From the author: For a while I worked as a journalist for a suburban newspaper. "Keep It Short" was inspired by that job, though, of course, the characters are pure fiction... well, maybe impure fiction. I was trying for a kind of sardonic realism, and in subsequent stories featuring the main character, the push of the stories became more crime-related, weirder and more fictitious. I'm now working on a novel set in this milieu.
By Thursday Lewis Burke’s typewriter ribbon had become so faded the editor flicked back his copy-paper like a large ball of snot.
“How do you expect me to read that stuff, Lew?” he mumbled, apparently to his empty coffee mug. “The bloody paper’s got more pigment in it than the ink has.”
“Ribbon’s RS, Jack.”
“Then get a new one.”
The new ones in the supply cupboard didn’t fit his typewriter. As far as he could tell they didn’t fit anybody else’s either.
“Why on earth have we only got ribbons that don’t fit anybody’s typewriter?” he complained to the front-desk secretary, who was in charge of stationery supplies.
“What did you say?” The secretary glared at him with barely contained ferocity.
“Go and buy one that does fit . . . and stop harassing me!”
He took the money out of petty cash and walked down the street to the stationers. They only had ribbons that didn’t fit his typewriter.
“I’ve tracked down the local source,” he told Jack, when he got back to his desk, “I’m on the trail of the main supplier now.”
“Have you re-written that bloody press release from Miracle Homes yet?” the editor said.
“It’s a waste of time, Jack. I’m on to the big one here.”
“A monopolist syndicate flooding the market with non-viable typewriter ribbons.”
Jack’s composure collapsed under the weight of some dark inner torment. He said nothing. Instead he wandered desolately back to his cubicle and got out a new packet of cigarettes.
Lewis fetched one of the ribbons that didn’t fit, which he wound onto his typewriter spool by hand.
The morning speeded up. Lewis re-wrote the Miracle Homes press release, surreptitiously changed a picture caption from ‘100-year-old Arthur Roots and several of the nursing staff’ to ‘100-year-old Arthur Roots with several of the nursing staff’, rang fifteen numbers to get one set of volleyball scores from over the weekend, and talked to the Mayor’s secretary for half an hour, hoping she’d say something controversial on garbage collection.
Cynthia Joyce-Carruthers, also on the editorial staff, came in at 11am and pinched his mid-morning finger-bun.
“Where have you been?” Lewis said, “You missed a big story. Drug bust in the Mayor’s office.”
“Who gave you that one?”
“A cleaner. Found a pouch of speed in the Mayor’s desk. Used.”
Cynthia’s eyes widened disturbingly.
“This is it, Lewis,” she yelled, leaping onto his desk. “We can throttle the bastard now. Let’s really do him — and stuff the libel suits. Yaaahooo! The last round-up in the old mayoral corral. The revolution’s on!”
She leapt off the desk into a samurai fighting stance.
“I was just kidding,” said Lewis.
She stopped all movement and gazed at him seriously.
“So was I.”
She swept old papers, scraps of copy and scribbled-on press releases off her desk. They fell in a flowery cascade toward the over-full waste paper basket.
“What gave me away?” said Lewis.
“Improbability factor. If the Mayor was on speed he wouldn’t go to sleep in Council meetings so often.”
Trelawny Samms turned up by noon with huge bags under her eyes and a particularly nasty scowl on her face. At first, Lewis didn’t dare speak to her at all. Later he tried his line about 100-year-old Arthur Roots, but Trelawny’s lip began edging back over her teeth before he’d finished the sentence and he gave up.
“Where’s that Miracle Homes thing?” Jack yelled.
Lewis picked up the few scraps of copy-paper lying on his desk and ran them through to Jack.
“I’ve finished. No need to shout,” he said mildly.
Jack’s arm reached from a cloud of smoke, grabbed the re-write and dropped it on to the mess of paper and layouts in front of him.
“Three hours to do one editorial re-write,” he said, fixing Lewis with a red-eyed stare. “We’ve got a paper to get out by next week, you know, Burke. How about some stories?”
“I’ve got one about a street in North Ward that missed out on a garbage pick-up three times running. The residents reckon it stinks.”
The editor was silent.
“I’ll keep it short,” said Lewis, backing away with an uneasy grin. He didn’t like it when Jack’s left eyebrow began to twitch.
“I heard on the radio there was a murder at Baker’s Creek,” said Trelawny. She was typing something as she said it, not watching him, but Lewis frowned at her anyway.
“You cover it,” he said.
