Chapter 5: A Van in West End
The address took us to one of the back streets of West End. An inner city suburb that had managed to avoid being nothing but skyscrapers. In fact the whole place was a heritage site in every way but official. The locals wanted nothing to do with big developers. The end result was a lot of wooden houses put up on stilts built in the forties, renovated in the seventies to have orange brick wherever they could, and decorated with Tibetan prayer flags for the new age. The wealthier owners had added decks in the millennial style; big enough to host a BBQ without risk of rain spoiling it. Being one of the older parts of town the roads tended to be narrow. It reminded me of what I’d heard about the roads of Brisbane. At its founding town-planners went about designing the ideal city for the times. The plans were rejected by the crown on the grounds that the city was to expand erratically so that those living there would always know they were convicts.
The road we were led to was evidently once nothing more than a dirt track where they threw houses up never dreaming of a time when two cars would need to pass. For practical purposes you could only park on one side of the road. We pulled up to the spot but didn’t find anything unusual. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was expecting but all I saw was suburbia.
‘Knock on doors?’ I asked.
Takeshi said nothing, instead passing me a picture tech had gotten us and pointed across to the other side of the street. I took the hint and started door knocking. It was a gruelling process that took half the day and landed with zero success. We met back where we started and shared results. On impulse I rang the phone and walked back and forth on the spot straining my ears for something. The phone went unanswered as before. I was just about to hang up when Takeshi said something. He moved closer to a white work van and leaned down.
‘There’s a rattling right here,’ he said, ‘just like a vibrator against metal.’
I looked askance at him at his choice of words but said nothing and came over. Sure enough there was the sound of a phone on vibrate. I took a photo of the number plate and tried the car door. It was locked.
I dashed up the path of the nearest house and knocked on the door.
A man with a grey whiskers on his face in a blue singlet and black shorts answered the door.
‘Detective,’ he said to Takeshi having only talked to him moments ago.
’Johnson I said flashing the badge, ‘is that van yours.’
‘No, mine’s the Magna in the driveway,’ he said indicating a red Mitsubishi magna.
‘Any idea whose it is?’ I asked.
‘Nah, just assumed it was a neighbours, it’s usually there. Never seen anyone get in or out of it though.’
‘Thanks,’ I said.
We checked in with the neighbours but everyone had the same response.
I thumped on the back door and called out if anyone was inside. If they were they kept the knowledge to themselves.
‘What do you reckon?’ I said to Takeshi, ‘we have enough to break in?’
‘Do that and we run the risk of losing a lead,’ replied Takeshi, ‘we don’t know anything now but we can learn something.’
‘What if he’s in there right now though?’ I asked.
Takeshi smiled and thumped on the side of the van.
‘Stanley Fitzegerald,’ he called out, ‘if you or anyone else is in there make a sound.’
We waited. Nothing happened. Takeshi shrugged.
‘Either too tied up to be able to respond or no one is home.’
‘Van looks like it’s registered,’ I said and made a phone call to registry.
I was soon back on the line with the same officer that got me Stanley’s father’s phone number. Swallowing my pride I said ‘Thank you so much for your help before, the information I got from the father is instrumental in our investigation.’
‘Stop,’ she said ‘what is it you want Johnson?’
It was still the sound of someone who hated but I detected a hint of grudging tolerance.
‘We’ve got a van here with our missing persons mobile in it, I was hoping you could run the plates,’ I said in a meek humble way.
‘Missing person? I thought you’re running a murder investigation.’
‘We are, there’s also a person missing who we really want to find.’
‘Come on share the details,’ she said clearly detecting that I was trying a new tactic with her and seeing if she could milk it for all it’s worth, ‘I have to live vicariously through whatever I hear from you detectives ever since they dumped me here.’
I filled her in figuring this was how Takeshi got such a good rapport with her.
‘Sounds exciting,’ she said, ‘right I’ll check it out, just read it out to me and I’ll put you on hold.’
I gave her the number plate details. Being put on hold meant her putting the receiver next to the radio. I couldn’t help but notice that she’d changed the radio station from what sounded like it could be Triple J or Triple M to the buzzing high pitched squeals of pop music on B105. Clearly I hadn’t quite won her over. I was four songs in before she picked the phone up again.
