The bank note fluttered against the side of the kerb, the breeze tossing it over so it showed the magic figure of “100’‘. The journalists from the night shift of the Chronicle were on their way to their evening break, and Colin Clerk was the first to see the hundred-dollar bill. It was a summer’s night and the crisp new bill stood out in the twilight. Colin looked quickly about him to see if someone might have dropped it, then leapt off the pavement and scooped it up in his hand before the wind blew it into the road.
“Christ,’’ he shouted to the others, who had not noticed the bill. “It’s a $100 dollar note.’‘
They all looked about them now, after quickly glancing at the note, to see if there might be someone close by who could possibly have dropped it.
“Christ,’’ Colin kept saying, “it’s a $100 note.’‘
The journalists took themselves into the Hope and Anchor pub, their destination, with Colin holding out the bill in front of him, as if frightened it might burn his hands. The journalists took their usual position in the corner of the bar.
“Who could possibly have dropped a $100 bill and not noticed it,’’ said another of the journalists, Thomas Butler.
“Well, what do we do?’’ Colin asked the others after a moment of thought. “Do we give it back or do we spend it?’’ he added with a guilty laugh.
“Spend it,’’ interjected, the third of the journalists, David Harding. “Serves the fucker right for losing it.’‘
“But we can’t do that, could be an old lady or someone out of work just collected the dole,’’ said Colin, the office union representaive.
“Colin’s right,’’ said Thomas.
“I’m only joking about spending it,’’ said David, “but only partly. What do we do? Take it to the police and, if no one comes to claim it, the coppers get it. Not likely.’‘
David was un unpublished poet and novelist who harboured a resentment about what he described as prostituting himself in journalism. He would always take his frustration out on the world.
“Well we can stipulate it goes to charity, in that case,’’ said Colin, coming up with the perfect solution to assuage a guilt that had crept in when he had considered spending the money on booze for the trio.
The journalists had been so preoccupied with the note, discussing and studying it, that they had forgotten to draw the landlord’s attention for drinks.
Colin ordered three Boag’s draught and looked for the nod of approval from the others, to pay for them with the $100 note.
“We can always make the money up after we’ve spent a bit of it on a round, I mean give the police a cheque or something,’’ said Thomas. “That way it’s sort of proof we found it.’‘
They all agreed that was the course of action to take, if they decided to take it to the police.
The landlord now had been handed the bill, and the journalists had kept quiet about its providence. The landlord was a friend — in the way a landlord is a friend to journalists, forming a symbiotic friendship that sees journalist angst exchanged for alcohol and profit — but he did not have to know about how they came to have a $100 note when it was not a pay week.
Not one of the journalists had said a word about finding the $100. There was no complicity planned among them to keep their secret, only an unspoken mutual concern that the landlord might spread the word someone had found a $100 note and someone in the bar, whom it didn’t belong to, would claim it.
“No, best leave it to whoever lost it to go to the police,’’ said Colin, reading the others’ thoughts.
“I’ll take it round tomorrow, or a cheque at least.’‘
One round of drinks led to another, then another, all paid for with the change from the $100 bill. Then another and the sub-editors realised that their evening supper break, usually a half an hour, had stretched to 45 minutes. They all agree that tonight they would stretch it to an hour and ignored thoughts of the stories in need of editing for the next day’s Chronicle building up in their computer queues.
“I think I might stretch it to a pint,’’ said Colin after a while, a measure in the pub usually served from huge English glass mugs to tourists.
“And why not?’’ said Thomas, “how often do we let our hair down?’‘
“And anyway,’’ said David, “I’ve been thinking that whoever dropped that $100 bill won’t go to the police. How would they know where they dropped it? It could have been anywhere and who’s going to go to the police and say, `I dropped $100 and I don’t know where’, and anyway how will the police know it’s his $100? Someone else might have dropped one.’‘
They all agree that it was highly unlikely anyone would claim the $100, their logic influenced in part by the alcohol they had been drinking and the effect excess alcohol tends to have on maintaining mores and obeying conscience, certainly in Thomas’s case. He had once trained for the Anglican ministry and found it not to be as much fun as journalism. After indiscretions related to drink, he would always take the devil to task for encouraging him to drop his moral guard.
“Well, gentlemen,’’ said Colin finally, as they downed the last of their pint of Boag’s draught. ``$64 left and same again tomorrow ... that’s if I don’t go to the police.’‘
Colin had tossed in the last part of the sentence as a final gesture to conscience, and no one seriously believed he would take $100 in cash, or a cheque , to the Hobart central police station. Events had moved beyond that stage.
A hard rapping on the door woke Colin from the nap he had been having on the sofa in his living room before starting his shift at the Chronicle in the evening. Seasoned night workers always took a sleep in the afternoon before going to work, which made it possible to rise relatively early in the morning and make the most of the day.
The rapping continued as Colin made his way slowly to the day.
“All right, all right, what is it?’’ he said opening the door.
