Cannibals of the Fine Light
The city broke the skyline into ragged edges, an horizon of concrete
spears. Harry Beatle heard Angie whisper something about sunsets,
but her soft voice drifted on without really being read.
Where's Paul? he wondered, and outside the night was eating
away at the sky with teeth of stars.
"Paul should have died an old man," Angie said, her
voice closer now, and irritatingly arrogant. It occurred to Harry
that she was really repeating her point about sunsets.
All of us are like moths, flittering around the lamp of our
grief, he thinks. We're cannibals of the fine light shining
from the death of a friend, the fine light that comes from the
sudden knowledge of mortality, a fine light that casts shadows
from feelings, leaving everything else in revealing darkness.
Marilyn said there are no such things as old men. "Only
children and corpses," she insisted. She was Paul's last
lover, the last to touch his flesh, so perhaps she would know.
After all, such intimacy should have some secrets denied the
rest of us. Harry remembered Paul once telling him that only
lovers scored solid points in the affections of the deceased.
The conversation tumbled acrobatically among the mourners, most
of them surprised by their own loquacity. It was a relief for
them; no one could have stood one of those awful gaps of unwanted
silence that often crop up at wakes, as uninvited and unappealing
as the dead.
Harry kept on thinking it was such a poor joke that Paul should
have died the way he did. A single vein, narrower than a straw,
bursting in his head, turning his brain red and his mind into
nothing. Just like switching off an electric light. A thousand
monkeys, typing away, trying for Shakespeare but writing Paul's
obituary instead. Ridiculous, his thoughts continued, forty
five and dead. But there was no other way.
Harry looked around the room, silently counting those who'd come
to the wake. Here we are, gathered like wilting hothouse flowers
picked too early. All your friends pretending to remember you
but really desperately trying to forget you ever existed.
Nothing personal, Paul, but in death you've gained weight and
Harry Beatle had always been the most unassuming in appearance
of all of City Security's operatives. Tall, a little stooped,
his hair prematurely thin, his face wide and blunt, he looked
more like an accountant than a policeman, though someone once
unkindly pointed out that he looked like the archetypical English
Chief Inspector, the one who patiently plods his way through a
case and inevitably nabs his man on the last page or in the last
scene. But England had died in the last war, and Harry was as
likely to kill the villain as arrest him.
Six months before Paul McAllister's death, a few of the City Security's
finest had gathered around a long metal table for a last look
at Theresa Gould, killed with two bullets through the forehead.
"Neat job, Harry," Ian Brewster, Harry's partner, said,
professionally checking the entry wound.
"What did you get out of her?" Kath Hutton asked, standing
apart from everyone else, as was her wont. Rank hath its privileges.
"Some fine invective," Harry answered quietly.
"I hope she pulled a shooter on you, Harry, before you squeezed
the trigger," Kath said, staring at him.
"Of course, Kath. You know how I work."
"It's only that our body count's been very high of late,"
she continued, "and the City Council's feeling a little bruised
from all the pressure being applied by the Church and the Civil
Harry didn't answer a second time, which pissed off Kath somewhat,
but he was damned if he was going to get into an argument with
her in front of a corpse.
Paul and his partner Marilyn Kremmer, the other two present, said
nothing. Having themselves been responsible for two killings
in as many weeks, they weren't about to buy into the discussion.
Kath was their chief, and had to cop all the flak coming from
the Mayor's office over any of City Security's perceived wrongs,
but they knew Harry Beatle wouldn't have killed Gould unless his
own life had been threatened directly. The victim had had information
City Security wanted badly, and that was more important than settling
Kath pulled a hat from a coat pocket and slapped it against her
leg. "Well, nothing can be done about it now," she
announced gruffly. "I'll need a report on line by 0800 tomorrow,
Harry nodded once, didn't turn to say goodbye as she left. He
found it difficult to take his eyes off Gould's face. It struck
him as curious, and partly obscene, that someone who had died
so violently could now appear so peaceful, as though she'd been
felled by nothing more vicious than sleep.
Ian put a hand on his shoulder. "It's time to go."
Harry let himself be led out of the morgue. The four friends
stood silently for awhile on the steps of the building, watching
the sun slowly sink behind the city. Sunsets were still something
of a novelty, the clouds of destruction from the last war only
dispersing in the last five years or so. The air remained cold
though, and western Sydney still suffered from frosts as late
"What now, Harry?" Ian asked him. "With Gould
dead, our last hopes of nailing Tarbuck have gone with her."
Tarbuck was the main target of Harry and Ian's current assignment.
