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Stephen Collicoat

'Good morning, Paul. Any winners?'

The quiet inquiry jolted Paul Kruger. He cursed his ill luck. This is it, he thought. Adequate warning. Three strikes and you're out.

The tag clipped to his blue shirt read 'Security Guard'. It was repeated on the brass plate sitting on the front counter, behind which he sat. Except he hadn't been guarding anything. Rather, he had been scanning the racing form in that morning's newspaper. And of course, there was nothing. Nothing at Flemington, or Randwick, or anywhere else. There never was, and never would be, a winner in any race he picked.

Paul knew what he was expected to do. Sit at his desk, staring like a zombie at the front door, hours before any office workers arrived, checking the security screens, pressing the hidden button to accept an early delivery or warning the guy who tried to sleep in his rags under the bleak shelter of the facade to clear off before Paul called the police.

'One more time, Paul and you're out,' the Human Resources Director had raged. 'Do your job or we'll get someone who can. It's as simple as that.'

Simple, but how did they expect him to remain alert in such a deadly job? How would she like to be sitting around, watching grainy, black and white pictures of deserted hallways, empty foyers and deserted offices? A monkey could do his job. Except this monkey needed his weekly, thin bag of peanuts. Needed to pool his miserable wage with that of his wife who was working two shifts - both cleaning toilets - to pay the rent, put food on the table and see their two spoilt brats through school. And now his employer had caught him shirking. Not just anyone working for Wildmarsh Enterprises, but the top man: Mr. Mark Woodley.

What was it like to be Mark Woodley, Paul had often wondered. One thing, he decided, it would never be boring.

Paul often imagined he was Mark Woodley. He was walking over to the private elevator with the burnished steel doors. He entered the lift used only by himself or ,very occassionally, his wife. It was Paul who pressed the button and was lifted high above the lobby, sixty floors to the penthouse. And it was there, in the hallway by the front door of the penthouse, where Paul's imagination failed.

Other staff members shared Paul's curiosity about their rich employer.

'Come on,' they'd plead. 'Let's just take a look at the television screens. We want to see Mark Woodley, the private man. What does he do in that lift? Yawn, scratch, grimace?'

'You can't come around this side of the counter,' Paul would reply. 'What Mr. Woodley does or doesn't do in his private moments and what I see on the security cameras is between himself and myself.'

Paul liked the feeling that there was an unstated, yet special bond between his employer and himself. In truth, it was all rather disappointing. Mark Woodley in the lift wore exactly the same enigmatic smile that he wore in the lobby.

The camera set about the front door of the penthouse offered a small, tantalising glimpse beyond and then the door would close and Paul Kruger again became a bored, overweight security guard .

Paul raised his eyes reluctantly from his newspaper and tried a weak smile.

'No winners, sir. Perhaps you could suggest something?'

It was a bold move. Perhaps an appeal to Australian blokiness may just succeed.

Woodley shook his head. 'I can't help you there. I don't gamble on horses.' He nodded pleasantly and walked past to the lift.

Paul watched him thoughtfully as the lift doors closed. Was that it, he wondered. No rebuke. Or would he later receive a call from Personnel, telling him he could pick up his severance pay at the office?

That was the last time Paul saw Mark Woodley. It was also the last recorded sighting of the multi-millionaire.

It was mid-afternoon when Charles Bury reached Mt. Macedon.

He drove slowly down the winding, sealed road, checking the house numbers. At length, he turned into a driveway that was flanked by two weathered lions, crouching on tall pillars. The house, a sprawling 1920's cream stone building was set in a formal garden, full of English trees and bushes.

Bury parked his car- an unremarkable Japanese sedan beside a late model, racing green Jaguar. He found the front door open and, when Noone answered his call, stepped inside.

Hearing the murmur of voices, he moved down the hallway. A man and woman were talking.

'I can't see it, Mrs. M,' the man was saying. 'What's this Charles Bury meant to find? The police spent three months looking into your husband's disappearance and came up with zero.'

