The Vegetable Man


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Chapter 1

Behind his eyes was a secret. I could tell. He had been a friend of my family for years. And it’s my job to spot these things. It’s always in the eyes. I could tell something was wrong when he appeared on my doorstep. I asked him in and offered him some tea or coffee. He stood just inside the door, shuffling on the spot, eyes darting everywhere, and rejected the offer. Maybe he’d already had too much coffee. I didn’t think he drank coffee.

“I have to tell you something,” he said tentatively. I knew it.

“Tell away, Jacob. What’s the problem?” As always I was a bit excited about hearing something juicy and secret, and, as always, I had to cross my legs to stop myself leaning toward him, wide-eyed and giddy like a teenager. I’m pretty good at maintaining my neutral professional façade, so he went on, unaware of my barely contained curiosity.

“You may believe me or you may not. But I know you’re a really good shrink…er…therapist, so you can work out whether I’m nuts or not. So here goes.” He took a deep breath. He was still shuffling by the door, clearly needing the security of an easy escape. That behaviour alone bothered me a little, even without his self-professed doubts about his sanity. Experience had me guessing that he’d cheated on Aunty Bev, but she’d died about three years ago and Jacob wasn’t that kind of guy. He could still be feeling guilty about moving on (only he hadn’t, as far as I knew). Or maybe he’s pinched something (like what?!). Or had a car accident (now there’s a possibility). That could explain the fear element.

I could never have predicted what he said next.

“What would you say if I told you I witnessed a murder no one knows about?”

My tea slopped onto my shirt.

People tell me shocking things all the time. There’s usually a good reason for people to see a therapist. But this was family (almost) and this was my lounge-room. Ok, Lucy, you’ve been asked a serious question by someone in need. Forget who it is. Forget where you are. You’re a bloody professional. I pushed my lounge-room out of my brain and asked Dr Lucerne Reubens, Psychologist, in for a house-call. I took a deep breath and eased casually into the rocking chair beside the TV.

“Well…um…what would I say? Well, I’d probably ask why you haven’t gone to the police?”

Very good Dr Reubens. Very diplomatic.

“Lucy, you don’t understand! They’d never believe me! Don’t you get it? No one knows!”

“Ok. What do you mean by ‘No one knows’? Of course no one knows if you haven’t told anyone. I don’t think the killers are about to sky-write it.”

He rolled his head back, exasperated by whatever it was I had failed to grasp. In one floppy, frustrated motion he moved from the door and almost fell over the coffee table on his way to the edge of the couch.

“You just don’t understand. You’re missing the point. No one knows. No one will ever know. He’s not dead!”

“I thought you said it was a murder. What do you mean he’s not dead?” This was getting weirder and weirder.

“No! He IS dead. There were two of him.”

I looked at him blankly across the coffee table. Maybe he really was nuts. He was well within the age bracket for ‘moderate marble-loss’.

“There were two victims?” I was guessing now. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“No! Just one. But there was…is…a second one.”

I was obviously missing something. “Jacob, how about we start from the beginning.”

And he did. It took a while. I had to keep pulling him back on topic. He wasn’t a young man anymore and his mind wandered at the best of times. Add a traumatic event and you’ve got a train of thought that’s been completely de-railed. Even so, it didn’t take me long to hear all I needed to hear to work out that he wasn’t lying…or nuts.

Jacob had gone walking in the reserve on the western shore of the Loch, a short walk from his house. It was very early. 5am or close to it. He does this every other morning, even in winter. He doesn’t sleep past about 4.30am anymore and there’s never anyone around in the reserve at that time of day, so he takes a walk. The main trail wraps around the edge of the Loch then curves east to enter the woods north of Balloch Castle. There are trails criss-crossing the whole reserve, of course, but this was Jacob’s favourite route. That morning as he came down the dirt trail towards the ‘wooden leg’ he noticed a 4x4 pulled up by the water. At first he thought the fire brigade might be setting up for a safety-burn or something but the car was black, not red and it didn’t have any markings on it. He was a bit puffed anyway, so he decided not to bother whoever it was and sat down on a log by the side of the trail for a break. He hadn’t meant to watch them, but they were right in the middle of a clear view to the Loch. There were two of them. They were in black and wore their matching black suits like they were in uniform, the way an accountant wears a tie. They wandered along in opposite directions, scanning the woods and the water. Jacob assumed they were checking out spots for future picnics for whatever private school they worked for.

“You didn’t think the all-black gear was odd?”

“I don’t know. I guess I thought they were gay. They always wear matching stuff don’t they? Or maybe twins?”

I always find it amazing how the mind fills in the blanks with the most innocent explanation. The eye sees two men in matching black uniforms peeking behind bushes, and the mind says ‘gay twin picnic’.

After a few minutes they came back to the car, one to each rear door, and helped two more men out of the back seats. One was in jeans and a tan knitted turtle-neck. The other was also in jeans and an identical knitted turtle-neck, but also wore a red baseball cap. The hatless man seemed disoriented, perhaps a bit lost or sick. The two men in black moved to either side of him. To support him, Jacob thought. They led him to the edge of the water. That’s nice of them, thought Jacob, helping the cripple to the edge. Maybe he likes the ducks or something. Bit early for ducks though. Probably just drunk and wanting to throw up. They were still holding him, facing the water, when the man with the hat stopped directly behind them, pulled a gun from somewhere and shot the hatless man in the back of the head.

