/ Language: English / Genre:det_crime, / Series: Cliff Hardy

Lugarno

Peter Corris


Peter Corris

Lugarno

1

‘How d’you feel about drugs, Mr Hardy?’

‘I’m all for them — caffeine, alcohol, paracetamol…’

‘Please don’t be flippant. You know what I mean.’

I did know what he meant, but sometimes I just can’t help being flippant. Sometimes too, it helps to give me a handle on what sort of a person I’m dealing with. Flippant back is one thing, serious and impatient is another. Martin Price was serious. He’d phoned mentioning the name of a client who’d mentioned my name to him. Not a bad conduit to me, especially as I remembered the client and he’d paid well. We’d set up this meeting at the coffee shop on Glebe Point Road next door to the Valhalla Cinema. He’d seemed a bit surprised at the venue, but then again I’d been a bit surprised at his chosen time — 8 a.m. on a Monday morning. I’d explained that the place was closer to where I lived than my office and that I wasn’t what you’d call an early morning person.

So there we were at a table out on the street with two long blacks. He was in his expensive but slightly wrinkled business suit, and I was in my jeans and leather jacket where wrinkles don’t matter. He was tallish like me, in fair physical condition like me, with a full head of hair and cleanshaven — again like me. There the resemblance ended. We’d only been there a couple of minutes and he was on his second cigarette. My last cigarette had been back when they cost about a quarter of what they cost now. Price had an almost full packet of Camels. He put it on the table along with his lighter — all loaded up and ready to fire.

‘You mean hard drugs — cocaine, heroin, speed, maybe ecstasy, although I’m not sure the last two qualify. I’m not all for them — dangerous, and life’s dangerous enough as it is.’

‘Exactly. Well, I believe… no, I know that my daughter’s selling them. And I mean heroin.’

He stubbed out his cigarette and drank some coffee. I drank some as well and bet myself he’d light up again as soon as he’d swallowed and put his cup down. He did. That seemed to invite me to speak.

‘How old’s your daughter, Mr Price?’

He exhaled a cloud of smoke. ‘Eighteen.’

‘An adult.’

‘Not really. She lives at home, doesn’t work, is totally dependent. On the surface.’

‘I get the picture. I think you need professional help of a different kind — counselling

‘No, you don’t understand. It’s a matter of who she’s selling the drugs to!’

I had a vision of pimples and school uniforms, knee-length shorts and skateboards even, caps worn back to front, and was still less happy. ‘Selling to children is a serious offence,’ I said. ‘But if she hasn’t been caught and charged you can still…’

For a smooth, apart from the smoking, prosperous-looking type, the bitterness and harshness of his laugh came as a surprise and got my attention. He drew deeply on his cigarette, blew out the smoke and seemed to have forgotten about his coffee. ‘She’s not selling to kids,’ he said. ‘I could deal with that in some way or other. She’s selling it to my wife!’

After that I got the full story, chapter and verse. Eighteen-year-old Danielle was the only child of Price’s first marriage. His wife had died young of cancer when Danielle was eleven. Five years later Price, who was in his early forties by then, had married Samantha, a model who was twenty years younger than him.

‘I… ah, met Sammy a couple of years after Annette was killed but we waited a few years to get married. I wanted Danni to be old enough to understand and accept it.’

Sammy and Danni, I thought. Chummy as all get out. ‘And did she?’

Price shook his well-groomed head. ‘No, not at all. She hated Sammy on sight and there’s been nothing but trouble since.’

I was making notes, being professional, although I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of this. ‘So your wife’s what age now?’

‘She’s twenty-six.’

‘Does she still work?’

That bitter laugh again. ‘Did she ever? No, I shouldn’t say that. Sammy worked for a while after we got married. Then she got pregnant. I thought Danni might like the idea of a brother, or a sister. No chance.’ Price heaved a sigh and lit another cigarette. Suddenly he looked older than the middle forties. He looked at the cigarette in his stained fingers. ‘I gave these bloody things up years ago — when Annette was pregnant. Took it up again worse than ever when all this shit started.’

‘Understandable,’ I said. ‘So there’s another kid?’

A shake of the head and a waft of smoke. ‘No. Sammy miscarried in the fifth month. She’d bought the baby clothes and all the gear, you know.’

I didn’t know. I had a daughter I hadn’t found out about until she was in her twenties, but I nodded sympathetically.

‘It rocked Sammy. Really tore her apart. She changed; got depressive, bored, sick…’

‘How’d Danni take it?’

It was soap opera stuff and I couldn’t keep a note of that out of my voice, but Price didn’t react. ‘She lapped it up. I think that’s when she moved in and got Sammy onto the drugs. I knew she’d been smoking dope herself since she was fourteen, but what can you say? They all do it. Turns out she’d got onto coke as well. I suppose her source could supply heroin too. Anyway, she got under Sammy’s guard and got her hooked. Danni’s got some money of her own and pretty soon she’s buying for both of them and Danni’s dealing a bit and supplying Sammy steadily so that she’s a hopeless addict. Danni’s tougher — I suspect she’s a user rather than an addict.’

‘How did you find all this out, Mr Price?’

‘Danni has… had a boyfriend. A kid named Jason Jorgensen. Decent kid. She dumped him when he got worried about the drugs. He came to me. I think he was acting partly out of hurt, but he still cares about Danni.’

‘Maybe not the most reliable source of information,’ I said. ‘Rejected lover and all that. But if he’s right you seem to have all the facts. Why d’you need someone like me?’

He stubbed out his cigarette and dusted off his hands as if that was going to be his last one, but it wouldn’t be. The Camels were still sitting on the table. ‘Jason says that Danni’s selling to a lot of people and that it’s only a matter of time until word gets around and she’s in serious trouble.’

I nodded. To my mind, drugs should be available to addicts on prescription. I’ve known wealthy professionals who’ve used drugs for years and have got on successfully with their lives because they’ve got the resources to buy clean product and shoot up cleanly. When I said that hard drugs were dangerous I meant that criminality made them that way — variable quality, contamination, unsanitary procedures and the vicious behaviour of corrupt cops, other dealers and desperate addicts. I spelled some of this out for Price and asked him again what he thought I could do.

Price’s apparent resolution lasted less than a minute. He lit another cigarette and fidgeted with his lighter as he spoke. ‘I’m going to get both of them admitted to a detoxification and treatment centre. I’ve put the legal procedures in train.’

‘Good,’ I said. ‘You’re doing the right thing there.’

He ignored me. I could see that he had something still more important on his mind that a pat on the back wouldn’t help. ‘It’s worse than I’ve told you. Jason says there’s a young woman in hospital in a coma from taking something Danni supplied. She’s due to be questioned by the police. The doctors say she’ll be out of the coma and able to talk inside a week. She’s young and her family’s wealthy and… angry. Danni’ll face some serious charges.’

‘You’re right there.’

He killed the cigarette early and looked at me through the smoke haze. ‘I want you to find out who supplied Danni with the drugs and get solid evidence on him.’

‘Or her.’

‘Jesus, what a world. Yes. Or her. If I can present that evidence when the police act, help them get a conviction, and show that Danni’s under treatment, my lawyer friend says there’s a chance she’ll get a suspended sentence and I can set about straightening things out. There’s not a lot of time I know, but I hope you’ll help me.’

I sat back and thought about it while he told me how my former client had said I was honest and resourceful and got quick results. I thought it’d look good on my card: Cliff Hardy, Private Investigations — honest, resourceful, quick… Except that sometimes you had to be less than honest, and resourcefulness wasn’t always enough and some things took time.

I stalled by asking Price what he did for a living.

‘In America they’d call me a lobbyist, here I’m a consultant. I advise people how to deal with government departments, get their projects approved, get them funds. That sort of thing. I used to work for a couple of ministers as an adviser.’

‘Which side of politics?’

That brought the first smile I’d seen from him. ‘Both,’ he said. ‘Does it matter?’

‘Not really.’ I’d had a reason for asking the question. For all I knew up to then Price might have been a politician himself or in the public eye in some way and desperate to keep his image clean. Hard to deal with those kinds of people because their number one priority is always themselves. But whether you called them lobbyists or consultants, people in Price’s game didn’t have to worry about their reputations. In fact a few rough edges probably stood them in good stead.

‘Does Jason know who the supplier is?’ By asking the question I’d indicated my decision to help him and Price let out an audible sigh.

‘I’m not sure. Possibly. But if he doesn’t know he’s bound to know someone who does. From talking to him I’ve found out a bit about this drug culture, so-called. It’s not all black and white the way the media has it. Some kids try it and don’t like it. Some like it too much and don’t do it again. Some take drugs when they feel like it and not when they don’t. The users have friends who don’t use. Some of them share and won’t sell.’

And some sell and won’t share, I thought, but I was encouraged by his attitude. I wasn’t sure that his plan was feasible in all its details but it had a humanitarian and sincere ring to it that persuaded me.

I’d prepared for the meeting by bringing my standard contract form; he signed it and wrote a cheque giving me a retainer of two thousand five hundred dollars against a daily rate of three hundred and fifty plus expenses, to be reviewed when the retainer was expended. I reserved the right to vary the daily rate upwards to a maximum of two and half times if I had to hire help, but the retainer would only be defrayed by the standard daily rate. He signed almost without reading it and I did the same — he because he was worried and stressed, me because I was embarrassed. The complicated contract had been drawn up by my accountant who’d told me that post the GST everything was going to get tougher and I had to have an edge. His edge was his higher fee for preparing my tax return.

Price had read the books. He’d come equipped with passport photographs of his wife and daughter and one of Jason dressed for golf and holding a trophy of some kind. He gave me his card which proclaimed him to be Martin (Marty) S. Price, Executive Director of High Flier Consultants Pty Ltd. The card carried his business phone number, his mobile number and his email address. If he thought a man who arranged business meetings in coffee bars probably didn’t have a computerised office, he didn’t comment.

Sammy appeared to have the cheekbones, mouth, eyes and hair for the job, and if her expression was a bit vacant-looking that probably didn’t hurt any. It’s never surprised me that models and racing car drivers seem to get together so often. Danni favoured her father; she was dark with strong features that missed prettiness but hit attractive dead centre — strong jaw, full mouth, straight nose.

Jason was what was once called willowy, when there were more willows about. Fair-haired, tall and slim, he had the sloping shoulders that seem to be good for golf as well as big hands clutched around his trophy. At about his age I’d won a couple of trophies for surfing, but they tended to be plastic dolphins mounted on plastic stands and there was no way I’d have been photographed with them.

It occurred to me that each of these people, my client included, looked exactly the way they should, given the little I knew of them. It worried me a bit. I was used to more off-centre kinds of characters, but maybe this case was just moving me up in the world.

The Prices lived in Lugarno, a suburb that was a sort of peninsula jutting out into the Georges River, and Jason was in Bankstown, not parts of Sydney I was very familiar with.

‘Lugarno,’ I said as I wrote it down.

In Glebe, people write their diaries and novels in coffee bars, give interviews to journalists, write notes for reviews of the food and service. No one took any notice of us doing business. Price seemed more relaxed now with business underway, cheques written, contracts signed. He was in his element concluding a deal, and it showed. He ordered two more coffees. He leaned back in his chair and unfastened the buttons on his stylish three-button single-breasted suit jacket. ‘Do you ski?’ he asked.

I’d surf-skied but I knew that wasn’t what he meant. ‘No.’

‘I do. When I was younger I skied all over Europe — Italy, Austria, Scandinavia, the lot. Switzerland. I had a wonderful time in Lugarno and when I found there was a Sydney suburb of that name, that’s where I wanted to live. Silly, huh?’

I shrugged. ‘Not really. Romantic maybe.’

That brought him jolting back down to earth. He cleared his throat. ‘Yeah, well, what happens now?’.

I thought; I bank your cheque and make the rent on my office and pay the rego, but I said, ‘I’ll talk to Jason and see if I can find out what you want to know. How hostile is he likely to be?’

I got another smile, smaller this time. ‘How subtle can you be?’

‘Fairly.’

‘Do you know anything about golf?’

‘About as much as I know about skiing.’

Again, Price was in his territory, fencing. ‘Do I detect a note of class consciousness?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

Price actually laughed. ‘Your reputation for directness seems to be well deserved. Jason’ll be all right. If he’s not at home he’ll be at the Milperra Golf Club where he’s got some sort of apprenticeship. He’s really concerned about Danni. I doubt if he’ll give you names but he could steer you in the right direction. I assume you’ve got useful contacts.’

‘Such as?’

‘Well, the police.’

I nodded. I was working on that. After Frank Parker retired and I served a short sentence for obstructing the course of justice, my effective police contacts faded away. I’d recently struck up an acquaintance at the gym with a detective in the forensic branch and was trying to cultivate him. Time would tell. I detached the carbon copy of the contract and handed it to Price who folded it neatly and put it in the inside pocket of his suit coat. The brief flashes of animation he’d shown were fading away now and he’d reassumed the haunted, stressed look that aged him. I could tell that he wanted to leave but couldn’t bring himself to break the connection without some form of hope.

I helped him. ‘Lugarno’s a long way from Cabramatta and the Cross,’ I said. ‘Do you think Danielle gets her supplies locally?’

He shrugged. ‘I’ve no idea. She has a car. She comes and goes.’

I poised the pen. ‘And your wife has a car as well of course. Makes and registration numbers please.’

He told me and that was all there was to do. We stood simultaneously and shook hands. His grip was firm but icy cold. ‘Thank you,’ he said.

‘We’ll see, Mr Price. We’ll see.’

