【FORCES】


- one -

A perfectly full moon was all that was missing from this romantic night. As it were the moon was waning, my boyfriend and I sitting back on a quilted picnic blanket on the beach. It was the colder half of autumn but we were warmly dressed in oxford polo jumpers. The water was black, flat and glassy. The city lights of Eastland hooked around the bay, stretching pillars of orange across the surface. Our breaths misted, but my soft clothes and his body were warm. The moonlight was silvery in Tom's blonde hair.

If I wanted to please him further I'd have brought candles and flowers, but I had the good judgement to know our relationship was still in an early, somewhat casual stage. Tom would've been irked, most likely. However I did bring his favorite dessert, a display of great attentiveness if not effort. I comfortably sighed and wrapped myself around his arm. Privately enjoying an idea I couldn't say: This man owns me. I belong to him.

"That asshole Valmont is going to have a board meeting over my homophobia complaint."

"Oh really?" I murmured and rubbed his back.

"I know the guys were just joking around but he's the one who took it too far."

"A manager should know better."

Instead of enjoying ourselves or the night, my paramour ruminated on his day-to-day troubles. Unreasonable parents, who he was still living with. His work and the bosses he hated. I listened to him voice his personal troubles for most of our night, he talked with mild disdain. Afterwards we spent a goodly amount of time kissing each other. And then, both of us having work the next day, we packed up and I drove us back to mine. From there Tom drove twenty minutes back to his parents' house. I went to sleep in my rented flat with no complaints about how our night had been.

Work is in a nondescript brown building in the busy center of Eastland. Multi-story and cobbled, the headquarters for our peninsula's third best-selling newspaper: the Maudlin Post. Journalism; I am the cub reporter, the new blood. After parking my silver Toyota, swigging the last of my drivethru coffee and tossing my paper cup in the entryway bin, I pushed open the glass door and made my way past rows of office cubicles. Co-workers smiled at me, I was well-liked. I sat at my desk and stared morosely at the two inches of paper beside my tray of paperclips. I needed another inch to finish my report.

I'd barely started up my computer before George flew to my desk. He looked trendy: crew cut, neat beard, black gauge ear-piercing. I'd known George for three years, long before I started working here. He was a quiet and easily-affronted guy.

"Boss wants to see us."

"Is this about that Milton case?" I guessed by his bright eyes and grin.

"The Creson case," he corrected "and yes. Come on."

He flew from my sight again. I sighed, having just readied myself to buckle down I stood and prepared for our talk with Mr Tourvel.

Our editor-in-chief, esteemed publisher John Tourvel had an office with a window-view of a brick lot and the backside of a shopping complex. The Maudlin Post was neither huge in staff numbers nor acclaim, coming third place in its own city. His hair was all grey but his face looked younger, gold wedding ring and Rolex peeking over a hairy wrist. To me he seemed like a hard-working uncle who was nevertheless a hoot at family parties after a drink or two. He in fact had framed photographs of nieces, one by his telephone showed two girls in pink tutus with star-tipped wands. He liked me, as everyone else here did, and called me his cub reporter. Though the quality of my work was far from dazzling, I did work hard. I stood before his desk and beside George; the latter had his hands in his pockets and was swinging excitedly on his heels.

"Mr McGarty here tells me you're interested in accompanying him on this assignment in the country he's proposed." He raised an eyebrow to me, brown eyes moving back to my bouncing colleague. "Proposed, and pushed and pushed…"

"I rent in a share house with two flat-mates, Mr Tourvel." I answered him, unenthusiastic and practical "I got to pay rent there."

"Your hotel accommodation can be covered for two weeks, on top of your usual pay. Petrol and other expenses will be on you."

I bit my lip but George shut my fears down "I'll drive. Lochdale is pretty isolated and small, and there's a good amount of public transport there."

"Mr McGarty has spoken very highly of your knowledge on psychology and personalities."

At the boss's complement I immediately went to talk myself down "It's not like I have a degree. I did one six-month Tafe course on Mental Health." When I caught sight of George's outlandish expression I forced myself to admit "…But I have read more than a few psychology textbooks."

Mr Tourvel studied me curiously, nodding his head as if trying to figure me out.

"Well, Phillip Cleckley" he used my full name "If you want to partner up with Mr McCarty here who assures me he needs your help, this will be your first out-of-town assignment of investigative journalism. It's good for you to have a partner on your first case who can show you the ropes, that is if you reckon you can stand him for that long."

"Criminal profiling was never my focus…" I bit my lip again. If rent would still be paid and so would our accommodation, I had no objections to this business-trip-holiday. It was admittedly, interesting and potentially exciting. "I'll do it."