He was a smuggler and warlord, someone whose wealth and power,
and alleged links with the Kiwi Merchant Guild across the Tasman,
posed a real threat to the City Council's hold over Sydney. Gould
was the person they'd hoped would give them the information and
evidence needed to bring Tarbuck to trial in one of the Council's
rigged courts. But now . . .
Harry shrugged. "Something will turn up."
"Ever the optimist," Paul said, laughing, slapping his
friend on the back. "Maybe Willson or Collary will
raise their ugly heads now that Gould's dead. Maybe one
of them can help you put Tarbuck away." His voice wasn't
quite serious, but Harry looked at him sharply.
"Maybe," he said, nodding slowly.
"We'll leave you to it, then," Marilyn said, glancing
at Paul from the corner of her eye.
Both Harry and Ian caught the meaning in that look, but ignored
it. What she and Paul did with their lives was their business.
"I'll give you a lift home," Paul said to his partner.
He turned briefly to the other two men. "Harry. Ian."
Five minutes later Harry was still watching the sunset. Ian waited
patiently for him on the street, calmly watching passers-by.
"Marie will be waiting for you," Harry said eventually.
"I expect so."
"You'd better go, then. Thanks for waiting."
"Can I take you somewhere?"
Harry shook his head. "No. I'll take the tube home."
"Do you think Paul's right? Do you think something will
Harry looked down at his feet. "Something already has,"
he said sadly.
There was a moment when Angie found herself alone, and the feeling
was almost unbearable. She turned her face away from the crowd
and stared out the window, watching the wake in the reflection.
Suddenly, something large and heavy fluttered against the window,
and then was gone as quickly as it had appeared. Angie jerked
back, her breath catching in her throat.
An eagle! her mind shouted. Talons and beak, and tail
like a wedge . . . But in the city?
And why not, she reasoned to herself. Skyscrapers are nothing
more than mountains, and streets the valleys in between. And
above us all, the eagle.
Or maybe it was hunger, detached and given form. If I watch
I will see it again. I will stay by this window to make sure.
The sun is setting. Welcome back darkness. Hide my face from
my friends. I have seen myself in too many mirrors the last few
days, searching to see if Paul had left me anything of myself.
He'd taken so much, and with so little grace. My husband died
before I could claim my inheritance from his memories. He died
before retribution, before justice could be done.
Angie bowed her head, exhaustion bending her frame. There's
no point complaining. Paul has the ear of God, now. Knowing
him, he'll be an archangel in six months. God will put him in
charge of adulterers - Paul understands them so well. The Archangel
Paul. The thought made her smile.
Someone tried to hand her a drink, but she brushed it away. She
realised she wanted to be alone, now. Her thoughts went back
to Paul again.
Perhaps that's no eagle out there, but Paul! He's returned,
and is drawn to us - to the souls he knows - like an insect's
drawn to a kitchen window. He'll batter his wings around the
edges of our lives until we all die . . .
. . . and then we'll join him in heaven, become deputy angels
in his anti-adultery squad. We'll swoop down from heaven, attacking
the poor victims of physical desire. They'll cry out like frightened
gunners in Lancasters: "Bandits! Bandits!" And there'll
be blood in the bedroom and sin on the sheets . . . and oh, God!
have mercy on our souls!
It doesn't bear thinking about; not from a merciful God anyway,
not from a merciful God.
They met in the Royal Botanical Gardens. Side by side they walked,
past ancient banyan trees, strange fists and fingers of wood that
had somehow survived the worst of the nuclear winter, and past
new plots of temperate plants, it still being too cool to replant
the subtropical species that once had adorned the garden's paths
"Do you remember summer, Harry?" Kath asked.
"I was twenty four when Sydney had its last summer. That
was the same year India launched its SRNMs against Pakistan and
"I can't remember summer at all," Kath said wistfully.
"I was five years old when the war started. All my memories
are set in winter. I'm hoping to see a summer next year, or the
year after. But so much is going to change, not just the weather."
Harry didn't say anything. He wondered where Kath was leading
the conversation. "I mean, the City Council controls things
easily now because there's so damn little outside of Sydney.
We have contact with other cities and one or two rural enclaves,
but no one wants to leave here. Everyone's willing to stay and
obey the rules."
The pair stopped near a low stone wall that separated the gardens
from a thin strip of orange beach. Oil shivered on the sand.
Small, dead fish moved in and out with the lapping waves like
strips of metallic paint. Beyond was the harbour, filled with
steamers and tramp ships, tankers and trawlers.
"In time, when the weather warms up," Kath continued,
"people are going to want to leave, or, knowing that exile
is no longer such a horrifying prospect, try to change the order
of things here. Sydney will lose hundreds of thousands, perhaps
millions, of its people. That's dangerous, Harry, dangerous for
us all. In this underpopulated world, population equals power."