After he left I wandered along the street and banked his cheque. I had a number of small matters on hand, hanging really, needing winding up, and I determined to put in a day at the office to clear them. It’d be phone calls and faxes, invoicing and explaining; not my favourite activities. Price’s problems had got under my skin, partly, I suppose, because my own recently-acquired daughter had had similar problems, and partly because I was sure there was a lot more beneath the surface of the case than Price had told me, possibly more than he knew. That eighteen-year-old Danni had a passport interested me. I wondered when she’d travelled and where. And why would Price, who appeared to be pretty savvy, marry a woman who looked and sounded the reverse? The obvious answer was sex, but, looking the way he did and in the business he was in, Price wouldn’t have been short of that.

It was after ten and the Toxteth Hotel was open but I walked resolutely past. I don’t always keep to my pledge to stay off the grog until six p.m. but mostly I do. The backpackers were swarming on the footpath outside the hostels on the other side of the road — tiny Asian women with packs nearly the size of themselves, pale Poms with wide shorts and skinny legs and huge Scandinavians of both sexes who looked as if they could cross the road in four strides.

Putting off the clerical work, I sat on a bus bench and watched them as they piled into hired Kombi vans and four-wheel drives to take them to Darling Harbour, Bondi, the Blue Mountains, wherever. The Olympic wave, which had turned out to be less than a tsunami, had passed over us and we were into the new millennium for real. The city was back to what it had been — a mostly sun-bathed place where people came to see the sights, rather than for cheap drugs and underage sex. Still the lucky country, just, despite all the economists, wowsers and politicians trying to change it.

2

I was putting the finishing touches to a report on a small-time insurance fraud I’d investigated and casually watching the clock hands crawl towards six p.m. when the phone rang. I let the answering machine pick up the call, thinking that tomorrow would probably do for whoever or whatever it was. When I heard Tess Hewitt’s voice on the line I sighed and picked it up. Our affair of a little over a year had ended a couple of months back. It just ran out of steam and on my last visit to Byron Bay we’d quarrelled over small things and agreed to call it a day. She’d wavered a few times since; I hadn’t.

‘Who’re you trying to avoid?’ she said.

‘Hordes of people. How goes it?’

‘Okay for me,’ she said. ‘You?’

‘Yeah. You’re delaying my first drink till after six — kind of you. I’m fine. A few things on hand. A dollar or two in it. You coming down? The room’s there.’

That was an arrangement we’d agreed on — that Tess could stay at my place when she came to Sydney. It hadn’t happened yet.

‘No, not for a bit. At least I hope not.’

‘Come again?’

‘Well you know I’d been thinking about doing this naturopathy course at the uni up here? Well I’ve taken the plunge. I’m going full-time and they keep us at it with essays and everything. It’s got a lot of chemistry and biology in it — pretty tough course.’

‘And you’d be trying for first class honours,’ I said.

‘You’re behind the times. It’s called an HD now — High Distinction.’

‘Okay.’

In just that exchange we’d touched on two of the bones of contention — my drinking and Tess’s need to be the best at everything she did.

‘Cliff, I’m calling on account of Ramsay, and don’t you go all quiet on me.’

Ramsay was Tess’s younger brother. Their parents died in a car accident when he was a kid and she wasn’t much older, but she brought him up just the same. They’d got too close sexually at one time and it’d messed Ramsay up more than it had Tess, who was the stronger character. Ramsay was a conservationist almost to the point of not stepping on ants, but he lacked judgement in almost everything he did and thought. Hated me, for example.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘He’s missing. I haven’t heard from him for over a month and he usually rings just about every week.’

For money, I thought. ‘Well, he could be just off in some forest somewhere, up a tree.’

‘No. The last time I heard from him we talked about him studying. He was going back to finish his Agricultural Science degree. I paid his fees.’

I was glad she couldn’t see me. The way things were going she’d have to cough up to get Ramsay into an old people’s home. I tried to keep my voice neutral. ‘So that was the beginning of the term?’

‘Semester.’

‘When was that?’

‘It’s nearly two months, to be honest. I’m worried. But I swore I wouldn’t go around nurse-maiding him like I used to and I meant it. This course is important to me. I don’t want to fuck it up.’

‘Right. What was his last address? Did you phone?’

‘It was in Strathfield. No phone. I sent a card there a while back but there was no answer. Not that Ramsay was much of a one for letters. I know you’ve always got things to do but I…’

‘It’s okay. Give me the address and I’ll see who’s there and what they know. Where was he supposed to be studying?’

Tess was understandably touchy about her brother and I instantly regretted the ‘supposed to be’. After a pause she gave me the address and told me Ramsay was enrolled at Lachlan University.

‘I rang the faculty,’ she said. ‘They wouldn’t tell me anything except that he was enrolled — wouldn’t tell me the names of any teachers or whether he’d submitted work.’

‘All right, Tess. I’ll poke around and see what I can find out. He’s a big boy and something’s probably just sort of deflected him for a bit. Try not to worry. Get on with your massaging. I’ll call you as soon as I learn anything.’

‘Or if you don’t.’

‘Right. Do students have photo ID cards these days?’

‘We do.’

‘That could help. Look, I realise I don’t know him very well. Does

…’

‘Or like him.’

‘I’ve found lots of people I haven’t liked. Doesn’t affect the process that much. Does he have any medical problems, anything like that?’

‘He’s as healthy as a horse… physically. No vices either to speak of. An occasional joint.’

‘Girlfriend?’

‘Not that I know of.’

‘What’s his enrolment number?’

She gave it to me. We repeated ourselves the way you do — her apologising for asking for my unpaid help and me reassuring her that it’d work out all right. Meaningless but apparently necessary. Hearing her voice made me miss her, and after I’d hung up I sat staring out through the dusty window wondering whether I should use this as an opportunity to see if we could start again. But I knew that the differences were still there. A little alcohol was in order.

I went over to where I have a big map of Sydney taped to the wall. It serves two functions — to help me move around the city in a more or less logical fashion, or at least as logical as the bridges, water, freeways and one-way traffic streets will allow, and to cover a crack in the wall. It should really be backed by a cork board so I could stick coloured pins in it like they did in such films as The Dam Busters: ‘Now, chaps, we’re coming in heah, heah and heah…’ But I just make marks on it in texta. I put black dots for Ramsay Hewitt’s last known address in Strathfield and Lachlan University before I realised I was putting the pro bono work first. I added red dots for the addresses in Lugarno and Bankstown and stepped back. A lot of territory to cover.

It was after seven p.m. but daylight saving was still in operation and the office was gloomy rather than dark. Still, I switched on a light and squatted on the edge of my desk staring at the map. The city had provided me with my living for a long time now but I occasionally thought of leaving it, never more than after one of my trips up north to stay with Tess. But on the drive back I’d started thinking about how I’d earn a living up there. That led logically to thoughts of selling the Glebe terrace for a bundle, investing the loot and moving in with Tess. By Coffs Harbour I’d convinced myself that this was the intelligent thing to do. By Port Macquarie I was having doubts and by Newcastle I was thinking with horror of sitting around doing nothing or taking up fishing and the impulse had well and truly passed. Tess hadn’t been pleased.

I hadn’t ever bothered to mark my Glebe address or the Darlinghurst location of my office on the map and I did it now with blue ticks. It made me feel anchored in the right place. I’d heard people say they no longer liked Sydney because it’d become so international as to be characterless — anywhere and nowhere. To my mind that depends on where you drink, and I was late getting there.

3

Contrary to popular belief, the best time to put awkward questions to people is not at night when they’re tired but first thing in the morning. If they’re in a rush to get somewhere they’re likely to answer the questions to get rid of you. If they’re not, well, you’ve got all the time in the world to work on them. It’s best, though, to have been up earlier yourself and have all your juices running.

I was at Wesley Scott’s Redgum Gymnasium and Fitness Centre in Norton Street, Leichhardt, shortly after its six a.m. opening time. I stripped, warmed up briefly and went into my routine on the machines. Nothing too strenuous. Lots of reps at low weights, trying for flexibility rather than strength. The gym has fans rather than air-conditioning as a good gym should, but it was pretty hot even that early on a March day which promised to be summery. I was displaying a light film of sweat after working on the seated bench press when Wesley walked up and eyed me critically.

‘You should be sweating more, Cliff.’

‘Sweat yourself, Wes. I’ve got a busy day ahead.’

Wes is West Indian and a former body-building champion. His body hasn’t deteriorated even though the tightly curled hair and clipped moustache are grey. I helped him out once and we became friends of a sort. He shook his head. ‘A true weight trainer doesn’t compromise his workout for other things.’

I stepped across to the pec deck and adjusted the pin so that the machine carried less weight. I’m trying for tone,’ I said. ‘Svelte, you know?’

‘Forget svelte. White men don’t get svelte.’

Just then Detective Sergeant Peter Lo walked into the gym as I was hoping he would. Peter is Balinese, married to an Australian, and the name he goes by is only an approximation of his real name. He wouldn’t have made it into the New South Wales police force a few years back because he stands only about 155 centimetres. But, sign of the times, the cops dropped the height requirement in deference to the changed ethnic mix of the Australian population. In Lo they got a man as smart as a whip packed into a muscular body.

‘Now there’s a man who works out,’ Wes said.

I nodded and set about doing my insignificant thing on the pec deck. Wes wandered away and I completed my workout, ending with a longer warm down than usual. I kept an eye on Lo. As I finished stretching he was doing concentrated curls using a weight I would have had trouble getting off the floor with both hands. His brown bicep bulged and the veins stood out like blue ropes. He did fifteen, slowly, in a perfect rhythm with each hand, before fastidiously wiping the grip down and restoring the weight to the rack.

He saw me watching and walked over. Lo was broad across the shoulders and chest and thick through. He wasn’t strictly speaking a bodybuilder, but his arms couldn’t hang straight by his sides because of his muscularity and the development made him look shorter than he was.

He flashed a whiter-than-white smile and pushed back his damp hair. ‘Hey, Cliff, done enough?’

‘Not according to Wes, but all I can manage. Can I have a word with you when you’ve finished your Schwarzenegger act?’

‘Sure. I’ll just do a bit of pressing and warm down. We’ll have a coffee down the street.’

‘Does Arnold drink coffee?’

‘He smokes cigars so I bet he does.’

I didn’t want to see him bench pressing. He practically needed to put every weight in the place on the bar. I showered and waited for him in the Bar Napoli a few doors from the gym. The pace of gentrification seems to have stepped up in Leichhardt over the past few years as if it’s in competition with somewhere else and afraid of being left behind. The Italian flavour is still there but it’s being added to by other cultures. The package is wrapped up nicely in bricked footpaths and newly planted trees and fancy civic signs. You can buy just about anything you fancy eating or drinking or wearing, but you’ll pay for it.

The kind of workout I do isn’t very tiring, but it gives me a hell of an appetite and I have to remind myself not to undo all the good work. Lo rolled in and sat down and we ordered black coffee and raisin toast, no butter. We talked gym talk until the food came and then we concentrated on that.

‘So,’ Lo said. ‘What can public law enforcement do for the private sector?’

I finished my coffee and signalled to Paolo for a refill. “That’s funny. I’ve never thought of myself as being in law enforcement. More like… problem solving.’

Lo laughed. ‘Me, too.’

‘I’m interested in finding out about the drug scene in a certain part of Sydney.’

‘What part?’

‘Down along the Georges River — Peakhurst, Lugarno, down there.’

‘At a guess, zilch, but it sounds like you know something I don’t.’

I gave him a heavily edited version of the story. He listened while sipping his second cup of coffee. Mine was getting cold while I talked. Lo nodded several times, which only meant that he was attending, not that he believed me. I finished and drank the lukewarm coffee. ‘If your client had information about illegal activity he’d be in breach of the law in using it for his own purposes. So would you.’

‘Come on, Peter.’

‘It sounds more like law manipulation than law enforcement.’

‘Right, such as a barrister or a solicitor might do.’

He laughed again. ‘Point taken. Is the person your client is trying to protect worth protecting?’

‘I can’t afford such fine ethical distinctions. I just don’t know. It’s early days.’

‘You haven’t met her?’

‘Did I say her?’

‘Balinese intuition plus observation of your body language.’

‘I’m just sitting here.’

“That’s what you think.’

This hadn’t gone as I’d hoped. Of course I hadn’t expected to learn anything about a Mr Big supplying drugs in the area. What I was really fishing for was the police take on dealers there and specifically Danni Price. But Lo’s acuteness had put him closer to my intention than was comfortable. I shrugged, meaning for me — not important… God knows what it meant to Peter Lo.

‘Wes thinks a lot of you. He was giving me one of his bloody excruciating deep tissue massages and he told me how you’d saved his son from big trouble. I like that. I’ll talk to the drugs boys and see what I can find out. When’ll you be here again?’

‘Day after tomorrow.’

‘Bludger. If I help, you can buy me a drink.’

‘Sure. What d’you drink?’

‘Dom Perignon.’

The address Tess had given me for her brother was near the border between Strathfield and Enfield. Like all of the inner city the property values have skyrocketed here and I was surprised that there was a house neglected enough to have become a squat. But there are always deceased estate houses or places with some fatal flaw even in the high-price districts. I expected one of the sorts of places Ramsay had always lived in so far as I knew — a semi with a rusty roof, blotched bricks and a gap-toothed fence with the railway line running a stone’s throw away. Instead I pulled up in a quiet street outside a smart Federation number with a brick and iron fence in good repair, a neat front garden and all the trimmings — tiled path, deep verandah running across half the front and around the side and fresh colonial green paint on the guttering.

The block was wide enough to permit a later modification — a driveway leading to a garage, tastefully blended in to the side of the house.

Squat my arse, I thought, and my dislike for Ramsay Hewitt went up a notch. If there wasn’t a phone inside that house, and more likely a couple of them, I’d take up macrame. Thinking about how Ramsay had lied to Tess made me angry at first and then forced me to reassess my strategy. I’d been expecting to deal with young people scraping along in the social shallows, possibly drug-affected, possibly ideologically driven, possibly hostile. This was a different proposition. I was wearing drill trousers and a faded denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up; I felt I should have been in my best blazer and pleated slacks.

