Alex stared out of the 96 tram, the smooth electric light train cresting a small hill to reveal the beach and the iconic ivory St Kilda Sea Baths building.
It was the day after he had received the investigative case from Eveline Winston, the lawyer who he suspected was in love with her client.
But such qualms were not any of his business. So instead of pondering further, Alex spent the entire night reading and rereading the dossier that she had given him, memorising the details and feeling the old excitement of a new job slowly take over his thoughts.
It was so infectious, that Alex ended up only getting 2 hours of sleep, before jerking awake and taking a quick warm shower and walking to the tram stop to change onto the 96 at 4am in the morning.
In the early hours of the morning, St Kilda was a sleepy and lonely place, with morning mist rolling in and grey clouds adding to the strange surreal atmosphere. Beaches were emptied, with only a few early risers walking their dogs along the footpaths of the beach, their thoughts wrapped in woolly beanies and puffer jackets, little puffs of breaths fighting to escape the chilly air.
Even on board the tram, the vibe was quiet and still, Alex leaning his head against the glass, mirroring the forlorn look the other 5 passengers had.
Deciding to stop by the McDonalds for a quick brekkie, Alex got off a stop earlier, atop the hill and looked around, admiring the Esplanade, the huge mouth that was Luna Park and the classic art-deco exterior of the Palais Theatre.
Checking behind him, to ensure no other lawyers would ask him for business, Alex crossed the empty road and along the lawn, remembering the childhood dreams he had of owning one of these beach apartments when his parents used to take him here often.
After making a quick stop to grab a couple of Hash Browns, Alex left the McDonalds and continued his way deeper into St Kilda, towards the true heart of the suburb, the strip at the end of the Esplanade.
Dressed the way he was, with his all black outfit; peacoat, chinos and dress shoes, Alex might have looked out of place in other parts of Australia, but in Melbourne, such was the norm; overdressing for the beach.
Victoria … the only state where the beach is an optional extra to the Australian lifestyle.
Alex wandered slowly past the bakeries that sold fresh Turkish delights and baklava, the thrift stores that had discount retro hippy clothes and the cafes that were slowly opening up for brunch. He peered into shops and made mental notes about everything and nothing, as he slowly ambled his way down the street, familiarising himself with the lay of the land.
By the time he reached the end of the street, the time was nearly 7am. The morning dew and mist was beginning to clear, and people were beginning to awaken and start their daily routine.
Alex, deciding he had enough acclimatisation, began to pick up his pace and start for the address of Joel McNamara, the missing innocent man.
Located only a few blocks away from the heart of St Kilda, Joel’s house was a handsome affair down Foster Avenue. With its handsome limestone exterior, the home was accompanied by a small palm tree that stood guard on the front lawn. A single-storey affair, it reflected the beach vibes that was prevalent across the entire block, and after picking the lock, Alex discovered the interior was equally affluent.
A strong French motif was prevalent across all the interior design choices. Joel was clearly a Francophile, with multiple tri-colour themed decor and mugs. Taking the centrepiece was a large model of the Palace of Versailles on a coffee table.
Alex found himself, remarkably confused and impressed. On the wall, were several Monaco Grand Prix inspired posters, the eye-catching use of colour and fast cars adding more talking points about the living room.
Treading carefully through the living space, Alex slipped on cheap latex gloves and began to examine the L-shaped couch that framed the Palace of Versailles. Noting there were no rise or indentation in the soft rich leather, Alex moved to the kitchen. The sink was meticulously clean, with all the dishes placed away and even a layer of dust on the metal basin itself.
With the obvious hot-spots not providing dividends, Alex decided it was time to move to the bedroom.
Cracking open the door, Alex frowned when he saw the state of the bedroom.
It was ransacked.
Clothes were strewn everywhere, from coats to shirts to pyjamas. Underwear was heaped over the side table, a post-modern lamp thrown casually on the floor, the cable reaching desperately behind it to the socket. The double sized mattress was flipped off its bed-frame and was leaning against the wall.
The wall was open, the large mirrored sliding door agape, revealing a cavernous wardrobe that had all of its content on the floor or haphazardly strewn against one another on the hanger.
Alex was standing in the only clean corner of the room, with the only other relatively intact item being a life-sized replica of the Venus de Milo, a pair of grey and white Calvin Klein underwear over her head, leaning provocatively opposite to him.
Alex stared at the room, trying to deconstruct the mess and piece together what the room might have looked like before it was ransacked.
The bed was central and against the wall, with the large mirrored wardrobe opposite, next to Alex and the Venus. When the ransacker had come in, they had flipped the bed first, assuming whatever it was that Joel was hiding, was under there. Once it was obvious nothing much was there except mothballs, the ransacker had torn through the wardrobe and probably left empty handed.