Standing on the doorstep were two burly men in grey suits, and Colin did not have to be told, from all his years as a reporter doing the police rounds before he became a sub-editor, that these were police officers.
“Colin Clerk?’’ one of them demanded, and Colin nodded his head.
“We want you to accompany us to the federal police headquarters in Hobart,’’ the officer said.
“What’s this all about?’’ said Colin, struggling to find a reason for police to come knocking on his door, and Feds at that.
It couldn’t be anything to do with his family, that was uniform and local, and these were Feds.
“We’ll talk about that when we get there,’’ said the other police officer, who appeared to be the more senior of the two.
Colin was placed in the back of an unmarked police car, the doors locking from a central point as they were shut.
Colin was grateful the car was unmarked and the men in plain clothes.
What would the neighbours think, he said to himself and then laughed at the thought .
“So you think it’s funny,’’ said the policeman driving, the less senior of the two. He had glanced at Colin in the rear-view mirror as the car drew away.
“Just thinking of the neighbours,’’ said Colin trying to make light of the situation.
“Will you please, please let me know what this is all about.’‘
“So you can alert your partners in crime,’’ said the other officer in the passenger seat.
“I can’t alert fucking anyone. I’m in the back of a police car,’’ said Colin, now growing increasingly annoyed.
When they reached a police building in Hobart that Colin never knew existed, a little way from the main Tasmanian Police headquarters, the car pulled into an underground car park.
Colin was then led to a lift which travelled to the third floor of the anonymous building that seemed not to have an entrance from the road.
Colin was told to walk down a long corridor, the police officers behind him, and enter a room at the far end.
When he reached that, another man sitting at a big desk told him to sit down. The desk was bare, except for a transparent piece of plastic, like an envelope.
The police officer at the desk leaned forward and pushed the transparent envelop towards Colin. When it was under his nose, Colin could see a crisp, new $100 note inside it.
“Can you tell us where you got the note?’’ said the police officer sternly.
“Is it one of yours, I mean fresh off the presses?” said a voice behind him, from one of the police officers who had brought him from home in the car.
“What are you talking about?’’ asked Colin.
“What are we talking about, it’s fucking forged, that’s what we are talking about,’’ said the police officer sitting at the desk.
“But I found it,’’ said Colin, the seriousness of the situation finally hitting him. “I found it in the street.’‘
“How many times have I heard that?’’ said the police officer standing behind him.
Colin turned and caught a glimpse of David, wrapped merely in a towel, passing the open door to the office.
“And we got all your mates, you’re fellow printers,’’ said the officer at the desk. “You are printers aren’t you, down at the Chronicle? Nice lot of gear down there to turn out notes, we’re going through it as we speak, so you might as well come clean.’‘
Colin thought for a moment that the conversation so far would make a bad script for a TV police movie, but that’s probably how police spoke anyway, at least at this level. He’d only dealt with constables on the beat in the past, and police spokesmen.
“We’ve got men down at the Chronicle. We’ll soon find the press, and the paper you used. Men flown in from Canberra. They’ll find it, they’ll identify the press and your game will be up, but it’s up anyway. Come clean.’‘
“Yeah your mate next door has already come clean, ‘’ said the police officer standing behind Colin, “we dragged him from the shower.’‘
The police officers in the room roared with laughter.
Another officer, one Colin had not seen before, came into the room from the direction in which David had been taken. He came around the side of the desk and leaned over to whisper in the interrogator’s ear, but loud enough for Colin to hear.
“He’s going on about being in a tangled, tawdry tale from Thomas Hardy,’’ he said. “What the fuck is that all about. And the other says the devil made him do it. But he’s joking, he thinks it’s all a joke.’‘
“Concentrate on the wet one, these poets always crack,” said the police officer at the desk. “Probably thinks he’s fucking Oscar Wilde. The ballad of Hobart jail. We’ll teach him.”
Five men flown in from Canberra that morning turned the works of the Chronicle upside down looking for the press that had printed the $100 bill. It took them two days. There were hundreds of items related to the business of printing in the Chronicle’s works, most of it disused from the days of hot metal printing that had long ceased with the advent of computer typesetting.
The federal police, after two days, found no evidence to incriminate the journalists.
Colin learned during the course of his interrogation that the fake $100 bill was a good one, and had only been spotted by a sharp-eyed supervisor at the bank where it had been presented by the landlord, after passing through the teller’s hands.
The police finally accepted Colin’s story, and David’s and Thomas’s, after holding them for half a day, reasoning they would hardly cash a note they had printed at a pub where they were known.
When the trio got back to the Hope and Anchor that night, the landlord was standing in the doorway, anticipating their arrival at 8pm sharp, the time they always arrived.
“And that will be thirty-six dollars for the drink you had last night,’‘'he said with his arms folded, barring their entry, “and my sixty-four dollars change.’‘
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
The fifth in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … his musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler.