This is the 11th instalment of Fare Game, a new novel. Earlier instalments are available by clicking links in the Archives or Categories boxes to the right of the page.
Last time, with The Innocent and the No-Good Boyfriend in the back seat of his taxi, Driver’s route took him past the scene of his father Luca’s death. Belatedly, Driver realises the No-Good Boyfriend looks familiar because his brother was the driver of the car that hit and killed Luca
Here’s what was established according to the police and to the undisputed acceptance of all parties, regarding the night Luca Ancelotti was run down and killed by person or persons unknown.
Sometime shortly before 2:30am on the morning after the running of the 2006 Melbourne Cup, Luca had pulled into the curb on Johnson Street in Fitzroy, a half block east of the intersection with Brunswick Street. Dim light seeped from the second floor windows of the Red Triangle pool hall, directly above where Luca had brought his taxi to a stop. It was from amongst the Red Triangle’s patrons that Luca thought someone might step out onto the street in need a lift home. The pool hall usually closed at 2am, but during the spring racing carnival those hours stretched out a little. If Luca was short of a fare and still awake enough to chase one, he knew this was as good a spot as any to round out his shift. Away from the inner-city clubs. Away from their unpredictability.
Right on 2:30am he offered a lift to a couple who appeared swervingly but good-naturedly from the Red Triangle. That couple declined a ride, in their drunkenly optimistic determination to walk the two miles home to Collingwood and possibly burn off some small part of their coming hang-overs. They later told police investigators that Luca had spoken to them from across the bonnet of his car, upon which he leaned, patiently and peacefully, with cigarette in hand. (Driver had never understood why his father, a medical man, had not summoned the self-control to quit smoking.)
‘I don’t blame you,’ he said in response to their preference to proceed on foot. ‘After all, it’s a beautiful night,’ he added, as he watched them totter along the footpath.
The pool hall patrons made particular reference to how friendly Luca was. The woman cried throughout her account, the police told Driver. She said she wished she had her time again because she would have most certainly taken the lift Luca offered, if it meant that he hadn’t still been waiting a few minutes later and been struck by the car that took his life. Both of them – the teary woman and her partner – felt a deep sense of guilt over their unwitting involvement in Luca’s death, and they should not have had to carry that load.
‘Did you come out on top?’ Luca had asked them, to which they had to answer in the negative.
‘Oh well, they don’t call it the sport of Kings for nothing. It’s them who can most easily afford to lose, which is why they win more often than us,’ Luca is reported to have replied. ‘But you’re still a lucky man. You get to escort a princess home!’
The couple said Luca had spread his arms wide, before bowing deeply and theatrically while delivering the princess line. I’ve seen Driver do exactly the same thing when he’s purposefully and playfully ladling on the compliments too thickly. And, in my mind, I can see the scene outside the Red Triangle perfectly clearly. I never had the honour of meeting Luca Ancelotti, but through Driver’s stories and through that one image I have drawn in my mind, of Luca charming that unknown couple in the moments before his death, I feel like I know him well. And I can appreciate a small scrap of Driver’s pain.
It may have been the very next Red Triangle patrons coming out onto Johnston Street who were more interested in a ride home. The taxi parked at the curb had its ‘for hire’ lights on but, from where the would-be passengers stood on the footpath, the car seemed empty. The gent walked around the front of the car to get a closer look inside the cabin and saw that the yellow panels down the driver’s side of the taxi, from the middle of the rear passenger forward, were all banged out of shape and scored with horizontal lines of dark blue paint, as if the taxi had been side-swiped by a passing vehicle. He noticed the side mirror had also been snapped off, apparently recently, if the loose wires dangling from the door like severed blood vessels from a limbless shoulder were any indication.
Yet there were no skid marks or broken glass on the road that he could see. There was some debris from the collision scattered across the road, although exactly what was there is disputed by other parties. Everyone agrees that the fractured side view mirror from Luca’s taxi was on the oily roadway, but not everyone agrees about the second side view mirror. The mirror of the car that hit Luca’s taxi and hit and killed Luca.
It was when Red Triangle’s weary reveller turned to look down the road ahead, in the direction that the passing vehicle must have been headed, that he saw Luca’s body, face down and unmoving on the bitumen. Luca’s head and shoulders protruded out into the road from between the next two parked cars, his arms resting neatly at his sides. The man said his body was arranged on the road as if he was sunbathing. As if, had the sun been in the sky rather than the moon, and a beach towel and warm sand been beneath him rather than his own blood and the lifeless black top, Luca’s posture would have perfectly described that of a man in a sun-kissed, easy slumber.