I walked up the pathway, admiring the fancy tiles along the edges, to the mock marble steps leading to the tiled verandah. I was spared the house name on the brass plaque but not the coachman’s lantern. The windows featured elegantly curved steel bars and you’d have needed an oxyacetylene torch to get through the screen door. I pressed the buzzer and waited… and waited some more. If there was anyone home they weren’t answering the front door. I’m not proud; the back door’ll do me any day. I retraced my steps and walked past neat garden beds along a cement path, this time running along the side of the house. But only so far. About two-thirds of the way down I encountered a fence that I hadn’t seen on account of some shrubs branching over in front of it. Some fence. It was thick wire mesh, three metres high with a stout-looking gate, and met the neighbouring house fence which was exactly the same. Job lot. All this place needed was a dragon-filled moat.

I retreated to the front garden in some confusion. It was a little after eight a.m.; the well-heeled residents of this neighbourhood had gone off to work in their BMWs or were hunkered over their computers dealing stocks. I stood beside the carefully tended flower beds wondering what to do next when the front door opened and a woman stepped out onto the verandah.

‘Just what do you think you’re doing prowling around like that?’

She was tall and striking looking, like a ten-years-younger Germaine Greer. Her hair was a deep brown mane falling around her handsome face to her wide shoulders. She wore a loose red blouse of some material that shimmered, wide-legged white beach pants and sandals with medium heels. I took this in as I walked towards the porch, getting my credentials from my pants pocket. It never does to be defensive first off. ‘I rang the bell,’ I said, being economical with the truth, ‘several times.’

‘That doesn’t give you the right to march about my property.’

I was on the steps now and extending the natty leather folder Tess had given me. ‘I’m making enquires about…’

‘You’re not a policeman.’

She was good, very good. No explanation like — I was in the shower or out the back, just straight into the attack.

‘I’m a private detective,’ I said. ‘And you are…?’

‘Not someone likely to have any business with you.’

I stepped up to the porch. In her heels she almost reached my 184 centimetres. She stood still and balanced, unafraid. She was expertly made up and wore a gold chain around her neck, no wedding ring. ‘I’m looking for Ramsay Hewitt.’

‘Look elsewhere. There’s no one of that name here.’

I don’t mind an occasional points loss, but I don’t fancy being KO’d. I moved a bit closer. ‘He wrote a letter giving this as his address.’

I thought I saw a flicker in the dark amber eyes but I might’ve been wrong. She wasn’t on the ropes. ‘Whoever he may be, he must have been mistaken.’

Good jab. She swivelled nicely, stepped back through the doorway and closed the door behind her. She didn’t even slam it. A definite win on points.

My original intention had been to head for the Georges River area after picking up Ramsay Hewitt’s trail in Strathfield but after the encounter with the woman there I changed my mind. Despite myself, I’d got really interested in finding Ramsay. Lachlan University was once a Johnny-come-lately, but since they started turning teachers colleges and colleges of advanced education and technical institutes into universities it had acquired status. And with the unstoppable sprawl of Sydney proceeding apace, North Ryde doesn’t seem so far out.

I parked about a kilometre from where I wanted to be, the way you have to, and followed a confusing set of signs to the administration block. When I first went out to Lachlan, twenty years ago, it looked more like a construction site than a seat of learning. The raw concrete block buildings sat in the muddy paddocks like alien structures built on another planet and dropped there. Now, time and expert gardening had softened the harsh outlines and blended the buildings into what had become a friendly landscape.

I presented myself at the Student Records counter and told a bored-looking clerk that I wanted information about a student. The clerk was pale, prematurely balding and smelled of clove cigarettes.

‘Name?’

I gave it.

‘Number?’

I recited it.

His fingers, with the nails bitten down, danced over the keys. ‘What information?’

‘Current address.’

His smirk was almost a laugh. ‘No way.’

I showed him my licence folder. ‘I’m a private detective working for his sister. He’s missing and she’s worried.’

‘Name?’

‘I already told you.’

He sighed, making me want to reach over and detach a few of his teeth. ‘Her name.’

‘Tess… Teresa Hewitt.’

Keys clicked. ‘OK. She paid his fees first time round, right? Lucky guy.’

“What d’you mean, first time round?’

‘Are you really a private eye?’

I wanted to say, Do you really work in university administration? but I held back and just nodded.

He read from the screen, at a guess the only kind of reading he ever did, ‘Ramsay Hewitt withdrew from Ag Sci and is now enrolled in the Law School.’

‘Who paid his fees?’

My footwork was a bit too fast for him, ‘He did,’ he said, and instantly regretted it.

4

I wandered over to the Law School and tried my story, my credentials and charm on the faculty secretary. Sceptical must’ve been her middle name.

‘I can give you no information whatever, Mr… Hardy.’

‘Not even what courses he’s doing and the names of a couple of his teachers?’

‘Absolutely not.’

She wore one of those blouses with a sort of fake tie at the neck and you can’t expect much of someone who dresses like that. ‘What would I need to do to get that sort of information?’

She sat behind her big, busy desk, tapped a pen on the surface and seemed to be trying to will the phone to ring. ‘I can’t imagine.’

‘I guess I’ll just have to hack into your records.’

She looked at me through her modish glasses, moving her head just enough to eye me up and down. She took in my slightly greying hair, broken nose but mended teeth, faded denim shirt, drill trousers and scuffed shoes. I didn’t look like a computer whiz and she knew it. ‘You could try. Our records are very secure and are equipped with a program that identifies anyone trying to access them illegitimately. That, as perhaps you know, is a criminal offence.’

‘I’m glad to hear you’re so well up on it. If he turns up dead today it’ll be a comfort to know that his records were secure.’

She permitted herself a small, thin-lipped smile. ‘As I saw Mr Hewitt about an hour ago I think that’s unlikely.’

‘You saw him? Where?’

She shook her head and the phone rang as if on cue. She picked it up and began making notes. It wasn’t my day for succeeding with mature women — another loss on points.

I left the office and walked around the four levels that comprised the Law School without much hope of spotting my man. The students for the most part were neatly dressed in clean pressed clothes, some with jackets and even a few with ties. That was the men; the women’s tailoring was even smarter. Going up! their clothes said. The Ramsay I knew would stand out in this crowd like a taxi driver in a tuxedo. When I’d last seen him a year or so back he’d had stringy, shoulder-length hair, a scruffy beard and wore jeans, T-shirts and bomber jackets, none of them clean. But this Ramsay, the one who had some connection with an up-market house in Strathfield and paid his own way might look very different. In that case I might not recognise him.

My two goes at trying to locate Tess’s brother had struck dead ends, but interesting ones. I felt sure the woman at Strathfield had lied to me. The Law School secretary hadn’t, but why would she be able to identify Ramsay Hewitt, who was just a first-year student, among hundreds of others? It could be that his change of enrolment had drawn attention to him, but I fancy I heard a note of special interest in her voice. At least I’d be able to tell Tess he was alive and well as of a few hours ago, but I was intrigued and wanted to know more.

Still, it needed thought. I knew that my solicitor, Viv Garner, had some connection with the Lachlan Law School and that might be an avenue of approach. For the moment it was no panic and mark time.

Advocates say that golf courses act as the lungs of a city, so Sydney must have a pretty fair breathing capacity, because I read somewhere that it has about a hundred of them. Against the benefits of golf courses has to be put their interference with natural watercourses and the chemicals the ground staff have to use to keep them in good nick.

Environmentally, it’s probably line ball, but they give a lot of people a lot of pleasure so I guess I’m for them. I’ve never been tempted to play golf though. It looks as if you’d have to play often and practise a lot to be any good. I don’t have the time, and I’m too competitive by nature to want to play a game poorly.

The Milperra course was spread over some flat-tish land not far from the Bankstown airport. With the requisite trees and water and sparkling pale brick clubhouse, it was easy on the eye in a damaged landscape. At a guess, the planes didn’t bother the players. They probably inspired dreams in the young hot-shots of jetting off to play on the US tour and reminded the old timers of packaged golf trips to the Gold Coast without their wives.

I drove through the imposing gateway — lots of black wrought-iron set in crazy stone pillars — and up the immaculate tarmac to a parking area that had shade for the spots set aside for everyone from the President down through the Captain and Committee members to the bar staff, but was a hotplate for everyone else. There weren’t many cars around so I risked parking in the space reserved for the Secretary. If he or she wasn’t there by mid-morning, chances were he or she wasn’t coming. Where do you look for the assistant professional on a quiet day?

‘He’s hitting balls over on the fifteenth,’ said the pudgy man behind the counter in a room that seemed to contain all the golf gear the world would need for the next ten years. As I thought, a game that requires practice, even when you’re good.

‘You want a lesson? I’m the pro here. I’ll give you a lesson. Low handicapper are you?’

He looked as if he’d have trouble getting his stomach out of the way of the club as it came down.

‘No, thanks. I don’t play. Personal business.’

He looked suspicious. ‘He’s already got a sponsor.’

‘Can’t have too many.’

I took a card with a map of the course on the back and set off to find the fifteenth tee, hoping I’d got the lingo right. The day had heated up and I wished I’d bought one of those natty peaked caps they had for sale in the pro shop. I could’ve put it on Marty Price’s bill as a legitimate expense.

The card told me that the fifteenth hole was a 320 par four that ran straight for about two-thirds of its length and then bent sharply to the left. I kept under the trees as much as I could and out of the way of the few players on the course. But the fifteenth tee was unshaded and the tall young man standing on it as I approached cast a long shadow under the high bright sun. I stood under a tree ten metres away and watched him hit a few balls. I know nothing about the game but he seemed to know what he was doing. He took the club back a long way each time, made a clicking connection and finished the way you see them do on TV with weight on the front foot and the back foot toe down.

The only trouble was that all the balls hit the tops of the high trees on the right. Not one landed on the short grass that stretched out in front of him. He shook his head, walked to his cart parked beside the tee and grabbed a water bottle.

I stepped up and pointed. ‘Why don’t you hit them straight down there?’

Jason Jorgensen was a couple of centimetres taller than me and I’d have had ten kilos on him easy. Blue polo shirt, baggy shorts. He was one of those bony Scandinavians — bony of head and body. He’d filled out a bit since the photograph I’d seen was taken, but not much. He swigged twice, screwed the cap back on the bottle and thumped his club on the grass. For a moment I thought he’d reply rudely out of frustration, but good manners or a fear that I might be someone in authority held him back. He managed a tight, big-toothed smile. I’m trying to cut off the dog leg with a high draw. If I could get it right I’d be on in one.’

Gibberish to me but I nodded. ‘You shouldn’t say if, you should say when.’

‘You’re right. Thanks. Well, I’d better get on with it.’

I produced my folder and snapped it at him. ‘I want a word with you, Jason. I’m working for Martin Price.’

His attitude and body language suddenly changed and the grip he took on his golf club didn’t have anything to do with hitting balls. ‘Working? Doing what?’

‘Trying to help him keep his daughter out of prison for one thing.’

He was very fair-skinned and the hair sticking out under his cap was white-blond. He was a bit sunburnt from his time on the tee, but the flush on his face wasn’t only due to sun. He swung the club a little and out of some kind of instinct I bent down and picked up one of the balls he’d spilled onto the grass.

‘I’ve got nothing to say to you. Piss off!’ he said.

Not the well-mannered lad now. He advanced a pace and lifted the club. A golf club, swung or thrown with intent, is a very dangerous implement. I stood my ground and watched him carefully.

‘You’re going to talk to me, son. And the way you’re acting makes it all the more likely. Put the club down.’

‘Fuck you!’ He jumped at me, jabbing with the club. I hadn’t expected that but it was a bad move. I grabbed the end and pulled but he was stronger than I expected and jerked it free. It was going to be a swing this time. I ducked under it and threw the ball hard underarm. It took him in the crotch and he yelled, dropped the club and sagged to his knees, covering himself with both hands.

I picked up the golf club and hauled him to his feet. ‘It helps to move around. Let’s get that water bottle and move into the shade.’

I guided him to the cart and fished out the bottle. He was ashen and had bitten his lip or his tongue so that blood ran down his chin. He took a drink and did some groaning. I saw some players moving towards the tee so I eased him into the seat of his cart, collected up his bag and the remaining balls and got in beside him. I’d never driven a golf cart but it wasn’t hard to master. I guided it across to a stand of trees. Beating up on people, that’s your profession, Cyn my ex-wife had said and right then, feeling responsible for causing a teenager to dribble blood and hold his privates, it felt as if she’d been right.

He wiped the blood off his chin and took a couple of deep breaths. ‘I still can’t talk to you.’

‘Can’t talk is it now? That’s a bit different.’

‘It comes to the same thing.’

‘You talked to Martin Price.’

He took another swig and some colour returned to his face. ‘I shouldn’t have. He should forget what I said.’

‘I’m getting a feeling here that you’d say more if you could. What’s stopping you?’

‘I’ve been threatened.’

‘Who by?’

He shook his head. ‘Look, even talking to you could cause a lot of shit. I suppose you asked Reg where I was.’

‘The guy in the pro shop? Sure.’

He took off his cap and scratched at the thick pale hair. ‘Jesus. She… they told me that if I talked to anyone about it they’d tell Reg I was on drugs and he’d get rid of me. He’s prick enough to do it. I need this job and you’ve gone and screwed it up for me.’

‘Much money in it?’

‘Ratshit, but it’s a foot in the door.’

‘Don’t worry. I gave him the impression I was a sports rep interested in you. I could go back and give it a tweak if you like.’

‘You’d do that?’

‘Why not? All I want to do is find out who’s supplying the drugs to Danni Price and to cause them a lot of grief. Nobody else.’

‘I still can’t help you.’