‘Got it,’ she said, ‘registered to a John Edwards.’
She gave me some contact details and a home address.
I thanked her and filled Takeshi in.
‘That explains why no one around here knows whose it is,’ he replied, John Edwards lived on the other side of town.
I hesitated, ‘we’ve got to stack out this van.’
‘Agreed,’ said Takeshi, ‘we’d better get out of sight though. We don’t want to scare off the owner.’
We headed back to the car, it was purely by chance that we’d managed to get a park close enough for us to keep an eye on the van but far enough that we weren’t too obvious. Takeshi had tinted the windows of his car so that people would have to really look to notice us. As we sat down I asked, ‘Should I contact John Edwards?’
‘Tricky question,’ replied Takeshi, ‘we don’t want to alert them to our presence.’
‘I could just ring and not give away who we are,’ I suggested.
‘Yeah, worth a try.’
I typed in the number noticing that it was a home number rather than a mobile.
The phone rang a few times until a woman answered the phone.
‘Hello, this is Johnson from the Yoshida Company, is this the residence of John Edwards?’ I asked in my best impersonation of customer service.
The question was followed by silence. The only way I knew the phone hadn’t cut out was because I could faintly hear breathing on the other end.
‘Are you telemarketers?’ she asked in a voice full of disdain.
‘No, no, John Edwards recently applied for a job with us and gave you as a reference.’
A longer silence followed.
‘You have been in contact with my son?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I lied, ‘we spoke to him the other day.’
‘You are in contact with him now?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I lied again beginning to have a bad feeling about my deceit.
‘Tell him his mother loves him and will accept him no matter what has happened.’
That gave me pause. What had I stepped into. I covered the receiver.
‘Shit,’ I whispered to Yoshida, ‘it’s the mum, sounds like he ran away from home.’
‘Come clean,’ he said immediately.
‘Shit,’ I whispered.
While putting the phone on speaker I used my regular voice to say, ‘Hello Ms Edwards, sorry about actually this is detective Johnson from the police department, I apologise for the deceit. We are currently on a case which I didn’t want to jeopardise. You said you haven’t seen him?’
‘What?’ she yelled, ‘have you seen my son or not! Are you in contact with him?’
‘No, I’m terribly sorry about that, I wasn’t aware of the situation.’
‘Not aware?’ she asked, ‘my Johnny was a missing persons case just four years ago and you say you don’t know the situation?’
‘Wait, he’s been missing for four years?’ I asked.
‘Not officially,’ she spat, ‘officially he is absent of his own volition.’
‘Sorry, I am not following you. He isn’t missing?’
She let out an audible sigh, ‘is there a reason why I shouldn’t just hang up on you right now?’
‘Yes, there is,’ I said desperately, ‘we rang because a van belonging to your son is currently a key part of our investigation.’
‘His van?’ she asked, ‘then you have found him?’
‘Not him,’ I said, ‘just the van.’
‘Where?’ she asked.
‘In West End,’ I replied, ‘am I right in guessing you haven’t seen him for four years?’
‘You’d be correct,’ she whimpered her anger dissipating somewhat, ‘he left a note. I’ve memorised it you know. Read it so many times trying to figure out what it meant.’
‘Could you tell me what the note said?’ I asked.
’To my dear family,
I’m sorry I haven’t contacted you. I was going through a difficult period in my life. Don’t worry though I have found a place for me to belong free of danger or persecution. While I will be always thankful to you for bringing me into this world I cannot bring you into mine. I fear I will never be accepted anywhere except where I am now, even by you my beloved parents.
I am happy where I am and have been given purpose.
‘Sounds like a cult,’ said Takeshi breaking his silence in the conversation.
‘Who was that?’ she asked.
‘That’s my partner, detective Yoshida.’
She sighed, ‘I’ve reached much the same conclusion myself, it just doesn’t make sense. He’s always been a regular, normal boy. Never inclined toward church or religion. I never heard him question the reason for our existence. He did get really into the hymns on Sundays but I think that’s because it was the only interesting part of going to church for him.’ she responded.
I rubbed the stubble on my face thinking about the words in the letter. There was something strange about the message.
‘He said he will never be accepted,’ I queried, ‘even by you.’
