The protestors continued to chant, their voices forming a faint accompaniment to the conversation between the man and the boy who sat on the bench underneath the plastic umbrella.
They were discussing Hamlet.
The boy seemed to think that too many people died. It was unrealistic.
"Even if your father was the King, surely you couldn't just go around killing people!"
"In those days you could. The people in control held the power of life and death over their subjects."
"That's wrong. No-one should have that power. It's too dangerous. We could all end up like those two blokes that tried to suck up to Hamlet. You know. Raisin-toast and Kill-the-germ."
The man laughed. "You mean Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?"
"Yeah. They were a real pair of sucks, but I still don't think they deserved to die."
"No. You're right there. They tried to help poor Hamlet, rather clumsily, I'll admit, and he ended up using their deaths to save his own life. You'd think he could have saved one of them, at least. And then, it was all such a waste."
"Well, it was all in vain. The message about their death didn't arrive until everybody else was dead. There wasn't anybody left alive to hear that they had died."
"Sounds a bit like a nuclear holocaust!"
Cassie felt the ripple of appreciation pass through the audience. They liked her play! She forced herself to watch the stage rather than the people who were sitting, enjoying her play. She watched the players, savouring their performance. The familiar words were fresh on the tongues of the actors.
The second act drew to a close. The confrontation between Gung-Ho Greenie and Ritch N. Greedie startled Cassie. She had forgotten what a contrast it was to the preaching humour of the first act and the rest of the gentler paced second act.
The curtain fell to enthusiastic applause. Cassie remained in her seat, watching the crowds flow along the aisles towards the exits. Snatches of conversation that reached her filled her with a buzzing that compared to the sound that filled the theatre during the intermission.
Linda was impatient. She was pleased for her mother's success, but eager to get amongst the crowds and look at the people. There were a lot of famously familiar faces - her mother had met many people during her career.
Cassie and Annie rose. Linda walked to the lobby, clutching at Morgan's arm. She began eagerly pointing out the celebrities who had joined the opening night crowd. While she recited her intermittent list, Annie fetched drinks. Paul, a journalist who was currently working for The Chronicle, strolled over to Cassie and congratulated her.
"You haven't seen the end yet," she argued. Linda interrupted the disagreement.
"Mum! Look!" she squeaked. "It's Ezekial!"
Cassie froze. Unable to turn her head, she sensed Zeke approaching from the foyer. He walked into her vision, forcing Paul to move aside. He took her hand in a warm greeting.
"I am so pleased to meet you again. The play is magnificent. I can't wait to see where it goes from here."
Electric thrills travelled from Cassie's hand throughout her body. Her eyes were drawn to Zeke's gaze. The doubts she had felt during the last three months dissolved, along with her determination to resist this disturbing man.
"I'm pleased to see you again, too." Cassie suddenly smiled at her inane greeting. It hardly described what she was feeling. Pleasure was only the beginning - where would it lead?
"Could I join your group for the evening? I don't know many people in Australia, and none of them are here."
"Yes. Of course!" Cassie was finding it difficult to speak. Somehow she managed to introduce her companions. Linda promptly asked for Ezekial's autograph. When he obliged there was a sudden flock of people who also sought a famous signature.
Cassie stood back and watched. Zeke occasionally looked up at her, grinning with a ready humour.
The gathering dispersed quite quickly when the bells rang for the Third Act.
"There's a spare seat in our row. Why don't you sit with us?" suggested Annie. She was an observant person, and had decided that the glances between Cassie and Zeke were definitely meaningful. Annie couldn't let an opportunity pass.
"But loook," whined Tim, "how can we call ourselves Greenies if we don't want to save the whale?"
"There aren't any whales left to save, dummy, and if we don't do something about the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect there won't be any of us left either!"
"That's true, Jack, but I'm not really sure that you've got your priorities right." Sky had a puzzled expression on her face. "It doesn't matter if we could have saved the whale, not if we're just going to be blown up in a frenzy of nuclear stupidity."
"Perhaps it would be better if we did nothing," said Gung-Ho. Jack, Tim and Sky stared at him in amazement. His voice became more bitter as he continued. "We may as well do nothing for all the effect we've been able to have on the world."
"Besides," he said, shaking himself from his gloom. "we won't get anywhere if we sit here and argue all day. Of course, we could argue while we're on the way to the Greedie Building."
