December 2008 – January 2009

The Nation Reviewed

The black polo

By Charles Firth
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Some questions are taboo.

At 7.49 pm on Friday, 24 October, two twenty-something women, both about 170 centimetres tall and with brunette hair, parked a freshly washed black late-model Volkswagen Polo outside Tabou restaurant, in Sydney's Surry Hills. They jumped out; one ran to the ticket machine and inserted $4.40, returned to the vehicle, and carefully placed a ticket on the dashboard. The two women headed north along Crown Street, towards the Clock Hotel.

They never returned.

Every day since then, the employees of the upmarket French restaurant have grown more and more curious about what happened to the women. If they were dumping the car, why would they pay for parking? If they had stolen it for a joyride, they certainly wouldn't have bought a ticket: that would represent a clear breach of the Joyrider's Code of Misconduct. It seems the two women were intending to come back, but never did. Very suspicious.

The Polo had been sitting there for a couple of weeks by the time I was tipped off by an anonymous source who wishes not to be named. (Oh, all right - it was the editor of this magazine. I think she was drunk.)

 A parked car. It seemed an intriguing case, so I decided to investigate. Ever since Chris Masters retired from the ABC, I've thought that a new generation of investigative journalists should step up and take his place. Here was my chance. If I was lucky, perhaps the women had been involved in an awful crime and I would have a scoop. The case might make me Australia's Truman Capote. I immediately went out and bought a hat.

By the time I visited the scene, a few days later, the car was covered in bird excrement. Its roof and bonnet were plastered with a sticky residue. Perhaps that was because it had been sitting under a eucalyptus for weeks, but I couldn't be sure. I took a swab and bagged it. I'm pretty sure Chris Masters would have done the same thing. It might be a useful clue. It might even bring down the Queensland government.

I noted that gumnuts lay across the roof of the car in an asymmetrical yet hauntingly beautiful arrangement that could only be the work of a great abstract artist, or chance. I scribbled a note on my pad. It might not have anything to do with the missing women, but it would be an elegant detail in my novelisation of the case. I called a publisher at Picador to find out what sort of advance I could expect. She hung up on me.

The case was getting more suspicious by the minute. What did Picador have to hide? Why would the company want to stop the publication of this story? At least The Monthly, with its commitment to fearless investigative journalism, would not flinch from reporting it. I wondered whether I could claim lunch at Tabou on the Monthly expense account. I'm sure that's what Chris Masters would've done.

After finishing an entrée of escargot (which I don't recommend: frankly, they taste like snails), I took a closer look at the Polo. A white denim jacket had been tossed on the front seat. I surmised that it had been purchased at Supré, because it had a Supré tag inside the collar. Observations of this sort may seem trivial, but they're vital to an investigative reporter. If I remember the Four Corners report correctly, Chris Masters realised that the French bombed the Rainbow Warrior after he noticed one of the men was wearing a Lacoste shirt beneath his scuba-diving gear.

On the back seat were two plastic bags. One had bills and letters in it. The words ‘account' and ‘overdue' featured prominently on the piece of paper at the top. And there was more. The driver had left a hair band wrapped around the gearstick: she was obviously someone who let her hair down on a Friday night. I felt I was closer to building a profile of the missing persons. Clearly the driver shopped at Supré, partied on Fridays and didn't pay her bills on time. The clues were slowly forming a chilling story. I understood how Chris Masters felt when he discovered that Russ Hinze took kickbacks from property developers.

But why was the Polo still there? I like to think that if I abandoned a car in a two-hour parking zone, after a few weeks there would an investigation. At the least, I'd expect a call from the police, probably threatening me with a jail sentence unless I moved it. But the state's intervention in the matter of the black Polo amounted to plastering the car with an $81 fine on most days of the week. The latest fines - one for each of the previous five days - had been neatly folded into a thick orange envelope. A waiter at Tabou told me that a week earlier he'd counted eight before they all blew away.

