Authors: Robert Gott
Tags: #FIC050000, #FIC014000
THE SERPENT'S STING
Robert Gott was born in the Queensland town of Maryborough in 1957, and lives in Melbourne. He has published many books for children, and is the creator of the newspaper cartoon
The Adventures of Naked Man
. He is also the author of
The Holiday Murders
and its sequel,
The Port Fairy Murders
. This novel is the fourth in the William Power series of crime-caper novels set in 1940s Australia, following
A Thing of
Amongst the Dead
To my parents, Maurene and Kevin. Always.
18â20 Edward St, Brunswick, Victoria 3056, Australia
2 John St, Clerkenwell, London, WC1N 2ES, United Kingdom
First published by Scribe 2016
Text and illustrations copyright Â© Robert Gott 2016
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher of this book.
A CiP data entry for this title is available from the National Library of Australia.
This is entirely a work of fiction. All of the characters are products of the author's imagination, and they bear no relation to anyone, living or dead. Only the streets they walk down are real.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
THE POWER FAMILY
THE GILBERT FAMILY
THE THEATRE PEOPLE
Detective Noah Strachan
Detective Michael Radcliff
Captain William Holtz
Lieutenant Marion Masterson
Senior Constable Murchison
Private Anthony Dervian
Private Harlen Quist
Mrs Clementine Ferrell
What, wouldst thou have a serpent sting thee twice?
Merchant of Venice
A Working Dame
New Year's Eve
Another Bad Turn
YOU'LL KNOW ALREADY,
if you've been paying any attention at all, that my expedition to the Northern Territory with my brother, Brian, wasn't what you would call a ringing success. The Japanese had bombed me in Darwin; my talents had been under-utilised by the army in their efforts to entertain the troops in Concert Parties; I'd been ignominiously accused of murder, and my other brother, Fulton â¦ well, I don't want to talk about it. If you want to know the full horror, you can read about it in my excellent memoir,
Amongst the Dead
. On the upside, Brian discovered a talent for dressing as a woman. The soldiers loved him. In fact, one of them tried to rape him and, characteristically, Brian believes that I was too slow to intervene. I survived the tropics â creative endeavour and the tropics are antithetical â with my life and with my looks intact, despite the best efforts of the flora, fauna, and Military Intelligence to steal both from me. When I shave in the morning, the face that looks back at me still bears an uncanny resemblance to Tyrone Power, an actor I admire, despite his limited range.
I don't wish to dwell on what happened at Roper Bar, an outpost on the Roper River, in the third circle of Hell, to the north-east of Alice Springs. Suffice it to say, it confirmed, as if it needed confirming, that Military Intelligence is not to be trusted. It is an organisation without a conscience. I mean, of course, that the people who work in it are without consciences. I am perfectly aware that an organisation cannot be said to have a conscience. However, in all my dealings with the people in that organisation, I've found that they are peculiarly eager to put a chap in physical danger, and peculiarly reluctant to come to his rescue.
I am an actor. As it happens, I have some skill in the area of private inquiries. I have had some modest successes in that business. The mean-spirited might tell you that those successes were more by accident than by design, but they would, wouldn't they? I include my brother, Brian, in their number. The Northern Territory fiasco brought us closer together, but I'm aware that he still peevishly harbours doubts about my talents â
my talents. He was a high school teacher, which might explain his lack of imagination. If you'd ever met his ex-wife, the frightful Darlene, now languishing in an asylum in a mostly catatonic state, you'd see what I mean about his unreliable judgement.
It grieves me to say that although Brian and I had acquired what I hope is mutual respect and affection, there was something between us that couldn't be resolved. This was the suspicion I harboured that Brian had secretly agreed to go on working for Military Intelligence, despite knowing their ruthlessness and their belief that the ends justified whatever means, however unsavoury and grim, required to achieve them. The death of our younger brother, Fulton, ought to have repelled Intelligence's embrace; instead, I had good reason to suspect that it had, on the contrary, driven him into their sinister arms. It's a dreadful thing to discover that although you may love your brother, you can't trust him.