"What do you mean, do nothing?" asked Sky as they began walking slowly off the stage.
"Well, you've got to decide how to use your time and resources, don't you? You aim to achieve one thing before moving on to the next."
"Yes, but you can't ignore other things that are happening. You have to try to do something about them too."
"Yes, but you can't do everything. We've had to split our resources too much in trying to cope with what's going on."
"Yeah. And unless we can do something soon that really does help to clean up our environmental act the planet'll be so fucked you'll run out of the air to argue with!" Jack's belligerent tones dominated the argument that continued for a time after the curtain had closed.
The audience's applause was rewarded by the curtain lifting for the next act. Annie peeked carefully at Cassie, and was disappointed to see her maintaining a polite distance from Ezekial. She returned her attention to the play.
Greedie and his men were arguing among themselves. They had decided to renovate one of their manufacturing plants to produce one of their more lucrative commodities - but there was a problem. One hundred barrels of trouble a day.
"Well what does the government want us to do about it?"
"They won't let us go ahead with the plant until we can dispose of the waste safely."
"Oh," said Greedie, smirking. "That's easy. We just dump it at sea. At night so that the neighbours don't start worrying about it when we load the trucks. Those `moon-suits' the disposal boys wear can be a little . . . startling."
"It won't work again."
"You've been saying that for twenty years and we're still getting away with it."
"But never at this location. Their Environment Protection Authority is good. They test the water every day. You know how those barrels leak. And they prosecute if they find some-one polluting."
Greedie rested his forehead thoughtfully in the palm of his hand.
"Mmmm. What about discharging straight into the sewer. Would they be able to trace that?"
"I don't know. I'll get the boys in Research to check it out."
"What would happen if we burnt the waste?" suggested the most timid of Greedie's men. He rarely said anything, but was useful and loyal. Greedie looked at him, speculating.
"Well?" he said to his right-hand man. "What would happen?"
"If we got it to burn very quickly, a lot of it would be destroyed. There would be some toxicity in the smoke. I'll have to see what the testing procedures are for air-borne pollution."
"Yes. There are people living in the area. Some-one's sure to raise a fuss."
"What about taking the plant somewhere else? There are places where they'll ignore the problems if you grease their palms."
"Let's see if we can do this without it costing us any more money, gentlemen. You know we only make a ninety percent profit on this item."
The men began laughing. When their boss became quiet, the men also stopped laughing.
"I think I favour the sea - or the sewer. Whichever is least likely to be found out. I never did like swimming and I hate seafood."
"Yes sir," simpered his chief toady. "Although I think I should point out to you that the air-borne toxins have been linked conclusively to birth defects and fatal childhood diseases."
"Oh yes," moaned Greedie softly. "There are people living near the plant. I'd forgotten. There's nothing more tragic than sick children, is there?" He paused for a moment, meditating. "All right. You've convinced me. Get the engineers onto building a suitable furnace straight away. We'll burn it - send the trouble up in smoke. And don't forget to organize a false report for the E.P.A."
"Yes sir," his favourite henchman said, smiling broadly. His smile was short-lived, as a group of rowdy protestors burst into the office.
Gung-Ho Greenie and his supporters faced the enemy of mankind, bravely holding their signs and banners high. G.H. stepped forward into a spot on the stage which was more brightly lit than all around it. He raised his chin and spoke.
"Societies have always abhorred those who broke their moral codes. Although accepted behaviour has changed over the years, two things have remained constant. `Thou shalt not kill' and `Thou shalt not steal'.
"Your industry kills. We have proof of a thousand deaths due to wastes from your plants, unsafe products and unsafe work-places. And now our Earth is also dying.
"You steal your profit from the people who slave at your tasks for the pittance you pay. To live they must buy food you sell to them at ridiculous prices. They work nine hours a day to ease the growling in their stomachs while you sleep until midday and wake to choose between five breakfasts. You have more than you need. You could give away three-quarters of what you own and still have a hundred times more than the people who toil to increase your wealth.
"You are a parasite that grows fat by feasting on living flesh. For the health of the world you must be removed."
The audience started, shocked by the huge knife that Gung-Ho suddenly produced. He waved it above his head, then stepped towards Greedie.
