Body in a Bullrush
By Vic Tietze
The stink rose off the river’s cool meniscus in waves, a desperate chain of undesirable odours looking for a home. Stale fish, forgotten sewage, the manure of a hundred horses.
A pity, thought Vivienne Delalande, last night’s rain hadn’t troubled itself to wash the smell away. Worse, the cool of the early morning enshrouded it in a soft, inconspicuous miasma that stubbornly refused to lift.
For want of a peg to stuff up her nose, Detective Sergeant Delalande decided to concentrate on the corpse she’d been called on to investigate. The heap of flesh lay sullenly amid the bustle of crime scene investigators already on the scene, sheltered on the shoreline by the bridge that passed overhead.
Foremost among those fussing over its tousled bones was the night shift’s forensic pathologist, who was quick to give his impressions upon witnessing Delalande’s arrival. ‘Mind the spill,’ the grizzled sexagenarian said of the blood trail that encircled the corpse, as though Delalande had not. ‘Posture indicates death in situ. Severe blunt force trauma to – ooh – at least eighty percent of the body. Majority of vitals crushed. Probably profuse internal haemorrhaging. They don’t get any deader than this poor bloke, so get punchy with your S-O-C notes and lemme go home.’
Dawn homicides weren’t exactly Delalande’s idea of a fun time either. It didn’t matter which end of a shift you were at. ‘Relax, Davo. You’ll be home to your Milo in no time.’
Delalande studied the body from a variety of angles. A shabby beard mottled with blood, moth holes and tears in the outer coat, ancient food stains and the faintest smell of vomit-tainted liquor. Through the mess of wounds the impression was unmistakable.
‘Homeless?’ Delalande queried.
Davo shrugged his shoulders. ‘I just call the cause, not the life story.’
Delalande pulled up the most reliable looking constable on the scene. ‘Is there a regular homeless presence here?’ The question was worth asking since, nearby, there was a large park with no fewer than two sizeable – and unlocked – public toilet blocks. They’d have made a much better shelter against the night’s rain than the thin stretch of muddy, weed-strewn riverbank under Pontefract Road Bridge where this poor bugger had breathed his last.
‘It’s worse up near the train station,’ the constable explained. ‘Not so much here. We get more complaints about idiot teenagers in the park, people fishing off the bank at the crack of dawn, that kind of thing.’
‘So what was he doing here?’ Delalande muttered under her breath.
Evidently not so softly that Davo’s senior ears didn’t catch it. ‘Praying to the great god Red Bull?’
The pathologist pointed as he departed the scene. ‘Good morning,’ he cooed to all and sundry.
Delalande couldn’t believe she’d failed to notice the mosaic before now. Built of broken tiles of a myriad colours, it adorned much of the supporting wall beneath the overpass and overlooked the body like some ineffectual protector.
And it was, as Davo had joked, of a big red bull.
There was no shortage of subjects to interview after the fact.
The banks of the river were popular with local anglers, most of them first generation Vietnamese and either in need of an interpreter or just plain reluctant to talk. But Delalande’s enquiries quickly turned into a process of elimination to see who’d actually been present at or near the time of death. From the few more naturalised offspring accompanying the fisherfolk, Delalande learned little. They kept themselves to themselves, so they explained. A wise course in an area known for its racial tensions.
About the only useful witness to emerge from the process was the poor jogger who’d called the police in the first place. All he could give was a time of discovery.
‘Have you considered the racecourse?’ a brash, wet-behind-the-ears junior constable asked Delalande as she returned from her last witness.
‘Well it makes sense, doesn’t it?’ the constable asked rhetorically.
Delalande rolled her eyes. ‘What makes sense, exactly?’
Constable J. Bowen – according to her name badge – started to squirm. ‘The injuries, don’t you think, ma’am? I mean, if they’re consistent with trampling.’
Delalande stopped short of asking where this newt of a policewoman had dug her information up. Typical bloody Davo. Keen as all to hit the road, he’d shared his supposition with the first officer on the scene in the hope it might eventually be relayed to someone actually in charge.
‘He said he’d need to do an autopsy to know for sure, but he reckoned that’s what killed the guy.’
‘So you thought we might find an answer at the racecourse?’ Delalande gave it her best impersonation of a seething, affronted superior officer. It wasn’t that she was angry – Bowen had done well to make the connection – but the occasional bit of trouser soiling tended to be good for one’s motivation.
