Market Forces


It was the appalling dress sense that caught his attention. He wouldn’t have noticed the woman systematically searching the market stalls had her clothing been more harmonious – and substantial. Perhaps she was colour blind or maybe searching for something more suitable to wear. Something more suitable than the clinging cerise top which exposed rather than concealed the unfortunate roll around her midriff and clashed with the blood orange choker. A woman of a certain age – his age say – might wear a chiffon choker to hide a wrinkled neck but the woman who was now examining an upturned hand-thrown pottery vase was surely not yet thirty? And the ill-advised short skirt revealed far too much of her sturdy young legs. Now that she had his attention it was her thorough search of each stall that compelled him to watch. She reminded him of a dog sniffing out truffles. Suddenly, as though she could feel his gaze on her back, she turned and saw him. The country market attracted bargain hunters, it was no cause for guilt yet the woman clearly showed signs of being caught out. She hesitated for a moment, torn between fight and flight and then, having decided on the former moved towards him. To pre-empt any imagined confrontation he raised his straw boater and smiled. The returned smile was no more than a reflex action and she scanned his site with the same intensity of her earlier search. She took in the strategic location shaded by an ancient spreading tree at a crossing of two gravel paths. There wouldn’t have been room for a conventional market stall but it was sufficient for his canvas chair and folding card table.
“You’ve got a good spot here,” she said, turning to look around the park. “You can see everybody who comes and goes from here.”
“The idea is for everyone to see me.”
She nodded, acceding the point. She tried to place his accent; not local, almost certainly ex-pat, possibly retired colonial army officer.
“Sell many of these do you?” she asked picking up one of his books from the neat pile.
“It depends how you define many. I recovered my production costs some time ago so any further income I regard as gelogenic profit.”
She blinked at that. “Self-published, then,” she said and used her knuckles to adjust the kitsch spectacles on her nose. “Churches of the Darling Downs – by Giles Spurling. That you?”
“You must be a detective.” He regretted the gentle sarcasm as soon as he had uttered it but he was still surprised by her aggression.
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s only a little joke – or is it?”
They eyed each other for a moment and her hesitation said as much as a denial.
“Were you looking for anything in particular?” he asked.
“Very particular.”
“Something that shouldn’t be for sale, perhaps.”
“You should be the detective, not me.”
“So you admit it then…”
She bit back whatever she was about to say and accepted that her need of his cooperation outweighed the irritation. “I’m making enquiries about some missing property. My name’s Pam Stokes by the way – of Pamela Stokes Investigations.”
“A private eye named Pamela? That won’t do at all. Female investigators have names which can be shortened to sound masculine – Sam, Jo or Alex; Pamela still sounds feminine when it’s shortened to Pam –”
“Look – Giles,” the irritation was gaining weight, “I’ll do a deal. You must know all the regulars here so if you point me in the right direction, I’ll buy one of your sanctimonious books.”
If she had been a man he might have felt threatened “My book will cost you $25 – and that includes GST of course”
When she blinked again he quickly added “That’s another little joke.”
Her reply came as a grunt as she struggled to pull her purse from a pocket of the too-tight skirt.
“You won’t find it sanctimonious at all: I’m an atheist.”
“Why would an atheist write about churches?” she asked, tugging the purse clear.
“People write fairy stories but they are not expected to believe in them. It’s the buildings and the stories behind them that are interesting. That colour plate you were looking at depicts the Church of St James and St John at Clifton; there’s actually a crypt beneath it. Local businessman James Mowen died in 1897 leaving a considerable sum of money for a monument to be built over his grave. The trustees of his will decided that a church would be a suitable monument and his remains were moved from the cemetery to where the church stands now – right in the centre of town. There are houses on each side and a primary school across the road. The shire council gave special dispensation for his burial in a residential area – it wouldn’t happen today.”
“Can’t wait to read the fascinating details.” She was quite capable of matching his sarcasm. “But there won’t be any bodies today, Giles, I’m not that kind of investigator. Ancient artefacts, antique jewellery, that’s what I’m looking for.”
“Well this is essentially a country market, much of it jejune admittedly but there are stalls with genuine antique bits and pieces – and some nice African carvings.”
“The bits and pieces I’m looking for are three thousand years old and Persian.”
“Oh, I see. Liberated during the invasion of Iraq.”
“Possibly. The people making the insurance claim say the stuff was bought legitimately – but they would, wouldn’t they? Their premises in Brisbane have been burgled, allegedly, not for the first time but this claim could hurt.”
“And your client is the insurer?”
“That’s right, the same company I used to work for – until I was ‘outsourced’”
Giles nodded. “A sign of the times, I fear and I commend your enterprise but why are you here? Why would items of such inestimable value be ‘fenced’ through a market in Toowoomba?”
