Back at the beach house, Dickson checked the mailbox and noted the return address on the back of an envelope. "Remind me not to say g'day to the doc in the street," he muttered as the pair entered the house, "in case he charges me for the privilege."
"What are you bitching about?"
"It's the bill for the phone call I made when you were stung by a bee. Ouch! Almost sixty bucks!"
"It was worth it, though." Mick said. He paused in expectation of a response which failed to materialize. "Wasn't it?"
"Are you suggesting the bill is mine? You got stung, not me."
"You made the call. I was unconscious."
"I can arrange a repeat if you're not careful."
"Cool it, okay? I'll pay the bloody thing. Besides, medical insurance takes care of most of it. Listen, Dicko, I know you're under a lotta stress at the mo, but don't crap all over me. Okay?"
Dickson took a deep breath, decided not to pursue the matter, and peered inside the fridge. "Wanna beer?" Without waiting for an answer, he tossed a can to his mate who caught the flying missile like a pro footballer. "Let's take a walk along the beach and try to unravel this whole Fink mess."
Nature's vibrant color scheme that day was a mix of intense blue, green, white and gold, bathed in burning sunlight that danced and sparkled upon the sea's constant peaks and troughs as though blissfully ignorant of the troubles that darkened the minds of the shirtless and barefoot teens.
"Horace did it," Mick finally deduced. "He tried to set it up like an accident but it was murder."
"What do you mean `why'? Is this the Dickson Bottoms super sleuth I'm talking to? You know why as well as I do--Doris knew about Fogsy and the video. She probably suspected something sinister about the Auckland hotel room attack as well. So, it follows that Horace decided to eliminate Doris."
"Why not eliminate Alan Fogarty as well?"
"He's probably next on the list."
"Don't forget about Mick Morris."
"You blurted Fogsy's name when Horace was here."
"Jesus!" Mick glanced over his shoulder to check that the coast (literally) was clear. "Hey, Dicko, we're a couple of kids--we're not equipped to get involved in this kinda serious crap. We need to tell the cops."
"Tell them what? About a video that no longer exists? That Fogsy flew to New Zealand but decided not to murder Fink at the last minute? About a conspiracy involving Barbara Thorne? About the Wolseley tire tracks at the farm? How do you know the Wolseley didn't arrive before Doris? Or some time afterwards?"
"Horace phoned the Rev."
"From a cell phone--Horace didn't say where he was."
"He knew his wife was dead."
"Did he? I'm sufficiently familiar with the law to know that all we have is circumstantial evidence at best, Mick, - hearsay. I also know that Fink has the bikkies to afford a pretty nifty defense silk."
"So what do you suggest, Dicko, that we just chill out and wait for Horace to bump us off? Remember Rocque and Rowles? They said to get in touch if we thought of something."
"That sounds like them now," Dickson joked as he heard a siren approaching from behind. "Hang on--that's a fire siren!" Both boys quickly about turned to see a rising plume of black smoke.
"That's near the house!" Mick yelled.
"Bloody hell, that is the house!"
The fire crew had already taken positions in the front and rear yards as the stunned and breathless boys arrived. "They won't help much," the commander remarked at the sight of the two beer cans. "Is this your house?"
Dickson nodded and noted the several hoses and extinguishers trained on the burning building. Thick acrid smoke billowed from some of the open windows. Occasionally, the choking haze cleared sufficiently to provide a glimpse of red and orange flames licking the interior walls. "How bad is it?" Dickson shouted above the sound of constant crackling and small explosions.
"Pretty bad. Bit early to say yet, but I suspect there's an accelerant involved."
"You mean... it was deliberately lit?"
"Not that it needed much... these old weatherboard houses are like a box of kindling waiting for a match. Good thing we got here as soon as we did. Nearly wiped out a car coming in the opposite direction."
"A car? On this dirt road? What kind?"
"Old thing--shiny black--early `50s." The commander then disappeared inside the hall and sprayed foam from an extinguisher into a nearby room. He was soon followed by two more similarly-equipped firemen who attended other rooms. Within thirty minutes, the flames had been largely subdued, leaving little more than a smouldering, smoking and severely-blackened blistered shell.
By then, two police officers, including Clive `Bumper' Farrell, had arrived. They questioned the station commander for several minutes before turning their attention to Dickson and Mick. "Hey, mate," Clive began, with genuine compassion, "too bad about the fire--I know how much this place means to you. Are you insured?"
"The chief over there reckons it could be arson. Where were you and your mate?"
"Walking along the beach. We heard the siren and saw the smoke."