Kath put an arm around Harry and began walking again, leading
him away from the view of the harbour and up towards the art gallery.
"The law is the key to everything. People must respect
the law, and for them to do that they have to see we're prepared
to deal harshly with those who flout it. People like Tarbuck."
"Where are you going with this, Kath?" There was a
hint of exasperation in Harry's voice. He disliked being treated
like a raw recruit.
"You know something new - or you think you know something
new - about the Tarbuck case, Harry, but you haven't come and
talked to me about it. I have to admit, that worries me."
"When I have something definite I'll let you know, Kath."
She pursed her lips. "This Tarbuck thing is different from
other cases you've handled, Harry. He isn't your regular, run-of-the-mill
kind of villain. He's a major player, a real threat to Sydney's
"Sydney's future or the City Council's?"
Kath's eyes narrowed and she glanced quickly at Harry. "What's
the difference?" She waited for an answer, but none was
forthcoming. She sighed deeply. "I wish I knew where I
stood with you. When I look in the other direction, should I
cover my back?"
"I don't want your job, Kath."
"I know that. But that isn't what I meant. Whose side are
you on, Harry?"
He thought about it for a moment before answering. "I'm
with the angels."
"No such things. Not in Sydney, anyway. Can I trust you?"
"Then why don't you trust me?"
They reached the art gallery, its old stained sandstone making
it look more like a natural formation than a building. Harry
started climbing the steps to the entrance, leaving Kath behind.
"Who is it, Harry?" she called after him. "Whose
ghost is haunting you?"
He stopped when he got to the top, turned around and looked out
over Kath, over the gardens and out to the harbour. It looked
no better from here.
"Paul McAllister," he said.
"We both know Tarbuck has someone in the government feeding
him intelligence. We always assumed it was someone in the Council.
Well Kath, it's worse than that. It's someone in City Security.
It's Paul McAllister."
Kath ran up the steps, her speed belying her size. For a moment
Harry wondered if she was going to attack him. Instead, she stopped
a metre away from him, her eyes wide, her nose flaring with anger.
"You'd better know what you're talking about, Harry. For
your sake, I hope it's a fucking good story."
"Collary," Harry said. "Brian Collary. Only seven
people in the whole wide world knew that Collary works for Tarbuck.
Collary himself. Tarbuck. You. Me. Ian Brewster. Gould.
Tarbuck's mole. The other day, at the morgue, Paul let slip
Collary's name in connection with Tarbuck."
"Jesus." Kath breathed out heavily. "Maybe he
found out from someone else . . ."
Harry was shaking his head. "That's what I've been chasing
up. No way. It has to be Paul."
"Pull him in."
"He's a friend. You pull him in."
"It's your bloody case, Harry. Finish the job. Pull him
"Will you be there when we interrogate him?"
She turned her head away, closed her eyes. "Of course I'll
"What about Marilyn?"
"One at a time, Harry."
"She could be involved."
"Fuck you Harry. I said one at a time."
"Now. This afternoon."
Harry moved to leave, then stopped and turned on his heel to face
Kath again. "And after? What happens to Paul after we've
"We do him a favour, Harry. No one wants to know a mole."
Marilyn wasn't sure which way to turn. She felt out of place
among all the people, even among her workmates. The situation
wasn't helped by the looks she received from Paul's widow. Marilyn
spoke some words to Angie at the funeral, but her eyes sort of
glazed over and her face became rigid. Marilyn had left her alone
after that. She found herself a seat at the end of a lounge,
the other end occupied by two women involved in their own conversation,
happy to let the stranger sit by herself with her hands in her
lap nestling an empty glass.
What am I doing here? she thought. These people aren't
my friends. Most of them see me as an enemy of the state - Paul's
lover, and what do lovers know? The length of a penis, but not
of a temper, the shape of an intellect but not an imagination,
the feel of skin but not affection . . .
Marilyn could smell something burning in the kitchen, but she
refused to rouse herself from her niche. "This isn't my
home," she accidently said aloud, and smiled nervously at
her companions on the lounge as they looked up questioningly.
She shrugged and they returned to their own privacy.
Lovers are a part of the cold. We are the Antarctic, the frozen
shore of everyone's world. At night our dreams are about ice
and glaciers, crevasses and avalanches, deep blue seas that drop
to infinity. Oh, Christ, here come the tea and cakes. Leave
me alone, Angie. There's no need to be polite.
Marilyn needn't have worried. Angie passed by her as though she
was invisible. She wondered about Angie. Was there now a dark
gap between her and her life, as there was for Marilyn?