This was a revelation: I'd always thought that once you got a parking fine in one spot, that was it - you couldn't be fined again there. It was the parking-offence equivalent of double jeopardy. But the City of Sydney is seemingly unaware of this important legal principle and Hollywood plot device. I had my first major finding: you can be booked multiple times for the same parking offence. Was this enough to secure the front cover of The Monthly? I could only hope. It certainly explained how the City of Sydney had reaped $158 million in parking fines since 2004.

Ten days after the car was left, Mark (a chef at Tabou whose last name must remain secret, because I forgot to ask him what it is), decided to call the council. His reasoning was simple. The Polo had a residency permit for R26 - a different section of the City of Sydney - and the council would have on file the owner's details. Mark suggested that, instead of handing out a fine each day, the council might like to give the owner a call - perhaps even find out if she was all right.

The helpful staff member took the details of the permit, but mumbled something about it not really being their responsibility. Nothing happened, and the tickets kept piling up. Dissatisfied, Mark called the police. Perhaps they would have the power to move the car, and therefore would contact the owner. But before Mark could explain the situation, he was interrupted: the officer on the line started reading him a phone number for the local ranger. There was nothing the police could do. No crime was being committed by a parked car. It was not abandoned, merely neglected.

And so Mark made his third call. The ranger told him there was nothing he could do either. The car was registered until January 2009, and until its rego expired, he was not permitted to tow the car. The ranger could, however, whack it with fines. "Where did you say it was?" he asked, sensing an easy $81.

I switched tack. The two missing women were in their mid twenties and, as one young waiter at Tabou (whose name I did not record, as I was eating a soufflé and couldn't hold a pen at the same time) told me, "Anglo" and "cute but, you know, each to their own. I'm not saying they would be to everyone's taste." The restaurant is a haunt of Daily Telegraph journalists; if the women really had been murdered, it would surely have been front-page news for a week.

I asked the waiter what he thought had happened to them. He said he thought they'd been abducted and were now in the Middle East. He laughed. Finally: here was the tip-off I'd needed. This was not some grubby, run-of-the-mill murder investigation. I wasn't the Truman Capote of Surry Hills. This story had links to terrorism. Not only that, but - as I soon discovered - Kevin Rudd is a regular patron of Tabou. The case led straight to the highest office in the land.

I called the federal government's terrorism hotline, which still operates, even though there won't be an election for two years. In due season I was transferred to a woman, probably Anglo, certainly without a trace of foreignness in her Aussie accent. She took down my details, though she said that I could remain anonymous if I wished. Apparently the hotline's phones don't have caller ID.

She seemed relieved to have some human contact. (I was calling on a Sunday afternoon. When you're investigating the story of your life, you work weekends - just ask Chris Masters.) I asked her how many calls like mine she receives in a year. She said, gravely, "I'm not at liberty to say." I asked her whether the hotline was only interested in terrorism. No, she said: anything "not within the norm" should be reported. I asked whether, if I "see something", I should "say something". "Yes, indeed. It is important," she replied. I told her that I saw something pretty much every day.

She took down my findings about the car and the missing women in much more detail than anyone else had bothered to. I told her that I'd already talked to the police and the council, but nobody thought the parked Polo noteworthy. She said that I was right to call the hotline, and that the information would be handed to the police. Then I told her I thought Australia's intelligence agencies probably ought to be notified, as it was likely that the women had been taken to the Middle East. She became very serious. "Really? What evidence do you have?"

I explained that a guy in the restaurant had mentioned it, and that although I suspected he was joking, it was nevertheless a solid theory. "Right," she said. She gave me my case number, 1002388, and asked me to call back if I had anything else to add. I hung up. A warm feeling of righteous pride swelled inside me. This must be how it felt to be a Stasi informant. I saved the hotline number in my mobile phone. I had a feeling this was not going to be my last case.

The black Polo remained on Crown Street; the two women were still missing. But I had my story. And if Picador will furnish me with an advance of no less than $10,000, I might write a book about it.

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