"No! Stop! You mustn’t do this! It's wrong!"
Adam rushed up and grabbed at his father's hand. Gung-Ho tried to push his son aside.
"No. Dad. You always told me to be better than the rest. If you do this you're no better than him. Worse, perhaps. I thought you knew the difference between right and wrong!"
Gung-Ho's arm dropped to his side. He hung his head.
Adam walked over to Greedie and faced the man who had talked to him about Hamlet in the park. How could this be the man that his father said was the most evil man on Earth?
"You must realise what you're doing. It's wrong. You have no right to make people suffer just so that you can make more money!"
The stage lights dimmed, and the back walls of the office parted to allow a figure to emerge into a pale and misty spotlight.
"I'm dying of lung cancer because of a gas leak near my home."
The figure shuffled to one side of the stage, and another pathetic creature stumbled forward. She spoke in sobs, clutching a rag doll to her chest.
"My baby is dying of leukaemia because we lived near a nuclear power plant."
She joined the other figure on the side of the stage as a man limped into the spotlight. His crutches glared in the light.
"I lost my leg because the company I worked for thought that safety rails were too expensive."
Then, “My crops have failed and my family is starving because of droughts brought on by climate change.”
To one side of the stage a crowd began to build as the miserable people delivered their lines and joined their peers. The throng of suffering humanity grew until it covered almost half the stage. Eventually there were no more victims of greed to walk through the gap in the scenery and air their woes.
The stage was quiet as the business-men faced the evidence of the human misery they had caused. A sudden noise drew all eyes.
A puff of steam heralded the arrival of Death. He carried a scythe, his robes flowing as he walked confidently into the light. His face was shielded by the sombre cowl of his outer cloak, but there was no mistaking the macabre figure of the Grim Reaper.
A hush fell over the theatre.
Death moved as though he were observing the audience through the cowl that shrouded his face. He scanned first one way, then the other. Seeming satisfied with what he saw, he faced the centre of the theatre and threw back the cowl to reveal his face.
The audience gasped.
Death had grown fat. As he laughed with satanic pleasure, his jowls quivered. Frank Thring was in fine mettle and his cameo appearance a huge success. His victims in the theatre seats took a collective deep breath and calmed their startled senses in time to applaud enthusiastically as the curtain fell.
More than anything, Cassie was stunned. She sipped her coffee, allowing the panic to wash over her. Relaxing, she didn't allow the sensation to take her over. Accepting that it was a real emotion, and perfectly understandable, given the circumstances, Cassie wasn't afraid of the rushing blood in her veins.
Zeke placed his hand on hers. The action was curiously calming. Cassie was able to speak.
"Yes!" She paused. "How could I say anything else? I'd be crazy to. This is . . . unbelievable."
H.P. Wood smiled his broadest smile and slapped his hand on the table.
"You do it with style, Zeke. A classy lady with a classy play. This thing'll be a hit. And the publicity!"
He slapped Zeke on the back, then stood up abruptly.
"I gotta go. I'll see you tomorrow." Woody surprised Cassie by planting an enthusiastic kiss on her cheek. Then he left.
"Does he really mean it?" Cassie finally said.
"Yes," said Zeke. "He'll be having the papers drawn up right now. He wants to be ready for tomorrow's meeting."
"But why buy film rights on condition that he doesn't use them until he wants to?"
Zeke laughed. "So that he can line his pocket from the live performances he'll be funding before he makes the film, of course. And when he makes the film, it'll have a good reputation before it starts."
Cassie became thoughtful. "Perhaps I shouldn't accept his offer."
"I think you should. It gives the play good coverage. You'll reach people one way or the other. And it is a powerful play live!" Zeke took Cassie's hand in his. "Don't let me make up your mind for you. Contact friends, lawyers, any-one whose advice you would think was helpful. I don't want to be your business-partner." Zeke stopped speaking to look at the people in the coffee-shop. "It's crowded here. Could we walk somewhere together?
"I have to talk to you."
Two figures approached the derelict building. The solidly built man followed his youthful companion. Both walked cautiously along the neglected pathway.
They didn't knock at the door. The sturdy figure pushed past the youth and knocked the door in. The occupant had no time to react. The intruder leapt into the lighted room, gun in hand.