"If the chief's right, there'll be an inquiry. You'll be answering a lot of questions--but I'm sure you're already aware of that. By the way, the house is off limits while the forensic guys do their thing."
"Who phoned triple zero?"
"Nobody. The chief said they were returning from a hoax call when they saw the smoke. You're lucky there's anything left of the house at all--could easily have been a WOFF. Anyway, we'll need you to make a statement at the station. Rocque and Rowles will want to chat with you as well. How about you blokes pop in later this afternoon, say about 4?"
Florence Flannigan pottered in the small garden as Dickson and Mick arrived on their Suzukis. Following the usual `howzits' and hugs, Dickson noticed Flo's wedding ring was missing from her finger. "I'm very careful these days," she explained, "and I no longer wear it in risky situations. I put it in a safe place--actually," she laughed, "so safe, I've temporarily forgotten where it is. But don't worry!" she added hastily, "it'll come to me. Now, what brilliant timing, you boys must have known that I just baked a lemon meringue pie."
"Actually, Aunt Flo, I've got some bad news."
"I'll make tea--I never listen to bad news without tea."
Dickson waited until the trio was seated at the kitchen table and the tea was served before he made his announcement. "We had a fire at the house this morning."
"Is it still standing?"
Flo sipped her tea and collected her thoughts. "As you know, my husband was a war veteran. When ever I complained about something, he would always say, `complaining never fixed anything'. So, let's pretend he's here now. Is the house insured?"
"Good. Do you boys have anywhere to stay?"
"We'll find somewhere."
"You already have."
"Aunt Flo, we can't impose..."
"Don't `Aunt Flo' me," she said firmly. "You need a place to stay and I have a spare room. It's a good thing you're both boys or one of you would have to sleep on the couch," she laughed. "Now be a sweetie and get the lemon meringue pie from the fridge--and a large knife--and plates and..."
"Yes, Aunt Flo," Dickson interrupted as he stiffened in mock salute and rose from the table to follow orders.
"What about your things? Clothes and things ... not that you ever wear much."
"The house is off limits while the fire people investigate the cause of the blaze. All we have is what we're wearing." Dickson returned to the table with the food and utensils and sat down.
"You mean what you're almost wearing. That's what my husband used to say about my dresses--back in the days when I was a lot younger, of course. Jack was very formal, you know--your typical sergeant major type. But he was so graceful on the dance floor--the quick step, the fox trot, the tango--he made Fred Astaire look like a cripple," she smiled. "I'm not sure what he'd have to say, though, about you and your ... informal surfing attire."
The rest of the conversation centered on the fire, the damage caused, etcetera, however, Dickson took care not to mention possible arson or other matters such as the death of Doris Fink. He saw no need to upset his aging aunt unnecessarily. "You make the best lemon meringue pie, Aunt Flo--even better than Gran's." The young blond checked his watch. "Oops! Mick and I need to run an errand--it's just a statement thing at the police station about the fire--routine stuff. Is there anything you need brought back from the shops? I still have my wallet, thank God."
The lads had only just entered the reception area of Taree police station when Dickson answered a call on his cell phone. He recognized the voice right away. "We're fine, Tom--the house isn't so fine, though. No, no, no, no, mate--uh, Rev--we're okay for money and stuff--thanks anyway--I appreciate it."
"I also want to apologize for what I said earlier, Dickson--no, that's not quite correct--may the Lord... what I mean is, I'm sorry for my attitude. I was a little miffed at the time. I'm sorry if I offended you. If there's anything I can do..."
"I'll be in touch, Tom. I'm kinda tied up at the mo. I'll call you."
"You'll have to tell Mick to stop being so butch."
"What are you grinning at?" Mick asked as Dickson ended the call.
Once the routine statement had been made to Constable Clive Farrell's satisfaction, the boys were led to another interview room where Rocque and Rowles waited. "Coffee, gentlemen?"
"You got something stronger?" Dickson joked as he and his mate were offered a chair each. Rowles nodded to his partner who returned a few moments later with two plastic cups of steaming coffee.
"Standard issue," he said as the cups were placed on the table that separated the boys from the Ds. Then Rowles produced a small flask from the inside pocket of his coat and poured a nip into each cup. "Brandy," he explained. "I think you probably need it."
"And now down to business. We already know that you rejected an offer from Horace Fink to invest in your property. In the meantime, we're advised by the fire station commander that arson is suspected. The forensic guys are at the house as we speak and we anticipate confirmation of the use of an accelerant to ignite the seat of the blaze at any time now."