Everything begins with a body. Salima Khan was just 21 the day of her wedding at St Jude's Catholic Church in the New South Wales village of Halls End. Population 310. It was still winter but the sun was out and after the ceremony, she insisted on going for a walk across the Common with her bridesmaid, Nazreen. Salima was found the following morning face down in a shallow pool of water, and although Abel Wiley had no medical training to speak of, he knew a murder when he saw one.
News of Abel Wiley’s discovery whistled through the village then came to an abrupt halt when police announced he’d been detained for questioning. As a suspect. Television said incriminating evidence had been found in Mr Wiley’s possession, a white bridal slipper taken from the deceased and discovered in a homemade hessian bag full of dried cow pats in his greenhouse. Helpful Pete felt nothing, could have been watching the stocks, but his wife was glued to the screen. Second the report finished, Pete rose from the couch, told his wife he’d be at Boyle’s you need to find me, then took his coat from a hook by the door and left.
The mood at Boyle’s was sombre. Footage showed police in light-blue plastic jumpsuits standing outside Abel Wiley’s property on Ivory Street, stamping their feet in the cold. When the news item cut to an ad, publican Frank Boyle changed channels and they picked up where they’d left off. Fernando wasn’t sure if it was his round or Vaughn’s and Clyde finished his story about the snakebite while Clumsy Joe continued selling tickets for the meat tray. Turned out it was Vaughn’s round after all. Fernando same again. G and T for Clyde. Clumsy Joe was sitting out the round. Helpful Pete strolled in off the street and made straight for the warmth of the bar. Greetings all round. Clumsy Joe hit him up for the raffle. Half a goat. Pete had never cared much for goat but got a ticket for himself, one for the wife, and one for his dog, Jeb.
Like nothing had happened.
Stray ribbons of police tape cordoning off Abel Wiley’s property still flapped about in the wind months after his conviction, and waist-high wheat grass had invaded the ironbark verandas front and back. Without a pulse, his home became a house, reclaimed by the appetites of nature.
Shortly after the trial, Helpful Pete hung a NO TRESPASSING sign on the man’s front gate like a headstone for someone deceased. This place, the person who lived here, the crime they committed, no longer exists. That’s what NO TRESPASSING meant.
Then one lazy afternoon in spring, sitting in the newly refurbished beer garden at Boyle’s enjoying a beer with friends, Fernando unleashed an idea.
‘Been thinking ’bout renting the Rosewood,’ he said.
‘Who to?’ Helpful Pete asked.
‘Put an ad online.’
‘That was quick,’ Pete remarked, impressed.
The Rosewood was a heritage-listed weatherboard with two bedrooms, a guest house, walking distance to shops, and empty long as Pete could recollect. Fernando bought it to restore, then something came up, then something after that, the end.
‘What are you asking?’ Pete inquired.
‘500 a week.’
‘Ambitious,’ Pete said, and frowned.
Frank Boyle came to the table collecting empties. Small talk all round. Pete said Fernando was renting the Rosewood, put an ad online. Boyle asked Pete what Fernando was asking. Pete said 500 a week. Boyle raised his eyebrows in response.
‘What I said,’ Pete agreed. ‘And unless he finds someone local they’ll be here for the lifestyle.’
‘What are you saying?’ Fernando asked.
‘Just saying,’ Pete said. ‘You gotta big picture it, see what they’ll see. Whole village’ll be under scrutiny.’ Pete finished his beer and placed it atop the leaning concertina of glasses riding up Boyle’s chest. ‘For example,’ Pete continued. ‘You plan on giving the Wiley place a mow?’
The Wiley place neighboured the Rosewood, the NO TRESPASSING sign Pete hung on the front gate now hanging from its gridded limbs by a thread. But like everyone else in the village, Fernando lived his life as if it wasn’t really there. An optical illusion, a mirage. Fernando sat still in his chair. Helpful Pete finished his thought. He leant in on the table, slowly, his vast physical presence occluding the afternoon sun, and said:
‘Or you want me to do it?’
That the Wiley place might impact on his plans to rent the Rosewood gave Fernando room for serious concern. Pete was right. Whole village’d be under scrutiny. The Wiley place, the Rosewood, Boyles. But it didn’t seem fair. Fernando no more wanted to tidy up the Wiley place to ensure his 500 a week rent than be seen tidying up the Wiley place to ensure his 500 a week rent. There had to be another way through. He phoned a real-estate buddy to ask.
‘Hypothetical,’ he’d said when they met.
The real-estate buddy listened to Fernando’s hypothetical, then looked at Fernando and frowned. ‘You mean the Rosewood,’ he said. ‘And Wiley’s old place. If 500 bucks is too much.
‘Well, yeah,’ Fernando said. ‘That.’
‘Depends what they’re willing to pay.’
Fernando wasn’t sure what that meant. His real-estate buddy explained. ‘The worth of a place, to rent or to sell, is what somebody’s willing to pay.’
‘Oh,’ Fernando said. ‘Thanks.’ But Fernando didn’t see how that helped. He wished his real-estate buddy hadn’t deviated from the hypothetical so abruptly and placed Fernando under the light. Now everyone would know he was concerned. Everyone would know that Pete was right. The Rosewood, he thought. Heritage listed weatherboard. Walking distance to shops. Fernando didn’t get what’s not to like. And worth whatever somebody will pay? How did you find that stuff out? Dejected and confused he went home. He slipped off his boots, and hung up his coat, then Fernando checked the ad he’d placed online.