Stiletto inheritanc e

‘We’d like you to tell us how you obtained this knowledge.' I'd become their prisoner on a Tuesday, the day after I'd found out Alfred Deakin had been murdered. I'd been so excited by the results of my research that I'd entertained the staff club bar with my discovery about Australia's early prime minister. Next day, on my way to the university I stopped the Saab to pick up a hitch-hiking student, a willowy boy with Titian-tinted hair. He said he was feeling sick and asked me to drive him home. I'd helped him inside and put him to bed when three men and two women came into his room. My first thought had been that they were the police and I prepared to say nothing. Then the one who is now cross-examining me had said: 'Good', and I sensed blackmail. No one else spoke. Nor even after one of the women walked across to the now-standing, naked boy, slipped a long-bladed knife from her sleeve and stabbed him through the chest. He looked towards me, opened his mouth a little, and fell forward. What the hell was this, I thought, some vigilante gang of a moral majority. That's when I began to fear for my life.

'Through here,' the other woman said as she led the way down a passage to a larger, better furnished room.

The man who had spoken before spoke again: 'We'd like you to sleep for a while.'

The second woman took a syringe from her bag. 'Please roll up your sleeve,' she said.

If they planned to murder me, an overdose would be less painful than a knife so I lay down on the couch, put out my arm and looked up at the three men gathering around us. As the one who had spoken bent over me I noticed that he had a smear of mascara on his left eye lid.

'We'd like you to tell us how you got this knowledge.' I've been awake for some hours but I don't know how long I slept. I was fed quite well, allowed to shower and given some clean clothes. 'Our patience is inexhaustible, professor, but our time is limited. Please help us to clear up this little matter. You know that Deakin was murdered. All we need to know how you found out.'

So hard do I peer into my interrogator's eyes for some sign of make-up that he backs away.

'No mock heroics, please,' he says. 'As you've seen not all my colleagues are as polite as I am. You can stare me down easily enough, but she will draw the eyes from your head and give them back to you to eat. The others are quite uncivilised and cannot imagine torture without hatred. If you prefer I'll leave and they can ask our question. How did you find out about the murder of Deakin?'

There seemed little point in not telling them since my explanation is entirely innocent.

'Well,' I begin, 'as you possibly know I'm completing a biography of the Victorian politician, John Murray. A full-scale life and times really, but in one volume. Interesting times. Murray had twice been Chief Secretary and I thought it would be worth my while if I got to understand the workings of the police force. So I set about tracing the life o[ a typical policeman. By chance, I'd asked for a file at the archives about a certain Constable Bramble whose name I'd picked at random. Well, instead of getting his file I got another man's file - some mistake - a fellow by the name of Brumbie. But as a mistake is still random, I decided to use what I'd been sent. Brumbie turned out ro be a rather untypical officer. An Ulsterman and graduate of Glasgow University who joined the Victorian force in 1905. He'd been sent out from England to keep an eye on Tom Mann, the British union leader who set up a Socialist party here and led some of the biggest strikes Australia has ever seen. There was one at Broken Hill ...'

'Shorter, Professor,' commands the knife-lady.

I look towards the mascara man: 'l'm doing what you asked. Do you want me to go on?'

'Of course, professor. But try to recount only your recent researches and not the whole book. We'll read that later.' He moves towards me as he speaks and now stands behind my chair. None of the others show any reaction and they obviously accept his leadership. If I can content him I might yet be allowed to live. The knife-woman raps her hands on the back of a chair so that I can see ringless fingers, roughly trimmcd nails and thickening joints. My chances against her are non-existent.

'Get on with it,' she drones.

'By the time Mann left Australia, Brumbie was married to a Ballarat girl and promoted to Inspector. When war broke out in l9l4 he was attached to the Governor-General's staff and helped his aide to run British military intelligence in Australia. That was how he came to investigate Deakin's death. As you know, Deakin left politics a wreck. His mind had gone. In the last months he began raving. His remarks were lucid in one sense but the oratory ran on ridiculous lines. He seemed obsessed with his childhood and referred to himself as "Alice". After he died, his son-in-law, Herbert Brookes, used his own intelligence network to obtain copies of the coroner's report. That report contained nothing unusual. But in Brumbie's file there's a penciled draft of another report to Brookes which rules out assassination by the Sinn Fein while acknowledging that Deakin had been poisoned.'