'Bury is said to be the best in Melbourne,' the woman replied. 'If Mark is still alive, I'm told he'll find him.'

Her voice took on a harder tone. 'Besides you're my employee. I don't have to justify my decisions to you.'

Bury entered the room. A tall, beefy man in his late forties, dressed in a business suit, was standing by the French windows. A woman in her fifties, sat on a sofa. Although she was casually dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and loafers, she had the sleek, confident look of the wealthy.

'Mrs. Woodley?'

She turned at Bury's question with a start. Beyond the carefully tousled hair and glowing tan which gave her a youthful look, Bury noted the fine lines of disappointment and peevish boredom at the corners of her mouth.

'How did you get in?' she demanded.

'The door was open. Noone answered, so I walked through.'

The woman relaxed. 'Oh, that wretched woman. I forgot it's her day off. She's never here when I want her.

'Well, now that you're here,' she continued briskly, ' Let's get started. I'm Nicole Woodley and this is Spencer Brandon, my security advisor. I take it you're Charles Bury?'

Brandon didn't offer to shake hands, but stood watching Bury with a hostile air.

'If you want a drink, help yourself,' Nicole Woodley waved idly at bottles and tumblers grouped on an occassional table. She consulted her dainty, gold Rolex. 'Except I haven't much time. Some friends are coming over for tennis and I need to change.'

'This won't take long,' Bury said impertuably. 'Let me summarise what I know. Please correct me if I'm wrong.'

He sat down in one of the chairs without invitation and continued. ' On February 28 this year, your husband disappeared. The last person that we know who spoke to him was a Paul Kruger, who was then a security guard for the building owned by your husband's company. Mr. Kruger is now unemployed. He spoke to your husband at around 5a.m. After a brief conversation, Mr. Woodley entered his private lift. Kruger told me he observed Mr. Woodley on the television set that is linked to the lift's camera. He watched your husband enter the front door of his penthouse on the 60th. floor, after which we know nothing, as there are no cameras installed in the flat.'

'Yes, my husband insisted on his privacy in the penthouse.'

'None saw him leave the flat or saw him leave the building,' Bury went on. 'The next day, having tried to phone him several times, you travelled to Melbourne and went to his penthouse which was empty. You then called numerous colleagues and friends of Mr. Woodley. Finally, on February 30, you notified the police.'

'Who investigated the disappearance very thoroughly,' Brandon put in.

'Yes,' Bury agreed. 'I've read the files. At first, there were fears that your husband had been kidnapped, but there was never a demand for ransom. After a month, you made a televised appeal and a large reward was posted. This resulted in a flood of hoax calls, but nothing substantial. The police also investigated and dismissed the theory that your husband had became involved in some criminal activity. Since then, I take it there has been no contact from Mr.Woodley?'

Nicole shifted impatiently. ' No. Can we wind this up now? I'll help in any way I can, but I really must go and change. Spencer Brandon will answer any other questions.I've told him to give you any assistance or access you need.'

'A few minutes more,' Bury said equably. It was many years since he had felt awed or intimidated by the rich. 'I believe for all their thoroughness, the police took the wrong approach. I don't believe Mr. Woodley was kidnapped. I'm convinced he left the building in a deliberately secretive manner.'

'And how would he have done that without being seen ?' Spencer Brandon scoffed.

'Easily. Mr.Woodley is a resourceful man. He doctored the cameras so that they showed an empty lobby and lift.'

'Assuming that, how did he leave the lift without the guard in the lobby seeing him?'

'Because he didn't take the lift all the way to the lobby. He took it down to one of the office floors. Mr. Woodley's company rents out space to a number of commercial tenants. Many of these renters wouldn't readily know him by sight, especially if he was disguised in some way.'

'Oh, this is ridiculous,' Brandon laughed. 'What, did he wear a false beard and glasses?'

