Cody's father, smiling broadly, answered the door and invited Dickson and Mick inside. "My son's in his room `hitting the books' as he puts it ... the dreaded homework. Go straight on through."
The spiky mop was naked, which failed to surprise either of his unexpected guests as they accepted his offer to sit on the side of his bed. "So what's cookin'? Lemme guess--surf's up. Dammit, I got homework, guys, a stack of it. I'm grounded for the week. By the way, what do you blokes know about geometry?"
"Later, Code, we got some bad news. The beach house went up in flames this morning." Much to the mop's dumbfounded horror, Dickson related the story of the fire and subsequent events. "We're on the way home after being interviewed at the cop station."
"Home? What home? Hey, guys you can stay here, no worries. It'll be cool with my folks. I'll check..."
The mop rose from his chair but was stopped short by Dickson. "Thanks, Code, but we're staying at Aunt Flo's, at least until we can access the house again, or what's left of it. The kitchen is still okay, I think, and the garage wasn't touched by the fire. We'll be right, mate. Have you seen Horace lately?"
"Zippo, not a sign of him or the Wolseley--neither hide nor hair. The cops have been snooping around next door, though. They quizzed me about a few things but I played dumb, hehehe, and I didn't tell them about the spare key either. Tony Spiropoulos is back in town, though--he's helping the Rev. with the funeral arrangements--11am Friday in case you didn't know. Tony says he'll sell the farm--can't stand to live there any longer."
"How about Fogsy?" Mick asked. "You seen him?"
"At school, yeah. Lemon Lips and Fogsy were having a major confab about something in the canteen. I haven't spoken to him all that much but I get the feeling he's a bit jittery about something."
"Hey, you guys know more about what's going on than I do. Maybe you can tell me."
Aunt Flo answered her villa door and beckoned the boys and their backpacks inside. "I'll have to get you a key," she said as she led the way to the kitchen where the boys deposited various groceries on the table. "I've got a meatloaf and potatoes in the oven--no time for anything special--and I hope you don't mind pink bedspreads and lace pillow slips."
Dickson took a private walk around the villa grounds after the evening meal, and phoned Tom. He mentioned what Cody had said about the funeral. "Yes, under the circumstances, tragic though they may be, someone needs to take care of things and I'm afraid Horace is unavailable for reasons best known to him. However, most of the funeral arrangements were already put in place some years ago by Doris with a local parlor. She has a plot in the Catholic section at Dawson Creek."
"Yes, of course. They purchased twin plots together."
"We need to talk, Tom."
Next morning, after breakfast, Dickson and Mick rode to Our Lady of the Rosary church in Taree, parked their bikes in Albert Street, and walked to the presbytery. "Right on time," Tom said as he opened the door, "the kettle's on. How are you enjoying Aunt Flo's hospitality?"
"She's very sweet," Dickson replied as the boys followed the Rev. to the kitchen, "but... well, I miss the beach house. Hell, I miss everything. I miss my room, I miss my kitchen, I miss the front verandah, I miss the beach... and, not only that, I smell weird because Aunt Flo uses pink soap that stinks like that dried floral stuff..."
"Bouquet-garni... and, if I may say so, I think you smell gorgeous, both of you. But I do understand how you feel about your home and all that is familiar to you. Is the house repairable?"
"That will depend on the insurance assessors, I suppose."
"A parishioner donated some home-made lamingtons. Would you like some with your tea?"
The conversation lasted a solid half hour, with both lads contributing to the story of the Fink saga, while Tom supplied a myriad of questions. "I think I'll make more tea," the `chrome dome' announced. He rose from the table and took the silver pot to the kitchen bench. "I need a little time to digest all that you've told me. It's an amazing tale--like something one might expect to read in a penny dreadful--not the sort of thing one expects to actually happen in a small country town." Tom filled the kettle and turned on the power. "From what I gather so far, you boys have not revealed all you know and suspect to the police. Is that the case?"
"We feel a certain responsibility to Doris," Dickson reasoned. "She trusted us."
"I understand," Tom agreed while filling the pot with more loose tea. "Rather like the responsibility a priest has to his confessors. So what do you young detectives suggest as a plan of action?"
"We kinda hoped you'd suggest something, Tom."
"Me?" The Rev. paused while he filled the pot with boiling water, then returned to the table. "Tea needs to infuse, you know. It's not like instant coffee. And that, my dear boys, is what I suggest you do--allow the information you have divulged this morning to infuse, as it were, until a plan of action becomes clear. God will provide the required wisdom when the time is right." Dickson's sudden giggling caused the old man to raise his bushies in surprise. "And what, may I ask, Mr. Bottoms, prompted that unexpected outburst of mirth?"
"Sorry, Rev., it's just that all of a sudden out of the blue, Mick and I are being overwhelmed by pink bedspreads, lace pillow slips, lamingtons and God."