‘I know as much as you do in that regard,’ she replied, ‘I’ve been going over and over in my mind trying to figure out what he could mean. The only thing I could think was that he may have gotten into some hard drugs and couldn’t control his life but I’m sure I would have seen the signs.’
‘And you haven’t seen him since?’
‘No, he was true to his word. I have no idea how to contact him, where he lives or if he is even alive. Your call about his van is the first suggestion I’ve had all this time that he’s actually alive.’
Yoshida pulled out his notebook and pen.
‘Ms, this is Detective Yoshida can you repeat that note for us slowly?’ he requested.
He jotted it down as she repeated the note.
‘Did he live with you when he went missing?’
‘I’ve said all this before,’ she complained, ‘he moved out only a few months before he disappeared.’
‘Do you know the address?’
‘Um, I’ll just have to check the exact address. I could drive there right now I’ve been there so many times to try and get answers from those losers he lived with.’
‘They still live there?’
‘One of them does,’ the share house is a carousel of worthless scum.’
We could hear some rustling of papers and drawers being opened.
‘Here is it,’ she said ‘14 Norwell St, Cannon Hill.’
‘Thank you for your time,’ I said more puzzled now then when I had first rung.
‘If you do see him, tell him I love him, that I want him to come home regardless of what’s happened.’
‘I will,’ I said although I wasn’t sure if I could uphold that promise.
Yoshida looked at the note he’d scrawled down as if he were looking at a particularly difficult Sudoku puzzle. He wound down the window and pulled out a rollie.
‘Please don’t,’ I begged, grabbing his hand before he lit it. ‘the smell is bad enough already.’
He looked at me and relented.
‘What should we do?’ I asked.
‘We can’t leave the van just in case they go on the move.’
‘Can we get some grunts out here?’
‘That’s a possibility but we really need to be on the spot to make the decisions.’
‘You’re right,’ I said, ‘split up?’
‘You don’t have your car,’ he argued.
‘I’ll get a taxi,’ I replied.
‘I’ll call if anything happens, come back ASAP.’
I nodded my head.
The address took me to one of the many share houses scattered around Brisbane. The house itself looked like it would have once been a nice place. It was clear though the current residents didn’t care much about house maintenance. The place wasn’t in disrepair so much as it looked like a dump. Several cars were parked on the front lawn in a haphazard way. There was some attempt at gardening with a range of cactuses planted in pots scattered around the front door which was wide open. I gave the open door a resounding thump. The cars in the yard suggested there should be someone home. Moments later a man taller than either of us hulked towards us. He had longish unkempt black hair.
‘Detective Johnson,’ I said.
The man looked like he was holding his breath wondering what we were about to say. His eyes were practically bulging in fear. His fingers were twitching and he stepped from foot to foot as if he needed to go to the toilet.
‘I’m here about John Edwards,’ I said. The man immediately exhaled and relaxed his bod. Being a cop meant you were constantly aware of how guilty everyone was. It was the fundamental problem with our legal system. Too much of the population were put into the position of law breakers when they considered themselves good people. It led to a society that resented the police. Where people purposely obstructed the police because they figured that the policeman was about to punish a decent person. A nation whose preferred word for policeman was pig. There was a good chance he was guilty of nothing more than smoking a bong. The place certainly smelt of it.
‘John?’ he asked, ‘he in trouble?’
‘He could be,’ I replied, ‘have you seen him recently?’
‘Nah,’ he replied, ‘haven’t heard from him since he and another one of our flatmates shot through, didn’t even pay rent that month.’
‘Did you phone the police?’ I asked stunned at the flippant disregard for their friend’s safety. The man barked a laugh so loud that it made me jump.
‘Why?’ he asked once he finished laughing.
‘To find him,’ I replied, ‘were you worried they’d bust you for possession if they came over?’
‘Nah,’ replied the man a little too quickly, ‘nothing like that, the police just aren’t good at that kind of thing, you report someone missing and they say come back in a fortnight. Happened to us with one of our other flatmates.’
‘A fortnights a bit steep, isn’t it usually 48 hours.’
‘Sounds nice,’ said the man, ‘after about three weeks the police did come round to ask some questions.’
‘I thought you said you didn’t go to them,’ I stated checking his story.
