"Did you get the impression that Abe warned against my dealing with Horace?" Dickson asked as he buttered the crusty bread rolls in readiness for a generous helping of salad and cheese.
"You have no intention of selling the house anyway."
"Abe doesn't know that. Besides, if Fink's own lawyer doesn't trust him, what does that say?"
"Pretty much what Doris said in the first place; that the murder of Horace Fink is inevitable. But how do you explain the attempt on his life in Auckland?"
"Coincidence, maybe. If half the Manning Valley doesn't like him, what makes you think the Kiwis do?"
"He seemed okay when we spoke to him. Are we talking a Jekyll and Hyde here?"
Maureen Parker phoned mid afternoon to say that Paul's bicycle had a flat tire, and that she couldn't afford a replacement. "He won't be there for his surfing lesson today, I'm afraid."
"No worries, Maureen, I'll fetch him on my bike."
"Are you licensed to carry a pillion passenger? I noticed you're still a P plater."
"This is not exactly the Sydney CBD. No one will know."
Dickson remembered an old bicycle tube repair kit stored somewhere in the garage. Fifteen minutes later, he arrived at the Parker flat. "Don't tell Paul about this, tell him the tire somehow miraculously self-inflated," he laughed. "I'll see him at about 4. Do you have any sun block?"
"No worries, I'll get some on the way home."
Having already donned his helmet, Dickson was about to depart when Maureen approached the Suzuki. Using sign, she said, "You'll make a wonderful father one day."
Mid afternoon, an on-shore wind flattened the surf to mush, which presented a problem for Dickson and Mick, but not for Paul whose agenda was restricted to paddling, paddling and more paddling. When the auburn-haired youth appeared at just after 4pm, the teens were studying the Fink reports once again, hoping to find something they'd missed... perhaps a subtle clue previously overlooked.
"I saw the tread mark of your Suzuki in my front yard," Paul said in sign, beaming as his fingers spelled the words. Then he threw his arms around Dickson's neck before retreating to add: "My mom told me a big fib but I know you fixed my bike." Had the boy's smile been any wider he could have swallowed a whole dinner plate. "I wish you were my dad."
Dickson excused himself, rushed to the bathroom, dried his eyes and took a minute to regain his composure. He re-emerged with a squeeze pack of sun block. "Put this on your arms, legs and face, and keep your shirt on."
Despite the relative monotony of learning to paddle, Paul seemed both enthusiastic and happy. However, after an hour, Dickson knew it was time to quit for the day. "You're doing much better than yesterday," he said as the pair made their way back to the house. "Have you practiced your exercises?"
Nod, nod, nod, then Paul flexed his bicep.
"Not bad," his mentor smiled. "Not too bad."
It wasn't until the boy leaned his board against the verandah wall that he was able to use both hands to speak. "Now much longer?"
"Paddling? Oh, maybe a week or so, then I'll teach you how to catch and ride a wave... but only small ones at first. Meantime, keep exercising."
Dickson and Mick stood at the rear gate and waved as Paul pedaled off down the road. "That was really cute," Mick commented.
"The way Paul threw his arms around your neck. I think you've won a heart, mate." Once Paul was out of sight, the teens returned to the house. "So what's the problem, Dicko?" Mick continued. "You seem kinda serious; aren't you pleased?"
"I'm pleased, just confused. Maureen must have told Paul what she said to me in sign before I left."
"That I'd make a wonderful father. For Christ sake, man, I'm 18! What the hell do I know about being a father? I was raised by my gran! This whole thing with Paul is getting out of hand, Mick. It's not what I expected."
"You're a private investigator, Dicko, you're supposed to expect the unexpected."
"I need to make a private call, Mick. If you're staying for dinner, you can fix it."
"No problem—my speciality—take away pizza."
As the sound of Mick's Suzuki faded, Dickson sat on the front verandah and phoned a friend. "G'day, Tom—are you sure it's okay to call you Tom? I feel a little disrespectful."
"Dickson? I recognize your voice. I didn't see you in church on Sunday."
"I knew you'd say that."
"Your penance is three Hail Marys. And to what do I owe the pleasure of this call?"
Dickson explained the situation with Paul. "You know, I just wanted to be friendly but now... now it's kinda sticky or, at least, getting that way."
"Sticky? Why? Because the boy has become attached to you? Answer this question, Dickson, why do you think the boy likes you?"
"Because he wants a father."
