An excerpt from Huckstepp by John Dale

1

THE PHONE CALL

On the last day of her life, Sallie-Anne Huckstepp arrived home at 4 p.m. and sat by the window of her two-bedroom flat directly above a heater shop in the inner eastern Sydney suburb of Edgecliff. The flat was small, cottage-like, with white walls and cream carpet. She stared out the window at the dark clouds massing over the city and rubbed at her forearm. The fracture didn’t seem to be healing and was giving her a great deal of pain.

She had changed into the camisole that she wore around the house, her flatmate, Gwendoline Beecroft, was telling me, recalling the details of that grim Thursday back in February 1986.

‘It was really pretty. This little apricot camisole with lace. Sallie used to walk around in that with shorts on. It looked like she’d settled in. “Let’s have a quiet night,” she said, “I’m expecting a telephone call at five to eleven.” I cooked dinner and about nine o’clock went down to the Cock ’n’ Bull for a bottle of wine. I was only gone about ten minutes; when I came back Sallie was doing her nails. She was really calm. Scott McCrae popped in to pick up a suitcase of his clothes that he’d left in the dining room. He did not stay. I went off to bed and woke up when the phone rang. It was 10.55. Sallie-Anne was in the shower. I got up and answered it.

‘A man’s voice said, “Is Sallie-Anne there?” Sallie had come out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her. I handed her the phone and went back to bed. I was lying there when she came into my room and flicked on the light. “It’s Wozza,” she said. “At least I haven’t got to go to Ashfield this time.”

‘She became flustered. She started running around like crazy. She got changed into her blue top and jeans and went out the door and then she came racing back up the stairs. The way she ran up the staircase really frightened me. I jumped out of bed and went to the door. She called out, “Gwen, it’s me, Sallie!” Her mood had changed from being totally relaxed to being really frantic. And she just brushed past me and ran to the bedroom. “What are you looking for?” I said. “What’s wrong?”

‘“My keys,” she said, “I’ve forgotten my bloody keys.” She was going through her big brown carry bag.

‘I said, “Is everything okay?”

‘She rushed into the lounge and turned over the cushions on the sofa where she slept. She was panicky. “I’ll be back in five, ten minutes,” she said, the way people do. Then she flew out the door. I didn’t hear the car pull out or anything. I went over to the front window. I stood there for a few minutes just in case I saw anything, but there was nothing, not a car or anything. I returned to bed. I thought she must know what she’s doing. I didn’t think anything was wrong. I didn’t think it was that unusual to go out at eleven o’clock. I mean, some people don’t go clubbing until two or three.’

On a blank sheet of paper, Gwen Beecroft carefully drew a map of the interior of the Edgecliff Road flat she and Sallie had shared. ‘My bedroom was overlooking the street,’ Gwen explained to me across her kitchen table in Christchurch, New Zealand, where I had finally tracked her down on the tenth anniversary of Sallie-Anne’s murder. Gwen Beecroft was the last person to see Sallie alive and I wanted to find out exactly what she knew.

‘It was basically a warm room,’ Gwen said, ‘got a lot of sun. Nyran, my son, was using the other bedroom. This guy Scott McCrae brought Sallie around to my flat. I was moving out. “Can you put my friend up?” he says. I told him I was moving out. “Maybe she could take the flat over,” Scott said. “It might suit both of you.” I knew nothing about her. She was just this lovely little blonde lady. Tanned. She was just really nice. I’d never heard of Sallie-Anne Huckstepp before. I was going through a hard time then. Breaking up with the father of my son. Kevin was in a band. And a lot of the people I knew from Mi-Sex, I found out Sallie knew. So she stayed and as time went on she began to tell me about her life.

‘She showed me photos of Kalgoorlie, the old jail house where she worked as a prostitute. She told me she knew a lot of Sydney criminals. She’d started using heroin through her husband, Bryan. It was funny, she had regrets, but she didn’t seem unhappy about her past. She was upset about the corruption, the ruthlessness of certain New South Wales police. She used to get worked up about the cops. The way they got hold of your life and manipulated you, she said. A couple of weeks after she moved in I had a dinner party and Sallie had too much to drink. She started swearing like a gutter rat and there were people from the medical profession there. She was saying F this and F that and I had to tell her to cut it out. She was behaving rather tacky.

‘Then she started getting these phone calls about every second day and she’d say, “Oh, that’s Warren Richards”. She called him “Wozza”. At first she seemed happy to get the calls. She told me that Richards fancied her but she wasn’t interested in him, she didn’t explain why. The last two or three weeks things changed. She owed him money. She owed him a lot of money and was trying to pay it off through dealing. On the Tuesday morning of the week she died she had to go and see him in Ashfield. She was really hesitant to go and she said, “Oh God, I wish you could come with me!”

‘“Why, what’s going on?” I could see something was wrong, and then she said, “No, no, I don’t want to drag you into it”. She was scared. Really scared of Richards. She was being harassed. In the last two weeks I felt it in the air. My house took on a bad atmosphere. There was a lot of mould in my bathroom and it just grew. The mould grew in my shoes and bags and things. I remember having to throw out all these clothes. Then I caught her hitting up between her toes in the bathroom. She was sitting on the loo with her legs up on the vanity. I told her I wanted her out. I said my life’s stressful enough without that. She started crying; she said she had nowhere else to go.’

A Xoum Publication.
    John Dale

    John Dale is the author of the true-crime biography Huckstepp, the novels Dark Angel, The Dogs Are Barking, Leaving Suzie Pye and Detective Work, a novella Plenty, and the memoir Wild Life, an investigation into the fatal shooting of his grandfather in 1940s Tasmania. John’s essays, reviews and non-fiction have appeared in a wide variety of journals and newspapers. He teaches writing at UTS and lives in Sydney.

    www.john-dale.net