The Man in Black
‘A Katoomba cliffhanger.’ - Rosalie Ham
Katoomba is divided when a petty thief accuses a kindly priest of abusing him years ago. Detective Paul Ruel starts to dig into the foggy past.
Then someone dies.
Bella Greaves, editor of the local newspaper, is broke and saving desperately for her retirement. When her overbearing boss demands she run a story that could compromise the police investigation, she faces a moral dilemma.
Free shipping in Australia.
The Bella Greaves crime novels are written, set and sold only in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. They are local produce, sold by these wonderful local merchants, in what must be the book-loving capital of Australia.
- Springwood: The Turning Page
- Faulconbridge: Chapters and Leaves
- Lawson: Rosey Ravelston
- Wentworth Falls: Good Earth Bookshop
- Leura: Everglades
- Megalong Books
- Katoomba: The Little Lost Bookshop
- Blackheath: Gleebooks
- Mount Victoria: Mount Vic and Me
Read First Chapter
Read First Chapter
Here is the first chapter of The Man in Black, my new Bella Greaves crime novel set in the Blue Mountains. To be published in October 2023. I feel it’s the best yet - hope you enjoy it.
The figure came out of the night and was hard to see at first, clothed in darkness like the land itself. A tall thin man, approaching steadily along the empty road between the hotel and the railway line. With the harsh, white lights, Paul Ruel thought it looked like a scene from one of those old crime films.
‘Father Brian Kelly,’ said Bella Greaves. ‘Kind of film noir.’
They were standing outside the Hydro Majestic, in the middle of the Great Western Highway, although it was not so great at this point. There was only one lane in each direction, separated by some white lines. If Paul stood on them he could feel the thick paint through the soles of his shoes, along with the cold from the roadway. He’d found himself stepping on and off them in the past few minutes, for the interest.
Usually you could not have done this without being run down, even at midnight on a Sunday, but a truck and a car had collided on one of the tight bends north of Medlow Bath. The road across the Blue Mountains was blocked: Sydney was isolated from the Interior, and Paul had been called out for traffic duty. In an emergency up here, even Katoomba’s senior detective had to pitch in.
It was midnight in late April, and the autumn weather had finally arrived, with the temperature close to zero and an exploratory wind. Fortunately, he told himself for about the tenth time, it wasn’t raining. In the past year it had rained most of the time.
There was a police car at the roadblock a few hundred metres away, outside the service station. That was where the man of God was coming from, with a slight roll like a sailor finding his land legs. Only a few vehicles were queued beyond the roadblock: most drivers, given the choice between a three-hour detour and a wait here that might stretch until morning, had chosen the alternative route to the north.
Bella was editor of the local newspaper and had turned up an hour ago. In her late fifties, she was wearing a multi-coloured woolen jacket and a scarf the colours of dead leaves. When she prepared to write in her notebook, she put on reading glasses that made her look like a schoolteacher from the past. The Mountains had a lot of people like this, but Paul had little to do with them. Most were retired, and not criminally inclined.
‘You don’t normally cover traffic accidents,’ he’d observed.
‘Couldn’t sleep,’ she murmured.
Bella’s paper had a firm policy of sticking to local news, and its readers tended to regard the highway as something separate, an irritation that cut their towns in half and was clogged with vehicles hurtling to and from other places. It was part of them, of course, but they wished it wasn’t.
Still, this was a particularly tragic accident. The car, travelling from west of the Mountains, had contained a mother and her two small children: the three-year old had been killed, and the woman taken to hospital in a bad way. And as it happened, the truck driver, still trapped in his cab, was local.
‘Do we know what happened?’ she asked.
‘The woman, Melisse Chen, says Liam was coming towards her and swerved across the centre line and clipped her car. Liam’s unconscious.’ He shrugged. ‘They’ll be blood-tested, the car’s been taken to Sydney for examination. No witnesses, so far as we know.’ He sighed. ‘Melisse was coming from a woman’s refuge in Cowra.’
They both knew Liam Tarrant, and Bella asked, ‘Should he have been driving?’
Tarrant was a drug user and persistent minor criminal, in his late thirties. When Paul had arrived in Katoomba last year he’d inherited him as a paid informant, soon terminating the arrangement when Tarrant proved useless, even by the low standards of that occupation.
‘He has a valid license,’ Paul said. ‘It surprised me too.’
