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The Counterfeit Man


Stephen Collicoat

3 a.m. Clara Belot stirred uneasily in her sleep.

From far down the dark corridor of her mind, she heard a sound. Two dolorous notes. It reminded her of her childhood in Germany. When staying at her Uncle's hunting lodge adjoining the Black Forest, she would often hear a cuckoo's call. The lonely call often continued far into the night. It spoke to her of the dark, tangled woods, forbidden places and the barely seen creatures of the night. Creatures that flitted like shadows through the night, yet left sharp, yet delicate tracks on the snow. The tracks suggested Chinese characters painted on gleaming parchment scrolls.

The sound drew nearer. Clara tried to ignore it, savouring her sleep. She mentally shut doors along the corridor, but the notes seeped through the keyholes and around the frame, regrouping and gathering strength. The notes grew closer and clearer. Finally, they resolved themselves into a two note chant, 'Wake up. Wake up.' Her sixth sense had detected danger in the world beyond sleep. It demanded her brain's attention and response.

Clara quietly opened her eyes. The bedroom was harshly lit by moonlight that streamed in from the lounge room window. the room was still, save for Andre's heavy, regular breathing. Her husband had turned in the bed and was now facing her. His face had relaxed into an expression of deep repose.

Clara's eyes swiftly searched the room. She listened for any sounds from an intruder.

The Victorian era, two storey terrace set in the peaceful, leafy suburb of Hawthorn quietly creaked and clicked, softly moving as old houses do. Nothing seemed out of place. Another panic attack, she upbraided herself. It was ironic that just when she had every reason to feel relaxed and comfortable, she found herself suffering from bouts of inexplicable anxiety. It happened every fortnight or so, but had been continuing for the last 10 months. Something seemed to be warning her of danger, but what that danger was and how she could protect herself against it was never clear. She wondered if she should seek psychiatric counseling, but had dismissed that option. Clara who had studied medicine for three years before coming to Australia felt sure a doctor would explain her mental state as the simple result of hormonal changes as she entered her change of life. Perhaps that was all that was wrong. There was certainly nothing she could think of to cause anxiety.

To still her mind, Clara slowed her breathing. She felt her racing heart began to settle. As she did so often in these panic attacks, Clara began to mentally catalogue her possessions. She preferred to think of it as counting her blessings. To anyone else, it may have seemed boastful, but Clara, who was not acquisitive, found it reassured her that life was safe and comfortable and likely to remain so.

In many ways, Andre and Clara Belot were the classic migrant success story. Starting with a small endowment when they emigrated from Belgium to Australia in the 1960's, they were now wealthy. A similar home to theirs in Hawthorn had sold at auction the week before at $1.5 million. They also owned a holiday home in the exclusive and increasingly expensive seaside township of Lorne. It wouldn't win any architectural prizes, but Clara loved the fibro cement, three bedroom shack set on three acres above the town, offering a superb view of Louttit Bay. Bought three decades ago, it was now conservatively valued at over a million dollars.Two acres of uncleared scrub further down the hill had been snapped up at $500,000 six months before. In addition to their two properties, the Belots had over $2 million invested in their personal superannuation fund and this was before they sold either Andre's thriving gourmet food importing business or Clara's South Yarra shop specialising in trendy children's wear.

Their marriage though never passionate, was affectionate and solid. If Andre had sexual adventures during his frequent interstate or overseas trips, he was very discreet. Sex was no longer important to them. For eight years they continued to sleep in the same bed, but never made love.

The Belots had two children - a boy and a girl. Both had now left home and were establishing themselves in successful careers. Camille was a sports physiotherapist, while Mark was a doctor in general practice.

At 52, Carla was considering selling her shop. Although Andre who was four years older showed no interest in slowing down - he even boasted that he would die in his job - Carla felt the need to change. She had begun dabbling in water colour painting, something that she had not attempted since her teenage years and wanted more time to develop her talent. She also wanted to travel. There were some escorted tours that appealed to her - one of Indian palaces and another, a culinary exploration of Vietnam. If Andre wasn't interested in accompanying her, she would invite one of her girl friends. Carla began to imagine what she would do in a life without work. Her breathing eased and she felt at peace.