Bury refused to be baited. 'He wouldn't have needed an elaborate disguise. Everyone would expect to see a millionaire businessman in a suit. If he was dressed, say, as a delivery man, who would notice him? I imagine, having taken his lift to an office floor, he went to a washroom by the lift, then coming out joined office workers waiting for the lift. He would have chosen around lunchtime or at closing time to join a crowded lift. He then walked out of the building with the group. I doubt the security guard would notice that a delivery man who hadn't come into the building was now leaving, but the security guards change shifts around the lunch break anyway.'

'Why do you dismiss the idea of kidnapping?' Brandon persisted.

'It's too clumsy', Bury replied. ' Why would anyone enter a building and travel to a restricted area, when they could have simply plucked Mark Woodley off the street?' He turned to Nicole Woodley, ' No, I believe that your husband walked out of your life.'

'But why?' Nicole asked helplessly.

'That's the mystery here,' Bury said. 'It's not how he disappeared, but why.

'Let's look at motive. His business was doing well. I carried out a careful audit and there's little debt and no offshore bank accounts. I haven't found any connection to organised crime. Your husband wasn't having an affair and I believe neither were you. There's no attempt to defraud the tax officeand there's no connection with a terrorist or other political group. He has no connection with our government's security services, nor do any of his major clients.'

Bury shrugged. 'Am I missing something, Mrs. Woodley? I can't imagine why your husband would leave without a trace. Did you have a good marriage?'

Nicole considered the question. 'I always thought so. Mark isn't the type to chase after other women and, in case you're wondering, I'm sure he's not a closet gay. In fact, he's quite conservative in his sexual tastes.'

'Then,' Charles Bury said, rising, 'That's all the questions I have at present. I'd like the swipe card to Mr.Woodley's private lift and the keys to his penthouse. I'll be staying there for a week. Please call me if you want access.'

'What are you going to do there?' Spencer Brandon demanded.

'Listen, Mr. Brandon. I have my own way of doing things. I don't require your permission and I don't welcome your curiosity.If you have a problem with that, raise your concerns with Mrs. Woodley. Otherwise, butt out.

'Finally,' he said, turning to Nicole Woodley. 'The fee is as we agreed. If, after a week, I don't feel I can bring anything useful to this inquiry, I'll tell you and we'll terminate our agreement.

'Goodbye, Mrs.Woodley,' Bury smiled as Nicole languidly waved farewell. 'I hope you enjoy your tennis.'

The following day, Bury moved into Mark Woodley's penthouse. He immersed himself in the missing man's world, but found nothing significant.

He then examined all Woodley's possessions: his clothes, personal papers, including passport, credit cards, the words he wrote, videos he watched, the books in his library shelves, the pictures hanging on the walls and the view he enjoyed. Apart from confirming his view that Mark Woodley had a fresh and original mind, Bury found nothing to help solve the mystery of why a multi-millionaire would choose to disappear.

A lesser man may have felt discouraged, but Bury knew that each case he worked on had its own pace and each demanded a different approach. In the 12 years since Bury had left his senior post at the Australian Federal Police to set up his one man investigative service, he had successfully solved many mysteries. In some cases, logical reasoning proved the key. In others, a careful search of records unearthed some tiny, overlooked detail. Conventional policing solved most problems, but Charles Bury had inherited from his father the rare gift of intituition. He strongly sensed that during his stay at the penthouse, the mystery would be solved.

So it came as no surprise that around 4.15 a.m., Bury woke to see a man's shape outlined against the bedroom window.

'Hello, Mark', he said quietly. 'I always felt you were alive.'

'Put on some clothes and we'll talk on the terrace,' Woodley suggested. 'I'll put on some coffee.'

The night air was unsettled. The two men sat, sipping coffee as they watched the brilliant tapestry of city lights and the dark sea of the countryside beyond. They couldn't clearly see each other's faces, their bodies dim shapes in the weak light cast by the bedroom light in the room beyond. There was a distant crash of thiunder and lightning forked through the heavy clouds.