The junior started to ramble. ‘They’ve got stables there. Maybe one of the horses got loose. I mean it’s only over the river and there’s a bridge and it’s not far and…’
Delalande saved her with a smile. ‘Guess who’s coming with me.’
‘Sure there’s no way we coulda lost a mare last night,’ the stable master told Delalande in an accent that convinced her he had a Masters Degree in English Bumpkin. ‘Not last night or any night.’
‘Security that good, is it?’
‘Miss, have you seen the walls we’ve got ‘ere?’
She wrinkled at the ‘miss’. ‘Yes, but you also have gates. Great big ones. With a tendency to open from time to time.’
He looked lost. ‘We lock everything up at night, and that’s that.’
It was the truth. Delalande had known that going into this interview. Logic dictated that if a horse had escaped the grounds and done a bolt across a bridge near the best known racecourse in Australia, somebody would know about it.
Somebody would also notice a horse was missing.
Delalande wondered if the victim had been trampled at the stables before being moved off site. The notion didn’t concur with Davo’s pronouncement – but then Davo wasn’t perfect. ‘Do you ever have any trouble with break-ins?’ she asked the stable master.
‘Not so much down ‘ere. Up at the track they get a few. You know, goin’ after the cash and like. There’s not much call for stealin’ ‘orses I find.’
‘So, no trespassers of any kind around the stables?’
Before he could answer, Bowen joined them. She’d been on a thankless recce of the racecourse perimeter at Delalande’s insistence. ‘Tight as an echidna’s arse,’ she announced.
Delalande shuddered at the expression. Either this was all some ghastly dream or the world had turned itself into a walking cliché.
They exited to the main road, leaving the stable master to his day. ‘Well?’ Delalande asked.
‘No horses going out except in floats. You could probably scale the walls, especially down by the stables, but I dunno why you’d want to.’
‘So it’s possible our victim was trampled here?’
Bowen shook her head. ‘Track marks looked pretty gentle – at least the ones that haven’t been washed away.’
That was telling: the ground was sodden here too. Yet Davo had found no mud on the victim’s clothes. He’d been killed somewhere bone dry.
Delalande returned to the scene, now empty of investigators. She studied the ground afresh. There were no aggressive animal tracks, it didn’t surprise her to observe. No sign of a violent stampede.
In fact, no marks of any kind, save the impressions left by Davo and the officers who’d turned the body. The man hadn’t been dumped either.
So what had killed him, and where?
It was an impossible situation. Looking to escape it, Delalande figured on a quick chat with the neighbours.
The conversations had a common beginning: ‘I already talked to one of you lot.’ Some got as far as a returned ‘Nevertheless’ before Delalande was shown the door. Those that enjoyed greater longevity were no more fruitful. By and large, it transpired, the residents of this block were solitary types, slept deeply, or simply hadn’t noticed a thing.
Number 14 changed all that. According to the occupant list Bowen had wrangled, the squat little man in residence was Bruce Frazer. ‘You’re with the police?’ he anticipated. ‘Come in, please.’
Two cups of tea later, Mr Frazer dropped a bombshell. ‘What do you know about satanic cults?’
Delalande almost choked on her Irish Breakfast. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Satanic cults,’ Mr Frazer repeated as if it made a difference to say it again. ‘Devil worship, the Antichrist, and so on.’
‘Devil worship?’ Delalande found herself wishing this one had slammed his door shut on her too.
Mr Frazer sized her up. ‘Yes, well, I wouldn’t expect you to understand. I don’t suppose they have these traditions where you come from.’
‘What, Adelaide?’ she wanted to reply. But she took the point. With a Singaporean mother and a French father she didn’t exactly fit the Anglo-Australian, Roman Catholic mould. ‘Perhaps you could enlighten me,’ she suggested as politely as possible.
Frazer – his casual racism had cost him the honorific – detailed much in the way of an obsession with the Dark Lord that could have been lifted from your average Hammer Horror film. It was when he shuffled along to the topic of ritual sacrifice that Delalande’s ears finally pricked up.