'Did Brumbie's report give any reason for this extraordinary action?' The question comes from the mascara man who has been waiting for a pause rather than an opportunity to ask it; it is as if he is reading from a television interviewer's clipboard.

'To keep him from raving. That was all.' I hear my own voice, high and fast.

'Did it suggest in any way what Deakin was raving about?' This time his question sounds almost spontaneous.

'No. No. We know from La Nauze's biography what some of Deakin's obsessions were and we can surmise that these preyed . . .'

'No suppositions,' my interrogator breaks in, more impatient than uninterested. 'Just your facts please. As if your life depends on it: do you know what Deakin raved about to so alarm the government that they murdered him!'

Nobody else in the room reacts to this question. The two silent men stand near the door, the knife-lady by the window and the other woman is sitting at the table where I had eaten. If the government murdered Deakin, what hope is there for me? My right leg is shaking and I can't unclasp my hands. My mind is having too many thoughts for my brain to form words into an answer. My interrogator, and even the knife-lady, say nothing. I know now what to say.

'l never said the government ordered his death. You're trying to trap me into admitting things I know nothing about. That wasn't Bramble's report.'

'Bramble!' interjects the knife-woman. 'Brumbie. Not Bramble.'

'What's it matter whose report it was. I’ve said nothing about any government. I'm telling you what I read.'

'That's the problem. What you read is our problem,' and the interrogator goes and sits on the end of the bed where I had been drugged. 'Even before we . . . we enticed you here we'd checked back on your research activities and found Brumbie's draft. There was such a document. What we can't decide is how soon you will join that draft in the past tense. You'll appreciate that such a matter isn't treated locally and could take a little while. We suggest a little more sleep.'

This time it is the knife-woman who produces a syringe and my terror catches the interrogator's eye.

'Don't be afraid. Charley won't hurt you.' I lie down and Charley stands over my bed. From that angle she seems over six feet tall and the last thing I remember after she gives me the injection is a hair growing out of her right nostril.

I wake up a second time to find only my interrogator in the room. He says nothing as I dredge myself from the bed and try to walk towards the table where he is sitting.

'You'll be all right after you've eaten,' he says as he stands up and moves around to pull a chair out for me. 'A full stomach will dilute the drug.' For some minutes I sit still, thinking about how I will cut up my meal and how tiring it will be to lift it to my mouth and how exhausting to chew.

'Allow me,' volunteers my mascara-man and he holds a forked piece of potato near my mouth. I take it in and allow it to slide down my throat. A spasm shoots back and I realise I am hungry, anxious for the next offerings which will give me the strength to feed myself.

'l'd offer you some wine but that would fog your recovery.'

For the first time I see my interrogator for what he is, a clerk, 54, 55 years old, but the worse for wear.

'Do you have a name?' I venture.

He draws in air, and dares a truth: 'My colleague call me Monte’. The expression on his face shifts a fraction before freezing somewhere between a wink and a smile. I can think only that I am going to live. I know it. I know it. I keep saying that over in my mind. His intimacy is my life sentence.

He pours Maxwell House coffee from a thermos. Sitting opposite each other saying nothing, he waits for me to finish eating.

'I sense that you sense that you are going to leave us happily.' He hesitates and I wait for him to begin the explanation. 'There are certain conditions, certain promises required.'

'l'm in no position to bargain. 'l stand up and walk to the armchair. The food is helping to revive me but there are shudders of exhaustion.

'There's no rush,' says my companion. 'lt's important that you're alert when I explain the conditions. Neither of us would benefit from a misunderstanding.'

His language avoids the cliches. He says 'now' and not 'this point in time'. Yet it is no less bureaucratic in its choice of words, in its avoidance of immediacy. He flirts with elaborate double negatives, 'Neither of us would benefit from a misunderstanding'. Is he telling me that his life would be in jeopardy or is he simply being polite about my murder?

'l'll tell you if I'm tired and don't follow.'

He pushes out his tongue, running it along his top lip before smearing the spittle on the bottom one by drawing them together back over his teeth.