“I know it’s a stupid thing to think at a time like that,” Jacob confessed, “but my first thought was about the gun. It had a silencer. I’ve never heard what they really sound like before. Only ever on TV. It reminded me of Bev when she used to let off in her sleep. That’s just what it sounded like. Not loud or menacing or terrifying or anything like that. Just a sharp little puff, like a girlie fart.”

“Then what happened?” I was getting tired of keeping him on track.

“Sorry. The two blokes in black held him up while the guy in the hat went back to the car and came back with a heap of really heavy looking shopping bags. I guess they had rocks in them or broken up bricks or something. They tied the bags to the loops in his jeans then they started swinging him from his arms and feet and they chucked him. They just chucked him in. Way out in the Loch. Like a log. He barely made a splash. The other guy just stood there and watched it all.” He stopped and took a deep shaky breath. “Then they all turned round and headed back to the car and the guy with the hat took it off and sort of messed it up… you know how they do with the fingers and… like… messy. What’s the word?”


“Yeah, that. He did that and that’s when I saw it.”

Saw it? Saw what? Hadn’t he been seeing it already? What else was there to see?

“They were the same.”

I’d really been hoping that it would all make sense after the story, but here we were, right back where we started. I think my face said it all.

“Lucy, you have to believe me! I know it doesn’t make sense but the guy in the hat WAS the guy who got shot.”

Now I understood what he was trying to say. “Well obviously he wasn’t the same guy: you saw one of them shoot the other one. Maybe they just looked really similar?” Maybe the gay twin thing wasn’t so far off the mark?

“No way. It wasn’t just a similarity. It wasn’t like twins. He was EXACTLY THE SAME! Same walk, same shape, same habits. It was perfect! Like they were clones!”

“How could you tell? So they look the same, and not just in the ordinary way, but the dead guy… the victim, I guess… the victim was splattered all over the water. You said he was a mess. So maybe they were just, you know, really similar? Or related, like twins, like you said!”

He sighed and looked at the door, maybe to make sure it was still there. He leaned back on the couch looked up at the ceiling. It’s what cheating husbands do in marriage counselling when he’s trying to decide whether to spill the beans to his wife or bolt for the door. This was the big secret part. The rest of the story had been building up to this. I didn’t have to wait long but it seemed like ages. Finally he made up his mind. He’d come this far.

“I knew him as soon as he… they… got out of the car. It was Ray Lanza. They were both Ray Lanza.”

Holy moly.

Ray Lanza. Biggest celebrity in the country. Started as a grocer, then somehow scored an advertising gig, for pickles or something. Very, very good looking young man. Suddenly he’s a celebrity chef and every housewife’s pantry pin-up. Allegedly vegetarian. Owns a couple of vegetarian restaurants and a grocery mini-mart chain. Joseph and I would watch his show every other week on a Sunday. Handsome, famous and very, very rich. Also very publicly an only child from a long line of only children. So much for the family theory. Unbelievably, I was already looking for a theory. Joseph could be delusional. His conviction would be just as strong and I would not be able to fault the appearance of honesty if he truly believed the fantasy. But something deep inside told me this was real, something psychologists aren’t supposed to believe in – my gut.

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Chapter 2

Mike sat behind the steering wheel of the battered Mini, rain pouring over the windshield, leaking a little through the perished rubber surrounding the ancient shatterproof glass, and dripping occasionally onto the dashboard. It was 2am in a late autumn morning and he was damp and freezing.

I never thought I’d miss Emu Plains, he thought, not for the first time recently.

Emu Plains.

It sounded so frontier-ish, especially to the poor buggers stuck in this place their whole lives. The name evoked images of wide swathes of yellow grassland and covered carts and banjos around a campfire under the stars.

Not even close.

Emu Plains. The template for the stereotype of Australian urban sprawl. A great flat expanse of subdivided quarter-acre blocks filled with red brick and bindies, as far west as you can go in the Sydney Basin before you’re no longer in the Sydney Basin; a middle-class haven of humidity and anonymity.

Great pub though. Like all great pubs, it had been there since the dawn of time; shut down, re-opened, renovated, refurbished, bought out, burnt out and so it continues. The local cover bands were always terrible and welcome, and karaoke with two-for-one steaks seemed to double the population every Friday night. An old ‘Red Rattler’ railway carriage sat at the rear of the beer garden, a hundred metres or more from the nearest railway line and a hundred years out of date; its curved lead roof bearing down on ageing walls, held tentatively together by layer on layer of russet coloured paint over cherry-tomato rivets; wooden framed windows that might even slide up and down if the humidity lets up. It was a play-room for kids these days.

The rain had turned to fog on the bleak Glasgow street; no difference now between inside and outside the leaking Mini. Mike curled a sentimental lip at the thoughts of home. As an ex-girlfriend probably said, “It’s a fine line between a groove and a rut.”

No regrets.

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