“Can you believe this bullshit?” Commander Michael Allen burst into the office and tossed a handful of papers on Tim’s desk.
Tim sat back in his chair, feet up on his desk and spinning his Akubra hat around his finger. He raised a lazy eyebrow at his boss and said in his laconic drawl, “I make it a habit to not believe in bullshit.”
“Adrian Naughton,” Allen said, hefting up the pants that kept slipping over his round belly. “Asshole got off.”
This had Tim’s feet off his desk and picking up the paper, “You’re jokin’?”
The constant buzzing of conversations in the open plan office immediately quieted and it felt like everyone was holding their breath. Like a blanket of mourning lay over it as everyone within earshot processed this information.
Meanwhile, Tim read the article. It was a breaking news article from the internet. Commander Allen wasn’t quite up to date with technology and didn’t understand that he could share the article electronically rather than printing it out and tossing it on everyone’s desk.
Adrian Naughton was arrested and on trial for the kidnapping and murder of Jessica Ward, a seven-year-old girl whose body was found in the bushes four weeks after she’d gone missing.
The case was popular nationwide, and evidence pointed to Adrian Naughton, the girl's primary school teacher. Naughton ran and Tim and the rest of the AFP were put on the hunt with Tim eventually finding him hiding out at an old girlfriend’s house in Burpengary, a suburb an hour north of Brisbane.
As he read, his phone buzzed on his desk and he glanced at it. Once he saw the number, he chewed his lip, wondering if he should answer it.
Allen looked at the phone, his own thick eyebrow raised.
Decision made, Tim stood up from his seat and grabbed his phone, “Personal call,” he said, walking out of the office and into the hall where a bank of elevators waited.
“Frank,” Tim answered by way of greeting.
“How the fuck did he get off!” Frank Ward said. “That son-of-a-bitch murdered my daughter!”
“I don’t know what to say,” was all Tim could say.
“You promised. Promised! He would be put away for life.”
Tim stood in the corner, near the farthest elevator, his head hung like a child in trouble for breaking his brother's toy. He remained silent. There was nothing he could say. He’d made that promise. When he captured Adrian Naughton and handed him over to the local police, he believed it would be an open and shut case. The local police were confident, the evidence stacked against Adrian Naughton. And innocent people don’t run.
Frank Ward found out Tim had found Adrian and contacted him to say thank you. They spoke, Tim feeling sorry for the man who’d lost a wife to cancer, and his only child in the span of six months. Against his better judgement, Tim answered questions about the case, confident that Adrian Naughton would never see the light of day again.
“How could he get away with it?” Frank said, his voice cracking.
Tim shook his head. How could he give any sort of satisfactory answer? “Look, it’s not over yet. They’ll go for a retrial.”
“That scumbag is free and clear!” Frank thundered and Tim could feel the answer through the phone.
“It’s not over,” Tim repeated weakly. He may as well have dropped a lump of coal in his Christmas sack for all the good that would be.
Over the phone, from a state away, Frank sighed, “I don’t mean to blame you, Inspector Pittman-.”
“Tim. It’s not your fault. But I can’t let this go.”
The line disconnected.
Tim looked at his phone, as if he could will it to reconnect to Frank Ward.
He looked up, Commander Allen was standing at the office’s threshold, the door slightly open, “Working today?”
Tim’s phone rang. He groaned and rolled over. The clock on his side table said it was four in the morning.
He fumbled for his phone, pulling out the charger and mumbled out some sort of greeting.
“Tim.” It was Commander Allen. “Adrian Naughton has gone missing.”
“Shame,” Tim said in a tone that said the opposite.
“I need your ass on the ground now. In Brisbane.”
“Why? He’s probably on a bender. Celebrating getting away with murder.”
“His mum reported him missing.”
“Local police found his car abandoned off the freeway. They suspect foul play.”
“I know but this is coming from the top. Frank Ward is not answering his phone.”
“It is four in the morning.”
“Also not answering his door.”
“Four in the morning.”
“Car is missing.”
“The man who killed his daughter just got off. He probably needs to clear his head.”
He thought about the phone call with Frank earlier. I can’t let this go.
“You’re on the next flight to Brisbane,” Commander Allen said.
When Tim found Adrian Naughton hiding in the shed at the back of his ex-girlfriend property, Frank Ward found him afterwards, in tears and shaking his hand so much Tim thought it might tear off. It was raining, had been all day, and the rain provided enough noise and cover for Tim and local police to sneak up on the shed and capture the fugitive.
They went to a local cafe to talk, Frank offering to buy him a coffee. Tim, not one to decline a free drink, agreed.
“You think that asshole will be guilty?” Frank asked.
“I don’t know much about the evidence, but the locals are confident,” Tim said, taking a sip. The coffee was bitter and he set it aside.
“He has to be guilty,” Frank continued, and Tim wondered if he was trying to convince himself.
“Justice will be done,” Tim said. They sat in a comfortable silence. Then Tim asked, “What do you do?”
Frank was gazing absently at a spot beyond Tim and his words startled him back to reality, “Hmm?” he blinked.
“Job. What do you do for a job?”
“Oh,” he paused, like he was working out a complex maths problem in his head. “I was a construction worker.”
“I was laid off. You heard of Gettys Concrete?”
“I worked for them before that whole legal stuff went down. Then they shut down 90% of their plants, including mine.” He snorted. “Head office sends down orders to skimp on production to cut costs, leading to degraded concrete and collapsing buildings. The executives should have been thrown in jail, but instead the plant workers get the ass and management getting a slap on the wrist.”
Tim said nothing. There was nothing he could say. He wanted to leave but this man, this man who lost his wife, his job and now his daughter in less than a year...he owed him his opportunity to pour out his heart.
“I go there sometimes.”
“The plant. I live near it, and I used to walk to work so I guess habit has me walking that route. Since Mary and Jessie-“ he paused, putting his fist to his mouth. Biting his knuckle, Tim saw the first tear appear. “-I’ve been taking walks, trying to clear my head, and I end up at the plant. It all started there, losing my job is what started all this. Maybe if I didn’t lose my job, maybe Mary would be here. Maybe Jessie…” he trailed off, wiping away the tear with a calloused finger. The reward for decades working in the factory.
“It’s abandoned now, graffitied over,” he sniffed. “The kids really don’t waste time, do they?”
Tim shook his head, “Nothin’ more opportunistic than a bored kid,” he agreed.
Tim didn’t bother checking in with local police. Instead he drove straight from the airport to the concrete-plant-turned-delinquent-hangout. His car pulled up to the sterile steel and concrete building and, as he got out, he wondered if it was made out of their own concrete.
He put on his Akubra hat. The sky was glowing a red as the sun made its way over the horizon and he wondered if it was an omen. The building was heavily graffitied, with smashed windows and the rising sun cast long shadows. The parking lot was empty and he headed towards the main entrance, wondering if he got this wrong. Wondering if he should have informed local police.
As if on cue, his phone buzzed and he checked it. It was Commander Allen.
He hung up without answering. Pushing the doors open, he walked into a heavily graffitied reception area. Tim ran a finger over the countertop, leaving a channel in the field of dust, and continued through a set of doors where the glass had been long smashed. His boots crunched through the shards and he emerged into the factory proper.
The factory lay dormant, graffitied and tagged with the names of the assailants that only kids could decipher. Rubbish blew across the open space like tumbleweed and faint light shone through the broken skylights, machinery hiding in the shadows.
“Frank?” Tim called out. His voice wasn’t loud but it still bounced around the factory floor. “Frank?”
A cry of pain replied back, and Tim instantly had his gun out of his hip holster. The sound came from around the corner, where conveyor belts ran deep into darkness.
“Frank? It’s Tim. I’m coming around the corner. My gun is out.”
Tim approached the edge, a wall of solid brick, and peered around.
Standing in a pool of light from a work light was Adrian Naughton. He was on his knees, chest heaving with his hands behind his back. His curly black hair couldn’t cover the blood staining his face. One eye swollen shut and his lips cracked and split. Behind him was Frank Ward, he was holding a gun to Naughton’s head and even in the poor light Tim saw his knuckles were bloodied.
“You been busy,” Tim said.
“You can come around, Inspector,” Frank said. “I won’t hurt you.”
“I appreciate that, Frank. However, you understand I can’t lower my weapon?”
Frank nodded, “I do, Inspector. Come out.”
Weapon raised, Tim stepped out. He was less than twenty metres away from the pool of light where they stood. Tim nodded at Adrian, “Congratulations on your court result.”
“Shoot this motherfucker!” Adrian spat, bloody spittle hanging off his chin.
Tim looked at him with the tilt of his head, “Pardon?”
“I said shoot him!” Adrian shrieked, his voice booming around the factory floor.
Tim blinked, “I don’t think I’ll do that.” He looked at Frank, “Frank, can you put the gun down?”
Tim’s request bounced off the walls before fading into the darkness and they stood in silence. Frank with his gun on Adrian Naughton and Tim with his gun on Frank Ward.
“I can’t, Inspector-”
“I told you to call me Tim.”
“That was when we were friends.”
“We are friends, Frank.”
A weak smile came to his lips. In the dim light, he looked gaunt, his eyes sunken, his cheeks hollow and unshaven. He shook his head, “No Inspector. I will always appreciate what you did for Jessie, finding her killer-”
“I DIDN’T KILL JESSIE!” Adrian shouted, his eyes wild.
“Shut up!” Frank said, punching him in the back of the head with his free hand. Adrian went down, groaning and Frank pulled him back up to his knees, gun still against his head.
Tim tightened his grip on his own weapon, “Frank,” he warned.
“Don’t you see,” Frank said. “Even now he won’t admit it!” He shouted the last two words in his ear.
“Because I didn’t do it you fucking psycho!” He looked at Tim, his eyes wild with fear. “You’re a cop, arrest him or shoot him or something!”
This caught Adrian off guard, “What!”