Well, what was I going to do, knock out a few of those big, white teeth? I took out a card and stuck it in the pocket of his shirt. ‘I think you’re in trouble, Jason. You might need help because some shit’s going to fly whether you tell me things or not. And I recommend ice cubes for your knackers.’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…’

‘You don’t have to mean it to do it. You’ve got things on your mind, son. That’s probably why you can’t hit the… whatever you call it.’

‘High draw.’

‘Right.’ I got out of the cart. ‘I’ll square it with the pro.’

‘Thanks.’ He fished out the card. ‘Mr Hardy.’

‘Think about it.’

I walked away leaving him staring straight ahead. He was a hard kid to read. Not too bright perhaps, or a good actor. Maybe I’d planted a seed, it was difficult to tell. His slip of the tongue had told me something. She had threatened him; then it was they. Who was she?

Things had picked up in the pro shop by the time I returned, with a couple of groups waiting to pay their money. I fiddled around looking at the equipment and the prices and was confirmed in my feeling that this game wasn’t for me. You only need one implement to play tennis. When the shop was empty I approached the man I was now thinking of as Fat Reg.

‘You see him?’ he said.

‘Yeah. Nice kid. Good swing.’

‘Sometimes, maybe. What firm did you say you were from?’

‘I didn’t say, but you’ll have heard of us. Could you point out Jason’s car?’

‘Why?’

I shrugged. ‘Just interested. You can tell a lot about a man from the car he drives, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Never thought about it. What d’you drive?’

‘A Falcon.’

If he’d known my Falcon was ten years old with a developing rust problem and a suspect second gear he might’ve had doubts about my bona fides, but he seemed pleased to got some definite information from me and pointed out the window. ‘That’s his car, the red Pajero.’

I whistled softly. ‘Pricey.’

‘Yeah, well you know these kids. Probably a matter of time before it’s repossessed and he’s back to the bomb he had before.’

I winked and kept him onside by buying the most expensive cap in his stock. I went out to the car park and looked at the Pajero parked in a reserved space. It was very new and very high tech. The interior was clean and neat and the dark suit on a hanger had an Italian cut and that not-much-change-out-of-a-grand look about it. There was obviously more to Jason than met the eye and I was beginning to wish I’d known about the car and the suit before talking to him. You’ll keep, I thought.

I waited until some more players went into the shop to distract Fat Reg, scooted to my trusty but rusty Falcon and drove away.

5

It’d been a strange morning’s work on both matters I was pursuing. As I drove towards Lugarno, I did a cruise of the area, following Forrest Road down to the river, and reflected on the coincidence that both cases involved young men who seemed to have achieved some upward mobility. It was late in the morning and I was hungry after my meagre weight-conscious breakfast. In my experience, well-heeled women like Sammy and Danni Price didn’t sit at home with a sandwich and the Midday Movie. They went out to lunch. I bought a salad roll and a Diet Coke at a milk bar and took up a position with a good view of the house, hoping one of them would emerge. If they both emerged I’d have to make a decision. It can be an intellectually challenging game, whatever Cyn used to say.

I couldn’t see the water from my spot but I knew it was down there at the end of the road that had been carved out of the rock so that some rugged bushland rose up above it. Had to be nice looking back up at Lugarno from the river. The Price house in Forrest Road was a newish rambling affair on a big block behind a high besser brick fence and large silver-frosted iron gates. The neighbourhood was a mixture of houses old and new with a few up-market townhouse developments thrown in. It was elevated and leafy, without any through traffic. Nice place if you had a good car and a swimming pool and didn’t mind being that far from the CBD. It looked as if everyone living there would be much the same — comfortable and conservative — but I knew that wasn’t true: there’d be secret drinkers and cross-dressers and One Nation voters.

I’d finished the roll and was draining the Coke bottle when a white Celica glided through the open gates. Sammy off for lunch. With whom? Where? I got a good look at her as she flashed past. Her blonde hair was formally arranged and she wore bright, dangling earrings. For lunch? But it was her bearing and expression that had me turning the key — she was high on something, very high, and looking to get higher. She looked as though she was following the Gough Whitlam adage — the fun is where I am!

I muttered this in my best Gough voice as I followed the Celica at a discreet distance. Sammy was a good driver and the Celica was a good car. Her traffic sense was exemplary. Unlike a lot of drivers, who speed up and pass only to be stopped at lights and intersections and get nothing out of it, she could judge how to get smoothly through the traffic and avoid hold-ups. It took me all my time to keep up with her while staying, as she did, just over the speed limit. The route was basically east and she eventually pulled up outside a block of flats on the outskirts of Rockdale. She drove into the parking area and sounded the horn three times. I stopped in the street, ready to follow when she pulled out. If she went west I’d have to do a U-turn over double lines. Dangerous stuff.

The next three toots were louder and impatient. She got out of the car and lit a cigarette. She wore a pink suit with a tight, short skirt. High heels. After a few puffs she threw the cigarette away as a man approached her. He was tall and fair-haired, wearing a light grey suit. Blue shirt, red tie. They greeted each other very formally, shaking hands and exchanging a few words. She handed him the keys. He opened the passenger door for her and she got in with a flash of smoky nylonned legs. He moved smoothly, like a young man, got behind the wheel, backed out and we were off east again.

Their manner puzzled me. This was obviously an arranged meeting, yet they met like strangers. These days it isn’t usual for women drivers to turn their car keys over to men, and the way Sammy drove suggested that she enjoyed it. And the suits! He didn’t drive nearly as well as she did and was easy to keep in sight. We ended up in Kogarah, a bit short of Tom Ugly’s Bridge. The Celica pulled into a car park servicing a complex that included a marina, a restaurant and a motel. Up-market, nice views. It took a while for me to find a spot a short distance away and I walked back with my golfing cap on, hoping I looked like a yachtie.

The sun shone, the water sparkled; a great day to be lunching or boating and not so bad for snooping. Nobody bothered me as I strolled through the car park and mounted the steps leading up to the restaurant that had an appropriately nautical air. Sammy and her friend were lunching alfresco on the wide, shaded balcony that gave them a glorious view of the Georges River out to Botany Bay. I kept my distance but at a guess they were on oysters to start and they don’t usually put mineral water in a silver ice bucket.

‘Help you, sir?’

A waiter type appeared from nowhere. He seemed to evaluate the retail value of my clothes at a glance and his tone was critical.

‘No, no. Just having a look before taking a sail. Nice place. Booking necessary?’

‘Absolutely, sir.’

‘Good. Well, another day.’

Hanging around is one of the skills a private enquiry agent has to perfect and it’s not as easy as it sounds. It was easier back in the days when I smoked; at least you looked as if you were doing something. Of course you are doing something, but the trick is to look as if you’re not, and yet somehow belong where you are. Breaking my no-drinking-before-six rule and not for the first time, I bought a can of light beer from the liquor store that was part of the marina complex and took up a position in the shade across from the restaurant. I’d picked up the local rag in the store and had that as another prop. A man drinking beer and reading the paper on a beautiful day down by the water is doing no wrong.

The paper was full of the usual parish pump letters and articles about traffic and air quality and sewerage and water quality. It’s funny how those very basic human needs are the stuff of local politics — and usually get stuffed up. Sammy and her handsome hunk were taking their time over the barramundi and the creme caramel. I was through to the local bowls competition results when they emerged. Sammy was tall and slim but shapely with that air some women have of appearing not to know how good they look. She tucked her hand under her companion’s arm as they went down the steps like two models on the catwalk.

I drained the last lukewarm drops from the can and deposited it and the paper in the nearby bin. Keep Kogarah beautiful. They crossed the car park, but I didn’t even consider sprinting for the Falcon or hiring a boat — this pair wasn’t thinking anything but sex. They walked so close together they were almost intertwined and only broke away a fraction when they mounted the steps to the motel reception.

She said something to him as they hit the last step and they both laughed — blonde heads tossed, trim, taut bodies ready for action. Their youth and vitality made me feel old and depressed. Tracking them from the office along a walkway to their room, I felt as if I was back in the bad old ‘Brownie and bedsheets’ days when a big part of the job was obtaining divorce evidence.

Sammy’s companion unlocked the door and ushered her inside with a hand planted firmly on her behind. Would have made a good picture in the old days. No business of mine now, at least not directly. I stood at my vantage point under a stand of plane trees in a corner of the car park and considered my next move. I couldn’t see any reason to tell Price his wife was having an affair; it didn’t seem to have any bearing on his strategy to protect and help his daughter. Or if it did, I couldn’t see what that bearing was.

I walked back to my car and picked up the mobile, thinking to call the Price house. If Danni was at home I’d go over there and wait to see if she went anywhere interesting. It was hot in the car and I got out to stand in the shade to make the call. I was about to punch in the numbers when a man loomed up beside me. When I say loomed I mean loomed — he was tall and wide with a shaven head, and the pale hand that plucked the mobile from my grasp and threw it away was super-sized.

‘Hey,’ I protested.

He just stood there, a pace away now — a hundred kilos of bone and muscle in T-shirt and jeans. I had a gun and a tyre iron and I thought I’d need both to make an impression on him, but they were in the car. For now it was just me.

‘What the hell d’you think you’re doing?’

He moved a step closer and it took everything I had and a bit more not to back away. ‘You’re asking the wrong question, mate. That’s the question I should be asking you.’

At least we were talking. I opened my mouth to reply but he swung a punch into my belly that knocked the wind out of me and buckled my knees. He grabbed me by the collar and I heard the faded denim rip as he hauled me upright and pressed me against the bonnet of my car. I wanted to talk but I was still trying to breathe.

His breath was ripe with marijuana as he spoke close to my ear. ‘But I’m not interested in your answer, mate. I just got a message for you. Whatever you’re doing, drop it!’

He let me go and I scrabbled at the hot metal for something to hold to stop me falling. I managed to keep my feet and sucked in deep breaths as I watched him walk away. At fifty metres off he still looked big.

6

I’d pressed my palms so hard back against the hot car bonnet that they felt scorched. That, plus humiliation and mystification, left me feeling that I was floundering out of my depth. Not a good moment for an old surfer. When I’d regained my wind my first reaction was anger. I wanted to storm up to Sammy and lover boy’s room and ask them to put me in touch with their minder. He’d sucker-punched me and, big and all as he was, I’d have been willing to give him another go on a level playing field. Silly thought and I dismissed it straight off.

When my breathing had returned to normal and I was sure nothing was broken inside, I searched for the mobile under the adjacent trees. Palm trees, with spiny bits sticking out. I emerged with a few scratches to add to the bruises but with the phone. I dialled my office number and it rang. In an odd way hearing my own voice on the answering message calmed me down. I can’t think why. I was still the man who’d struck dead ends and been sucker-punched.

I brushed dirt off the mobile and put it back in the car. Maybe the motel was a notorious hot-sheet place and my surveillance had been obvious, resulting in someone from the management having a word with someone from security. Not likely. Sammy’s assignation had a commercial look, but as far as I knew escort agencies didn’t usually lay on minders, especially when the escort was a male. So if it was an escort agency that supplied the muscle, what was so special about Samantha Price? I got back in the car, pulled out and drove back to the motel. This time I parked inside and waited to see if anyone approached me. I had the gun and the tyre iron ready. Nothing happened.

Then the door to the long balcony opened and Sammy and her friend stepped out. She went first and he stayed a pace or two behind, watching her walk. Why not? They returned to the Celica and this time she drove. Interesting. For want of any better ideas I followed them. Less than a kilometre away she stopped at a roadside taxi rank and he got out after a quick kiss. She drove off. I knew where she was going but why hadn’t she dropped him at home? It wasn’t far off. I found a parking space and waited until a cab pulled into the rank and picked him up. The taxi headed towards the city and I followed faithfully. My mid-section was aching and I was developing a strong need for a double scotch and a couple of pain-killers.

We ended up in Canterbury, not too far from territory I knew better than some of the places I’d been so far that day. The traffic was light and I had no trouble parking a few spots behind where the cab pulled in. Nice-looking old park on the right, the kind that would have a war memorial, maybe two, and a long shopping centre stretching ahead. He paid off the cab and started walking. Closer to him now, I could see that he was very tall, 190 centimetres plus, towering over most of the people in the street, many of whom were Asian. He looked a little out of place in the smart suit on a hot afternoon and must have been aware of it because he stripped off the tie and stuffed it into his pocket. He walked quickly with a long stride and I had to stretch out to keep up with him and that didn’t do my aching gut any good. With any luck he’d slip into a pub and I could get some medication.

He turned into an arcade and I had to hang back so as not to follow too obtrusively. I felt a rush of something — fear mixed with anger — when a big, bald-headed man stepped around me. But it wasn’t the Kogarah Mauler and I used him as a shield as I followed my man down the narrow, tiled walkway.

The arcade held a lingerie boutique, a chemist’s, a hairdressing salon and around the bulk of the man in front of me I could see the tables and chairs that suggested a coffee shop at the end. My shield disappeared into the chemist’s and I was ten paces behind when the man I was following pushed a buzzer on a glass door and waited. The door swung inwards and in he went. I’ve had a little eye trouble since an injury a few years back and the beam of light that hit the door momentarily blinded me and stopped me reading the name on it. When I’d adjusted to the light the name was clear enough in big gilt letters:

LORD GEORGE INTRODUCTION AND SOCIAL ESCORT AGENCY

I bought a packet of pain-killers in the chemist’s and settled down with a flat white only a few paces from the security door. My stomach was tender and I washed down three of the pills with the coffee. Nothing happened for twenty minutes and that was as long as I could spin out the coffee, so I ordered another one I didn’t want and waited some more. People on their afternoon coffee breaks came and went, mostly with take-outs but a few sit-downs. Another twenty minutes later a man came out. He was nearly as tall and just as blond and well dressed as the man I’d followed but it wasn’t him. As the pain in my middle diminished, my curiosity rose. I went over to the door, flanked by two large windows, and peered in. The man sitting behind a reception desk was a clone of the other two. I copied down the telephone number on the door and left.