We'd arrived back in Melbourne on 9 December 1942, and for two days I'd been avoiding my mother and her fiancÃ© â that word sticks in my throat â Peter Gilbert. I don't wish to rehash the sordid nature of their relationship. Suffice it to say that until Brian had disabused me of the fact, I had been labouring under the illusion that our late, younger brother, Fulton, was in fact our brother, as opposed to his being our half-brother. Everyone, it seems, but I, knew that Fulton was the fruit of Mother's adulterous affair with Peter Gilbert. Even my father knew that Fulton was a cuckoo in the nest.
Fortunately for Fulton, my father died when he, Fulton, was only five years old, so he never experienced the small cruelties of which Father was more than capable. I'd always had a horror of vaudeville, for example. Even before I'd discovered the glories of Shakespeare's verse (that miracle had happened when I was twelve), the relentless vulgarity of vaudeville depressed me. My father had exposed me to it. He thought it amusing to reward me on two consecutive birthdays with visits to the Tivoli Theatre. The raucous laughter of the audience, the pointlessness of the peculiar skills being demonstrated, the witless jokes, and the frightful din of music hall ditties were dispiriting. I was of an impressionable age, and I see now that it gave my father pleasure to see me so offended. Perhaps it was a private joke to the effect that the desirability of celebrating my birth was, at best, a moot point. His death when I was sixteen, and Fulton was five, rescued us both.
I wasn't happy about returning to Mother's house after the conclusion of my work for Intelligence. It wasn't a return to the safety and warmth of a secure refuge. The family home had never offered that comfort, and now, with Mother on the point of marrying Peter Gilbert, and with Brian in the continuing employ of Intelligence, the need to escape felt urgent. I was thirty-two years old, and the bedroom in which I was sleeping was unchanged since childhood. Mother, Brian, and Peter Gilbert, who'd taken up permanent residency, seemed oblivious to the tension in the house. I, however, was finely attuned to it. Whenever I entered a room and encountered one of them, my intestines fluttered and then seized. I was, of course, unfailingly polite, and although no one seemed to notice, none of the exchanges between us amounted to anything approximating familial intimacy. I had to move, and in order to move, I needed money â and to get money, I needed to work. I needed to work anyway to avoid the clutches of Manpower, who could decide on a whim that the fastest way to bring this war to a successful conclusion would be to put Will Power on an assembly line stuffing gunpowder into bullet casings.
Prior to our posting up north, Brian and I had been outfitted for the job of concert party entertainers and troubadours by the wardrobe mistress for the Tivoli shows. Brian had said, half-jokingly I thought, that I should call on Joycey Dovey, the wardrobe mistress in question. It will give you some notion of how desperate I'd become that once Brian had put the idea into my head, I actually thought it might be a good one, and I decided to approach her. Approaching theatre managers directly never works. Perhaps Joycey Dovey knew of an opening somewhere. I'd scoured the pages of
, but there wasn't a single Shakespeare play in production in Melbourne, so the possibility of exercising my talents properly was nil. My professional options had narrowed to Wirth's Circus, or the Tivoli. The prospect of descending into vaudeville was bad enough. Turning up at a circus tent and asking for work was a decline I thought I couldn't contemplate and survive. Brian repeated his observation about calling on Joycey, and to my surprise he insisted on coming with me. I was oddly touched by this. He said that with both of us there, it might help jog her memory.
We found Joycey pretty much where we'd left her six weeks previously â in the workrooms behind the Tivoli Theatre in Bourke Street. She was no more soberly dressed than on that first occasion, and her neck was still hung round with shapeless, grubby baubles of amber. She didn't immediately remember me â given that I'd stripped naked in front of her, this was slightly discouraging. She remembered Brian, though, and recalled that she'd been obliged, under a requisition order, to supply us with costumes from the Tivoli's limited reserves.
âTwo tuxedoes with top hats, and a satin sheath dress. I don't suppose you've come to return them. Where are they?'
âThey're mouldy shreds, I'm afraid, decaying somewhere near the Roper River.'
âIf it's any consolation,' Brian said, âI looked pretty good in the dress.'
She snorted her disapproval.