Then one of the shadows moved.

With growing fear, she saw it draw closer. It filled the doorway. It assumed the shape of a tall man. The lumpy shape above his shoulders suggested he was wearing a ski mask. His right arm seemed unnaturally long, terminating in the shape of a pointing finger. Carla realised the man was armed. He raised and aimed his gun.

She reacted swiftly and instinctively. Seizing the crystal ball dressing lamp beside her bed, she wrenched the lamp's cord out of its socket. Then she flung it with all her force at the man's head. The heavy ball hit the man full in the face, breaking his nose. He staggered back cursing and the gun went off, a bullet smashing into the bedhead above Andre's head. Then the man was staggering away, stumbling down the stairs, his nose gushing blood. He tore off his sodden mask and staggered down the stairs. Clara and Andre heard the front door slam. A moment later, a car gunned its engine in the quiet street and sped away.

The next morning, Clara and Andre were still arguing.

'It's crazy not to ring the police,' Clara stormed. 'He was going to kill us.'

'Don't be so dramatic,' Andre sighed. 'He was a thief. He bought a gun to threaten us. He wouldn't have used it. The gun went off by accident.'

'You don't know that. So, you're going to do nothing? Pretend it never happened?'

'I've said a score of times that this morning, I'm going to call a security expert. He'll establish how the thief bypassed the alarm, fit pressure pads beneath each window and deadlocks on all the doors. We'll spend whateveer it takes to make us safer than Fort Knox.'

' I hate living like that!'

'It's the price of living in a good suburb.'

'You've already spent thousands on security and it made no difference last night. What guarantee have we that all the new systems you instal will make any differernce?'

'They will. Trust me.'

Then., seeing the worried expression still on Clara's face, Andre said placatingly, 'Look darling, I know that it was a horrible experience, but believe me when we've finished, even a gnat won't enter announced.'

So for the next week, a small army of workmen could be seen entering the Belot's property. In addition to sensor lights, pressure pads, laser detectors and deadlocks, the workmen installed a thick plate of toughened steel bolted into the timber joists of the ceiling to prevent anyone gaining access through the roof.'

Gradually, Clara's fear subsided. A week later, she agreed to drive Andre to the International Air Terminal at Tullamarine. He was flying to Paris and then travelling on to Britanny and Bourdeaux as part of his work. He would be away three weeks, arranging new sources for his range of imported products, as well as renegotiating several contracts.

Clara liked to drive and was far more skilled than Andre who preferred to sit in the passenger seat, reading through his paperwork. Already, Clara thought, it feels as though he's left. It was early morning and only light traffic was moving along the Monash Freeway toward the city.

As she passed Glenferrie Road, she noticed a powerful BMW motorbike entering an entrance ramp. Two men dressed in black leather rode the bike, their faces hidden behind the tinted glass of their helmet visors.

The bike swung into the lane behind her car and she watched it in the rear vision mirror. The bike indicated that it was overtaking and it swung out into the far lane, drawing level with her car. Carla expected the bike to roar past, but it edged slowly past the Mercedes. When it was slightly ahead of the bonnet, the pillion passenger turned and stared at the car. Then he unbuttoned the top of his jacket and reaching inside, drew out a pistol which he aimed at Clara. As he steadied his aim, he hesitated, then tracked the pistol to Andre who dropped his papers and shrank back into his seat.

Before the man could pull the trigger, Clara wrenched the wheel, swinging the car across into the lane behind the bike. Then she trod hard on the accelerator and the powerful car leapt forward, ramming the bike.

The BMW reared up and lost control. the pillion passenger was flung off across the road. The bike mounted the concrete crash barrier. The rider was thrown off and both bike and man crashed into the opposite lanes to Clara's car, skidding helplessly down the road for some distance.

Clara held the car and kept accelerating until she was well past the crash scene. They remained silent until they reached the airport. She realised that Andre's life was in danger. It was equally clear that he had no intention of telling her why or seeking police protection.

At the airport, when he collected his e-ticket, Andre turned to her.' Don't wait for me,' he said. 'When I get back, I'll sort this out.'