She felt it was time to go. She got up, a little unsteady on
her feet, and looked for somewhere to put the glass. In the end,
she left it on the carpet near the front door.
Outside of the apartment she felt a great weight lift from her
shoulders. Hello, Paul, goodbye. Your passing was a major
event. Not as spectacular as summer, perhaps, or as important
as the latest tax hikes, but you've left a hole in the universe
and it will never be filled. I loved you, and I miss you, but
soon the pain will be gone and my life will be mine again . . .
It was easier than Harry had any right to expect. Paul wasn't
reluctant to talk, being well aware of the alternatives. Just
the same, at the end of the interrogation he was injected with
happy juice and some of the questions were put to him again.
Harry phoned Angie to let her know not to worry.
"He's getting too old for these all night jobs, Harry,"
"I know, Angie. Paul told me tell you he's sorry, but it
"It's always unavoidable, Harry. I'm tired of unavoidable.
It's time he found another job. He's not cut out for this.
Jesus, Harry, I'm not cut out for this."
"I'll talk to you later, Angie."
"Give my love to Paul."
"Good night, Angie."
Marilyn was more difficult to put off. In the end Ian Brewster
took her with him on a routine job, telling her that Paul and
Harry were going over old files together for Kath Hutton.
Early next morning, well before the sun came up, Paul recovered
from the effects of the happy juice. He saw the doctor preparing
"Hey, Harry, what's this?"
"It'll knock you out for a few hours, that's all."
Paul caught Harry's gaze for a few seconds. His face went white.
"I understand," he said. "I knew this was going
to happen as soon as you started asking me questions about Collary,
but somehow I never really believed it." The doctor held
Paul's right arm, flicked a finger on a spot over his triceps
and inserted the needle. "What about the body washing, Harry?
How are you going to get rid of me?"
Harry glanced at Kath. She remained motionless, her gaze never
shifting from Paul's face. "We haven't figured that out
yet," he said.
Paul was already beginning to sway a little in his chair. "Nothing
too brutal. That'd be hard on Angie and Ma . . . on Angie, you
"It'll be something ordinary, Paul," Harry assured him,
fighting a sudden urge to retch.
"Haemorrhage is always good," Paul said. "I've
used that one myself."
"That's a good idea . . ."
But Paul never heard Harry's words. He slumped into the doctor's
"He won't feel a thing," the doctor promised Harry.
"I can arrange a haemorrhage, if that's what you want."
When the doctor had gone, and the technicians had removed Paul,
Harry made Kath some coffee. They sat together for several minutes
without saying a word. Eventually, Kath said: "At least
we have enough now to nail Tarbuck."
"Was it worth it, Kath?"
She shrugged, the most animated she'd been for several hours.
"It's not cost a thing, Harry. We're not accountants-"
Harry slammed his hand down on the table, making Kath jump in
her seat. "Was it worth it, Kath?"
"Sure." Kath swallowed uneasily. "Sure, it was
worth it. We have a job to do, and now we've done it."
She cleared her throat. "Someone's going to have to tell
"I'd like to be there when you make the call," Harry
After all of Paul's friends and acquaintances had left, Harry
was the last one left at the wake with Angie. They busied themselves
cleaning up, swapping small talk. Afterwards, he waited until
Angie had fallen asleep before leaving the apartment.
An hour later he found himself in the Royal Botanical Gardens,
near the little stone wall that guarded against the stained beach,
the harbour, the new city. He felt like a cork bobbing along
in the stream of time, a stream that ran by the same landmarks,
fell down the same waterfalls, kept on moving without really changing.
Paul's death had become a station outside of time, a truly knowable
fact, and Harry had to fight the temptation to anchor himself
to it like a leech attaching itself to evolution's first warm-blooded
limb. Like it or not, he belonged in the stream.
He looked up into the night sky, and imagined Paul's spirit, his
memory of Paul, dispersing into the void, components scattering
like biblical chaff throughout space and time. He could see bits
of Paul being vaporised by burning, blue suns and colliding with
meteors, and falling as grey rain on some remote planet, and other
bits being sucked into the maws of black holes like dust into
the mouths of vacuum cleaners. Paul becoming so dispersed throughout
the universe that he might as well never have existed.
We are all made up of memories, and when all the people who
know us forget who we are we simply disappear from sight, without
even the dignity of first becoming dust.
Harry heard in the distance the lonely sound of a ship's horn.
It floated across the water, a warning to Harry and to anyone
else who'd listen. These are not good times, he told himself.
I don't think Kath will ever see her summer. The world is
winter and the word is winter, and so it will be for ever and
Originally appeared pp. 31-42, Eidolon 6, October 1991.
Copyright © 1991 Simon Brown.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.