Was it really typical?, I wanted to ask. Was it typical that two tuxedoes (with two top hats) and a satin sheath dress should find their way into a clearing somewhere off the West Alligator River, where a group of isolated soldiers could enjoy a magic show and a recitation from Shakespeare? And was it typical that two tuxedoes (and two top hats), and a satin sheath dress, should rot with damp, mould, and fly-strike, within weeks of being worn? I held fire because I thought the loss of the costumes had already compromised me in Joycey's eyes, and the chances of her putting in a good word for me with the Tivoli management were already slim without me challenging her far-from-accurate âtypical' assessment. It was entirely serendipitous that at the very moment Joycey began to wave me away, an assistant stage manager arrived, carrying a large, gaudy costume.
âThis has got sick on it, love,' he said. âRoger's got the flu, or some such.'
Joycey's face was a picture of distaste as she took the garment. Clearly, in these straitened times, it would fall to her to clean the offensive matter from the cloth in time for the next performance.
âWhen's it needed?' she asked sourly.
âTomorrow arvo, only Roger won't be wearing it. He's completely cactus, and so's his understudy. There's a bit of a panic on about the show.'
âHe'll do it,' Brian said.
âYes, I suppose I could do it,' I said, without being quite certain what âit' was, although the costume ought to have given me pause. Even so, I made the statement carry a sense of tedium, as if stepping in like this, at the last minute, was a regular, even tiresome, part of my working life.
âAnd who are you, love?' asked the assistant stage manager, an elderly man who really ought to have done better for himself by this time in his life.
âWilliam Power. Professional actor. I've just returned from a tour of the north. Whatever the role is, I'll be perfectly capable of learning it overnight.'
I was examined from head to foot by both Joycey Dovey and the intruder, and neither of them bothered to adjust the looks of dubiousness on their faces.
âAs I say,' I said with intentional gravity, âI've just returned from a tour of duty in the tropics, and I assure you, a Melbourne audience holds no terrors for me.'
âThe audience is mainly kiddies, mate. You don't know what real terror is.'
It was at this moment that I realised I was scrabbling for the part of a pantomime dame. It was too late, and I was too desperate, to withdraw my offer, and I didn't want to appear weak in front of Brian.
âWell, I don't know,' he said. âStill, it's not for me to decide. Come with me and we'll see what Percy Wavel â he's the director â thinks of you. He's in such a state he might just take you on.'
Brian said that he needed to get back home. He didn't say what urgent business required his attention. I was glad. I didn't want him to witness whatever small humiliation might have been lying in wait for me at the theatre.
I walked round with the assistant stage manager to the stage door of the Princess Theatre in Spring Street, and was brought out on stage by him. There were people rehearsing a section of the pantomime, in mufti, which made their exaggerated gestures seem amateurish and overblown. A small, harried, bland little man sat in the front row, giving ineffectual directions. I immediately surmised that this was Percy Wavel and that he'd been elevated beyond the limits of his talents as a result of the war. Nevertheless, after the briefest of introductions, and a demonstration that I could make my voice carry up into the gods, he thought I'd do.
âGet Jim Stokes to detach himself from whoever's cock is in his mouth, and come to the stage,' he barked. Jim Stokes appeared, and we were introduced. He was Mother Goose, and I loathed him on sight. He was portly, wheezy, and not at all pleased to be obliged to block out the role with me.
âJust follow me,' he said. âIt's not fucking
, and leave the ad libs to me.'
I was all reason and gratitude, and took in quickly the basic moves required of me as the Maid. There was really only one tricky bit, which depended on good timing for its comic effect. I couldn't get this right, largely because I didn't understand how it looked in the general scheme of things. Jim Stokes gave up, and Percy Wavel said we'd sort it out at the next morning's rehearsal. I was given a script and told to report to the stage door at 10.00 am the following day. We would have a full run-through before the show opened at 2.00 pm.
It's well known that in Shakespeare's day, acting was such a disreputable profession that women, who might disport themselves with some impunity as prostitutes, were not suffered to fall so low as to take to the stage. Consequently, Ophelia, Desdemona, and Portia were played by Tom, Dick, and Harry. I mention this in a self-conscious attempt to attach some shreds of dignity and nobility to the female motley I stood up in on the stage of the Princess Theatre on the afternoon of 12 December. This seemed to me to be a tragic and demeaning sideshow to the war. There I was, reduced to a pantomime dame in the Tivoli vaudeville company's Christmas production of
. Strictly speaking, I wasn't the dame; I was the dame's maid. Jim Stokes was Mother Goose, and therefore the real dame.