"Don't even dream about moving!" he threatened. Ralph Larsen, the only occupant of the condemned cottage, sat without breathing. He wondered whether speaking would be considered to be moving.
Jason quickly checked the rest of the tiny building. Finding no-one else there was a relief. He returned to the living area with renewed respect for his mother's insistence on basic hygiene.
Richard Rank was leaning against the frame of the door. He watched Larsen with interest.
"How does it feel, Ralph, to be trapped like a rat?"
The man sneered and turned to his son.
"Jase, what is this?"
The boy turned to his father, unable to disguise his contempt.
"Shutup Dad. Listen to me for a change. A friend of mine's in trouble. This is Richard Rank - a Private Investigator. He says that, not only can you help me find my friend, but you can also help him get some bloke who's been a real arse-hole."
"Yeah?" replied Larsen. "A dick looking for an arse-hole? What for?" He leered suggestively at Jason.
"You're scum Larsen. Scum like the scum you work for." He was sure he had the man's attention. Richard continued. "What age do you prefer them?"
Larsen gaped, then lunged at Richard. The younger man easily deflected the attack and carefully sat Ralph back in his chair.
"You know, I'm impressed," he remarked. "I really didn't expect moral outrage from you! Next I'll hear you've joined the Salvos."
"Don't get smart," growled Larsen. "What d'ya want?"
"The truth. Do you enjoy licking the arse of bastards like B.B. Raven?"
"Raven?" He seemed worried. "What do you want with Raven?"
"We want evidence that would put him behind bars."
"You want to put him away? Jesus, I'd be glad to have that prick off my back." He turned to Jason. "I know I haven't been a good father to you, boy, but I wanted to change. I'm just too weak. And now that arse-hole Raven has managed to convince some real heavies that it was me who squealed on them when it was really him, trying to bugger up the opposition."
"So you'll help?"
"Oh yeah. As if I'm not in enough shit as it is!"
"We can help you . . . if you help us," said Richard Rank.
"Yeah?" His sneer faltered a little. "What do you want to know?"
"There isn't much I don't know. What I need is evidence. Something solid to support the facts - a witness or two, perhaps."
"No." Larsen shook his head.
"I didn't think you'd be crazy about the idea. Only hear me out. Listen to what I've got to say before you crawl back into your squalor to hide."
The man nodded his head grudgingly and grunted. Richard began reporting the results of his investigations.
"How B.B. Raven came to be a slime-ball isn't my problem. How he came to be here is.
"His business in America was doing well. He was well-connected. Then suddenly he skips the country. It cost his businesses heaps. Guys like him don't usually migrate suddenly, just because they like the climate. They buy holiday homes, damn it! I had to know why he came. That's where I got him.
"I looked. Finally I found the connection. Our friend Raven didn't really want to come to Australia. He got himself caught - red-handed. Only he had a friend in the right place. A friend with a "conscience". He could get Raven free - at a price. He wanted him out of the country. As far away as possible. Raven's connections in Australia made it the obvious choice. Trouble was, with his little bit of bother with the law, Raven wasn't really a good candidate for "Desirable Citizen of the Year".
"But his friend had a friend, who had a friend "Down Under". He worked - at least, he spent his time - in the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. By replacing a paper here and losing a document there, he expedited Raven's case. He met Australia's newest son after he had had a chance to settle in.
"Raven was expecting the visit. He expected to pay for the misplaced papers and incorrectly recorded information that this public serpent had been responsible for. Then they met." Richard shook his head in disgust. "It was only natural for them to like each other. Like is drawn to like."
He looked up at Larsen. "You know what those two are!"
Larsen averted his eyes.
"I didn't want to be a part of it, but it was better that I was. He'd have got some-one else to help him if I hadn't. They might have enjoyed their work more than I did. It would have been worse."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Jason was confused. "You said my Dad could help us find Ang. What's all this got to do with Ang?"
"More than it should, kid," Richard said sadly. He paused dramatically, staring at Larsen. "I know that you acted as a procurer for Raven. Catered to his deviant habits."
"Yes," the man replied. "And you probably wouldn't believe how ashamed I am of the whole disgusting business."
"You remember Alex Eristic?"
Larsen snorted. "He's not an easy person to forget. Do you want to get him as well as Raven?"