"Even if this doesn't turn out to be the scoop Mr McGarty thinks it is, we can still turn it into some kind of college death tragedy piece, even if it's nothing front page." As the boss spoke George froze with anticipation "Alright I'll allow it."

My colleague almost jumped.

The boss eyed me "You can finish the financial reporting when you get back."

After the meeting we went back to our cubicles; I endeavored to finish as much of my work as I could. George told me he'd come over my place that evening to discuss our trip, and then bright and early next morning he'd drive by to take us on the three-hour journey to Lochdale. When he caught me at the end of my lunch break, all he could talk about was the Creson case as he sucked on his cigarette. Still bright-eyed.

The Adam Creson case. A college student in Lochdale, twenty-two – the same age as me – was strangled to death and his body left in a ditch. He was on private farmland and had indeed been trespassing if he'd walked there himself. I'd looked at his averageness in old smiling photos, read some benign details about his banal life, and couldn't relate to the victim on anything besides our age. What I saw as a straight-forward tragedy was to George a scoop because he was certain he knew who did it.

When walking back to my car I pulled out my iPhone and saw Tom's text declaring he wanted to end our relationship. In but a single sentence he decided our courtship was over. I slowed to a stop at my car door, frowned, then pocketed my phone. I unlocked my Toyota and got in. I no longer belonged to that man, the fantasy dissipated like smoke sucked out a car window. I sat for a moment and imagined the face of my blonde ex-lover and felt… nothing.

Fleeting disappointment came and went. I adjusted the rearview mirror to study my reflection to be sure. Straight hair that was ashy-dark. Equally dark, almond-shaped eyes. A sharp and angular jaw, features that seemed fitting my pale complexion and medium height. Nowhere was there any indication of sadness, neither hidden nor approaching. This little study didn't surprise me as I'd already been compelled to serious reflection and introspection after an event that took place some years prior.

Years ago I'd been in a turbulent and abusive relationship. I feel bashful and mildly perplexed in confessing that, I was in an abusive relationship. I never felt abused, even though that was happening, and as my good friends took notice of the drama, mistreatment, casual manipulation, bruises even, they were horrified on my behalf. On looking back at that chaotic relationship with my extremely troubled and self-focused ex, I only recall finding him engaging and enjoyable. I never cried during the relationship or afterwards, though he balled like an infant on a few occasions. When the relationship ended I was very disappointed, but also completely cognizant of the fact that it was too disruptive to our practical lives and understood it unfeasible to continue.

When our ten-month relationship was over, and my friends and acquaintances recalled many instances of abuse with outrage, as I remained deeply disappointed yet unwounded, I had to admit to myself that I wasn't normal.

In mirrors I'd studied my reflection closely for some kind of injury that might be hiding from me. Should I speak to a counselor or a psychiatrist? I felt afraid of myself. I work, I have a social life, people like me. But something wasn't right. Why should I look for professional help when I function normally and have no pain? So I didn't speak to anyone, but in dying to know I did my own research and self-reflection. In psychology textbooks I found an answer for what I am.

I do have empathy, I'm not a psychopath. I'm something else.

George almost beat me to my place. It was a two-storey, two unit beige-brick home. The landlords upstairs were a polite elderly couple who own an annoying little dog. Peace is frequently disturbed by episodes of barking. Downstairs I lived with two girls in their twenties, a hairdresser studying fashion design and a receptionist studying marketing. We'd lived together some months now and our interactions were cordial and distant. Apart from the odd minor issue we tolerated each other well. When George and our mutual friends came over, sometimes to play retro board games, my room-mates would on occasion join and socialize. Nobody was rowdy, and I reminded George to smoke outside instead of by an open window.

George and his buddies were people we met from board game and card game clubs, or from years ago Youth groups or sports teams, even people we met and grew to love from clubbing and pubs. A lot of them were film buffs who worshipped David Fincher and the likes of him. They liked to put in their own two cents on politics, the state of the world and conspiracies, like any good social grouping. My easily-affronted friend George found a case that immediately ruffled his feathers, raised his hackles. He hated common injustice and had seen enough crime movies about them.

"The Milton family is the richest in Lochdale. Even the college there named the library after them." George jabbed his finger into my circular living room table, onto the newspaper clippings and papers he'd printed. "Daddy owns a company that builds luxury boats and they are loaded, and that's where we get to this spoiled little shit right here…" he slid a photo over to me "Stanley Milton."

I'd heard this spiel before but leaned over to peer at the face of a handsome young man. A wide smile, stylishly tousled hair and green eyes. My heart thudded – maybe because he was good-looking, maybe because he was a train-wreck of a person. Maybe both.