‘Yeah, we didn’t, his parents did, but they couldn’t find any hints of where they had gone. Then a couple of days later both rooms were cleaned out without a word,’ he laughed at the memory of it and must of forgotten who he was talking too, ‘man we thought we were tripping so hard. The whole household was trying to figure out what happened, we even rang the parents. That’s when we found out that something similar had happened at their place. That’s not even the best bit,’ he added pausing for suspense, ‘he left a note with his parents saying that and partner couldn’t handle the pressure and had eloped.’ He laughed at the end of his tale mentioning that none of them thought the two swung that way.
It certainly didn’t sound like the same note I had heard.
‘And you haven’t heard from them since?’ I asked.
‘Nothing,’ he replied.
‘Well we found a van nearby that’s registered to him,’ I pulled out my phone and was immediately frustrated at how long it took to get the picture I’d taken earlier up.
The ex-flatmate shrugged his shoulders, ‘looks right.’
‘But you haven’t seen him.’
‘Nah man, I keep on telling you, we haven’t seen him since the day he left.’
‘Anything strange happen that day?’ I asked.
‘Strange?’ repeated the man.
‘Agonising screams of pain?’ I added.
‘That’s very specific,’ he replied taking a step back, ‘what happened?’
‘Murder case,’ I said briefly, ‘the victim was found after a noise complaint was made.’
‘I wasn’t around that day actually,’ he said he turned over his shoulder, ‘hey Lizzy.’
‘Yeah!’ came a shouted someone I presumed was Lizzy.
’Do you remember hearing any screams when John disappeared?
‘Screams?’ she shouted back, ‘I thought I heard something in the morning but I figured he was having sex. Especially after I heard about that note.’
The man in front of us giggled at the word. I decided to leave assuming we already had everything we needed to know. The information was worrying. It sounded like the case was linked. There were now three missing persons. The detail about cleaning out the room was troubling too. On the surface it all appeared voluntary but something didn’t add up. I headed back to the taxi I had stick around.
I originally had the Taxi heading back to the van but the news I’d learnt was bothering me. Four years ago something similar had happened. That meant it wasn’t unreasonable to assume there were other cases. I told the driver to take me to Roma Street station instead. Takeshi would ring if he needed me.
At the station, I went down to the archives to dig up all the missing persons cases I could get my hands with details similar to John Edwards’ story. The archivist typed my preferences into the databank. He gave out a whistle when he saw the results.
‘And you want all of these?’
‘How many?’ I asked.
‘Two hundred and forty seven results,’ he replied.
‘That can’t be right,’ I replied stunned at the result, ‘how far back does it go?’
‘The oldest one recorded is about five years back over in Saint Lucia,’ he said peering at the screen over his reading glasses, ‘actually there’s a lot of them in that area,’ he added
‘All the cases were dismissed, saying the person had left voluntarily.’
‘No one did any further investigation?’
‘A letter saying they were fine and a cleaned out room, case closed. Nothing illegal about being a cult,’ he said shrugging his shoulders, he peered back at his results, ‘hang on, one a few it says there was an investigation into it but the officers involved didn’t find the cult.’
‘Didn’t find it?’
‘Probably not in the greater Brisbane area,’ he replied.
‘Any patterns?’ I asked.
‘Most of the cases seemed to be people between the age of twenty and thirty five of both genders,’ he said, ‘in one case an entire share house full of people disappeared.’
‘This is bad,’ I said.
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Nothing voluntary about this,’ I replied.
‘What makes you say that?’
‘Everything about it,’ I said.
‘Fine, if you don’t want to use me as a sounding board,’ he responded sarcastically.
‘Sorry mate, I’ve got my partner for that.’
It was time to check in with him. See how the van was going. This time since I was only going into West End I caught the bus and walked. It was better for my spirit anyway and gave me time to think. A cult explained a few things but not a lot. Were Daniel and Stan cult members? Was Daniel an example? Maybe that’s what they did to people who tried to run from the cult. It was as good a guess as any at the moment. The series of events seemed out of order. Disappear, then after a few weeks clean out all your possessions, and leave a note basically saying you’ve joined a cult. They shouldn’t just disappear like that. There should have been some signs first. The more I thought about it the situation the clearer it became that we had to find Stan.