Richard Rank levelled his gaze at the wasted man who sat before him. "You know Raven better than any-one else. We could use your information to help build a case against him. You could help stop him and his crooked mate.
"Yeah - if I live that long!"
"You said you were ashamed of what you'd done."
"I am, damn it! But there's no way I can help you without landing in trouble myself."
"You can't avoid trouble. Look at these." Richard Rank drew some photos from his shirt pocket. He passed them to Larsen. Larsen took them and looked, dumb-founded. "You can't win either way. Here's your chance to get the bastards. Just listen to what I have to say."
Jason looked at the two men and realized that once again the adults were just going to sit and talk. He sighed and made himself comfortable.
"When Eristic and Raven met, it was more than just a business transaction - blood money for services rendered. They were soul-mates. They understood more fully than any-one else the person they faced. They knew how the other one thought. Each sordid and selfish idea. It was natural for Raven to help "Eric" when the opportunity knocked. The two have been scratching each other's backs since.
"When Eric managed to land the F.I.S.H.E. job it must have seemed to him as though he'd won the lottery. And Raven has been behind what has happened. Today the Institute isn't even able to conduct or monitor vital research because the funds aren't flowing.
"Raven is responsible for the FISHE scandal! I'm sure of it! Who knows the damage that pair might have caused by delaying science? And then there are his other illegal and immoral activities." Richard almost spat. "We have to get Raven. And Eristic.
"A year ago their books were audited. It was a surprise inspection. The auditor was straight down the line. He wouldn't hesitate to call the law.
"The audit was expected to take a few days. The guy they had called in to do the job had to stay at a hotel. He booked in when he arrived. But he never returned. There is no evidence at the F.I.S.H.E. offices that he turned up. I know.
"Of course, he did show up. Raven called me and the boys as soon as Eristic called to ask his friend a favour. When we got there the bloke was buried in the accounts. He was following trails of figures, trying to sniff out the crook. He never even heard us come into the room."
Larsen gaped. He had underestimated this man!
"It was a good job. They found the body, eventually. They couldn't determine the cause of death, so they couldn't really call it murder. They say he was a top-notch accountant. Jonathon Beau. He even had a classy name. Now I wish I'd kept some of those books for evidence."
Richard Rank shook his head gently. He was disgusted with the life he had led.
"Then, a year later, I found myself on a beach in the middle of nowhere, monstering the dead bloke's girlfriend. I knew something was wrong. And I've been trying to do something about it ever since.
"I want to nail that bastard. Only they can't prove murder - I made damn sure of that. And anyway, Raven didn't actually kill any-one, did he?
"There are so many shady deals that guy has been into. He's ripping people off left, right and centre. But I haven't been able to get any evidence on him. There must be evidence somewhere!"
"Yes," said Larsen, without a hint of hesitation.
"Photos," replied Richard.
"Yes." Larsen was puzzled. "How do you know about them?"
"I have my sources - but I don't have solid evidence."
"But what about Ang?" interrupted Jason, impatient.
His father looked away from him. Richard Rank strode over. He placed a hand on each shoulder. He looked Jason straight in the eye. "She could provide some of the most damaging evidence of all. If we can get her into a witness stand. But she shouldn't have to face this alone. Your father knows of photos. They would add to her testimony. They could gaol that arse-hole. He may even know of other matters which may be of interest to the long arm of the law."
"What the hell could Ang know about this bloke?"
Richard's face became more grave. "She knows that he . . . molests young women."
Silence was kept at bay by Larsen's growl. "And he'd do more than that if he could get it up. All the high-living's left him limp."
Jason finally managed to speak, his face pale. "He . . . with Ang?"
"Well put," Richard said drily.
"So where is she?"
"I told you that your father knew about Ang. I didn't mean that he knew where she was. I know that she is safe. But my sources won't say where."
"Why didn't you tell me? What sources?"
"Ang is safe. My sources can be trusted. They want to get Raven as much as I do. And they've helped me out. But they can't be named. Not yet.
"I don't think you would believe me if I told you what I know. And I don't know the whole story. It seems that there is more to this whole business than just nailing that scum to the wall. I can't think what, though. What could be more repulsive to our society than a child molester, and one who commits fraud to boot? What could be more important than bringing a murderer to justice and stopping his nefarious activities?"
"Finding Ang," proposed Jason.