‘They’ll find a secluded spot, you see, these devil worshippers, and enact a sacrificial rite in appeasement,’ Frazer explained with a confidence that made his apparent authority on the subject truly creepy. ‘The conditions have to be just so, of course. So does the timing.’ He leaned forward ominously. ‘Last night was one of the key masses in the satanic calendar.’
Delalande humoured the suggestion. She didn’t for a minute believe in the power behind such rites, but a perpetrator might. ‘The location is important?’
‘Oh, absolutely essential.’
‘Then there’s no chance a sacrifice might be moved after the fact? Or an already dead body brought to the site?’
The tufts of hair above Frazer’s ears ruffled as he vigorously shook his head. ‘Certainly not!’
Delalande remembered the bull mosaic. ‘These Satan worshippers – they’d go in for graven images of the subject of their worship, right?’
‘Not necessarily. Other, similar totems would be just as effective. Provided,’ Frazer jabbed a finger in the air, ‘they are imbued with the necessary meaning.’
‘I don’t know that the Judaic tradition has a concept of Satan,’ Frazer observed. ‘I take it you’re referring to the false idol worshipped by those left at the base of Mount Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments.’
‘To be honest, any bull will do.’
Frazer sipped his tea. ‘Could be, could be. I don’t profess expertise in all such matters.’
No, but keep talking like that and you could claim it all you like. ‘So, you’ve actually seen these worshippers, have you? Or is this all a guess?’
‘Oh, I see it. Most nights. Interlopers crossing between here and the park, disturbing the peace at all hours.’
‘Can you describe them?’
Frazer started to scramble. ‘Well, it’s late, you see, and dark.’
‘Are they young? Old? Grouped together or individuals? How are they dressed? That sort of thing.’
‘Mmm, young…ish. Often in small groups. They ride those horrid little motor scooters these days, you know, zipping up and down the walking track by the river.’
In other words, rowdy teenagers up late.
Delalande made her apologies and left this nut-case to his own devices.
Something about Frazer’s devil worship theory ate at Delalande as she drove back to the station. Not the noisy hooligans, but the idea of a ritual sacrifice. Given a few tweaks, it could be made to fit the evidence.
She scoured online for information about occult habits involving cattle, taking slow sips from a cup of coffee that had started out disgusting and grew worse with each passing minute. Predictably, the net she managed to cast was as wide as it was unhelpful. Cattle mutilations by aliens or the CIA – (depending who you believed) – the Minotaur, astrology…
The most plausible variation was that a horde of unbalanced Doctor Who fans had decided to honour the fictional character Nimon by offering up a bunch of whinging teens in yellow togas. But even that turned out to be nothing more than a monthly drinking game organised by the local appreciation society.
Delalande needed to talk to a real expert. A Zoom call to the area’s local history society (closed for renovations) put her on to Frances Metzger.
‘Modern art,’ Mrs Metzger said of the bull mosaic. ‘Council-funded, but it’s still just modern art.’
The answer was glib and unforthcoming. Delalande told her as much.
‘Yes, I’m sorry, I do rather abbreviate my utterances on matters historical. Force of habit, you understand. Apparently I tend to go on at length if unchecked.’
Delalande almost rolled her eyes before checking herself. (Kooks were easier to deal with in the days of regular phone calls.) She filed away the notion that, should they ever find themselves lonely, she could play matchmaker to Mrs Metzger and Bruce Frazer. The pair could undoubtedly while the night away in frowsty splendour with archaically phrased anecdotes about the utterly inconsequential.
‘In my line of work it pays to encourage elaboration,’ the detective sergeant observed. ‘So, please, don’t hold back on my account.’
‘One or two sitting town councils ago – or perhaps four. We – that is, the Historical Society – made a push to have the colonial past of the area memorialised in some way. Too much history is being forgotten, you see, especially in schools. We try to encourage its inclusion in the curriculum, but –’
‘What,’ Delalande hastily interrupted, ‘was the mosaic intended to memorialise?’
‘Much of that land was open pasture in the nineteenth century, and there used to be a sizeable trade in livestock throughout what are today several of the adjoining suburbs. Cattle would come in from the north, along the rail line. The stock would disembark and be led down the hill through what is now Kempton Park, towards Carlisle and Aintree, stopping short of the river and Catterick Bridge, which they couldn’t cross.’