'Why is this happening, Andre?,' she asked, no long expecting an explanation.' What have you done? Who are these people.'

'I'll sort it out,' he promised.

'Please darling, be careful overseas.'

He smiled at her oddly, briefly embraced her, then walked through the customs barrier. He passed through without incident, collected his cabin luggage, then continued walking, without looking back.

Driving home, Clara suddenly began to tremble uncontrollably. She slowed and steered off the freeway. When she found a quiet suburban street, she parked. She sat in the car crying. When she recovered, she dialled her lawyer from the car phone.

'Clara,' David Tait boomed pleasantly. 'How are you? Long time no hear. How's Andre? Please tell him that I loved that pate he sent over at Christmas. Joyce keeps asking me how we can get some more. We've tried all the shops and they don't stock it.'

'David, we're fine,' Clara lied. 'Andre has just left for Paris. I wanted to ask your professional advice. I want to hire someone - a private detective, I suppose.'

Tait's voice changed. 'That sounds ominous. Are you sure you guys are o.k? I always thought you were very happy together.'

Clara explained what had happened and what she sought.

Tait asked a number of questions, then said thoughtfully, 'To be honest, I'm not comfortable suggesting someone to carry out an in-depth check on Andre. You're my client for conveyancing and general legal issues, but so is Andre. I think of you both as clients and friends.'

Clara curbed her growing impatience. 'David, I'm asking you this favour as a friend. Is there someone who you can recommend? I want the inquitry to be handled efficiently and discreetly. It's not as though I suspect Andre of doing anything wrong, but he won't talk to me about this and I must know what danger we're in.'

'That's reasonable,' Tait conceded. 'There is a man. His name is Charles Bury. He's ex-Federal Police. Very well regarded. Specialises in background checks on key executives, leading politicians and powerful union leaders. Has access to an amazing database. Connections most of us can only dream of. Runs a one man business in the city. Pricey, but they tell me he's worth it.'

'That's the man. What's his address?'

Tait gave her the particulars.'Just one thing, Clara,' he concluded. 'We never had this conversation. Bury won't ask who referred you to him. I don't want to lose Andre as a client when he learns of this investigation. And he will learn of it. Somewhere. Sometime. It may be years from now, but it will happen. These secret investigations have a nasty habit of surfacing when you least expect it. It won't be Bury's fault, but it will come out.'

'We never spoke about this,' Clara promised, hanging up.

'Interesting,' Bury mused, when Clara had finished her story. 'My first reaction was that your husband is mixed up in a drugs racket. His frequent trips overseas would appear an ideal cover, but I sense you wouldn't agree.'

Clara shrugged. She moved to the glass wall which stretched from floor to ceiling in Bury's office. Melbourne spread out in a colourful tapestry of commerce. Buildings, roads, the rail yards, the Yarra River snaking through the city and beyond, in the blue haze of the horizon, the Dandenong Ranges sweeping over toward Macedon and the great, parched plains of Central Victoria.

She remembered with a shudder reading of the flambouyant Italian builder of this glass tower. He met with a party of prospective tenants in the early days. One expressed concern that so much glass may not be safe. The Italian responded by hurling himself in a rugby tackle at the wall. The glass held.

'I don't think drugs are the motive,' Clara agreed, retreating to the safety of her chair.' Andre has always been very much a law and order man. He cheered when Malaysia put those two Australian drug runners to death. He said it was a pity our own country was so soft on the issue. Of course, he might be just a good actor. I thought I knew him, but this makes me question my trust.'

'Is he politically active?'

Clara shook her head. 'He was a fund raiser for the Liberals before the last election. That's all. He's never shown any interest in running for Parliament or even holding office in the local council.'

'What are his political views?'

'He's always been conservative. On issues such as mandatory detention, he's far tougher than the Government. We don't talk about politics much these days, as it leads to arguments. I'm quietly supportive of the Labor party, trending toward the Democrats or Greens. He calls me a chardonnay socialist.'

'Tell me about the time when you first met Andre. You both attended Brussels University?'