“I’m not a cop. I’m an Inspector with the Australian Federal Police.”
“Who gives a fuck what you are. Just stop him!”
“Mr Naughton, if you don’t be quiet, I will save Frank here the trouble and shoot you myself. Now hush.”
Whatever Adrian Naughton was going to say was caught in his throat and he uttered an open-mouthed croak but said nothing. Tim turned his attention back on Frank Ward.
“What do we do now, Frank? Because I got to be honest here, my arm’s getting tired.”
Frank Ward stood, swaying slightly. He was tired, Tim knew. And more than just a need to rest.
“I was raised a catholic, Inspector.” Frank said. “Went to church every Sunday. Went to confession. I believe in God. I believe in the good in people. But this man…” he squeezed the handle of the gun, like he was trying to grind it into dust, “...not anymore. He is pure evil. No one who does what he did cannot be anything but.”
“I told you I didn’t do it!”
“I said shut up!” Frank screamed in Adrian’s ear, pushing the gun against his head, like he was trying to push it through his skull.
“Frank, put the gun down. I don’t want to shoot you.”
Frank snorted and a string of snot escaped his nose, landing unnoticed in his unkempt beard. “So what if you did? I may not believe in the good in people anymore, but I believe in heaven and God will not punish me. I do this and I will be rewarded. An evil man will be punished, and I will see my Mary. My Jessie...” More tears flowed down his face, and he sniffed. “He can’t live, Inspector” Frank said, his face twisted in fury. “Not after what he did.”
“I didn’t hurt Jessie!” Adrian began but Frank backhanded him across the cheek.
“You shut up! You don’t get to speak her name!”
“Frank,” Tim said, putting his free hand out in a placating gesture. “I need you to lower your weapon.”
Tears were streaming down the man's face, running trails through the blood and grime that had accumulated throughout the night, “Just let me end it, Tim...please.”
“You can’t ask me that.”
“Just walk away.”
Tim breathed in slowly, and let it back out just as slow, shuffling from one foot to the other. Temptation sought him, drew him in and he was close to embracing it. To let Frank get what he wanted. He looked at the man on his knees. If he did it, he was tempted to let Frank do it. But the truth was, he didn’t know. The evidence was there but was he being swayed by the emotions of a desperate man? A man who lost his job. His wife. His only daughter. A man with nothing to live for.
“I am not the one to give you benediction,” he whispered.
“Just walk away, Tim” Frank repeated quietly. “Turn around, go and don’t look back. No one will know.”
“I will, Frank.”
Frank’s shoulders slumped. “He will do it again, Inspector.” Anguish wrapped around his words like razor wire. “I know he will.”
Tim adjusted his grip, “Frank, this isn’t the right way to go about it. They’ll appeal, they’ll go for a retrial.”
“THEY WON’T RETRY!” Frank shouted, his voice booming like thunder around the factory. “They already told me.”
This came as a surprise, “They did?”
Frank nodded, “The lawyers told me they wouldn’t be appealing.” He pushed the muzzle of his gun harder against Adrian’s head and he winced, bending with the force of it. “So this scum walks scot-free to do it again.”
“You have to stop him!” Adrian shouted and then cried out when Frank cocked the hammer back. It was only now that Tim noticed it was a snub-nosed revolver.
“Did you do it?”
Silence. Like the air had been sucked out of the room. Frank looked at Adrian, who looked at Tim with glistening eyes. Tim stared back at him, unblinking, the question in his eyes. It felt like an age, the factory floor - this confessional - lighting up as sunlight poured through the broken skylights. You could hear a heartbeat, and then Adrian looked away. Just before he did, he caught a glimpse of it. The malevolence. The joy. The thrill of getting away with what he did. It wasn’t evidence. It wouldn’t hold up in court. But...
“You know, I wasn’t sure but now...I know.”
The killer's eyes swung back to him, pleading. “You can’t-”
The gunshot echoed like a drummer bashing a bass drum and half of Adrian’s head disintegrated, blood and bone and brain matter spraying the grey floor.
“Jesus Frank…” Tim muttered as Adrian’s body fell.
Frank held the gun in shaky hands. He looked at it like it was an alien object, his mouth wide open. He looked at Tim, his face sprayed with blood, and he smiled. It wasn’t a smile of joy, or happiness but his teeth glowed against his blood-and-grime covered face, “He...he won’t hurt anyone ever again.”
Tim lowered his gun, “That’s right, Frank. Now put down-”
“And neither will I,” Frank whispered. It happened in a split second, quicker than Tim realised. Frank lifted the gun to his head and fired.
He fell like a ragdoll, his head a bloody pulp.
“Oh Frank,” he whispered and dialled emergency services. As he did, he replayed the incident. Those two seconds that, in his mind, lasted an hour.
Frank was looking Tim directly in the eyes when he did it. And it wasn’t a look Tim was likely to ever forget. There was a calmness behind those eyes. All the anguish. All the pain. It was gone. Everything he had lived with for the last year. It was gone. Frank was at peace. He was going to see his wife and his child.
And that was all that mattered to him.