I’d been injured more than injuring and had more questions than answers. It was enough for one day. I drove home and took a hot shower. The bathroom could do with a refit and the last time Tess stayed with me she said I should put in a spa bath. I said I doubted the floor would take the weight and I didn’t fancy sitting down below with a spa bath poised above my head. Still, a spa would’ve been handy after encounters like the one I’d had today.

I had nothing to report to Price but I could give Tess some good, if puzzling, news. I rang and got no answer. It was late in the afternoon but she said she was doing a full-time course and knowing Tess that meant full-time plus. The mail consisted of bills for my Bankcard and Mastercard, a postcard from my sister who was holidaying in Vanuatu and a tempting wine club offer. A dozen bottles of Chardonnay at a throw-out price plus three bottles of Merlot for free with every purchase. I’m fond of Merlot and don’t mind Chardonnay either, but I looked at the Mastercard bill again and was strong. The wine club offer went into the bin.

Shortly after six p.m., having decided that I wasn’t interested enough in the genetically modified food issue to listen to ‘Australia Talks Back’, I phoned Tess again.

‘It’s after six,’ she said. ‘Have you got a drink?’

‘Glenfiddich straight.’

‘Bullshit. Johnny Red on the rocks more likely. How’s it going, Cliff?’

I told her what had happened in Strathfield and at the university and how the secretary had seen her brother that morning.

Tess was sharp. ‘How would she know him? There must be scores of law students.’

‘I don’t know. How did he pay his fees?’

‘Right. But still, he’s OK.’

‘Apparently, but he’s not where you thought he was. That is, if I can believe the woman at that address. I don’t know why, but I’m not sure I can believe her. There was something in her manner — and that’s apart from the hostility.’

‘You think she was lying?’

‘Being evasive at the very least. By the way, how did you get that address? Did he write and put it on the back of the envelope or what? Doesn’t sound like Ramsay.’

Again I was letting my dislike of the man show through but Tess didn’t pick up on it. ‘No. I meant to tell you but I scrawled the address down on the pad I keep by the phone for when I rang you and I forgot. I got this note on a sheet of notepaper with that address stamped on the top of it. The phone number had been blanked out. I thought it must be some sort of old guesthouse or something Ramsay and his greenie mates had taken over. But you say it’s an up-market house?’

‘With an up-market owner or resident.’

‘It’s weird. I can’t see him studying law. He’s a bloody greenie anarchist, for Christ’s sake.’

‘Maybe you can do Anarchy IA out there. I’ve got a mate with some Lachlan Uni connections. I’ll look into it and try to find him. Can’t be too hard.’

‘Thanks, Cliff.’

‘I have to tell you. I’ve got another matter on the go.’

‘Good for you. Well, I’ve got an essay due. You’ll ring me when you learn anything new.’

‘I will for sure. Might be a day or two. This other thing’s tricky.’

‘Don’t strain yourself on my account. See you.’

I’d intended to call it a day with the scotch and an omelette and The Perfect Storm, a book I was halfway through and that had confirmed me in my belief that it was unsafe to go to sea in a vessel not big enough to contain a bar and a dance floor. But the day’s questions started to work on me and I found I was reading pages of the book and taking nothing in. So I phoned Viv Garner and arranged to go around and see him in Lilyfield.

Viv has a modest timber house in an elevated street that happens to command a view of the city. His wife, Ros, is a keen gardener and their two kids have embarked on professional lives, so they’re left in leafy splendour in a house worth ten times what they paid for it. Viv, who’d recently got some sort of an appointment at Lachlan University, is a socialist and admits that property is theft. ‘Still, it’s nice to have some,’ he once said to me.

I arrived with a bottle of red and Ros laid out some biscuits and cheese, took a glass for herself, asked how I was and pleaded with me not to take Viv out that night.

‘His asthma,’ she said.

‘Not to worry, Ros. We’ll do our business right here.’

‘I’ll leave you to it. Don’t excite yourself, Vivian.’

Viv took a gulp of his red. ‘She thinks you equal excitement. She doesn’t know it’s mostly humdrum stuff.’

‘Don’t disabuse her. You’re something at the Lachlan Law School, right?’

He thumped himself on the chest. Viv is a little guy but trim and the broad chest of the lifesaver he once had was not turned to flab. Sandy hair, half-glasses. ‘Adjunct Professor. As soon as I got the appointment I emailed all the arseholes who taught me and said I’d never make it through the degree.’

‘In victory, malice,’ I said. ‘Right on. How far inside the system does that put you?’

‘I’m top dog in charge of one particular section.’

‘And that is?’

He drank some wine and nibbled on a biscuit. ‘I’d like to say civil liberties research or international covenants, but it’s more humble — professional placement. I told you something about this once when you were thinking about getting a law degree.’

‘Yeah, and they told me I’d get credit for one and a half units for the stuff I’d done at New South Wales.’

‘Cliff, it was twenty years ago, and you didn’t do all that well. And it was more than one and a half units as I recall. And now that you’ve been convicted of a serious felony and done time…’

‘Yeah, yeah. Anyway, does this give you access to student records?’

‘I should’ve known. No way.’

I gave him the facts and he kept a sceptical face while I recited them, only showing some expression when I mentioned the secretary.

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Ms Gwen Carroll. No, she wouldn’t fancy you at all’

‘Why’s that particularly?’

‘Never mind. Go on.’

I gave him the rest and he relented. He got up and gestured for me to follow him. I did, with my glass topped up. We went into his study and he turned his computer on.

‘What’s this?’ I said.

‘I can access the student records from home by remote access. It’s one of the perks.’

The screen glowed and images on it flickered into life. ‘What are the others?’

‘Room, computer, free email and Internet, photocopying, library.’

‘I could use all that.’

‘Yeah, but I don’t get paid.’ He seated himself in front of the computer and began tapping the keys. ‘OK, full name and student number.’

I gave them and he tapped the keys and clicked the mouse. ‘Here he is — Hewitt, Ramsay Stefan…’

‘Stefan?’

‘That’s what it says. You want the address?’

‘Yeah. Hold on, does the file have his student ID photo?’

‘Sure does. The way things are at universities these days the teachers are lucky to know half their students by sight before the semester’s over. Have a look — this’s him.’

I craned over Viv’s shoulder to look at the small photograph on the screen. It was Ramsay Hewitt all right. He had the long jaw and lean features and pale eyes, but the scruffy beard was gone and he wore a blue business shirt and a burgundy tie. His once dirty, stringy hair was cut and styled and fair, very fair.

‘Model citizen,’ Viv said.

‘Can you print that page out?’

‘I shouldn’t.’

‘I’ll crop it down to the picture. No one will ever know.’

Viv did some more clicking and the page shuffled through the printer. I took it out and swore.

Peter Corris

CH24 — Lugarno

‘What?’

‘The address — it’s a post office box in Strathfield.’

Viv clicked a couple of times and the screen went blank. ‘Are you going to stake it out, like in the movies?’

‘No, I’m going to send him a threatening letter made up of newspaper headlines.’

He got up and stretched. ‘Ask a silly question.’

7

Before I left I asked Viv again what he’d meant by the crack about the secretary not liking me. We were standing by the front door and he leaned back against the wall as if he was doing an isometric exercise. Maybe he was.

‘Our Gwen’s a strange one. Word is she has money and doesn’t need the job, but she’s got a thing for lawyers, especially fair-haired ones.’ He ran his hand over his own sandy crop. ‘Not like this, I mean thick and fair like, say, Greg Norman when he was young.’

‘Staff or students?’

‘Well, she’d taken notice of your guy, hadn’t she?’

That gave me something to think about on my careful drive home. People can change but they mostly don’t, at least not very much. Not as much as Ramsay Hewitt appeared to have done — from hippie greenie activist to would-be lawyer. A semester of university fees wasn’t cheap nor was the sort of grooming he appeared to be going in for. As the politicians say: ‘Where was the money coming from?’ With the Scotch before my light dinner, a glass or two with it and a couple with Viv, I was probably somewhere near the limit. But the roads are quiet on a Tuesday night. The Falcon protested in second gear a couple of times, otherwise, no trouble.

The Perfect Storm got me off to sleep in the sense that I had to finish it and by then it was late and I was tired. I made a mental note to catch the movie — it was hard to see how they could fuck it up, but interesting to see if they managed it. There must have been a cool change during the night because I woke up cold under the sheet, pulled up a blanket and slept deeply after that. Too deeply. The ringing of the door bell dragged me up from well down and I was surprised to see that it was close to nine o’clock when I surfaced.

I hauled the pants of the tracksuit I sleep in when it’s cold up from the pile of clothing detritus that lives in the corner of the bedroom between clean-ups, pulled them on, and went down the stairs to the front door. Pulling on the pants hurt my bruised mid-section and so did going down the stairs.

‘Mr Hardy?’

A new-breed cop, no question — lean face, blue business shirt, white linen jacket, no tie. I didn’t need the open ID folder to confirm it and didn’t even look at it.

‘Come in.’

‘Just like that?’

‘I’ve had more cops through this door than good-looking women. I don’t like it much, but that’s the way it is. I’m just up and need coffee. You?’

I retreated and he came in and closed the door quietly behind him. Nice manners. New breed. ‘Thank you. Hard night?’

‘Up late reading.’

He took that with a grin and followed me down to the kitchen where I put the coffee on to perk before going upstairs to put on some clothes. The physique these days isn’t so impressive that I can stand around half naked with well-dressed cops and feel in charge. He was sitting relaxed at the breakfast bench when I returned. If he was thirty that was all but he had a knowing look to him that they get after attending traffic accidents and domestics and telling lies in court. The coffee came through and I poured two mugs full. I got milk from the fridge and pushed the bowl of raw sugar towards him.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I missed the name. And what’s this about?’

He wrapped his hands around the mug the way I do myself, whether the morning is cold or not. This morning wasn’t particularly, but it’s a comforting thing to do.

‘Stankowski, Detective Constable. Major Crimes, southern area.’

I raised my mug in a salute. ‘And…?’

‘Do you know a person named Jason Jorgensen?’

‘Well, I’ve met him. It was just yesterday, so I wouldn’t claim to know him.’

‘What was your business with him?’

I tried the coffee — too hot for a good slurp but OK for a judicious sip. ‘Come on, Constable. You obviously know the game I’m in. You can’t expect an answer.’

‘I do though. Mr Jorgensen is dead. He was murdered. Your business card was found on his body. So yes, Mr Hardy, I do expect an answer.’

It hit me harder than I’d have expected. I was still feeling some guilt about hurting the kid and I’d sort of liked him. I’d thought he had promise with his athletic good looks and his mostly polite behaviour. He’d had enough aggression in him to make him a good competitor, and that’s something I admire. Against that, I’d had my doubts about his honesty and had made a mental note to talk to him again. All snuffed out.

‘How?’ I said. ‘And when?’

‘You haven’t answered me.’

‘Tell me a bit about it and we’ll see how far I can do that.’

‘You think you have a choice? You’re not a lawyer or a priest.’

‘I’ve still got a choice. The thumbscrew went out a few years ago.’

I could tell he’d been considering not drinking the coffee to give himself the edge of austerity and self denial, but he changed his mind and went the whole hog, adding milk and sugar and taking a fair gulp. ‘OK, we’ll play it your way for a bit. Mr Jorgensen’s body was taken out of the Georges River late last night, strangled and battered.’

‘Where?’

‘At Lugarno, around there. The body was weighed down by a set of golf clubs.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘It’s true. A full set of clubs with a top quality bag and all the shit they pack in — balls, towels, drink bottle, wet weather gear, shoes and Christ knows what else — and you’re up to around thirty kilos. The bag was tied to the body with thick cord. Fills up nicely with water. Would’ve worked okay except that a houseboat came along, anchored for a bit, pulled up the anchor and snagged the bundle. A ferry used to run from there and they hauled the body and the bag up onto the dock.’

‘The best laid plans,’ I said.

‘What?’

‘Never mind. When d’you calculate he was killed?’

‘Haven’t got that information as yet.’

‘And you wouldn’t tell me if you had because you want me to account for my movements from the time I met him to, let’s say, an hour before they found the body.’

‘You’re paranoid. I checked up on you before coming here. I don’t think you go around killing people. Not that you haven’t killed a couple.’

‘Self defence.’

‘Yeah. What I want you to tell me is why you saw Jorgensen yesterday, where and when.’

I drank some more coffee. ‘Get out your notebook. The where and when is easy. It was at the Milperra Golf Course, mid-morning. He was practising some shot or other. We talked and I gave him my card. He stuck it in the pocket they have in those shirts.’ I touched my chest on the left, high up.

He made a note. ‘OK, but what did you talk about?’

I sighed as I drained the mug. I got up and went to the stove for a re-fill and to buy time to think. I was in a bind. My client was expecting to negotiate with the police prosecutor and if I spoke about the matter he could probably kiss that hope goodbye. And I could do the same with the case. Couldn’t do it.

I came back to the bench with my coffee and lifted it in an inquiring gesture. He shook his head, all business.

‘I can’t tell you what we talked about. It concerns a client and his affairs and in my business that’s the bottom line.’

‘I see. Do you have any reason to believe that your… business could be related to Mr Jorgensen’s murder?’

Nicely put, I thought. Of course my head was buzzing with just that possibility. Had my talking to Jason put him in the river? Not a comfortable thought. I tried to keep both face and voice neutral. ‘I’d be lying if I said no. Truth is, I just don’t know. And I’m very sorry. He seemed like a decent kid.’

He snapped the notebook closed and stood up. ‘I’m not so sure about that from what we’ve heard, but I won’t give you any more than you’ve given me which is not fuckin’ much.’

Tough now, but not all that convincing. I didn’t respond.