‘I’d better go have a look,’ Bella had said, putting her notebook in her bag.
‘No,’ he replied, realising his cheeks were numb.
‘It’s children, Bella. They won’t want you down there.’
It was one of the reasons he still held great respect for uniformed officers, even though it was a long time since he’d worn the blue. On the roads, and in house fires, uniforms saw things worse than many murders. Other people – most people – had no idea.
‘But you said the family have been taken away.’
He shook his head. ‘Our people and the others, they’re still upset. Anyway, I haven’t been down there myself. You don’t want to.’
Bella nodded; she was smart and empathetic. Also talkative, but not tonight. They stood silently in the cold, gaining a little emotional warmth from each other’s presence, but not much.
Finally the priest drew close.
‘New at St Canice’s?’ Paul asked Bella.
So far as he knew, Katoomba had only one Catholic priest, an Indian named Michael Joji.
‘Brian lives in his own place.’
The priest reached them and stopped. His face was long and heavily lined; he must have been in his late seventies, at least, surely too old to be attending road accidents at this time of a cold night. His expression was severe and he stood straight, despite his rolling gait: looking down, Paul saw a curved piece of dark metal where a left foot should be.
‘Father Brian Kelly,’ the man snapped, like a soldier reporting for duty. His voice and handshake were firm but perfunctory. ‘I saw that poor woman at the hospital. I believe this Tarrant might be charged with manslaughter?’
He might indeed. ‘Good of you to come to see him,’ Paul said.
‘The boss had a thing for sinners,’ Kelly responded, his voice softening.
Not for killers, though, so far as Paul could recall, although it was still hard to think of Liam Tarrant like that. He’d always been weak rather than violent.
Kelly asked, ‘You’ll do the investigation?’
‘We’ll see,’ Paul said, wondering why Kelly was interested.
‘Melisse says Liam crossed the line.’
‘She’s still conscious?’
‘The poor thing kept saying, “He just came into our lane.” People like that …’
The priest shook his head and twisted around, then set off towards the bridge. For a man his age, he had a lot of energy.
‘It’s okay for him to visit the accident?’ Bella asked, with a hint of asperity.
‘For the emergency workers,’ Paul explained; she was not normally querulous, or obtuse. ‘There’s a difference between a journalist and a priest.’
The wind picked up, working its way between the buildings that comprised the hotel, and they both turned their backs to it. Paul asked if she knew anything else about Father Kelly, and Bella explained that he’d forsaken his parish in the lower Mountains some thirty years earlier, to go work in an AIDS orphanage in South Africa. It had been in a remote and dangerous part of the country, and he’d lost his leg during an attack by a criminal gang. But he’d stayed, and might be there still, except his sister in Katoomba had been diagnosed with cancer and he’d come back to nurse her. She’d died last year and he was still in her house.
‘Won’t he have to sell it?’ Paul asked.
Bella shrugged; like Paul, she was not a Catholic. ‘Brian’s kind of retired.’ Her voice had regained some of its usual warmth. ‘I don’t think he’s interested in normal parish work. Spends a lot of time at night walking around the lookouts, looking for lost souls, people who might be going to jump.’
‘Does he save many?’ Paul asked with interest; the Mountains had an unfortunate appeal for people intent on self-harm.
Bella looked at the dark sky while she considered her answer. She was observant about people: it was one of the reasons Paul had been drawn to her when he came to Katoomba last year.
‘Al’s adult daughter was here in January,’ she said at last, ‘not doing too well.’ Al Masur was a mutual friend, currently overseas. ‘She had a good talk with Brian one night, down near Echo Point. I’m not saying she would have killed herself, but apparently he helped.’ Paul nodded; he’d heard of kind-hearted people doing the same thing at The Gap in Sydney.
‘I think he saw some terrible things in Africa,’ Bella said, ‘has trouble sleeping at night. I like him very much. Not your typical priest.’
Paul wondered if there were enough priests anymore to say what was typical. ‘He seemed interested in police procedures.’
‘He’s curious,’ Bella said slowly. ‘I think he saw a lot of crime in Africa. He can be terse, almost rude. I sometimes wonder if he has an illness. But he cares about people.’ She cleared her throat. ‘I give him lifts, he doesn’t drive.’
‘You mean at night?’ Paul said incredulously. ‘To the lookouts?’
‘And back. There’s a group of us, Kelly’s Angels.’
‘He’s old school.’