Clara nodded. At first she had wondered if Bury- a softly spoken, balding, bespectacled man - was really suited to the job. Under his quiet, but perceptive questioning, she began to revise her opinion. She glanced at her watch and was surprised to find that an hour had passed since she had entered Bury's office.

'Andre and I are on the opposite sides of politics. I came from an upper middle class family, but was drawn to socialism. He came from a very poor, working class family. He was only able to attend university by winning scholarships. In his university days, he was drawn to right wing politics. He was something of a fascist, you know - organising rallies, helping break up strikes, contributing virulent articles to the local press, most of whom wouldn't print them in case they were sued.

I hated everything he stood for. At the same time, I thought him one of the most intelligent and physically attractive men I had met. He was studying law, while I was in medicine. Neither of us went on to practice when we emigrated. Anyway, we kept seeing each other at rallies, though on opposite sides. Gradually our attraction and respect for each other grew. We would have the most vigorous debates that you can imagine about politics - some would describe them as violent arguments - but we kept coming back for more. We took the world so seriously in those days. I think we both believed that we had been chosen for some higher purpose. Now, I run a children's clothing store and Andre imports food. So much for idealism.

'We began dating in secret. I was quite timid in those days. Afraid what my friends would think if they found out. Andre was my first, actually my only lover. I remember feeling surprised when he began pressing me to marry him. He could have had any girl he wanted and apparently did before we were married. I didn't particularly want to marry, but we did. I recall it was Andre who made the decision that we should emigrate to Australia.'

'Why did you come?'

'It's funny, but I'm not really sure. Most migrants are desperate to build new lives. I mean, why else would you leave your family and travel across the globe to start a new life? But Andre and I were different. We had wonderful prospects if we stayed in Europe. I'm not sorry that we came to Australia. It's a wonderful place to live. I just feel sometimes that my intellectual gifts have been somewhat wasted.'

'I suppose both of you could have studied to gain local qualifications,' Bury probed.

'Yes, we could, but we found it tough enough just to reestablish ourselves without studying. Andre had lost interest in the law and perhaps the fact that I didn't continue my medical studies shows I had decided on a new direction.'

'So, you both hold opposite political views,' Bury mused.

'To a point, but we've matured or compromised, whatever one likes to call the gradual softening, the erosion of political belief. Perhaps I've been a good influence on Andre.'

'That's certainly one intrepretation,' Bury said non-committally, closing the file and standing up. 'Leave this with me. I'll be in touch shortly.'

It was the last time they spoke.

A week after the meeting, Clara was shocked to see on the evening television news broadcast that Charles Bury's office had been firebombed. When the Fire Brigade officers were finally able to enter the scene, they found Bury's incinerated body.

Several days later, Clara received a thick envelope through the post.

A letter typed on Bury's stationary read,

'Dear Mrs Belot

' Normally, I wouldn't report to a client so early in an investigation. I would also meet with the client in a face to face meeting to summarise my findings and answer any questions

'In your case however, the situation is different. Although my investigation is still preliminary, I've learnt that your husband is a very dangerous man. He belongs to a very ruthless, even evil political organisation. He will, I am convinced, do anything to preserve the story he has carefully built up over the years. If he discovers that you have been looking behind the facade, he wont hesitate to kill you.

' Much of what you will read in the enclosed dossier will shock you. I was fortunate to find someone who works for your husband's organisation, but has become sickened by the carnage the group employs. Extensive independent checks on the informant convinces me that he is telling the truth.

'I have arranged with a friend to send you this envelope if he hasn't heard from me in three days or learns that something has happened to me. He doesn't know the contents of this envelope. If you receive this envelope, it means that your husband's group has learnt of my investigation. They will trace you as my client. What they will then do is problematic. As the investigation mainly relates to your husband, they will probably leave it to him to decide any action. Until your husband returns, you are probably safe. He will want to learn what you have discovered and if you have told anyone else. Clearly, your life is in great danger. I can't advise you what to do as I have failed to protect myself.'

Clara reread the remarkable letter, then with a feeling of dread, she opened the dossier.