He put the notebook away. ‘Thanks for the coffee. I think you’d better talk to your client. Unless we make some progress on this pretty soon we’ll have to circle back to you as one of the last people to see him alive and that’ll mean more pressure than a chat over a cup of coffee.’

I nodded and shepherded him down the hall to the door. Before he left he handed me his card, not without an ironical twitch.

I flicked it with a finger. ‘I’ll make sure to keep it on me at all times of the day and night. I’ll tell you something, Stankowski. Whoever strangled that kid would have to be strong. He was as athletic as hell and big with it.’

He went through the door and turned back before he stepped carefully across the lifting tiles on the porch onto the cracked concrete path. ‘Oh, didn’t I tell you? His head had been laid open to the brain matter by a blunt object.’

I phoned Price at his office and was told he was out. I left a message for him to ring me on the home number or the mobile. I wanted to see him in person to gauge what impact Jason’s death had had on him, if he knew about it, and to see for myself if I was the bearer of the news. Stankowski was right that I could only fend off police questioning for so long and I needed to talk to Price about that too. I’ll go a long way for someone who has a serious problem, but there comes a point of self-preservation. With Jason dead, the first line of attack on the drug supplier, not that it had looked very promising, was cut off. Maybe Price would have some other ideas.

As I showered I inspected the bruise on my stomach and tightened the muscles that should tighten better than they do. Thinking back, I realised that Baldy probably hadn’t put quite all he had into the punch and that was why nothing was damaged inside. I didn’t feel like giving him another go because what he’d done was quite enough. Bending hurt and so did straightening up.

I shaved and had some more coffee and ate some toast so that I wouldn’t be putting the painkillers straight in on the stomach lining. By the time I was dressed and ready to face the world it was mid-morning and Price hadn’t called back. I felt I couldn’t make a move without talking to him first so I turned my attention to the other matter on hand — Ramsay Hewitt.

I took the postage stamp size photo of Ramsay Hewitt down to the graphics place in Glebe Point Road that provides my business cards, both kosher and false. Daphne Rowley, who regularly beats me at pool in the Toxteth Hotel, shook her head when I showed her the photo and asked if she could blow it up.

‘It’ll be grainy.’

‘It’s not going in HQ. It just has to be recognisable.’

Daphne scratched the ear of the dog she takes into the shop with her every day. The dog is big and black and fierce if Daphne tells it to be. As a friend and long-time customer I get a tail wag and a yawn. ‘Good-looking fellow,’ Daphne said. ‘I like blond men.’

‘Thanks.’

She gave out a sound peculiar to her, something between a laugh and a grunt. She lets it go when she sinks a tough shot and earns another free drink. ‘I’ll digitalise it and I could touch it up a bit.’

‘Just as long as it still looks like him and not Lleyton Hewitt.’ Daphne is a big Lleyton fan.

She touched her ample chest where ‘Daphne’s Graphics’ fits easily on the T-shirt. ‘He can ace me anytime. Go for a walk, Cliff. Coupla minutes.’

I went down the stairs to the street and wandered along enjoying the familiar sights, sounds and smells. At times like this I know I’ll never leave. Dave Sands’ memorial is up at the Broadway end and I sometimes think I’d like them to scatter my ashes in Blackwattle Bay at the other end. I went into the Gleebooks second-hand store where I spend much more time than in the new books shop, and browsed for something to read after The Perfect Storm. Hard act to follow. I bought a copy of Jeff Wells’ Boxing Day, all about the Burns-Johnson fight at Rushcutters Bay in 1908. I sometimes play a game with people: What three historical events would you like to have witnessed? Myself, I always go for the execution of Charles I, then the landing of the First Fleet and I waver between Burns-Johnson and the second Darcy-McGoorty fight.

Daphne did a magnificent job as always. Ramsay Hewitt, postcard size. The new Ramsay with the clean shave and the trimmed and washed locks and minus the look of angry disappointment he used habitually to wear. Like this, the resemblance to Tess was stronger — the straight nose, high cheekbones.

‘Hunk,’ Daphne said. ‘I suppose he’s five foot two?’

‘Six one at least.’

‘Ooh. Bring him around when you find him.’

‘I like the “when”. How much?’

‘I’ll figure it out and fax you the invoice, plus GST.’

Strathfield again on a day that promised to be changeable. Cloud was building up in the west and the wind had a fluctuating feel to it. I had on a blue, button-down shirt, dark trousers and my Italian shoes with a shine. This time I looked the street over more carefully and revised my first impression. There was money invested here but also possibly a lack of cash flow. Some roofs and windows needed attention — I should know, mine are the same. Not all the front gardens were well-tended and some of the driveways featured oil spots and stains, indicating that the resident cars weren’t in the very best of condition.

I started about ten houses away from the target house, on the other side. In my respectable outfit, freshly shaved and with my hair tamed and carrying the photograph and my licence folder opened, I reckoned I passed muster as a responsible Private Enquiry Agent on a missing person case.

Some doors didn’t open, others did a fraction and all my spiel got was a shaken head. When I was ten houses past I gave up on the other side and crossed the street. I got similar no-shows and head shakes at three doors and then something else. This was one of the less affluent-looking numbers. The guttering sagged a bit and sun and wind had done a job on the woodwork. No security bars. Still, efforts were being made to keep up. The grass had been cut fairly recently but the garden beds needed weeding. This was one of the few without a garage and the Toyota parked out front wasn’t a recent model. The man who answered the door was elderly and a bit stooped but with bright blue eyes. I gave him the story.

‘Let me see.’ He let the door swing open and stepped out into the light on the porch. He lifted the glasses suspended on a cord around his neck and examined the photograph.

He dropped the glasses as if reluctant to admit to the vision problem a second longer than he had to. ‘Yep, I’ve seen him.’

‘Mr…?’

‘Bolitho, Tom Bolitho.’ I gave him my card. We shook hands and were away. He pointed to the table and chairs set out on the porch and we sat down.

‘You say his sister wants to locate him. Maybe he doesn’t want to be located. Maybe she’s his wicked stepsister who wants to do him out of his inheritance?’

I grinned. ‘Come on.’

‘Yeah, I read too much rubbish. When you get to my age you look for excitement wherever you can.’

‘There’s not too much in this I’m afraid, Mr Bolitho. He…’

‘Tom. Fancy a drink?’

Occupational hazard. ‘Why not? What’re you having?’

‘At this hour, light beer.’

‘That’ll do me. Thanks.’

He went into the house and came back with two Hahn Lights. Good choice. We twisted, said ‘Cheers’ and drank.

‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s just that he was a bit of a handful but seems to have settled down. He’s been out of touch with his sister for a couple of months and she’s the anxious type, you know.’

Those blue eyes in the wrinkled surrounds were shrewd. ‘But what brings you here, specifically?’

I was ready for that. ‘He rang his sister a while back and said he was living in Strathfield. He mentioned the street and the number. She remembered the street, or thought she did. This is Henry Street, right? She thought it was either Henry or Edward. I’ve tried Edward with no luck. She didn’t remember the number. So I’m trying Henry Street.’

‘Kings of England.’

‘That’s right.’

He took a good swig of his Hahn. ‘Sorry lot on the whole. Didn’t they stick a red hot poker up the arse of an Edward?’

‘I’m shaky on my royal history.’

‘I think they did. Probably deserved it. As for that Henry the V8 — that’s what I call him, Henry the V8, because he had eight wives.’

I smiled and took a drink to conceal the pain. Bad joke anyway, and I was pretty sure on the basis of the TV series that it was six.

‘I’ve forgotten what we were talking about.’

I put the photograph on the table beside my bottle and tapped it. ‘Him.’

‘Oh, yes. Well, if you say he’s not in trouble. I wouldn’t want to dob the boy in.’

I shook my head. ‘No trouble.’

‘I’ve seen him a few times. He comes and goes. Stays in that big, flash place a few doors away. The one with the high side fence and everything just so.’

‘I think I’ve seen it.’ As soon as I said that I wondered if he’d set a trap for me. If he’d spotted me the day before he’d know I was lying. But he didn’t react.

‘Spent a lot of money there she did.’

‘She?’

He drank some more beer and warmed up to the work of gossip. ‘Husband died a few years back. About the time my wife went. No, a few years after. I had my eye on her for a while but then she really went to town — new clothes and hairdo, facelifts, all that. She’s ten years or more older than she looks.’

‘I see. What’s her name, Tom?’

He shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’

I nodded and had a drink, momentarily saddened. The old bloke had looked for a replacement wife and she’d suddenly put up a generation gap to add to the financial gap between them. He’d probably never even spoken to her.

‘And this young bloke comes and goes. He stays overnight d’you mean?’

‘For sure. Drives that Merc right in,’ he winked.

‘Not the only thing he drives in, I reckon.’

I fished out my notebook and scribbled. ‘Old Mercedes, eh? I don’t suppose you got the number?’

‘Old, nothing. Bloody new or near enough. Silver-grey. No, I had no reason to get the number. All I can tell you is that it’s got a sticker on the windscreen — sort of parking permit like for doctors and nurses and that at hospitals.’

Tom would know more about hospitals than universities but his information sounded spot on. I asked him when he’d last seen the man and his Merc but he was vague. ‘Couldn’t say. Last week, week before, last month? Find it hard to keep track of time nowadays. It was before the last party anyway.’

‘Party?’

‘Didn’t I say? She throws these big parties every Wednesday. Be on tonight, I reckon. Lots of people, lots of cars. Quiet though, no trouble. I have to say that.’

I finished the beer and thanked him for it and the information. He went to stand up but decided against it and sank back in the chair. ‘Are you going to pay her a visit?’

The lonely, long past it, voyeur in him was showing. ‘Maybe. I’m not sure.’

‘He’s not the only one you know.’

‘How d’you mean?’

‘There’s a few of them like him — young blokes with flash cars. Six footers with fair hair.’

8

The mobile rang as soon as I got back to my car and switched it on. Price.

‘I’ve been ringing for an hour.’

I was in no mood to be stood over. ‘We need to talk.’

‘Why? What’s happened?’

I stuck to my plan. ‘I’ll tell you when I see you. Where and when?’

‘Jesus, can’t you…?’

‘No.’

‘OK. I’m bloody busy but if you can get here quickly I can give you — ’

‘Listen, Mr Price, is this matter important to you or not?’

‘Of course it is.’

‘Right. Well I’ll be there as soon as I can and our business’ll take as long as it takes.’

I hung up and started the car. His office was in Bankstown, no great distance, and I was there inside the half hour. The business centre had a scrubbed up look as if it had all recently been renovated. The railway station had had a complete make over and was now super-modern with lots of glass and aluminium, fresh paint and elegant paving. Asian faces dominated in the streets and a good number of the stores had their names and signs printed in Asian languages. The High Fliers had flown as high as the tenth floor in a Cubist-style green glass building named the Bankstown Civic Tower. Several of the floors were taken up by municipal offices and others housed the usual run of professionals and a couple of dot coms whose names gave no indication of their business. You could get just about anything done there from your tax return to treatment for your ingrown toenails. Price had a small suite of three rooms and a modest reception area, all outfitted in fake teak panelling. Pot plants.

The receptionist was everything she should have been and more — young, pale, with Dusty Springfield eyes and a pointed chin that made her better than pretty. Pink silk blouse. I gave her my name and she said she’d see if Mr Price was free. She lifted the phone, but as his door was only three strides away I thought I’d save her the bother. I went past, knocked and walked in.

‘It’s not the girl’s fault,’ I said as she hovered in the doorway just behind me. ‘I barged in.’

Price was sitting behind a desk about the same size as mine but about fifty years younger. Unlike mine, it held a computer, In and Out trays and all the

paraphernalia of a busy executive. He was in his shirtsleeves and looked harassed. ‘It’s OK, Junie,’ he said. ‘It’s OK.’

Junie gave a sigh of relief and closed the door. I sat down in a chair near the desk and tried to figure out what was surprising me about the office. It was conventionally appointed with a serviceable grey carpet, some nondescript prints on the walls along with some framed certificates and citations. The desk, two chairs, a bookcase with more magazines and folders than books and a photocopier. Then I got it. The air, conditioned to a comfortable temperature, was clear. No ashtray on the desk. Probably accounted for the harassed look.

‘Given it up?’ I said.

He nodded. ‘Trying to. Did it once, I can do it again. What’s up, Hardy? You scared young Junie out there.’

I gave it to him between the eyes. ‘Jason Jorgensen has been murdered. Strangled. Dumped in the Georges River at Lugarno.’

He was shocked to the core, or he was a better actor than Brando. His face lost colour and his jaw dropped. He reached for the cigarettes that weren’t there and when he realised their absence he made two hard fists and put them on the desk in front of him. ‘Murdered!’

‘Right. I saw him yesterday and gave him my card. It was found on his body. The police paid me a visit first thing this morning.’

Another chance to check on how genuine he was — would the threat of my seeing the police erase the shock? It didn’t. ‘That poor kid. Do they know why or who…?’

I shook my head and watched him while he processed the information. The phone rang; he unclenched one fist, picked it up and spoke without looking at the instrument. ‘Take a message, Junie. No calls for a while.’ He hung up and sat back in his chair helplessly. ‘I can’t believe it. I saw a bit of him while Danni… A nice kid. What did you think of him? God, could it have anything to do with this business?’

Price was scoring points with me. His concern about the dead boy looked authentic, and he hadn’t yet transferred his attention fully to how it might affect him. He was getting there, but not straight off. I told him I’d found Jason a bit dim, and hadn’t got very much out of him. I said I didn’t know whether his death had anything to do with the Prices, but I hoped not.

‘What else?’

I shrugged. I had thoughts on that, sparked by the expensive car and suit and Stankowski’s throwaway remark that Jason might not have been as squeaky clean as he looked, but I saw no reason to tell Price. He fidgeted with things on the desk, got himself back under control and then it got through to him. ‘You say the police got to you. What did you tell them?’