Piecing it together, police believe Luca had been hit by the passing vehicle as he leaned on his bonnet, perhaps in the exact same spot from which he had complimented the previous passers-by. The force of the impact appears to have thrown him into the air and over the parked car in front. While the parked car’s cabin roof and windscreen were unmarked, the bonnet was dented in and smeared in blood, suggesting Luca’s already broken and bleeding body bounced off it before sliding to the ground and coming to rest beneath the front bumper. He must have been killed on impact, the police were very keen to impress on Driver.
By the police’s estimates, barely two minutes could have passed between Luca’s declined offer of a ride and the discovery of his body. The first couple – the ones riddled with guilt for not accepting Luca’s offer – said they heard no screeching of brakes as they ambled homeward just a short distance down the road, which was consistent with the lack of tyre marks at the scene. They heard no thudding impact, no screaming or raised voices, and they noticed no speeding cars or erratic driving down Johnston Street. No banged-up, dark blue cars passed them, at least none that they were aware of. In short, there had been nothing to alert them to the untimely and brutal killing of the friendly old Italian taxi driver whose compliment had left them smiling as they wandered home in the warm night.
Other facts are known, in addition to those surrounding the certainties of Luca’s death, but for one reason or another these didn’t meet the requirements of certainty, or even of being beyond reasonable doubt, required by police to proceed with charges. Different people have different reasons for denying the veracity and reliability of these facts.
Hugh Thompson, the older brother of Simon Thompson (the No-Good Boyfriend), hosted some friends in the Nursery, as they call a section of the member’s car park at Flemington Racecourse set aside during the spring carnival for revelry unpacked from the boots of member’s cars. He drove his beloved old Triumph Stag Mark 2 convertible – a deep shade of navy blue – into the Nursery, around which his friends gathered and ate and drank and were very merry indeed. Afterwards, Hugh and his girlfriend repaired to younger brother Simon’s place, a half mile down Elgin Street from Melbourne Uni and a convenient mid-way watering hole between Flemington and the apartment the loving couple shared, just east of Kew junction and a couple of stone throws from the family home. The boy’s parents had also decided to end the day at young Simon’s place. Nobody disputes that.
About fifteen minutes after Luca had been struck and killed by a car of the same colour and dimensions (discernible due to the height of the dark blue scratches on Luca’s taxi) as Hugh Thompson’s Stag, Hugh left his little brother’s Elgin Street house. The time at which this journey began is a key point of dispute. Driver has reason to believe it was half an hour or so later than the Thompson’s allege. Anyway, Hugh climbed into his father’s car – the Porsche that the No-Good Boyfriend had six years later apparently taken over – rather than his own ageing but equally identifiable Stag, and proceeded to drive home. He made his way down Elgin, across Nicholson into Johnston, past the pool hall where, if Driver’s version of events is as right as I think it is, he’d have seen an ambulance retrieving Luca’s body. Then continued along Johnston Street through Collingwood, across the river and up the rise along Studley Park Road.
At the crest of the hill and just around a bend in the road he was pulled over by the police mobile alcohol testing bus and found to have a blood alcohol of .198. Well pissed, in other words. Driver believes this occurred at 2:55am, the time that was originally recorded but, Driver also believes, subsequently changed.
Hugh Thompson was alone in the car when he was pulled over and tested. Despite them living together, Hugh’s partner, with whom he had spent the day at the races, had for some reason decided to stay at younger brother Simon’s house. The Thompsons claimed she had fallen asleep on the couch after a day’s considerable drinking and people didn’t want to wake her. It came out later that she had grown to dislike the Thompsons, particularly younger brother Simon. Contrary to the Thompsons’ claim she was sleeping off the booze, she said she wasn’t asleep and hadn’t touched a drop. She said that earlier in the evening she had driven them all from the races to Simon’s because she was the only one sober enough to do it. She added that at about a quarter past two in the morning Hugh was so drunk she had refused to get in the car with him, when he’d suggested that he drive them both home. After pointlessly arguing back and forth and ultimately not being able to agree about who should drive, Hugh left her there and drove home while she called a taxi to get to the same destination.
When asked why there was a very significant fifteen minute difference between her recollection of when Hugh got in the car to drive home and when Hugh and his father said he drove home, she said she couldn’t explain it. And then there’s the question of why she couldn’t drive the Stag home, if she was sober and Hugh was in the Porsche. She said the Stag wasn’t there anymore and she didn’t know where it had gone.
She and Hugh Thompson split soon after Melbourne Cup Day in 2006.
‘Men can be dumb creatures,’ Hugh Thompson’s girlfriend told me when I interviewed her and she revealed the differences in her recollection of events compared with those of the Thompsons. She made the observation not as a half-joking, throw-away line, but rather as a genuine assessment. ‘Particularly those with histories like the Thompsons. Second generation money. They are conditioned to grow up with an expectation of social ascendency. A sense that they can do whatever they want and get away with whatever they’ve done. Scot free.’