She learnt that in the 1970's, while still at university, Andre Belot had formed a secret organisation named 'Iron Fist'. The group consisted of five fascist students. This group carried out a series of terrorist outrages that they believed would be blamed on radical communist or anarchic groups. The more senseless and horrible the acts, the better. Iron Fist carried out each act in the name of another group. The group reasoned that it would quickly appear that law and order had completely broken down. In that way, they hoped to convince the governments of various European countries to launch savage reprisals.

The radical groups blamed by Belot's group had carried out terrorist attacks in the past and were the most obvious suspects. Andre Belot told his group that the struggle for power would last a lifetime. His followers went into deep cover, adopting the guise of wealthy and respectable citizens while continuing to foster violence. When Andre met Clara, he realised that noone would suspect that a person with fanatical right wing views would marry a girl with socialist ideals. By moving to Australia, he slipped off the radar of European police investigators. By becoming an importer, he gave himself a legitimate reason to regularly visit Europe and contact his group.

It had taken decades but finally one of the radical red groups had identified Andre as the leader of Iron Fist and he was now a marked man.

Clara poured over the photos of carnage caused by pipe bombs in crowded shopping malls, cinemas and shopping malls. The pictures showed maimed bodies and the smoking hulks of cars.

She was filled with disgust and horror. These were the acts of a man without conscience or compassion. This was no longer a man, but a fiend. It was a person who hid behind others - behind marriage, children, a career, and the country they had adopted that was free of so many old hatreds. All this meant nothing to Andre, except as a cover. This was the man who had made love to Clara - who had shared her many times of joy or sorrow. This was her lover, her friend, the father of her children. She wished that she hadn't saved his life on two occasions. He was a man who long ago had forfeited the right to continuing living among others. There was nothing she could say to him. He would continue his horrible programme of destruction as long as he was able.

She had wanted to learn the truth about her husband and that truth now threatened to destroy her. Charles Bury was right. She wouldn't survive long after her husband returned from Europe.

She knew she must act, but couldn't decide what to do. Day after day, she agonised over her choices. Should she go to the police? Would the preliminary evidence collected by Bury be sufficient to convict Andre? Why hadn't the authorities known of his activities? Were they incompetent or was there a darker reason? Was some powerful person protecting Andre? Even if Andre was arrested and convicted, Clara knew that her life and the life of her children would be shattered.

Should she leave her home and hide from Andre? This was her first instinct, but the more she thought of escape, the angrier she became. She had done nothing wrong. Why should she live like a fugitive, always fearing that one day he would track her down. Even if she hid, what of her children?

Hiding was not the answer. She had worked too hard, sacrificed too much to reach her present, comfortable position in society. She wouldn't abandon her children: the pleasure of seeing them making a success in their careers, aeeing them in happy marriages, perhaps with children of their own.

Andre was a coward. He was a counterfeit man who hid behind decent institutions to plan the death of innocent people. She would not hide from such a man. She was not a coward. She would face her fear and overcome it.

Having made this decision, the dreams that had troubled her of an armed man wearing Andre's face appearing at her bedroom disappeared. She had no plan. Yet, she felt strangely calm. Some instinct told her that she would survive and that all would be well.

Andre arived at Melbourne Airport with a clear plan. He would confront Clara , find out what she knew and kill her. Her death must appear an accident. He just hoped that she had not confided in their children. The disappearance of Clara would be easy. He saw himself - tear-stained, distraught, flanked by his loving children appealing for Clara's abductor to return her unharmed. He smiled at the touching scene.

So appealing was this scenario that he failed to notice the taxi outside the terminal that forced its way into the line so that it it drew up beside him. He heard the angry horns of another taxi driver, but dismissed it as bad manners. He hardly noticed the young man who was driving the cab. Having placed his luggage in the boot, Andre sat in the passenger seat beside the driver and the car sped from the terminal.

Andre didn't bother talking to the driver and the journey passed in silence. They turned off the freeway and the driver took several turns through the suburban streets near Andre's home.

Suddenly, the taxi braked beside a middle aged man waiting at the kerb. Before Andre could react, the man had climbed into the back seat. The driver automatically locked all the car doors. The man in the back seat, leant forward behind Andre and pressed the muzzle of a gun pressed against Andre's cheek.

It was then that Andre knew that the problem of what Clara knew no longer mattered .

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