle Prison were unloaded from the Black Marias and taken to the courts’ holding cells, the windows faced west over the lockup and a phenol-smelling toilet block and along Roe Street, infamous since the eighteen-nineties’ gold rushes as the street of police-sanctioned brothels, and only recently closed down.

    Although the panes were smeared by years of grit and soot from the adjoining traffic bridge and railway station, by mid-afternoon on the second day of the hearing the defendant was sitting in the dock wreathed in sunshine. The dock faced west, too. Now and then he’d patiently inch his chair out of the glare and his guards would look more alert for a moment and make self-conscious adjustments to their own chairs and postures and already grim facial expressions. He had to squint into a stream of rays to see me sitting below the windows, bent over my notebook.

    Suddenly I felt him staring at me. I’d been avoiding his eyes, hoping he wouldn’t recognize me, but a moment later he winked. I winked back, then I felt a hot wave of embarrassment that quickly turned into anger at myself. I hoped that no one, not the magistrate or the other reporters, and especially not the victim’s family, had seen me.

    I told myself I should have ignored his wink and looked away. But in the split second when I’d weighed up my response, I decided he was in such deep shit that it would be uncharitable and somehow treacherous not to wink back.

    And there was another thing, something pretty horrible: part of me had also responded gratefully to recognition from a celebrity?even from the worst type of celebrity For a second I felt recognized, in the center of things. To be a participant instead of an observer went totally against my training as a reporter. But I liked the feeling.

    It also made me feel hot and rattled that this was so. This was a pretty far step removed from the impulse to join all the other posterity-craving names scratched into the varnish of the Press table. (On my second day in court I’d succumbed to this one.) It sickened me that anyone should think my wink indicated I was on his side.

    I hated how my feelings were so easily swung around. But at least now that we’d made eye contact I could study him more openly And I couldn’t get over his appearance of patient contentment or his late-in-the-day change of manner. He wasn’t wearing a tie, and his suit and shirt were creased and grubby In the circumstances, looking so shabby could hardly help him. I guessed he must have been roused for court very early that morning because by late afternoon his black five o’clock shadow gave him that look of a minor gangster or a stubbled saloon extra in a Western.

    Now he reminded me of some movie character in particular. Who was it? Yes, Burt Lancaster’s deaf-mute sidekick in The Crimson Pirate . They had a lot in common: dark wavy hair, small but athletic physiques, shrewdness, agility, obvious disabilities. But Burt Lancaster’s partner had to be smarter. As our eyes met I thought: Didn’t it dawn on you that while the police were praising your memory just now they were nailing you down?

    While he sat there looking calm and flattered, he was an open-and-shut case. He wasn’t required to plead but it didn’t really matter. You didn’t need to hear him speak. At the end of the hearing the magistrate could only decide he had a murder charge to answer.

    Even in a short time I’d come to realize that most murderers looked more like bank tellers or economics teachers or crayfishermen. But he didn’t. When he smiled and preened like that he looked like a murderer.

    The magistrate appeared to agree. He was a twinkling, bow-tied cynic who every day telegraphed his feelings on the disreputable passing parade with snorts of repressed laughter and conspiratorial glances toward the Press table. But this afternoon there were no quips and arched eyebrows. He didn’t once look at us. His eyes moved only from the prosecutor to the man in the dock and to the witnesses and exhibits before him, and his decision was never in doubt.

    “You are committed for trial for murder,” he said. His voice was brisk and cold, and the usually shrewd eyes were flat behind his rimless glasses. Our jovial magistrate looked more like a Nazi intelligence officer.

    As he announced his unsurprising decision, the defense lawyers were already bundling up their papers. Their faces didn’t show much expression either; only that they knew they had a job ahead of them with this one.

When, four years after the murders began, the long-awaited announcement of the arrest finally came, the front-page photograph of the small hunched figure, a blanket thrown over his head, being led by detectives from the lockup through a handful of intensely curious onlookers to the court holding cells, was greeted by a mass exhalation of breath.

    The government, the police, and the suburbs sighed with relief. Thank God! Now life could go back to normal.

    I was one of the onlookers standing in the asphalt courtyard between the lockup and the holding cells. I was just in the picture: on the edge of the newspaper photograph leaning in. I was barely in the frame. I was a left ear, a nose tip, a cheek, a piece of jaw, a jacket shoulder, a sleeve, a hand, a notebook. I was present, but only just. I was made of gradations of gray dots.

    When they opened the cell door and bustled the prisoner outside, a whiff of carbolic acid followed him from the lockup into the courtyard. A detective threw a cell blanket over his head to thwart the photographers. (They’d make sure there wouldn’t be any chance of a mistrial because of overexuberant publicity.) As we thronged toward the small hooded figure the high carbolic stink almost knocked me over.

    Already a legendary monster, he was there, shuffling past us, and then he was gone. His shuffle across the courtyard, the bustle of captors and onlookers, the snapping of photographs, the flash of Speed-Graphics, had taken no more than twenty seconds. The photograph of course captured the tension and excitement of the moment but rendered us all?prisoner, police, and press?immobile.

    I wasn’t much more than a slice of nose, chin, and notebook but I couldn’t stop looking at this photo, too. It reminded me that while life seemed tumultuous to me at the moment, my existence was marginal and my inactivity was probably permanent.

    After the committal proceedings, however, with the assignment completed, the story filed (forty-five paragraphs, seven of them written by me), the news editor satisfied, the time-book signed, the next day’s assignment noted, the feeling that I’d always be standing dumbly on the periphery of things was the least of my worries.

    The “alleged” murderer had been committed for trial. Without doubt, he’d be convicted. The murders had stopped. Life would go on. But it was clear that my life wouldn’t continue as normal.

    I’d not long before come to a decision of my own, with hardly any thought or discussion but with complete certainty and no consideration of alternatives. And, it now occurred to me, in the face of grief and wrath and chaos, with no consideration of repercussions.

    While life itself was swirling like a sandstorm around everyone’s heads, my decision had been clear. This was even though I could see and hear myself and my girlfriend, Ruth, as if in a dream or from afar, sounding and behaving unnervingly like Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee in A Summer Place , a corny movie drama that I scorned.

    How could I feel so vague and at the same time behave so definitely? I was a daydreamer; thinking was what I normally seemed to do all day. So what was the matter with me that I couldn’t think anymore? And why couldn’t I even keep this question in my head for more than a second before it flicked away?

    After the committal, as I drove my mother’s tiny old pale blue Renault that evening across the Narrows Bridge toward Ruth’s house in South Perth, I had no imagination or wisdom left to deal with the next few hours. I felt incapable of talking or reasoning. I’d been dreading this evening and now it had arrived and my mind was a desert. I felt sick just being inside the Renault. Halfway across the bridge, a nerve in my right eyelid started twitching. When I checked in the rear-view mirror, however, my face was unusually white but the eyelid was quite still.

    In a trance, I drove across the bridge, part of me marveling at the miracle of the Renault pottering along in the correct lane, avoiding the oncoming headlights, not tipping over the side of the bridge into the river. I couldn’t wait to see Ruth. I couldn’t wait to make love, to forget this day and this evening and this week and lose myself. Still in a daze, I drove off the down-ramp. Without it registering, I drove down Mill Point Road, past the apartment building where the first woman had been murdered.

    In my right mind I was the sort of person who always made mental notes of macabre places like that?like reporters were supposed to, I told myself?but I only remembered the murder site a few blocks farther on when I passed the South Perth Zoo and heard the lions roaring.

    I didn’t know why I made the connection. I certainly didn’t feel the usual eerie but not unpleasant feeling the lions’ roars gave me: of being safely uneaten, therefore sharply alive. It wasn’t as if I felt safely unmurdered. The only sensation I felt, apart from my eyelid dancing like crazy, was an uneasy, false calm. Not the lull before the storm; the storm was well and truly raging. I felt like I was in the eye of the storm.

    But I pulled up. Perhaps I thought I was grabbing the reins for a moment and doing something definite. I stopped the car, turned around and drove back past the murder scene on Mill Point Road?the first of the eight murder scenes?past the ground-floor apartment where the sleeping woman, Patricia Berkman, had been stabbed in her bed.

    She was the victim some of the papers?not the West Australian , of course?had referred to as the “naked divorcée” to distinguish her from the “beautiful socialite-heiress,” the “shapely brunette,” and the “studious babysitter,” with the disapproving inference that any woman wanton enough to be both divorced and to sleep without nightclothes was asking to be murdered. What’s more, she’d sold cosmetics at David Jones’s department store and had a Greek boyfriend who was a radio announcer. This got the gossip mills humming. Like the other women, she was young and attractive. This had been another count against her.

    I turned the car around again, stopped under a streetlight and, with the engine still running, looked at the building for a while. So this was where he started. Where things stepped up a notch .

    I didn’t know what I was doing there. Taking my mind off things? Trying to see something of portent in the surroundings? Soaking up the macabre atmosphere? There wasn’t any. It was just an ordinary two-story apartment building. It didn’t seem ominously seductive or anything. It didn’t look like the sort of place an attractive divorcée who slept naked would live. Even knowing what I knew, there was nothing there to help me imagine the murder that night or the mayhem that followed.

    A light was on inside apartment number one, the murder flat. I guessed a new tenant was living there now. Of course, it was more than four years since the murder; a string of tenants could have passed through. I wondered what sort of people they could be. How could anyone live where someone had been murdered? Sleep in the same room? Bad vibes, I said to myself.

    A middle-aged man in a straw hat was watering the garden and at the Renault’s throaty clatter, more like the sound of a Lambretta scooter than a car, he glanced up and glared at me?suspiciously, I thought. He gripped the hose like a weapon. He looked like he was trying to commit the license plate to memory. He probably took me for a crime-scene pervert, a nut case. Maybe I was. The duck-egg blue Renault wouldn’t have helped.

    I hoped it wouldn’t stall as it often did when idling in inconvenient places. I didn’t want to have to get out of the car outside the apartment and crank-start it. It was always breaking down. (You couldn’t get the proper spare parts in Perth. The local Renault dealer always insisted they were on a ship arriving any moment from France.) This time it didn’t falter, however, and I took a deep breath and drove away

    As I headed off again, the realization struck me. I was driving to Ruth’s out of old habit, and I was going to the wrong place. Ruth didn’t live in South Perth anymore. At this moment she was probably lying in a negligee in my sister’s room in Circe Circle. Around her, people were pale and grieving. Strangers were in the house performing our familiar functions. Suddenly no one was where they were supposed to be.

    I felt as if I were speaking aloud to myself, voicing a single thought: I’m only young but this is how I’ll feel forever. Dazed, randy, mentally paralyzed, and swept along by events.

    I turned around again and headed back along Mill Point Road toward the Narrows Bridge, toward the evening’s appointment. I was anxious about it. I suspected what would happen. Weren’t death, murder, and birth enough? Now I had to deal with guilt as well. Before the thought broke up and spun away, I wondered, vaguely: What happened?