“There are family connections up here and a market could offer a good cover. It’s much harder to monitor a market with all these punters browsing than a dealer’s premises in a quiet street. Some of the items have already turned up on eBay and a few have been seen at the Riverside market in Brisbane, so this one could be next. Are there any faces here you don’t recognise?”
Giles looked along the lines of stalls edging the pathways of the park. He cocked his head to catch the familiar sounds of distant bagpipes and new-age music from a hand-made soap stall, fusing into the market’s own distinctive Muzak.
“Most of the stallholders are regulars; the rugose old gentleman over there has been selling his honey for as long as the market’s existed – probably for as long as honey has existed. The couple at the next stall are also early pioneers. Raylene appears buoyant, a smile and a quip for every browser as she spruiks her beautiful hand-made quilts. But when there’s no one around, she turns to take care of her beloved ‘Darl’ – I’ve never discovered his real name – he’s terminally ill and hasn’t long to go. He just sits there quietly in his corner. It’s very sad.”
“So they’re not likely to be fencing antique treasures.”
“No and few of us here would regard ourselves as lucripitus; we derive satisfaction from seeing our craft go to good homes.”
“Very commendable I’m sure but some of us have to make a living – and I get paid on results. You haven’t seen anything suspicious or unusual then?”
“Well there was a contretemps earlier this morning; it became quite ugly for a moment. There was a dispute over that stall at the front, it faces the customers arriving from the carpark, you see so it’s considered to be the prime site.”
“And somebody nicked it?”
“Yes, the same people have occupied it for years, Dario and his family sell Italian confectionary – cannoli, cassata and almond biscotti – hmm, wonderful aromas. This morning they arrived late for some reason and a rival, Charlie the Chocolate Man, took their site and set up his stall. When the procellous Dario finally arrived he remonstrated with Charlie and they almost came to blows.”
“Over a market site? Punters wander all over the market; it wouldn’t matter where you set up.”
“Try telling that to regular stallholders; they can be very proprietorial. Newcomers are relegated to sites further back.”
“That’s where I should be looking then, isn’t it? I’m not going to find Persian amulets among the cannoli or hand-made chocolates. The question is: how would a potential fence know where to find them? They can hardly advertise their wares on a blackboard the way that chocolate bloke does.”
Giles thought for a moment. “Not on a blackboard perhaps. During the Cold War agents would leave information at arranged drop off points and then signal that something was to be collected by placing, say, red flowers in the window. Something that wouldn’t look out of place.”
Pam wrinkled her nose and pushed the Dame Edna spectacles uphill as she studied the self-published author more closely. “Were you in ASIO?”
Giles laughed at the suggestion. “The Cold War was virtually over before I came to Australia.”
“MI6, then?”
“Be suspicious of anyone who admits to having been in MI6 – he almost certainly wasn’t.”
“Well I could do with someone who was,” Pam said, moving away from the tree she’d been leaning against. “I’ll go and look further back for an art stall or antiques dealer with a bunch of red flowers out front.”
Giles smiled. “I shall remain here at my umbriferous observation post and keep watch for potential villains. Are there any known suspects?”
Pam picked up her copy of Churches of the Darling Downs and tapped it, not lightly, against her forehead as though trying to dislodge a sticking unit of memory.
“There’s a bloke whose name escapes me right now but he’s often been suspected when big ticket items have been on the market. He’s easy enough to spot: tallish, thirtyish, a goatee beard, dark hair scraped back into a pony-tail. And he often wears a leather vest over his bare chest so he can show off his tatts – a naked woman on each shoulder. There you can’t miss that!”
“Is it the same woman – on each shoulder?”
“Different lewd poses but, yeah, I suppose it’s the same woman.”
“So we’re looking for a romantic. And if I spot this hircine individual, do we arrest him?”
“I’m only concerned with recovering the loot – if it is loot – and a fence might lead me to it. It’s not my job to make arrests.”
“So you won’t take offence.”
“Sorry, another little joke.”
“It’s a bit of a lark to you, isn’t it?”
“Well it’s brightened an otherwise quiet Sunday morning. Book sales have been rather slow.”
Pam glanced at the book in her hand. “Why am I not surprised?” she muttered and stepped out into the sunlight to re-join the crowd of browsers.

There was a certain irony to her remark as it was almost certainly due to her brandishing of the book that prompted a couple of Danish tourists to enquire about it and subsequently buy a copy. Seeing other people buy probably gave potential customers the confidence to invest their money and maybe there was a collective acceptance that some stalls were ignored for good reason and were therefore to be avoided. A group merely stopping to ask directions could attract curious passers-by who might then make a purchase. Giles Spurling doubted if anyone fully understood the psychology of market shopping but he was happy to engage his Danish customers in conversation and relieve them of $25. He pointed out the photo in his book of a Lutheran church at Nobby, a township which in the 19th century had become the home of many Danish settlers. He urged them to visit a Danish church at Pittsworth, a town 40 kilometres to the west where to this day the rugby league team was known as the Pittsworth Danes and he might have nominated other churches of interest had his attention not been snatched away. A tallish figure, a man probably in his thirties with a goatee beard had momentarily turned away from a stall to face the sun. Giles noted the leather vest and pony-tail and felt sure he had spotted Pam’s target. He promptly wished the Danes a happy holiday and turned back to his surveillance.