When I told Driver about what she’d said, it made him shiver because he confessed that he recognised a little bit of himself and Minnie in those words. Not the second generation bit, but the expectation of social ascendency. He confided that he and Minnie had begun to expect as much in their own lives, but I assured him that, at least according to Hugh Thompson’s girlfriend, the Thompson boys were in another league altogether.
And it wasn’t just the girlfriend who cast doubt on the Thompson’s version of events. Driver’s subsequent investigations, assisted by me and some colleagues, lead us all to believe that what almost certainly happened on that early morning after the 2006 Melbourne Cup was that Hugh Thompson first got into his Stag – by himself or with his girlfriend – about twenty minutes earlier than his subsequent journey in his father’s Porsche. On that first trip he drove the same route towards home, straight down Johnson Street and over Brunswick Street where, in his drunken inattentiveness – Driver is willing to accept and in fact would rather assume there was no malice involved – he veered off course towards the cars parked in the left gutter. Hugh Thompson’s dark blue Stag then side-swiped Luca’s taxi, snapped off not just the taxi’s side mirror but also the Stag’s mirror, before proceeding to plough straight through Luca. Chances are Luca was still finishing the very same cigarette he smoked while complimenting the passing princess, and resting perhaps a little too drowsily over his bonnet. You can only hope the police were right and he didn’t see or even sense his end coming.
After punching Luca’s body into the night with his car, Hugh Thompson didn’t stop, at least not immediately. No one heard any screeching brakes, remember. No one heard or saw the impact. But the Red Triangle patron who found Luca’s body told me and Driver that there was a second side mirror on the road. An older, chrome-plated side mirror with a delicate, narrow stem to attach it to the car’s door. Like the ones found on early model sports cars. Like the ones found on Triumph Stags.
Hugh Thompson must have been roused by the impacts, first with Luca’s taxi and then with Luca’s body. The impacts would have shocked him back to attentiveness. His heavy and drooping head would have snapped back to a militarily erect posture, while his right foot would have jerked away from the accelerator pedal in an effort to slow the velocity at which the world travelled and give his mind a little time to retrospectively piece together what had just happened. Within seconds he must have known, or at least suspected, what he had done. His suddenly agitated mind would have been telling him that there were two contacts, two forces retarding the progress of his car – the first hard and metallic but the second more yielding – rather than just one. At least three pressing thoughts would have been clunking around in his half-drunk head, fighting for attention and understanding. First, High Thompson would have thought, I just hit and probably killed a man with my car. Second, I’m in deep shit. Third, how can I get myself out of this?
The upset to his night would have been sufficiently sobering for Hugh to quickly make the decision to turn around, go back to his little brother’s house and make a full and frank confession to his father. It would have been sufficiently sobering for Hugh to know that the person who had the best chance of fixing this mess – to fulfilling the objective of keeping him from having to face up to the consequences of what he had done – was his father.
One thing that haunted Driver each and every day of the six years that had passed since Hugh Thompson killed his father, was the prospect that the cowardly prick did a U-turn on Johnston Street and drove back past the Red Triangle pool hall, to confirm that what he thought had happened really did happen. To confirm the magnitude of his sin. The size of the pile of shit he had landed himself in. But not to stop. Not to lend any assistance to the man he had knocked down, who might possibly have still been hanging onto life, for all he knew. He had no interest in decency, or the redemption that he might have at least begun to earn by stopping to help in whatever way he could. He had no interest in taking responsibility for his actions. He was much more concerned with how he might keep himself at arm’s-length from that responsibility. Maybe even from guilt, if his soul was bankrupt enough. Foremost in his mind was how to evade justice. Self-preservation was his most pressing thought and, to that end, he made that full and frank confession to his father, who just happened to be Eric Thompson, senior partner at Ogilvy Thompson Lawyers.
That it was Eric Thompson who covered his son’s tracks was a significant twist of the knife in Driver’s heart. Ogilvy Thompson Lawyers, led by Eric Thompson, were known for their work in defence of the rights of the ordinary man. They did as much if not more pro-bono work as any other firm. They represented the unions and individual workers and, while not being anything approaching skint, were certainly much less granite and glass than many of the larger city law firms. Driver had looked up to Eric Thompson for his whole career. From afar, Driver regarded Eric Thompson as a role model, until the death of his father.
Driver came to hold the view – as did I and pretty much everyone else who had collected the less widely agreed information – that Thompson senior ordered the shocked and dazed young Hughie home in the Porsche, further instructing him to do nothing stupid on the way and to lay low. Stay home, sleep in, be seen eating a late and carefree breakfast at a usual café the next morning. Just go about his normal routine.