‘Next to nothing. No names.’

‘Can you do that?’

‘Not for long if they don’t come up with something. If they run out of ideas they’ll come back at me.’

‘And then?’

I explained that our business wasn’t confidential in the legal sense and that they could search my records if it came to that, or they could charge me with obstructing justice, which would force me to talk.

Again, this was the sort of thing he could handle; propositions, possibilities, options. Then he surprised me. ‘What if Jason’s death is connected to the drugs thing? It’s likely isn’t it? If your enquiries turned up evidence on who killed poor Jason… I don’t mean to sound opportunistic, but it’d give me something more to work with. You follow?’

I had to sit back and think about that. Trying to get the dirt on some suburban drug pushers was one thing, investigating a murder was quite another. Price saw me hesitating but misinterpreted it.

‘I know it’s more than we contracted for, but I can make up any differences.’

I was tempted to tell him about his wife’s infidelity, just to lay all cards on the table, but I resisted. ‘It’s not that.’

‘What, then?’

‘Jason was worried about talking to me. He said he’d been threatened.’

“There you are.’

‘No. He made a slip of the tongue. He said she had threatened him. She.’

‘Who?’

‘I don’t know. Your daughter or maybe your wife.’

‘Sammy? That’s ridiculous, and Danni’s just confused and stumbling around. She’s in bad company probably.’

I wasn’t sure about either of those conclusions but I let them pass. I told Price I’d keep the cops at bay for as long as I could and that I had a police contact who might be able to fill me in on the drug boys’ operations in the Georges River area.

‘Good. Good. That sounds very professional’

And that’s fuckin’ patronising, I thought. Price was the sort of client who won and lost points with me by turns and I tended to react to how the ledger stood at the time.

‘So what’ll you do now?’ he asked.

‘I’ll follow Danni for a bit. Is she likely to be at home?’

He shrugged. ‘Who knows?’

‘Where else then — friends, interests?’

‘Friends, I have no idea. Interests — would you believe rollerblading and skateboarding? She goes to this skateboard park in Kingsgrove, or she did. I picked her up there a couple of times when her car was in dock. It’s near the railway station.’

‘Just out of interest, why’re you located here? It’s not exactly the business hub of Sydney.’

‘There’s more going on here than you’d think, particularly among the Asian community. I can speak Chinese. Studied it at university. Some of our best clients are Asians. They’ve got some good ideas. Keep you on your toes.’

I nodded, stood up and winced as my bruised stomach twinged sharply.

‘What’s wrong with you?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Come on, Hardy, I did a stint in the medical corps. You’re hurting.’

‘Pulled a muscle in the gym,’ I said. ‘Stay off the smokes. ‘

I went out and apologised to Junie for my high-handedness earlier. She nodded but couldn’t contain her curiosity and her concern. Price wouldn’t have too many roughnecks like me calling on him.

‘I hope Mr Price’s not in trouble,’ she said.

‘Who isn’t?’

‘Well, I suppose… yes, all right. Thank you, Mr Hardy.’

And that told me something new. Junie had the hots for Marty. But Marty had Sammy and Danni to worry about. I rode down in the mirrored lift and didn’t once look at my reflection. I was afraid I’d think of how my anti-godson, Clifford Parker, had tried to call me Cliffy until I’d paid him enough money not to.

I had lunch in a Bankstown cafe — gnocchi and a salad and a glass of red — and deliberated whether to go back to Strathfield and tackle the woman who’d got away from Tom Bolitho or try to locate Danni Price and see what manner of young woman she was. So far I’d divided the day pretty evenly between the paid and unpaid work. Time to go for the money. I drove to Lugarno and parked outside the Price gates. The button I pressed got me a muzzy female voice.

‘Yes? Who is it?’

I don’t know what made me do it, but on an impulse I ventured an imitation of Jason Jorgensen’s voice. ‘It’s Jason.’

‘Oh, Jason. Thank God. Come in. Please hurry.’

She sounded desperate and I pushed open the gate and sprinted up the path to the house. She came staggering through the door to meet me and shrieked when she saw me. Her face and skin were colourless and I could see a good deal of skin because she wore only a sleeveless white lace blouse hanging open and a pair of knickers to match. Her left arm was bloody from the elbow to the wrist and blood had run down her blouse to her legs. Both of her hands were dripping blood and there was more on her face and in her hair. When she saw me she tried to turn back into the house but sagged at the knees and I stepped forward and caught her.

Her beautifully sculpted face was like a death mask as she looked up at me. ‘You’re not…’

‘No, but I’m here, Mrs Price. What’s happened to you?’

Then I saw the deep cut in her arm below a fresh puncture mark in the spot where injecting drug users probe for a vein. It looked as if she’d hit the vein for her shot and then somehow gashed her arm. Blood was rushing from the wound and she was fighting the fatigue and helplessness that comes with blood loss. I lowered her onto a padded bench seat on the porch, pulled off her blouse and made as tight a tourniquet as I could around her lower arm. The blood seeped, then stopped. She lay back with her head turned to one side and one arm up behind her. I placed the wounded arm across her body just below her breasts.

I stood up and swore as the bruised stomach pinched me.

She opened her eyes. ‘Who’re you?’

‘It doesn’t matter. I’m calling an ambulance.’

‘No!’ The ferocity of her delivery stopped me dead.

‘Your life’s in danger, Mrs Price. You’ve lost a lot of blood.’

She had guts or enough desperation to amount to the same thing. ‘Not so much. Mostly shock. Call Dr Cross. I was trying to call him when you… but the blood made the phone slippery. The number’s by the phone. Please, please…’

I felt her pulse and found it was quite strong. With the bleeding stopped some colour was returning to her face and she struggled to sit up. I eased her down.

‘I’ll be all right. Please, call the doctor and get me a cigarette.’

Strong voice now, in control and searching for normality. Good signs. I pulled a pillow from the bottom of the bench and propped her up. I went into the house and negotiated a trail of blood down a long, polished wood passageway, past an alcove where the phone and fax machine sat, to the kitchen where I filled a glass with water. I brought it back to her and she took a sip while I held it.

‘Cigarette.’

‘Where are they?’

She hesitated but the need was too great. ‘In the bathroom. Have you called the doctor?’

‘Next thing.’

I went back to the phone in the alcove off the main passage. A teledex was open with Dr Cross’s name showing. Both the teledex and the phone were covered in blood and there was more in heavy drips on the floor before the trail leading to the door. My hands were bloodstained already so what the hell. I picked up the phone and punched in the mobile numbers.

‘Cross.’

‘I’m calling for Mrs Price in Lugarno, doctor. There’s been an accident and she’s cut her arm severely. She asked me to call you. She needs attention.’

‘And you are…?’

‘Never mind. Are you coming or not?’

He didn’t like it. A lot of doctors become unused to being spoken to as if they’re just other members of the human race and at a guess he was one of them, but he confined himself to being abrupt. ‘Ten minutes,’ he said and cut the connection.

I found the blood trail to the bathroom and took in the scene without any trouble. The uncapped syringe was there, along with two squares of silver foil and a small silver dish about the size of a fifty cent piece and a centimetre deep. There were a pair of brass tongs, a cigarette lighter and a packet of cigarettes. So far, just a fancy shooting spot. But there was also a long champagne flute lying on the tiled floor with shards of glass all around it. The room was awash with blood.

I picked up the cigarettes and lighter and went back to the porch. She was sitting propped up and had drunk some more of the water. Her eyes were open and she grabbed at the cigarettes. ‘You took long enough.’

I helped her get one to her mouth and she wasn’t going to object to the damp blood from handling the slick packet. I lit it for her and she dragged in the smoke.

‘How’d it happen?’

‘What?’

I realised then that Samantha Price was as tough as they come. The vacant look I’d seen in the passport photo was misleading, something she did for the camera, any camera. She was very beautiful and any photographer would have had a field day with her bone structure and the balance of her features — wide mouth, big eyes, straight nose. But up close, with at least some of her defences down, she showed character and intelligence as well. Those big blue eyes had seen a lot and recorded it all, and that luscious mouth was poised for cynicism. The realisation took me back a bit and I was suddenly aware of her naked breasts and my reaction.

‘I’ll get you something to wear.’

Her high, lilting laugh followed me into the house. I stepped carefully, trying to keep clear of the blood although I’d already trodden in a fair bit of it, and went into the kitchen for a glass of water for myself. I washed my hands at the marble, twin-bowl sink and dried them on a linen tea towel. I had blood on my shirt, trousers and shoes — Price was up for a hefty dry cleaning bill.

I went off in search of clothes. The house had three operational bedrooms as well as a dining room, sitting room and a study cum den. Sammy’s room was the one with the pale blue decor, queen size bed, ensuite and French windows out to the pool. More polished boards and a couple of deep pile rugs. I stayed on the boards and took a linen shirt from a hanger in her closet, wet a hand towel in her bathroom and went back to the porch. She’d smoked one cigarette, left the butt burning a mark into the white tile border of the porch and was working on another.

‘Sniff my panties?’

I retrieved the butt, snuffed it out and tossed it into a flower bed. Then I helped her shrug into the shirt and handed her the wet towel. ‘You’re working too hard at it, Mrs Price. I know you’re tough.’

‘You can go now, whoever you are. And thanks. I’m sure Marty’ll see you right, just like all the others.’

‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘I’m looking forward to meeting the doctor.’

9

He buzzed from the gate and, guessing he wasn’t on foot, I pressed the panel that said ‘Main gate’ and let him in. He swung his green BMW inside and came bouncing up the path carrying a brown bag. He was small and dark, Lebanese maybe, or perhaps from the subcontinent. Late thirties — around there — bald head, clipped moustache, summer-weight light fawn suit with matching accessories. He barely acknowledged me and went straight to Sammy who had slumped down a bit and wasn’t looking as good as she had a few minutes before. The cigarettes and lighter were nowhere to be seen.

‘I cut myself, doctor,’ she said faintly. ‘An accident.’

‘Of course.’ Cross had a mid-everywhere sort of accent and deft hands. He raised the wounded arm to a level position and balanced it on his upraised knee. He had the hard knot I’d tied in the blouse undone in an instant and clicked his tongue as he inspected the gash.

‘Very lucky,’ he said. ‘Missing a vein by a fraction.’

‘I lost some blood.’

‘Yes. But not too much I think.’ He glanced up at me. ‘Did you make the tourniquet?’

I nodded.

‘Too tight. A danger in itself. If you would get some more damp cloths I’ll sterilise and stitch the wound. No problem.’

Fuck you, Jack, I thought, but I went for the damp cloths. When I got back the doctor had laid out on a baize cloth an ampoule, a syringe, some alcohol swabs, a fine needle and some sutures. I’d brought a footstool from Sammy’s bathroom, which I put the wet hand towels down on and stood over him as he crouched beside the padded bench. Sammy’s eyes were closed and her long lashes seemed to almost reach to her cheekbones.

‘Listen, Dr Cross,’ I said. ‘This woman’s already injected herself with… Shit, can’t you see the puncture?’

Cross took a towel, wiped away some blood and turned his pebble-hard brown eyes up to me. ‘I’m aware of Mrs Price’s dependency. Please go away.’

I didn’t need asking twice. I planned to have a good look around the house while the opportunity presented. I took off my shoes so as not to tramp blood around unnecessarily and worked my way through the rooms. There was nothing of interest in the sitting or dining rooms or in the study, besides the evidence of money. All the fittings and furniture and equipment — TVs, VCKs, hi-fi, computer — were state-of-the-art. The paintings were originals and one was a Brett Whiteley, a small one.

I went quickly through Sammy’s closets and drawers. She had enough clothes to outfit the chorus line of a Hollywood musical and an Imelda Marcos-like interest in shoes. Her personal papers were few and easily contained in a shallow drawer — I flipped them over with the long blade on my Swiss Army knife without much interest until a photograph of a young blond man came to light. He wore a suit and a slightly embarrassed expression. Jason Jorgensen. It was a polaroid photograph taken indoors without quite enough light. The subject was clearly enough defined while the background was muzzy, but my guess was it had been taken in a motel room.

I barely looked at Martin Price’s bedroom because there was almost nothing to see — routine male stuff. There were a couple of books on marketing and management on a table beside the bed and a copy of Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty, something I’d bought myself and hadn’t got around to reading. Judging by the turned-down page corners, Price was two-thirds through it. A drawer contained a pack of black condoms, some lubricant and a vibrator, all with a thin film of dust. He apparently kept his personal papers in the study and I’d already found all the drawers in the big, solid desk firmly locked.

On to Danni’s chamber. Unlike the other rooms, it was a mess, and a mess teenage style. I remember seeing an episode of Bill Cosby’s TV show where he opened the door to his son’s room and said, ‘This is where clothes come to die.’ It was like that. Clothes scattered everywhere; video cassettes and compact discs likewise; wall posters pulling away from the Blu-Tack, and pizza and hamburger boxes competing for space with wine bottles and beer cans. The bed was a tumbled ruin with a blizzard of used tissues covering it. The room was large, say twenty-five square metres, but the chaos made it seem small.

Light flooded in from where a Holland blind had come adrift from one of its moorings. The other blind was drawn down tight, as if the intention had been to keep the room as dim as possible. You hear untidy people say they know where everything is; I’m no housekeeper but I don’t believe it. There was no way Danni would be able to tell that someone had sorted through her detritus. I set about looking through the cluttered closets and impossible-to-close drawers without a thought for secrecy.

Danni evidently carried everything of importance on her person because the drawers and shelves and discarded handbags and purses contained nothing of interest. I found a scrap of silver foil but no sexy silver dish, no spoon, no lighter, no syringe or syringe cap. The only thing of interest I found was another photograph of Jason Jorgensen. He was standing in what looked like a wine bar. He appeared happy and relaxed with a glass in his hand and was wearing casual clothes — sports shirt, shorts, sneakers. The photograph had a quick snap look about it and had been tucked under the satin pillow on the sleeper’s side of Danni’s unmade bed.