'Someone will be getting rain tonight,' Mark commented.

Bury nodded. 'Yes, it looks as though it's breaking over your home at Mt.Macedon.'

For a brief, poignant moment, Mark thought of Nicole. Was she asleep or listening to the rain pelting into the dry, thirsty garden? Did she accept she would never see him again and did that realisation hurt her?

Night, Mark thought, is the time for both quiet truths and whispered lies.

He turned to Bury. 'I've been watching you since you came to the penthouse. This afternoon, you hardly stirred. You seemed to be waiting.'

Yes, I was waiting. Willing you to come.'

'How did you know I was close?'

'Well, sometimes what I will occurs, but in this case, I knew you were watching me. I saw that tiny camera on the first day when I entered the lounge. I knew there would be other cameras and that you were watching what I was doing. I reasoned that if I did nothing, it wouldn't be long before you were intrigued and came to talk with me.

'Have you also placed cameras in your house in Mt.Macedon to watch Nicole?'


'Isn't it creepy spying on your wife?'

'I suppose it is. Let me explain. Eight months ago, I decided to become a ghost.

'It came to me one evening. I was sitting in the lounge here, looking at the large painting of Kings' Canyon in the Northern Territory. I know that you like it too. I've watched you standing in front of it for long periods.

'I've often stood there, watching, no, entering that painting. I can feel the slight breeze of the night on my cheek, smell the cool desert sand, dive into the deep sea of silence. That night, I understood for the first time that the aboriginal who painted that evocative scene had something I would never have: passion.

I had a privileged background. Wealthy parents. Education at Geelong Grammar and Melbourne University. I was given my first sports car - an 'E-type' as a gift when I matriculated and wrecked it during my first year at uni. I lived a life most men only dream about. Shortly after graduation, I began my own company, using seed money from my family. I rapidly built an empire and have never really failed.'

'Lucky you,' Bury murmured sourly.

'No, not really. It's meant that my life, though successful, has lacked any edge. Because everything came so easily, nothing has meant much.'

'That's tough,' Bury said unsympathetically, 'But in a city where thousands don't have a place to sleep at night and others bed down in hovels, the whining dissatisfaction of a spoiled, rich man doesn't cut it.'

'You're right,' Mark Woodley agreed. 'I don't expect your approval, just a little understanding.

'It's a fact that the rich suffer from the law of diminishing returns. The more you have, the less it means. Of course, it brings satisfaction, but generally for frighteningly short periods of time. You feel obscurely cheated and that makes you angry.

'You see the result of that anger all the time. Stand in a line at any airport. Most people are flying economy. They'll be grateful if the flight is just reasonably quiet and comfortable. Then look in the privilege lane and there's always someone throwing a tantrum because he can't get the best of Business or First Class. He knows everyone thinks he's an ass, but he can't control his rage.

'Yes,' Bury agreed. 'A friend years ago told me a horrid, but true story.

'Some years ago, there was an Asian prince who was young, rich and spoilt. He had a private golf course. One day, his game was going badly. It was as though every stroke he made that day was cursed.Normally a fair player, that day he tore out divots of turf, or the ball would curve off into the rough, arrow into a bunker or splash into a lake.

'When he missed an easy putt, his caddy bent down to examine the lie of the ball. Something about the man - perhaps his vulnerability - angered the prince. Raising his putter, he swung it down on the man's skull. Probably, the first blow killed the poor devil, but the prince beat the man's skull into a pulp. The prince was never arrested and the servant's family were paid to keep silent.

'The man who told me the story was the caddy's son. The money meant he could attend an Australia university. He vowed that one day, he would avenge his father's murder.'

'Did he?'

Bury shook his head. 'No, the prince died of heart failure. Probably, a mixture of rich food and stress. I imagine my friend felt cheated out of satisfaction, but his life would have been torn apart if he had murdered the prince. As it is, he's now one of the foremost judges in his country. His father didn't die in vain.'