George sounded righteously angry so I didn't interrupt "Stanley here has been arrested countless times for petty crimes. Drug use, joyriding, stealing, stealing peoples' cars and then joyriding. His Daddy bails him out every time and tries to keep it hush-hush. This guy never learns, it's bad enough that he's privileged beyond belief, but he doesn't give a shit about rules or anything. Completely spoiled and entitled! If it weren't for the fact Lochdale is fairly isolated they'd never get away with letting him run loose, it'd never happen in Eastland. Latest news is he took possession of a stolen car, sped around town drunk and high, then crashed it. He's currently being held at the police station but they're bound to let him go again."

"This Stanley Milton is a piece of work I'll give you that…" I commented as my eyes skimmed the pages "But what makes you think he's a murderer?"

"Are you kidding? Look I've done heaps of research on his criminal history. The guy smiles in his mugshots. He barely shows up to the college his Daddy's paying for. He's like one of the Paul brothers. The guy thinks he's invincible!" Another urgent finger-poking on my table, making it wobble. "I tried calling the Milton residence for some kind of comment, thought maybe they'd try the whole 'talk to my lawyers' shtick but whoever she was, the Mum or maid or something, just hung up."

I leaned in and studied the evidence with more scrutiny. Adam Creson and Stanley Milton were both students at Lochdale College. They'd occasionally been seen associating with each other in public. Adam's body was found on private property, so he'd been trespassing, and looking at Stanley's criminal offenses it became clear he'd done his fair share of trespassing. Even so, I knew George had spun this in his mind to be like the macho detective Finch movies, full of masculine philosophy and criminal psychopaths. He'd stereotyped this Stanley guy, but there certainly was reason for his suspicion.

"Mr Milton has managed to cover up, pay off and suppress his son's criminal behavior…" I murmured. "You think he'd cover up murder too?"

"Phillip, buddy listen, whenever me and the boys discuss detective movies and serial killer documentaries the stuff you come up with just blows my mind! The way you can see straight through the bullshit, see straight into a person's psyche and figure out their personality, their motives, it's amazing. It's like you can put yourself in the mind of a psychopath. You've got a great mind, and eye. I told you you'd make a great journalist, and now here we are doing investigative journalism on a real-life murder!"

"Mm."

"You're likable, people like you. You'll definitely get a feel on this guy if you get an interview, and ask around town. Then we'll see just how likely it is he murdered Adam Creson. I bet there's a motive."

George was sure of himself; he almost convinced me. I went to bed early, respecting my weekday bedtime. My roommates were sure to enjoy a little extra space. Bright and early on a Tuesday, my colleague pulled up in his bronze Holden pick-up truck. My clothes and toiletries were all packed, as I carried the luggage out the door and over the driveway I wondered about our hotel, which was sure to be crappy. There's no way Mr Tourvel would dig deep enough into his pockets for anything over two stars. In being that kind of guy, George hopped out while the car was running, helped me fit my luggage into the backseat.

"Alright," he was triumphant "Let's go catch a killer!"

I gave a wry smile as I walked around to get to the passenger side "You don't suppose Mr Millionaire Milton will pay to have us killed if we find evidence his son's guilty?"

"We'll be fine! We got the law, justice and the Maudlin Post on our side!"

"That's not reassuring." I buckled up as he pulled out onto the street and drove out.

On the dashboard were pamphlets for Lochdale College. I got New England vibes, the place was preppy like that Robin Williams movie O Captain, my Captain! Dead Poet's Society. Or perhaps Good Will Hunting with the younger Matt Damon. Lacquered wood and tennis-playing college kids with their Greek-letter fraternity houses. Learning about Socrates and the sciences between drinking and sex. I was glad it was Autumn, the college was full of Maples and other Northern-hemisphere trees. The whole campus would likely be bloodied by the red and gold leaves.

We soon left the sprawling metropolis that was Eastland Bay. Then it was suburbs before we hit the highway. An hour in we stopped at a seven-eleven for petrol, and since I felt bad I tossed George a twenty and insisted he keep it. As he lined up to pay for fuel I drifted about studying the magazine and junk food shelves, then the soft drink fridges. It was the kind of petrol station that sold pies, tools, grocery items and even sushi. I looked over the supply rack for anything we might need. We headed back to his car with breakfast (ham croissant and sausage roll) and snack food (Dare iced coffee, Mountain Dew, Twix bar and a Maxibon ice-cream).