The boys called into the local insurance office to collect a claim form, then rode to the beach house to inspect the damaged building in the clear light of day before they returned to Aunt Flo's villa.
Dickson's main concern was the extent of damage; was the building a write-off or could it be restored? That outcome, he presumed, would be up to the insurance assessor if, indeed, the claim was accepted in light of arson being involved.
"The entire unfortunate matter could be solved simply by getting Horace Fink to confess," Flo suggested as Dickson busied himself with the claim form at the kitchen table.
"Why don't you have a computer?" the blond asked.
"What kind of question is that? I don't need one."
"But I do. This filling in forms with a pen went out with Tyrannosaurus Rex. I could do it much faster and more easily on line. Besides, we don't know where Horace Fink is."
"You're a detective, Dickson, and detectives are supposed to find missing people. I see it on television all the time. Actually, I remember a show once that had a plot rather like this one of yours..."
"With respect, Aunt Flo, that was fiction, this is real."
"As you wish, Dickson, as you wish. I'll stay out of it."
"It's okay, Aunt Flo," Mick offered in an attempt to cool the situation and restore Flo's pride, "Dicko's not himself. You can tell me about the TV show."
"Well, there was a whole lot of legal complication and investigation by an insurance company about a fire caused by arson, but the onus was on the property owner to prove his innocence."
"See what I mean?" Dickson interrupted. "In real life, the onus is on the law to prove innocence or guilt, not on the accused."
"Anyway," Flo continued, ignoring Dickson's comment and directing her story to Mick, "all the legal complication and silly gobbledegook ceased to be an issue when the arsonist died."
Dickson's pen came to a halt and hovered above the page as he looked up at his aunt. "Died?"
"I thought you weren't interested?"
"Okay, okay, so I'm interested. What happened when the arsonist died?"
"The insurance company dropped the case and settled the claim. Now, what would you boys like for lunch?"
A crowd of about fifty people, mostly middle-age, congregated in front of Our Lady of the Rosary church just before 11am Friday. A dark-gray early `70s Holden Premier hearse, in stunning condition, was parked in the drive. It was attended by two solemn men in black suits. Cody waved from the crowd when he saw Dickson and Mick. He was with his folks, his friend Mark and a woman who, Dickson assumed, was Mark's mother.
The Reverend Tom Samuels--dressed to the nines in traditional religious garb--smiled as he approached the lads and shook their hands. "I almost didn't recognize you in suits."
"Saint Vincent de Paul," Dickson explained before Tom could ask the obvious question. "We did a deal and hired the clothes for the day--five dollars each--we return them tomorrow."
"Very sensible. I don't suppose you've seen Horace."
"No, but that's not surprising." However, Dickson did recognize a few members of the gathering--Ian Ajit, Tony Spiropoulos, Serge Vodkinski, Simon Swan, Barbara Thorne and Dr. David Hardy. "I also don't see any cops here," he added.
"Of course not, but you can be sure they're lurking somewhere close by... keeping an eye out for Horace." Tom glanced at his watch. "Well, my friends, it's time to begin proceedings."
Later, at the Dawson Creek burial, there was still no sign of Horace. "Do you blame him?" Mick asked, reading his friend's mind.
"Guess not," Dickson replied. "But Rowles is here. Don't look now but he's at the rear of the crowd, about 30 meters away, playing super snoop over by a clump of trees."
Dickson and Mick took a detour to the beach house on their way back to Aunt Flo's to check the mail box, and also to inspect the fire damage one more time. The forensic crime-scene tape used to fence the area had been removed, which suggested that the investigation was now complete except, perhaps, for laboratory examination.
The boys entered the house and picked their way through the blackened rubble and charcoal, which was still damp from water and foam. The kitchen suffered smoke damage but was otherwise reasonably intact. Similarly, the toilet and bathroom had escaped the worst of the carnage. The living room, two bedrooms and hall were trashed, including furniture, bedding, curtains, blinds, floor-coverings and Dickson's computer which resembled a Dali painting. Even the back-up disks were rendered useless. However, the boys were pleased to see the front verandah virtually unscathed, including their favorite old canvas chairs. The pair then inspected the garage. Apart from the lingering smell of smoke, it was fine. "Let's grab a beer," Mick suggested as the boys returned to the house, but he soon discovered that the power had been disconnected. "Dammit! It's warm!" He took two cans to the front yard and placed them under the shower hose. "They'll be okay in a few minutes."
"Oh, the mail box!" Dickson remembered as he headed down the hall to the backyard. He took an envelope from the box, studied the handwriting and rejoined his friend on the verandah. "No return address," he remarked, "just my name handwritten on the front."
"Could be from Paul. He must've been worried when he saw the house on his paper run."
"Jesus! I forgot all about Paul! I'll phone Maureen Parker. Phone! Where's my phone?"
"You left it at Aunt Flo's. Anyway, check what's inside the envelope, you dummy!"