Alex wondered whether any other room was trashed. He stepped out and saw that the house had one extra room, the study, in which a large ornate mahogany desk had its drawers opened, but was relatively undisturbed. None of the books on the shelves were on the floor, and things were ruffled but still neat.
Confused, Alex walked back into the bedroom, thought hard and long for a good few minutes, before smiling.
Walking over to the Venus, he flicked off the underwear and looked at her, admiring for a few seconds the workmanship of the sculptor that did such good work for a replica.
Running his hand over the marble, Alex found what he was looking for.
A switch, in the area just beneath her navel, and beautifully disguised as part of her robes.
The Venus statue’s knee popped open.
On a very small tray, was a SD card.
Alex peered at it and frowned at the myriad of questions it raised. Pocketing the SD card in his coat, Alex closed the tray and waited for the responding click before walking out, leaving everything as exactly as he had found it.
As he stepped into the hallway, he took out his phone and began snapping photos. He had just finished collating a gallery on the living room, when he saw a strange clue tucked to the side of the couch, in the corner of the room.
Walking over, he found a red brasserie. Checking the label, he noted the Agent Provocateur label and the bust size. Taking a photo of the bra, he placed it gently back where he found it and continued his work, doing his best to stop his wandering mind from delving further into possibilities and suspicions.
A half hour later, satisfied with the gallery he had built in his phone, Alex walked back out the same way he came in, quietly and unobtrusively, another voyeur capturing the essence of a person without their knowledge.
As Alex waited for the 96 tram to take him back to the city, he pulled out the business card that Eveline had left in the dossier, and punched in the numbers.
Eveline’s cool, professional voice came through after the second ring.
“Eveline Winston speaking.”
“Alex. Why did you call me?” queried Eveline coldly
“I paid a visit to Joel’s place. Found something of interest there. Care to meet me at my office?”
“You what?” Eveline asked incredulously. “What did you find?”
Alex milked the moment for a second unnecessarily. “Just meet at my office.”
“I’m tied up at work. But I’ll come straight away when I’m free.”
“OK.” stated Alex bluntly, before hanging up.
Alex spent the tram ride home, looking through the pictures he had taken on his phone, combing through the house, recreating a virtual tour in his mind and realising a little too late, that he hadn’t check whether Joel had owned a car. He flicked over to the front of the house photos and noted, there was nothing in the driveway.
Wherever Joel was, he had taken his car with him. Recalling the details of the dossier, Alex knew that Joel owned a bright honey gold Renault Megane hatchback, with the registration number being 9KM 78L. Thinking back, Alex knew that he hadn’t seen any such vehicles along the road either whilst walking there.
The ransacking would have taken place between the period when Joel went missing, so within 2 weeks. Alex patted his peacoat’s pocket to reassure himself that the SD card he had found was still there.
Back at home, Alex turned on his laptop and glanced at his cheap watch. There was still a good 2 hours before Eveline could arrive at his house. Plugging in the SD card, Alex felt a brief moment of panic about password protection, when to his relief, the files aboard could be opened without any security.
To his surprise, there were only 2 files onboard the card.
The first, was a long CCTV footage reel, that went for 4 hours. Black and white, with heavy grain, the camera was locked to the back entrance of some restaurant, showcasing dumpster bins, and staff cars. It was largely still footage, with the occasional movement of staff throwing things in the bin, and curious feral animals wandering around.
Alex stared at the grainy footage, for the first half hour, trying to figure out why this footage was on the SD card, and where this could be, before restoring it into a small window, and leaving it aside for him to occasionally peer at while he looked at the next file.
The second was an excel spreadsheet, that when Alex looked at it, seemed to be encrypted. Numbers,symbols and letters were juxtaposed, smashed and joined together in seemingly random combination with each cell seemingly more incoherent than the next.
However, when he looked at it closer, he noted that there was a full stop at the end of each row. Indicating some kind of sentence that could be made.
There were 4 of these sentences, of varying length, at the top of the excel sheet, and then when he scrolled further down, a large block of white empty cells appeared, accompanied by a caption that ended with an exclamation mark.
Alex stared at the sheet before flicking over to the next 3 sheets, which to his shock, was un-encrypted and instead displayed details of a heist. Names of associates with their contact numbers,
“Joel, Joel, Joel. What the hell were you up to?” asked Alex to the air.
Part 2 of 7 part series, proved to be a much smoother write for me, now that I’ve established some basic rules about the world I am building. I’ve made a couple of basic character traits for each of the main players, and I admit, I am now starting to fall in love with the world I’ve built.
It probably also helped that I am assisted by some excellent dark/noir jazz playlists on Youtube that provide par excellence ambience for me to write.
Part 3 will be coming very soon. Hopefully later today.
Please note that a recurring theme will be exploring a new part of Victoria in each part of the series.