Mr Goatee had moved on but appeared to be in no hurry, pausing to examine oil lamps and horse brasses at a ‘heritage’ stall. It was on the far side of the chocolate stall, around a bend in the path and Giles had to stand to keep the target in sight. The question was: what to do now? Should he follow Mr Goatee or set off to find Pam the Investigator? He was scouring the crowd for badly-dressed women when there was another diversion, directly across the path. Raised voices, angry voices were coming from the rear of the chocolate stall. Dario had returned to reprise his grievance and Giles watched anxiously as the hand gestures became more agitated. Dario was Australian born and bred but his gestures had surely arrived with his Italian genes. Charlie’s gestures were less expressive but scornfully dismissive as the two men continued to harangue each other. Mothers moved their children away to avoid the unpleasantness and eventually Dario stalked off across the grass towards his own stall.
Giles looked away for a moment to where he had last seen the target but then Dario suddenly returned, a metal object in his hand glinting in the sunlight before it came down, slashing into his adversary’s neck. Charlie the Chocolate Man made no sound but fell back into an awning, scattering trays of dark chocolates. His crimson blood spurted rhythmically up the pale canvas wall as his wife sank to her haunches, screaming.
Giles didn’t hesitate; he crossed the gravel path in a few swift strides. His handkerchief was already in his hand as he dropped to his knees among the forlorn chocolates to apply pressure to Charlie’s pulsing wound. A handkerchief was never going to be adequate and he gestured to Charlie’s distraught wife for something more practical.
“What’s he done, what’s he done?” she whimpered helplessly.
“Pass me the tea-towel and phone for an ambulance!”
The woman seemed paralysed by the trauma so he reached for the towel himself.
“Do you have a mobile phone?” he asked. “Dial triple 0 and ask for ambulance and police. Tell them exactly where we are. Do you understand?”
She nodded and with child-like obedience fumbled in her bag. A middle-aged woman, mistaking the splash of red on canvas for abstract art, screamed when she realised what it was. She fainted, taking a pyramid of chocolate fudge down with her. Onlookers sensing more danger moved away in panic as others, more curious, pressed forward. Giles continued to apply pressure to the wound but was startled by a flash of brilliant light as a young woman used her mobile phone to photograph the scene.
“Use that thing to dial triple 0!”
“I got it already, ambulance is on its way,” the American-accented girl replied and moved in for a close-up.
“There were two policewomen patrolling the park earlier,” Giles said “they can’t be far away. Perhaps you could look out for them?”
“Right, I’ll do that. And I’ll wait for the ambulance.”
Giles nodded his thanks He hadn’t give much thought to Dario returning for another attack but he could now see the blood-stained dagger, lying on the grass and the attacker himself ambling back towards his confectionary stall, head up, honour satisfied.
Charlie had slipped into unconsciousness by the time the police arrived to take over. Giles indicated the weapon and the perpetrator and then wearily got to his feet. Blood was splashed up his arms and squashed chocolates stuck to his knees.
“Were you a doctor, then?”
“No, it was part of the training – oh, it’s you Pam!”
“I heard the crowd go quiet; all the chatter and laughter stopped, the way birds go silent before an earth tremor. I knew something terrible had happened. Then I find you covered in blood. I was wrong about that, wasn’t I? There was a body, after all.”
“He’s not dead; I think we’ve saved him.”
They stepped out of the way to make room for the paramedics wheeling a gurney from the ambulance.
“You were supposed to be helping me,” Pam gently chided.
“This is not the time to be pusillanimous, Pamela, we are almost there. You see, I had a clear view of the altercation: Dario had no weapon. After the angry exchange he stormed off towards his own stall which is what – 30 metres away? Within a few seconds he was back brandishing a dagger. He could only have passed behind one stall in that time – the one selling heritage wares.”
“So,” Pam mused, “he must have seen the dagger there, snatched it up on the spur of the moment and come back to stab poor Charlie.”
“Now join the dots. The man you suspect of being a fence for the missing artefacts is at this moment standing at the heritage stall. The weapon is currently in an evidence bag being held by the policewoman – the one lacking muliebrity – and through the clear plastic you will observe on the handle of the dagger the most intricate Persian design. I think we are there.”
Pam wrinkled her nose, pushed up the heavy glasses and stared at the weapon.
“Giles, that is brilliant!”
“Worth the price of a book,” he suggested and went in search of somewhere to wash his hands.


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