'The proposition is simple. We'll tell you all the truth and if you promise to publish all of it, or none of it, you will be able to go about your work. But you may not select the bits you want. The credible bits. It's publish all, or nothing, or be damned.'

'That's fairer than most sources allow me.'

'You haven't heard all of the story yet. You might prefer to publish none of it.' My interrogator is becoming my confidant. He pours himself a cup of coffee, sugars it, and walks across to the window intending to raise the blind but then not doing so. 'Deakin was a transvestite. That's what he was raving about. That's why he was helped along. He wasn't alone. He was part of an organisation.' My confidant pauses to stop himself smirking. 'Australia is run by transvestites. Always has been. Well, ever since federation.' He is no longer talking to me. What he is saying is meant for me but his voice is aimed beyond this room, defiantly.

'The office of prime minister has always been in the organisation's gift. All Australia's prime ministers have been transvestites. From Barton to Fraser. All of them. Deakin endangered the secret. That's why. That's why what you found out had to be done. And that's why you're here.' l stop myself laughing by coughing and sneezing into a handkerchief but my informant does not notice. He is too intent on his fantasy to acknowledge disbelief.

'Are you part of the organisation? I noticed mascara the first morning.'

'l also serve. But in an attendant capacity. Waiting upon the prime ministers.' He stands up straight, pushing his chest forward. 'We are waiting for one now. They knew your trained mind wouldn't accept my word. So one of the prime ministers is coming to tell you what I've prepared the way for you to comprehend.' What can I say to him? He's obviously more than a little unbalanced.

No matter how friendly he feels towards me it's obvious that he is not amenable to reason. Not that I am capable of rational argument either. All I can think to say is that I am tired: 'l'd like to lie down again. So that I'll be alert when your prime minister arrives.'

'By all means. I'm sorry if I've overtaxed you. One has so few opportunities. The truth is not always ours to protect.' He draws in his lips again, several times quickly, biting more than pursing them.

His problem is already mine. To whom could I tell what is happening to me? I could amuse dinner parties with an extravagantly fabulous and embroidered version. No one will believe me or my story. It will be like my account of Archbishop Gough's departure. Even people who know I am telling the truth about his affair expect me to make it up as I go along.

The door opens unannounced and there he is, out framing the doorway. Unmistakable even in a tweed skirt, blouse, sensible shoes, make-up and wig. 'We met in Adelaide on the 164th anniversary of the battle of Austerlitz.' He moves towards me, takes my hand and squeezes it till I wince. 'l'm looking forward to reading your biography. Biography is my favourite form of fiction.'

There is no mistaking him; no possibility of a double.

'You've heard about my double life. Mv task is to convince vou. rOr make sure that you aren't game to tell anyone else for fear of being made a fool. The easiest way to do that is to take my clothes off.'

He begins to undress and reveals a woman.

'Don't tell me I've surprised you? Did you expect a man? How old-fashioned you gays really are. 'We have kept up with the times. Our group has contained women since 1904 but we were never considered eligible for the prime ministership. Fraser and I put an end to that prejudice. And, I might say, encouraged us all to be a little daring. For as long as the PMs were men they had confined their dressing-up for private gatherings. Once our sisterhood secured control we demanded the right to appear in public. That's why Fraser goes to Fancy Dress Balls in dinner suits. People think he's being dull or cautious whereas she's laughing up her tailored sleeve.'

He is almost dressed again and I'm keeping my eyes lightly closed. 'Do you agree?' 'To what?' I respond. 'To our conditions.' He is sitting in the lounge chair, pointing at the coffee, knowing that Monte will interpret his finger. 'Our condition is that you publish nothing in which case no one will be any the wiser. Or, that you publish everything in which case no one will believe a thing you say. Either way we win. Only partial truths threaten us because people can accommodate the bits and pieces. Do you accept?'

'l don't follow. You want me to tell everyone that Australia is run by a conspiracy of transvestites.'

'No.' The fullness of his breath turns the letters into syllables. 'We'd rather you said nothing at all. But we've nothing to fear from the whole truth. We always tell people the truth; all the truth and nothing but. That's how we’ve confused you. We ourselves, of course, never function on the truth. All our decisions are made on the basis of gossip and rumour.'

I cannot think of anything to say. He is the proof of what he is saying but I cannot accept the evidence of my eyes.

'Do you agree to our conditions?' he repeats. 'Or are you having some difficulty?'

'The difficulty is that I don't believe you. All my training, experience, research has taught me to reject conspiracy theories. And now I'm confronted by the most bizarre and impossible story I've ever heard. Or seen. I simply can't accept that transvestites rule Australia.'

'You accept that politicians run the country.'

'But you are those politicians. You appear as one thing but you've been something else.'

He crosses his legs, lets one shoe drop to the floor and wiggles his toes: 'We manage only the government side of things,' he confides. 'There's more to running a country than that.'

'That's what I mean. How do you get away with it? What about the power of the press? The banks? The Jews! The Masons! Don't any of them have a say in running the country?'

'l see that our black propaganda has been very effective. You rattle off all the old conspiracy theories. A man of your learning would recognise the name of Zaharof.'

'The armaments king.'

'Quite so. And one of our English circle's finest creations. He took the blame for the Great War.'

'You're not trying to tell me there's an international gang of transvestites running the whole world?'

'There is an international body but we don't run anything. It pains me to admit it. I once had ambitions too. I found out that our function is purely decorative. We are, so to speak, the costume jewelry of power. The diamantes. Not diamonds, still less the crown itself. We dazzle. That's enough.'

I sit up and press my thumb and middle finger against my temples, trying to see the traps.

'Aren't you frightened the press will expose you!'

'They do, and we’ve encouraged them. Particularly the cartoonists who have always pictured us as women. Barton and Reid were two old washer-women; Billy Hughes as a little elf; Menzies as Queen Victoria. The iconography distracts attention from the substance. If it's been in a cartoon it can't be true, can it? So the more exposure we get the safer we are. A little truth, on the other hand, is a dangerous thing. So you must agree to all or nothing.' He is standing over me lopsided on one shoeless foot.

'l can't trust you to keep your word. It's not the Deakin business or the transvestite thing. It's the boy. I saw Charley kill him. I'm a witness to murder. Not just the discoverer of a murder that happened 60 years ago.'

'Don't waste your time being sentimental. The boy means nothing.'

'Then why kill him? He'd done nothing. Knew nothing. Seen nothing. You obviously knew his hair was my colour before I went bald. That's why you picked him as bait. There was no need to kill him. I'm easily frightened if that was your aim.'

'To frighten you, yes. But we didn't kill him. The knife had a retractable blade. It was stage managed. He's alive.' The ex-prime minister waves his hand in front of his face to wipe away the words: 'He's alive. It was a trick. To frighten you.'

'Then let me see him,' I repeat. 'l can promise nothing till I know he's alive. I don't care what happens to him but if he's dead then so am I.'

Mascara man sorts through the files of his mind to find an answer: 'We could put him on the seven o'clock news. Have him interviewed in the street. You'll see him live on television.' His eyes stopped blinking.

'That will do.' l relax at the thought of seeing the real world again. The television news will orientate my mind, let me know the date, let mc relate to people and events. I'm out of touch. That's why I'm so vulnerable.

'So glad you've agreed.' The leader wrings my hand again, and walks out, one shoe on, and the other in his hand.

I lie down and consider the possibilities. Monte serves tea and leaves me with a dozen magazines and newspapers. One of them has a report of an accident involving me. I am in hospital and my condition is stable. Monte returns with a portable television set.

'We couldn't manage the news so he's on a current affairs programme on one of the commercial stations.'

The programme is about toothpaste and advertising. A street reporter is stopping people asking them to smile into the camera. The Titian-tinted boy appears. He smiles a set of perfectly white but slightly uneven teeth.

'Do you believe advertisements?' the reporter asks. 'They're the best things on telly,' he laughs, and smiles at me.

Monte turns off the set, and turns to me: 'An ambulance will take you home and a nurse will stay with you for a day or two until you're fully recovered.'

I stand up, gently nodding agreement' but not moving.

'You're free to go.'

I am about to say something like 'Thank you' when he opens the door and adds: 'l'll see to it that your book is favourably reviewed.'  

l pass him and get to the end of the passage when he calls after me: ‘I must caution you against spreading rumours.'