“I’m too busy. I’m the A-grade around here, Lew-baby.” She bashed at the typewriter keys in a manner that made Lewis think of a mugging. “Anyway, the police aren’t talking to me. Not since I wrote that piece on the chief inspector’s private bank account.”
Lewis looked at Cynthia.
“I’m doing What’s On,” she said.
“About 18 pars and a nice sensationalistic picture,” yelled Jack from his office. “Do it, Lewis!”
One of the worst things about going out to cover stories was driving around with the staff photographer. He was a middle-aged alcoholic named Dave, who always looked like you’d pissed on his foot when you asked him to take a picture.
“What? Now, boy?”
“Uh-huh,” muttered Lewis contritely.
“At 12 o’clock?”
“Jack wants a picture.”
“Bloody hell! Do you people think I’ve got nothing better to do than traipse all over the bloody countryside?”
On the road, he drove like a maniac, never watching the traffic except to scream “Bloody woman driver!” to everyone of whatever sex who came anywhere near him. In between times he talked incessantly about his days on the Herald, mentioning the Tribune as though he’d accidentally bitten into a cockroach.
“This local shit-stuff gives me the creepin’ willies, boy.”
“Never get a chance to take any decent pictures. Bloody ad reps! Screw me around all the flamin’ time!”
“Buggers, they are! Would’ve given ‘em somethin’ in the arse to be snooty about in the old days.”
“Should go back to freelancin’. Just take the pics I want to take. Only good stuff. I’d show those bastards!”
Baker’s Creek was a welcome sight, though there was of course no creek. Dave had been about to launch into a discussion of his time as an army photographer during the War when the flat, manicured lawns, precise development guttering and treeless kit-home splendour of Greendale Crescent came into view. Greendale Crescent was where Mr James Hovis, a small-time real-estate valuer from Marrickville, had met his end — shot once in the back and three times through the base of his skull.
The street was deserted.
“Where’d the poor bugger get drilled?” asked Dave.
“Back of the head,” said Lewis.
“Whereabouts in the street!”
“Oh. I don’t know. The cops wouldn’t say.”
He got out of the car, walked around a bit, looking for some hint about what to do next. The sun was very hot.
There were some people sitting in a yard behind a fence a few houses down. They appeared to be drinking.
“They might know something,” he said, though Dave had settled into the car seat to sleep and wasn’t listening. “I’ll wander over and do some investigative reporting, eh?”
There were six people behind the fence. They looked up in unison as Lewis approached, his note-pad ostentatiously held forward to announce his journalistic intentions. Six people: four men and two women. And a dog. They all watched him, even the dog.
The men were wearing singlets, shorts and thongs — old ones — and the women were in toweling dresses. Beer cans bobbed about everywhere.
“Hello,” said Lewis.
“What ya want, sport?” growled one of the men — the one with the dog under his feet — though he barely moved his lips when he spoke and at first Lewis thought maybe it was the dog talking.
“I’m a reporter.”
“What can we do for ya, mate?”
Lewis explained about the murder. He was searching his mind for an in-depth question to follow up with when one of the women interrupted.
“I heard it.” She scraped a fingernail across her kneecap to form red welts.
“About one o’clock last night. I was in bed, see, and I hear this noise. Like bungers. Joe here wouldn’t get outa bed, so’s I went meself. Saw a car do a U-turn and roar off down toward the railway. Reckon it was them killers. Didn’t have no lights on.”
“Wow!’ Lewis scribbled in his pad. “What sort of car was it?”
“Dunno really. Commodore maybe. White or yellow.” She paused. “Maybe black.”
They all started talking at him then, like his yowling cats at tea-time. The murder was done in front of the red-brick house near the corner. The dead fella had been driving a Mercedes, which was still locked when the cops arrived. He had the keys in his hand, as he lay there, face down and dead. Maybe the guy had been visiting someone in the street. Maybe he’d come out to Baker’s Creek to meet someone secretly, probably the guys that wasted him. “I reckon it was some sort of pay-off,” said a man with a reddish moustache and a reddish belly that was peeking out from under his singlet. “Na. Drugs,” the dog-man mumbled. They also told Lewis the guy had been shot five times, not four: once in the back as he was running away, four times in the head from close up, probably while he was lying on the road bleeding. “Walther P-5 9mm semi-automatic,” the dog-man said.
“Really?” Lewis frowned at him. “How do you know?”
The man shrugged.
After they’d refused to give him their names — people usually refused to give Lewis their names, though the dog-man said the dog was called Ripper — Lewis walked down to where they’d said the shooting had taken place. There was a big stain, like transmission oil, getting darker as it baked under the hot sun. It was easy to see where the body had been. Fading chalk marks were on the tar.