George drove the rest of the way. I almost offered, but as a P-plater I couldn't drive without plates. I saw little advantage to getting my greens so was lazy about it, but in being two years older George was on his full license.

It was before midday when we entered the town limits of Lochdale. The terrain was mountainous and the trees were Pines. We descended a hilly road to a world of forever-autumn. Orangle, crinkly leaves in pillow-piles you could hide in. Possums and squirrels frolicking and scrounging above. The sky was white. I felt like I'd stepped into an old novel. An elderly gatekeeper was working in an old crypt, he wore a knitting-pattern cardigan and beanie. I bet it was the fashion of the town and everyone dressed similarly regardless of age, this place reeked of such intellectual sophistication. I couldn't see the college. Despite the old-style cabin houses, I read that Lochdale had its own art galleries and museums toward the upper-scale suburb of Highfair.

George drove while his charging iPhone struggled to hold its connection, the map app finally leading us to the hotel. Two and a half stars.

"Is that a pub?"

"Yeah, our accommodation's upstairs."

"The boss sure has a lot of faith in us." I couldn't help joking.

"Say, how's things going with Tom?" George thought to inquire as we parked. He was straight, like all my male friends. I found it difficult to maintain friendships with other gay men, it was usually rife with pettiness or casual sex. George had never met Tom, but he'd seen my blonde ex-lover in photos.

"Ah… we broke up." I slowed before unbuckling my seatbelt.

"Oh shit, when?"

"A week ago." I lied. "It was a mutual thing. Different personalities, different life goals. Don't worry about it."

"Sorry about that, man." He could see how plainly I didn't care so let it drop. I'd been nervous as we left the car, and when carrying our luggage to the back entry of the corner pub I wondered if I should've pretended to be sad.

After getting our keys we walked to the wooden staircase. Left of it was a regular old-school pub, and to the right a restaurant of typical pub food, the pokies and a chocolate claw machine. There were some old patrons sipping pints of beer, a couple at a table sawing into chicken parmigianas. After settling in upstairs George wanted to get to work immediately, declaring we should split up to cover more ground and reconvene at the end of each day. Like some old school detective, George fancied talking to Adam Creson's family to rule out other motives. I imagined him opening smoothly with the line: Hi, I'm a reporter for the Maudlin Post. Oh, you haven't heard of it? I added that last part sarcastically.

George was soon off to get started. Without a car I was left to walking, taxis or busses. I'd spent enough of my day shut-in, I walked to the corner store with a mind to talk to some locals. The gossip amongst the townsfolk could very well point me somewhere, and average people were far more inclined to give quotes than the police or the victim's family. Greedy for publicity. In my pocket I had a notebook, some pens and an old-school audio recorder just in case I should happen to get a proper interview. Walking the footpath I huddled into my polo, blew on my hands and rubbed them together, wondered if I should've brought gloves.

I walked into the local corner-store that doubled as a newsagency. It was bigger inside, the whole back section dedicated to art supplies. Shelves of magazines and birthday cards. Posters for the lotto by the glass entry. I'd just finished introducing myself to the stringy-haired counter lady, and chatted about the tragedy of Adam Creson's cruel death. She'd left me with the implicit opinion that it wouldn't have happened if only prayer was still done in schools. The woman turned away and before I could do the same there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a pretty young woman in Gucci sunglasses that covered much of her face. Neat chin-length hair and although she was dressed smart and subtle, my eye could pick out the finer detail of the clothes. Of the handbag she kept close to her side.

"You're the reporter? From the Maudlin Post? How old are you?"

"Um." I was taken aback. "Yes, and twenty-two. My name's Phillip Cleckley." I offered my hand, immediately aware this woman would be something useful. On close inspection she looked younger than me. After a hesitation we shook hands, hers were gloved.

"I'm Claire Milton. You were calling about my brother, right?"

"Yes, Stanley."

"One second." She raised a finger to me before turning away, fishing out her mobile and calling someone. I stood aside and waited while she had a fierce, quiet discussion. I hadn't thought much about Stanley's siblings, or if he had any. George wouldn't believe I'd get this lucky so soon, though it'd be unlikely this girl wanted to expose her own brother. Right? She hung up and stepped back to me "My brother Stanley wants to speak with you."

I was momentarily stunned "Now?"

"Yes." She snipped.

"I don't actually have a car-"

"Then I'll drive you."

"Alright." I couldn't say no, and she did look the part. "Where is he?"

"Lochdale police station." Claire answered matter-of-factly. Then walked off, expecting me to follow.

I was going to meet Stanley Milton. Little did I know, if I'd had a hundred guesses as to what Stanley was going to be like I would've still been surprised.

- 。-