It didn’t sound like Bella. She was kind, but severe: not the sort to put herself out for a man, let alone a priest. He waited for more, but she grew silent and looked away. The wind from the south-west strengthened, blowing against the two waiting figures. It was bitter, but neither of them took it to heart. You wouldn’t last in the Mountains if you took the weather personally.
Paul had been a leading homicide investigator in Sydney, exiled to Katoomba in disgrace at the beginning of last year. At first he’d found the Mountains alien. But these past few months, as he began his second year and the cycle of seasons started once more, he found himself slipping into them. It was as though he were adapting to the climate, not just physically. And not just the climate. Some sort of offer was being made by the country, surprisingly welcome, although its terms were still indistinct.
It was something to do with the landscape, the enormous valleys that surrounded the towns, oceans of air. Increasingly he found himself watching people – hikers and climbers – who entered the wilderness with intent. There might be something here for him, although he still hadn’t worked out precisely what.
Presently an ambulance appeared from the crash site and stopped next to them. Father Kelly got out, with some difficulty, and shut the door. He banged on the side and the vehicle headed in the direction of Katoomba.
‘Driver’s still trapped and unconscious,’ Kelly announced, ‘they wouldn’t let me near him.’ Then to Bella: ‘Can we go now, back to Echo Point?’
Without waiting for a reply, he walked off, towards the roadblock; possibly matters of life and death had become routine to him, over the years. Bella, after an apologetic shrug to Paul, followed him down the road.
Paul wondered some more why Bella had come out at all. They were almost friends: he owed her a lot for the help she’d given him professionally. So far he’d repaid this shabbily, with a few actions that threatened both their futures. And now there was this strange friendship with a priest: it made him uneasy when his friends stepped out of character. He stamped his feet and – not one for fruitless thoughts - put in his earplugs and listened to ‘Goin’ to Chicago’, Jimmy Rushing’s version with Count Basie. He was listening to more jazz songs these days: they’d been made at the same time as most of the Mountains’ buildings.
As he tapped his foot, he wondered idly who had brought the priest here, and why he hadn’t gone back to town in the ambulance. Maybe the lifts from his regular helpers were his way of being with people, or at least reminders of a respect for the clergy that had now passed. He turned to look at Bella and the man in black, but they’d disappeared: the wind had died and there was mist over the road.
When the song finished, Paul moved on to Jimmy Witherspoon’s version. Just after the second verse, another figure appeared from the direction of the roadblock. It was his assistant, Detective Constable John Harvey, early thirties but looking older, stocky and balding. It was a long time since Paul had seen anyone wearing a grey plastic raincoat.
When Harvey reached Paul, he stopped and gazed around, as though there might be something deeply significant in their immediate surroundings. Recently Paul had been showing him how to survey crime scenes, and Harvey had taken some of this on board. The problem was that he applied it indiscriminately. Paul removed his earplugs and waited: one of the things the Mountains were teaching him was patience.
When Harvey had finished his inspection of the long white hotel, he looked at the sky, and Paul hoped each of the stars in the Milky Way was not about to be inspected. After half a minute, Harvey rubbed the back of his neck and said, as though continuing a conversation, ‘Got woken by this thumping on the roof. Saw your missed calls on the phone.’
‘Possums?’ Harvey nodded. ‘Bit late.’
‘To answer your phone.’
Harvey looked pained, as always when criticized, although the effects must have been transitory because it never affected his behaviour.
‘Sheila normally wakes me. She’s away at a conference, some –‘
Paul waved a hand up and down in front of Harvey’s face: when his assistant got going, mere words were not enough to catch his attention. Finally he stopped, and Paul told him about the accident. Harvey’s eyes glazed, his habitual reaction to information, and he tried to interrupt with questions. Paul ignored this, knowing it was simply a ruse to slow things down, to a point at which all thought would cease. All action too.
‘And now,’ Paul said, reaching the end of his explanation, and his instructions, ‘I’m going home.’
Suddenly he felt tired.
‘What about me?’ Harvey said with panic. ‘What am I supposed to do?’
Paul knew if he repeated what he’d just said, it would make no difference. Fortunately, the potential for disaster over the next few hours was small.
‘Watch and wait, mate,’ he said.
Paul walked down the road. Behind him, Harvey was muttering to himself, and then made a few noises like a small animal in trouble. Presently the sounds faded into the night.