“Want me to get a picture of those lot?” Dave came up behind Lewis, flicking his nicotine-coated thumb in the direction of the beer-drinkers. Lewis glanced back at them. They were staring at him casually.
“No. They said no.”
“Couldn’t talk them into it, eh?”
“Just take a picture of the blood stain. It’ll do.”
Dave grunted, as though to say “. . . if you’re a hick.”
As a final attempt to find out a bit more, Lewis trudged over to the front door of the house facing the scene of the crime. Maybe the dead man had been a friend of whoever lived there. He knocked.
Nothing. He knocked again.
When the door squeaked open, Lewis squinted through the wirescreen at a shadowy shape lurking there. It was a young woman wearing a dishevelled dressing-gown.
“Yeah?” she said.
“Um, sorry for disturbing you. I’m from the local paper. I was wondering—”
“I don’t know anything, didn’t see anything or hear anything . . . I told the police already.”
“Yes, but I was wondering if I could—”
The wirescreen door shook violently. Lewis jumped back, stumbling on the stairs. A man who’d suddenly appeared from the hallway was pounding on the door frame. He was wearing only a towel wrapped around his waist.
“Get lost, Buster!” he growled.
The man turned to the woman. “Don’t talk to reporters, okay?”
“And you,” The man glared at Lewis. “You can just piss off.”
The door slammed.
“Told you this whole thing’d be a waste of time.” Dave was standing about a metre from him, in the yard near a rose bush. He twisted a bud off and flicked it away.
“Did you take the picture?”
“Sure. Won’t come out as much in the paper. Just shit.”
Lewis felt like belting him, but was afraid the large photographer would break his arm.
“Let’s go!’ he muttered instead.
On the way out of Baker’s Creek they passed a cream-coloured Commodore going in the other direction. Lewis watched as it passed them, smiling at the glamorous woman behind the steering wheel. She glanced his way suspiciously. If this were a Philip Marlowe story I’d follow her and it’d turn out she was the killer, he thought.
“Turn the car!” he screamed at Dave.
“Follow that Commodore! I can smell a big story.”
“Bugger off! What’d ya think I am? Stupid?”
“Turn or I’ll smash your face in, sunshine!”
Dave glared at him, nearly ran into a traffic island, then screeched to a halt, causing a Sigma behind them to veer away, horn blaring.
Lewis grinned, his bottom lip trembling.
“It was just a joke,” he said.
Dave’s eyes went cloudy, as though he were searching his inner self for some trace of a long-lost sense-of-humour. Then he spat through the window and kept driving.
Lewis breathed deeply and thankfully, and began wondering what the hell he was going to write. A bit of vague eye-witness stuff from an unidentified neighbour, that’s all. Still, it was something.
“Well?” Jack’s voice came wafting out of the smoky cubicle as Lewis entered the Tribune’s editorial office.
“Did you get a story?”
“Talked to some neighbours who heard it and saw what might’ve been the get-away car. The police gave me some information. I can write it up.” Out of the corner of his eye Lewis saw Trelawny smirking at him. The editor sighed.
“Who did it?”
“They haven’t a clue.”
“What was the motive?”
“A neighbour reckoned—”
“What’d the police say?”
“Nothing. They said he was a nobody. Well-liked. No vices.”
Jack was silent for a moment.
“He sold houses,” Lewis added, just in case.
“Not much space left,” the editor said, going back to his copy. “Keep it short.”
Later that afternoon as he was writing the story his typewriter jammed when the ribbon wrapped itself around the carriage. He spent the rest of that day and the following trying to get the machine working again.
On Friday afternoon, the company announced the newspaper chain would be going over to computers by September and typewriters would therefore be redundant.
“No point in fixing yours,” said the general manager to Lewis. “You can use Trelawny’s or Cynthia’s. Take it in turns. Just work it out between yourselves.”
Lewis understood by this that the monopolist syndicate he’d been investigating — the one disseminating useless typewriter ribbons — had scored another victory.
But he decided to say nothing about it.
He came in early on Monday and wrote the story of Mr James Hovis’ midnight death on Trelawny’s typewriter before she got there at ten. No one rang up with volleyball scores, so Lewis filled up one of the sport pages with real-estate press releases.
When the paper came out on Wednesday, Lewis’ murder story had been dropped. Jack had had to find space for a display ad which came in at the last minute.
“Old news anyway,” he grumbled at Lewis.
This story originally appeared in Southerly (December 1988).