At last a landmark Delalande could get to grips with. Catterick Bridge – not a suburb but an actual pass over the river – was a wrought iron footbridge downriver from the crime scene that looked like nothing so much as a cattle grid. No wonder the livestock were stopped in their tracks.
In which case, what good did it do anyone to put up a mosaic of a cow on the opposite bank?
‘Pontefract Road Bridge,’ Metzger answered. Scene of the crime. ’Oh, it’s been widened since then and largely rebuilt. But it was more than adequate to carry livestock across the river should any have been sold to the old abattoir on that side.’
‘What happened to the rest of them?’ Delalande wasn’t sure why she cared to know, since it didn’t get her nearer to finding the killer. But then anything could be of use in understanding the mind of someone wanting to trample a homeless man with a heavy-set quadruped.
‘Well, in those days, Aintree was one great big stockyard where cattle from properties all across Victoria could be sold at auction. Some went to slaughter, others to farmers for breeding purposes. It was a successful enterprise. On a good day, most livestock tended to sell.’
‘And the unsold ones… what? Went home?’
‘The return journey was often cost prohibitive. Records survive of the on-site destruction process, with the carcasses reserved for rendering if they weren’t of good enough quality to sell in the first place.’ Metzger added, almost by way of apology, ‘It gave the farmer some small return on his investment.’
The detective’s remaining coffee did little to settle her stomach. ‘Well, thank you for filling me in on the background.’
She was about to hang up when Metzger added, ‘You know, you should go there. Aintree, I mean. The developers of the suburb – as it is now – have worked quite sympathetically with the existing fixtures.’
‘From the stockyards? You mean they still survive?’
‘Several of the gates and fences are there. And the developers consulted with the historical society to have a few explanatory plaques erected.’ Her tone suddenly became proud. ‘I think they’ve captured a lovely lived-in feel.’
More like a died-in feel. The whole industry was literally steeped in blood. Who’d want to live among reminders of that?
The answer hit Delalande like a sledgehammer. A killer with a cattle fixation.
The mist returned quickly as cold night fell. It climbed northward from the river, traipsing through Carlisle and Aintree like an interloper. Stopped short of the dividing road before Kempton Park and the train line. Refused to climb the imposing walls that surrounded the racecourse. Devoured Catterick Bridge until only a sliver of its ferrous apex glinted in the moonlight.
Detective Senior Constable Vivienne Delalande, determined, inspected the site.
She found it much as Metzger had described. Modern builds occupied the perimeter of the suburb. Several streets deep, they formed a cordon around an open, central space that doubled as a commons for residents. The shape and size of a soccer pitch, it was sliced up by a complex arrangement of sturdy wooden gates, fences and posts.
Exploring the routes enclosed by the woodwork, Delalande quickly grasped their pattern. They represented an intricate network of courses leading principally from the north – Kempton Park and the railway – down to the the marshy bank of the river and ultimately to Catterick Bridge.
Delalande came upon one of Metzger’s beloved plaques. It elucidated little the historian had not, but for one salient observation: the site of the building that had, in lovingly sanitised terms, been designated ‘Waste Disposal’.
Amazingly it stood there, a shabby two-story shack defying the odds by remaining upright, daring all the modern domiciles about it to bring its existence to an end. Its only concession to modernity, plaque aside, was another bovine mosaic on its façade.
This former temple of destruction, mercifully, was fenced off and boarded up. A museum piece in a perverse open-air exhibition.
The perfect hideaway for the possessor of a deranged mind.
The mist rose, threatening to absorb the very ground on which Delalande stood. She pulled herself from her study of the building, only to discover how little she could see.
The already wan moonlight fell away. City lights faded into the same rising mist in whose shroud sank any sign of modern architecture.
She stood alone in the stockyard. Transported to it. Accompanied only by ‘Waste Disposal’.
All thought of a man of unsound mind obsessing over this place was left behind. In that instant, she knew there was no man.
She would, in moments, know the real truth.
The foul stench of fear returned. A peculiar kind of fear. The pheromone of bulls.
An entire drove of them, clustered about her, penned in between impenetrable wooden fences. She stood among them, instantly aware of her fate. As a lone heifer lost among scores of bullocks there was no doubt where her value lay.
She cursed the drover who had forced her onto the train. Cursed herself for having tramped through that open gate and into the wrong paddock, giving him cause to wash his hands of her.
Now it was too late. Here she was, at the other end of the journey. Led down from the train, penned up with the others. Awaiting sale in the morning.
She knew she would never sell. There would be no interest in heifers as the hairless bipeds arrived in their dozens to bid on her brethren like the pieces of meat they were. She would stand alone at the end of the auction, having spent the day smelling the fear of expectation and dread.
Knowing only she wore that scent.
As the day had worn on, the herd had sedately awaited its fate. There had grown a collective understanding of the death that loomed. None would be the lucky few sold to sire or carry calves. All were valued only for their bodies.
The heifer for even less.
Delalande understood in that moment the sense of community that existed among the herd. Among every herd. Transported into the soul of that poor, lonely heifer she felt their helplessness.
Then she felt the rumble. Low at first, but growing.
The homeless man had been caught in the maw of these beasts. Though as ancient as those early drovers, they were as real as the detective’s burgeoning awareness. He had, by chance, chosen to sleep at the feet of that mosaic. That totem.
That shrine to this community of bovine slaves whose lifelong sacrifice had come back to haunt the place, that night and this. To possess Delalande and to kill a passing stranger.
The rumble was thunderous. Almost upon her.
A transient community of the spirits of great beasts, existing restlessly because in life they could find no rest.
Tearing up the dry earth, charging in a cloud of dust that melted out of the mist. Finding its path down the narrow, winding courses it knew from centuries of nightly use.
A running of the bulls.
She was herself again in that moment. Denied her chance to be part of the charge.
A human, awaiting the herd.
Knowing the bite of those ethereal hooves would be as real as any pain, she ran.
The timber fencing, a maze of lanes, seemed to take her in every direction. But only one path emerged. A single outcome from a complex labyrinth. She was the minotaur.
And so, with the inevitability of a miserable beast to the slaughter, she ran.
Her only hope was to outrun the charge. Sweat dripped from her every pore despite the cold. She did not know if it was a response to the exertion or the fear.
Delalande stumbled. She rolled over, set eyes upon her tormentors. They were upon her! Inches away, their hooves so near she could see their individual striations.
Escape was surely impossible, but she tried all the same. Seconds later, still unaware of the agony of being trampled, Delalande marvelled at her good fortune.
Then she realised the cause of her luck. Fear was king. Sharing the pain of thousands of slaves to human flesh lust was not enough. At every opportunity, she would have to feel their fear.
Without that, the charge would be meaningless. Without that, she had no reason to be killed.
The mist rose from Catterick Bridge at long, blessed last. Her way was clear, but it was not the one she had hoped for. Pontefract Bridge was an age away. No route to it existed, short of an overland trek blockaded by the formidable woodwork of the stockyard’s designers.
Her only way was forward. Across the marshes and over that pathetic iron footbridge.
Delalande’s conversation with Mrs Metzger offered her a way out. Cattle could not traverse the Catterick footbridge! Escape was in her grasp!
Her first step onto the marshland ahead of the bridge was the most unpredictable. Delalande found herself slowing to safely judge the ground’s stability.
It was hard-going, but she managed to trudge her way through somehow, step after step, marching just enough not to sink.
Each step plunged her deeper into the water as she began to slow. What energy had brought her here was no longer enough to keep her going.
Her eardrums burst with the noise of her oncoming fate. With renewed vigour she continued through the marshes and out the other side. Dry land carried her the rest of the way, until her footfalls clanged against the blessed promise of ironwork.
The bridge. She’d reached the bridge!
Delalande turned to face her accusers, to stare them down in her moment of sweet relief as they inevitably stopped short of the one surface on which they knew only too well they could not tread.
A deathly silence befell their approach, which showed no sign of letting up.
The stampede came and went across the river. Across Delalande.
Her every broken bone told her the same story.
Phantasms don’t need bridges.
About the Author:
Vic Tietze divides his writing energies between prose, plays, screenplays and an eclectic blog. He has been published in [untitled], Short and Twisted, Eschaton, Geek Mook and the Doctor Who Fan Club of Australia staple Data Extract, as well as contributing to the first edition of the Cambridge University Press text book Media Reframed.
His latest screenplay, A Promise Carved in Flesh, has miraculously metamorphosed into a micro-budget feature film under his own direction.