The fact Hugh got pulled over for drunk driving in his dad’s car after completing his second journey down Johnson Street was an unexpected bonus, as far as the Thompsons were concerned. Once the records were adjusted to show the time of Hugh’s drunken puff into the cop’s test kit and subsequent blood sample was a half hour earlier than it actually was – 2:25am rather than 2:55 am, placing him in the presence of police at the very time when Luca Ancelotti died – his alibi was rock solid. The veil that was to hide Hugh Thompson’s crime was already drawn.
Thompson senior looked after the rest. The following morning Hugh Thompson’s until then beloved Stag was found abandoned and far from home, signs of a glancing collision with a yellow car along the Stag’s passenger side and with a missing side mirror. Even more tellingly, the Stag bore the signs of an impact with a second object. Something heavy enough to have bent the front bumper, crumpled the bonnet and cracked the windscreen on the same side of the car as the first impact.
But none of those signs were particularly clear because Hugh’s car had been incinerated. It had been dumped amongst the bushes on the verge of the Darebin Creek in a quiet, industrial part of Thornbury, about a kilometre south of Bell Street, having been driven through some flimsy barricades at the dead-end of a darkened side street. The Stag had come to rest against a soon to be scorched silver wattle, accelerant had been splashed around the interior and a lighted match added to the mix. Not even the silver wattle’s capacity for fire resistance could survive that.
So, all in all, combining the positive blood alcohol reading the oldest Thompson boy blew, behind the wheel of his Dad’s car, which he was driving because his beloved Stag had been nicked, and unbeknown to him, crashed and then torched by undiscovered joy-riders, the poor fella had been through a rotten night. And to rub salt into the wound, he’d lost his licence.
And of course, Luca Ancelotti’s death remained an apparent mystery. Different teams investigated the two crimes and no one connected the hit-and-run killing in Johnston Street Fitzroy with the theft and the sad end of the ‘stolen’ Stag. The unaccounted for slender stemmed, chrome-plated side mirror – which a witness statement identified as being found on the road near the scene of the accident – was never recovered. Worse than that, it was not actually unaccounted for. Someone must have known where it was, even if the police didn’t, because the only plausible explanation is that it was removed from evidence and hidden.
Between us, Driver and I had plenty of contacts in the police and legal fraternities. Good and reliable contacts whose thoroughness and discretion could be counted on. It didn’t take long to piece together what really happened. Less than a week. But our contacts weren’t as good and reliable and thorough and discreet as the Thompson’s. So no matter how well it was pieced together, no matter how tightly knit, the fabric of the evidence implicating Hugh Thompson in the killing of Luca Ancelotti would never be cut to fit the lawyer’s eldest son.
As you might have guessed, Driver didn’t easily accept that. No matter who the killer had been, Driver wanted to chase justice for his dead father. He wanted to ease the pain that he and his mother and older brother felt so deeply and completely. He wanted also to ease the acute sense of betrayal he felt at the hands of his former legal paragon, Eric Thompson. His distress at and hatred for Thompson senior was far greater than for his drunken son. His faith in the law was destroyed.
And only a week after the event, when Minnie miscarried their first child, Driver blamed the Thompsons for taking his child from him, too. With good reason, you’d have to think. It only served to increase his passion for Hugh and Eric Thompson to be brought to account. Fairly and fully.
But it was futile. I told him so, as did everyone else who had helped uncover the real events of Luca’s killing. Once we knew who we were up against and once we witnessed the dexterity at manipulation and deception – not only by the Thompsons but by too many other people in too high a station, who could be connected to them – it was clear that there was to be no chance of a fair and full account being brought against Hugh and Eric Thompson.
After another week of sleepless and fruitless persistence, Driver was crushed. He was darkened and made desolate and despairing. It seems almost cruel to say it, but while Minnie’s miscarriage made everything worse, at least for a day or two, it was almost certainly the trigger for Driver to rise above his gathering and potentially suffocating depression. To leave behind the destructive efforts to find justice for his father. Only two short weeks had passed, but the toll was great –too great – and I hate to think what he might have done to himself if he hadn’t had to redirect at least some of his energy and compassion into caring for his beautiful wife. Minnie was still with him, she was still very much alive, whereas Luca was gone and so was his first child. Caring for Minnie was something he had a responsibility to deliver and something that could bring about a positive and life-affirming result; their continuing and strengthening love for each other.
Conversely, dwelling on his father’s death and his child’s death and his failure to bring the Thompson’s to account was all darkness. Caring for Minnie demanded of him that he construct a smile for her – a genuine and enduring and convincing and uplifting smile – and that demand did at least as much good for Driver as it did for Minnie.
I’m telling you, the man’s a saint. A fucking saint.
© Mick McCoy, 2013