"No, no, no, no, no, my son. He likes you because you are you. Being a father has nothing to do with it—likewise a brother or any other blood relative. Do you get my point?"
"Uh, no, not really."
"Are you his father?"
"Are you his brother?"
"So what are you?"
"Ah! Yes, Rev, I see what you're getting at! I'm his friend!"
"Yes, and that's all that's required of you, so don't get confused about your role, my dear boy. Just be yourself. The only responsibility you have to that child is to be his friend, and to continue to treat him exactly the same way."
"But what about Paul's perspective—what about the way he sees me?"
"Let him see you as he wants. He's a child with a child's imagination, but even a child knows the difference between fantasy and reality. Just because he sees you as a father figure doesn't change the fact that you're not related. He'll grow out of it."
"When? And what if in the meantime he expects too much?"
"Let him know the parameters, let him understand that you also have a life and that having a piece of you is better than none. Don't spoil him, don't encourage expectations that are unrealistic."
Predictably, the conversation got around to Horace and the situation in Auckland. "As I said at our first meeting, Dickson, Horace is a troubled soul, and troubled souls attract further trouble, just as happy souls attract further joy. I can't say that I'm surprised at what happened to Horace—saddened, yes—but not surprised. Have you spoken to Doris?"
"Yes—she's concerned, of course, but like you she doesn't seem surprised."
"Will I see you next Sunday?—you'll love my sermon, and I'll serve tea afterward in the presbytery."
"It's a date. Oh, and by the way, Tom, do you know anyone who actually speaks well of Horace?"
The appetizing aroma of freshly baked pizza filled the kitchen as Dickson opened the cardboard lid. "What is it?"
"Supreme—double everything," Mick replied while he searched the fridge and grabbed two beers. "My shout. Time to pig out, man."
The pair sat at the small table and quickly demolished a slice each without speaking, stretching the mozzarella to breaking point, then washing it down with a swig of icy cold beer. "So what's new?" Mick asked as another slice hovered in readiness to be devoured.
"Robert Down—we'll be visiting him tomorrow."
"On the contrary, he speaks well of Horace, and that's why I want to meet him."
On the way to Wingham, the two riders paused at a T intersection to inspect a row of old drums, milk cans and other rusty containers that served as mail boxes for local farms. They then rode along a rutted, dirt track, obviously frequented by 4WDs, until they arrived at the O'Reilly property. As is customary in the country, Dickson closed the gate after they entered the property, and repeated the action each time they proceeded to a new fenced paddock. In a few minutes, they reached the ramshackle farmhouse perched on a hill.
An old woman sat on a rocking chair on the wraparound verandah, shelling peas. "Paddy's gone into town," she said without being asked, "and he won't be back for an hour... probably longer if he goes to the pub."
"We're actually looking for Robert Down."
"Bob? Does he know you're comin'?"
"Then you better hightail it outta here before he shoots you."
"You mean with a gun?"
"Winchester bolt action."
Both boys took two steps backwards. "Is he in the house?"
"Lives in a shack across the creek yonder." The woman checked the position of the sun. "He's probably cleanin' the milkin' shed."
"Can you contact him?"
The woman placed the bowl of peas on the verandah floor, stood, cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled, "Cooooooooeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" Some seconds later, the same sound traveled back across the paddocks and reached the ears of the boys. "He'll be here in a minute," the woman continued, then resumed her seat and shelling.
"I'm not sure this is such a good idea," Mick said in a hushed voice. "Maybe we better skedaddle."
The unmistakable sound of a Harley Davidson became clearer and louder as the motorcycle approached. The rider was dressed in khaki overalls and sported a shaved head and full orange beard. His nose and ears were infested with silver rings. A couple more sprouted from the edges of his bushy eyebrows for good measure. "These blokes giving you trouble, Mrs. O'Reilly?" he asked without taking his steely gaze off the boys.
"They're here to see you."
"I don't know you blokes so piss off, and get those Jap sewing machines out of my sight."
Desperately trying to hide his nervousness, Dickson mentioned the Rev. Tom Samuels. "He said you can talk with the animals, so..."
"The Bishop? He sent you here?"
"Well, not exactly, but he said you were a very interesting person and..."
"You're not taking those Jap buzz boxes anywhere near my shack, ya hear? You'll have to walk. Head for that hill over yonder and you'll see the shack. I'll be in the milking shed. You can help clean if you wanna." And with that, the Harley turned and rumbled off toward the hill.