Mark Woodley sighed. 'Yes, its that rage of the rich. I found myself becoming irritable, even angry at the smallest thing. I realised I was bored and restless and it was destroying me.'

'Did you discuss this with Nicole?'

'Woodley gave a bitter laugh. 'I tried, but she's bought the whole package. Successful husband. Affluent lifestyle. It's not that I don't love her anymore. It's just I can't see how I can keep her happy if I'm miserable.

'I know you think I'm selfish, but I've also done everyone a favour. If people knew I had gone off to lead another life, they would probably think either Nicole was to blame or my business was crooked.

'Disappearing also means that people are less likely to search for me. I don't want people forever hounding me for an explanation. You're good at finding people. I don't want to spend my life, looking over my shoulder, expecting you there. In fact, I'm hoping you'll tell Nicole there's no chance my disappearance will ever be solved and she's better to go on without me.'

There was a long rumble of thunder and lightning crackled across the dark sky.

'The rain's drawing closer,' Bury noted.

Mark continued quietly. 'I began to question my life. How would people react if I was no longer here? Most of us like to think our departure would have a profound effect on at least some people's lives. I decided to discover the truth.

'I began my experiment by ensuring Nicole would be well provided for when I disappeared. I didn't want her waiting years before I was officially declared dead to gain access to my estate. Any regret she feels about my disappearance wont be because she's lost her meal ticket.

'Then I appointed a very able successor in the business. He's been training beside me for months now and Wildmarsh wont miss a beat because I'm no longer in control.

'Having provided for others, I planned my future as a ghost. I obtained a false passport, so I could travel at will. I secreted money in overseas bank accounts - my own money, not funds siphoned from the firm. I can live in simple comfort for the rest of my days.

'Several weeks ago, I was sitting in a small trattoria in Portofino, watching the sun set over the bay, when I felt for the first time free and contented. I knew then I had done the right thing. Life isn't a prelude. It's short, precious and should never be squandered.

'I installed security cameras to observe how Nicole was coping with my loss. I was always interested in electronics - built my first television set when I was 14. It was easy to circumvent the security system at Mt.Macedon. Sometimes, I've stood in my bedroom, watching Nicole sleep.'

Mark recalled with pain the temptation to reach out and touch his wife's smooth, warm shoulder and kiss her soft hair spilling onto the pillow.

He hurried on, ' People seem to live very easily without me. Did you know Nicole now has a lover? It's that odious Spencer Brandon. I did enjoy watching the run in that you two had. I can't admire her taste, but their affair won't last.'

'What did you expect from your wife?' Bury said severely. 'That she'd stay celibate, while you spy on her? What you're doing is wrong. You've disrupted many people's lives. Anyone who cared about you has suffered. You've also wasted police time. Do you really think they haven't anything better to do than investigate the disappearance of a rich man who enjoys playing creepy games? Perhaps you better stay a ghost. Nobody will welcome you back.'

'You're very hard on me,' Mark Woodley sighed. 'But you're probably right. It's better I stay a ghost. He laughed ruefully, 'It's pleasing people can get on so well without me, but it's disappointing to realise I'm so replaceable. Will you tell Nicole you spoke to me?'

'I don't know. She paid me to discover the truth, so I'm reluctant to lie. At the same time, its better you disappear from their lives. Imagine the confusion and anger

if you return.'

'My coffee's cold,' Mark said. 'Would you bring the plunger out?'

When Charles Bury returned to the terrace, it was empty. A moment later, he heard the front door to the penthouse quietly close.

He sat, watching lightning dart across the city. The first, heavy drops of rain began to fall.

Then he returned to bed. He thought about Mark. Imagined him, walking along the city pavements as the rain pelted down. The only man who was not sheltering under an umbrella or hurrying to shelter. A man who was smiling.Walking, drenched but happy through the city. Walking toward another life.

After a while, Bury slept.

The rain eased to a fine mist. It whispered twisted stories about men who, for noble, selfish or mad instincts, one day set out to chart a different course.

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