Cross had made a good job of repairing Sammy’s arm and he was helping her back into the house when I stepped into view.

‘What the hell are you still doing here?’ Sammy almost shouted.

‘Calm yourself,’ the doctor said.

‘I don’t want that man snooping through my house.’

‘I’m the man who saved you from bleeding to death,’ I said. ‘Remember?’

‘Hardly that,’ Cross said. ‘A clean wound. Glass is a sterile medium, more or less. I think you’d better leave.’

I followed them into the sitting room. ‘What about the mess?’

Sammy allowed the doctor to ease her down into a chair. ‘Do you think I could have a brandy, please?’

‘Of course.’ Cross left the room briskly, obviously knowing where they kept the liquor.

‘What’s Marty going to say about all this blood?’ I asked.

‘I’ll have it cleaned up before he gets home. He gets home very late these nights, now that he’s got that… But I suppose you’ll tell him all about it.’

I liked that choice of words — I’ll have it cleaned up. Sammy hadn’t cleaned anything herself in a long while. It occurred to me that the best way to handle Sammy at the moment was as the man of mystery. I’d lifted the cigarettes and lighter from where she’d tucked them under the padded cover on the porch bench and I dropped them into her lap. ‘I don’t know that I will.’

Cross came back with an inch or so of amber liquid in a small brandy balloon. Nice touch. He’d taken a while and I edged closer to get a sniff of his breath. ‘Here you are, Mrs Price,’ he said. ‘A few sips over the next few minutes, I would suggest.’

I had to admire Sammy. She’d secreted the smokes and lighter again as smoothly as Houdini with his all-purpose handcuff keys. She accepted the glass and gave Cross one of her full candle-power smiles and eye massages. I caught its effect even standing off at an angle. ‘Thank you, doctor. Thank you for everything.’

‘I’m sure she’ll be all right,’ I said.

He ignored me. He had smoothness to spare and he couldn’t quite help himself. He took a card from the breast pocket of his immaculate suit coat and placed it on the velvet-covered arm of Sandy’s chair. ‘If you need me, Mrs Price, at any time, you know where I can be reached.’

I’d expected him to have a last throw at professional authority but he thought better of it. He was as clean as when he walked in but suddenly unsure of his ground, despite the jolt of spirit I’d picked up on his breath. I was bigger and uglier, poorer, blood-smeared and obviously there on other business. He adjusted the card a nervous millimetre and walked out of the room. I heard the bleep as he touched the panel to open the gate and the soft purr of his engine starting. Dr Cross knew his way around in this little part of Lugarno.

‘So,’ Sammy said. She fished up the cigarettes and lit one. She drained the brandy, took a deep drag and knocked some ash into the glass.

‘Think you’ll be all right?’

‘I know I’ll be all right!’

‘I wouldn’t be so sure, Mrs Price. Think Danni’ll be all right?’

‘Is this about Danni?’

I only had one more bullet to fire. I picked up Cross’s card and flicked a fingernail against it. ‘I’ll tell you one thing — it isn’t about Jason Jorgensen, because he’s dead.’

10

Think time. I drove around Lugarno for a while as the day turned sour. The cloud that had built up through the morning and early afternoon had turned dark and had those wind-driven light streaks in it that promise a storm. The wind had swung to the east and it looked as if the city was in for a lashing. I drove as close as I could get to the river and looked out at it over the protective strip of reserve. The water was a murky grey now and the knowledge that Jason had been dumped in it just hours before didn’t make it more appealing. I wondered whether the boat that dragged him up had taken the body ashore somewhere else on the river or whether the police had been contacted straight off. Many houseboats have phones, so the second possibility was likely. It hardly mattered. There was no way to tell where the boy had died or where the body had left dry land — boats leave no tracks. Still, it was curious that the dumping place had been Lugarno. Was it noticeably quieter than elsewhere? The police would be pushing shit uphill on this one and if it started to roll back they’d be calling on me.

I got out of the car to stretch and sniffed the conflicting smells of Sydney in the air — the industrial odours of Botany warring with the salty tang of the wide blue Pacific further east and the scents that were being given off by the trees that were bending to the wind and shedding leaves. The rain was only minutes away and the air was getting cooler. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and felt something unfamiliar — Dr Cross’s laminated card. I’d taken it for no particular reason and not looked at it. Now I did. Dr Ephraim Cross’s surgery was located in the Essex Arcade, Burwood Road, Canterbury. He was in Suite 3 and in Suite 4 was the Lord George Introduction and Social Escort Agency.

The sky cracked open and the thunder rolled and lightning forked and the rain came down in sheets. I got soaked just scurrying a few metres back to the car. I drove towards the city and my office to check on the state of my business and because I can sometimes think better in there than anywhere else. There was a good deal to think about. The male mind is a twisted thing; as I drove carefully along the roads with their gutters filling and the traffic crawling, I couldn’t get the image of Samantha Price’s breasts out of my mind. I tried, but I couldn’t clear the screen. She was a damaged creature, shooting God knows what drugs into her system and drinking champagne as she shot up and with her own Dr Feelgood on tap. Her reaction to the news of Jason’s death was hard to interpret. Her expression hadn’t changed much. Had she been stunned? Hard to say. Models seemed to be trained to display aloofness and indifference; maybe Sandy’s training had come into play.

I swerved to avoid a skidding ute going too fast for the conditions and swore at the driver, who gave me the finger. Sammy hadn’t worried about Jason seeing her with her tits hanging out. He’d seen it all before and a lot more in that motel room. It wasn’t hard to figure — the car, the suit, the motel. Jason was Sammy’s lover and she had been giving him the things a young man would find hard to resist. Price had told me that she had money of her own and I could well believe it. Looking the way she did she must’ve earned a fortune in her modelling days. I could guess at the chronology — Jason’s on with spunky Danni first, then Sammy snatches him away with sophistication, better looks and money. Danni takes revenge on her stepmother by getting her hooked when she’s depressed and vulnerable.

So Jason goes to Price, which must’ve taken some nerve, and spills the beans on Danni. All very nasty and with Price not really knowing what was going on. It hung together okay and gave me a handle on things, but it didn’t tell me where Danni got her drugs from unless, just possibly, Dr Feelgood was in the picture.

I parked as close as I could to St Peter’s Lane where I have my office and waited until the rain eased a bit. I had a Drizabone in the back and I pulled it on and splashed off to buy a pizza slice and a takeaway coffee to fuel me. The rain got worse, pelting down so hard it was bouncing up off the footpath making staying even half dry impossible. I stepped gingerly over flowing gutters, ducked away from spewing downpipes and made the back entrance nearly as wet as when I rode the big, choppy, curling ones at Maroubra back in my surfing days.

It was mid-afternoon and I was hungry. Breakfast and the light beer with Tom Bolitho were a distant memory. I’d wolfed down the pizza slice and drunk the coffee and wished I could have seconds, but with the rain coming down like that I wasn’t going out again. There were a couple of faxes and bills and phone messages to deal with and I did them in a routine way with the tangled Price matter still occupying most of my brain space. I opened a folder, put the contract inside, scribbled some notes and dropped Dr Cross’s card in with the lot. I made my usual diagram with names in the corners of an octagon, leaving spaces for more names as they came up, and dotted lines and arrows indicating connections. I had five names so far, six if I included Detective Constable Stankowski — two to go. I figured I might need a bigger diagram and wondered what a ten-sided figure was called.

I was still wondering and still hungry and thirsty when the phone rang. I screen the calls when I’m thinking and I let the machine pick it up.

‘Cliff, Tess. You there?’

I realised that I hadn’t given Ramsay a thought for some time and felt guilty. In cowardly fashion, I let Tess leave a message that only amounted to a wish to know how I was going. I put out my hand to pick up the phone but she cut the call and I let it drop. Come on, Hardy, I thought. You can handle two cases at once. You’ve done it before. That was true, but as a rough rule, when I did that, one case turned out badly.

I could have called Tess back and told her about the Strathfield situation but I didn’t and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe I felt I needed something more solid to relay to her, like a meeting with Ramsay. Or maybe I was shying away from that out of my dislike of the man. Tess would be better off disconnected from him. Why not just let him go on doing whatever he was doing? At least he wasn’t at her for money and was apparently healthy. But the truth was I was more interested now in the Price case and not just because it was an earner. It had subtleties to it I was sure I hadn’t yet discerned and that was intriguing.

Although it was still early in the year, the heavy cloud dimmed the light and the late afternoon felt later. Bad weather depresses me, makes me feel heavy and slow, and I slumped at the desk until I got a twinge from my bruised stomach. That was another attraction of the Price matter, the possibility of catching up with Baldy again and being better prepared. It got to be five o’clock which is near enough to six, and I poured myself a modest slug of bargain special Scotch and made plans: for now, a visit to the sauna and spa in Leichhardt to help me get through my routine at the gym the next morning where I hoped Peter Lo would have something helpful for me. Ramsay would have to wait; but then a more forceful visit to the face-lifted lady of Henry Street, Strathfield, would be the next port of call.

I drove through the heavy rain to the sports centre in Leichhardt, paid my money, stripped and hopped into the spa. The water temperature was about right and I played the jets on my stomach and wallowed around like King Farouk. I could feel the warmth and the water relaxing me. Apart from a couple who pretty much clung mutely together in a corner of the spa I had the place to myself. Some rolls of fat in the middle, love handles not too bad, reasonable muscle tone elsewhere. I tried not to look at the grizzled grey hair on my chest. I felt I had a viable work plan mapped out and I tried to concentrate on soothing my body and leaving all things to do with Prices and Hewitt out in the rain.

It pretty much worked and I was well and truly relaxed when I stepped into the sauna and slopped some water on the heat. I put a towel down on the top bench and stretched out on my back to let the steam do its work. I’ve heard of people fucking in saunas but it doesn’t take me that way, rather the reverse. The sweat was pooling in my grey-haired navel and running off me and I’d pulled the towel out from under and was mopping my face when two men entered the room. I didn’t bother to look at them and couldn’t have seen much through the steam anyway. I was about to roll over when one of the men spoke.

‘Mr Hardy my name is Lewis. I represent the Lord George Social Introduction Agency.’

I struggled to recover something from my soporific surrender to the heat. ‘You left out the word escort,’ I said. ‘Not that I give a fuck who you are or what you do.’

‘It would be very unwise of you to take that line.’

I fanned away some steam and saw that the other man was Baldy. I pushed myself upright but I was sluggish from the spa and the steam and he was quick. He pinned me with an arm like a railway sleeper. He held me down without effort — he had the weight and the strength and the leverage. I lay back and blinked to try to clear my eyes and get a better look at them. Lewis was a thin, stringy type with sparse mousy hair that looked even more undernourished in the steam room. The other guy didn’t have to worry about hair on the head or any other part of his body. He was hairless all over. An alopecia sufferer. He was also packing much more muscle than fat on his big frame. He lifted his arm and stood so that he could hit me with either hand on pretty much any part of my body.

‘Represent,’ I said. ‘What does that mean?’

‘In my case, legal matters,’ Lewis said as he took up a squatting position a level below me. ‘In Mr Stivens here’s case, security. Now you appear to be mounting some kind of surveillance on an important client of ours and we’re interested to know why.’

‘How d’you see it that way?’

Lewis wiped his face with the corner of his towel and looked about ready to faint. ‘Too hot for you?’ I said.

Lewis’s head barely moved but it was enough of a signal for Stivens. That RSJ of an arm came down hard across my chest so that I could feel the ribs separate and bend. I let out a gasp of pain.

‘To answer your question. You were seen by Mr Stivens in Kogarah and your activities at the Price home in Lugarno were reported to us. Mr Stivens and I followed you here from your office in order to have this little meeting.’

He’d told me more than he realised but I wasn’t feeling on top of things as a result. ‘You should talk to the police, Mr Lewis. They’re anxious to know what you already know. You could be very helpful to them.’

Lewis coughed. ‘You’re being very foolish. What is your concern with Mrs Price?’

‘I’m in love with her,’ I said. ‘She’s got beautiful tits.’

Lewis gave his minimal signal again but this time I was ready. My towel was sodden with sweat and steam and I came up off the bench with it in my hand and whipped it into Stivens’ eyes. It hit hard and he yelled and doubled up, clawing at his face. I slid off the bench and brought my knee up under his chin. Something gave, not enough. He roared and came at me but, half-blinded, he was easy meat. I head-butted him solidly on his wide, fleshy nose and he sagged again. You don’t get many chances like that. As he was off balance and shaky I delivered a powerhouse right to his ear. It’s the sort of punch that protects your knuckle and causes a lot of pain. Stivens went down heavily, bleeding from the nose and his mashed ear. He wasn’t unconscious but all the fight had gone out of him. I kicked him lightly in the ribs. ‘You stay right there, Mr Stivens. If I see you again you can say goodbye to your teeth.’

I recovered my towel, wrapped it around me and gestured to Lewis, who hadn’t moved a muscle. ‘You come with me unless you’d like some of the same.’

Mustering what dignity a pale, skinny, potbellied, balding man can with only a towel for covering, he went through the open door to the pool area. The lovebirds were still at it. I shepherded him through to the changing room and pushed him down onto a seat.

‘Touch me and I’ll charge you with assault.’

‘No you won’t. Your kind doesn’t do business in courts, you like to use muscle.’

‘I think I made a mistake.’

‘You did and he did and he got hurt. He was over-confident. But you’re not.’

‘No, not at all.’

‘I didn’t think so. You know, Lewis, I’m not really interested in your operation, not at this stage at least, but I do have an interest in Mrs Price and you don’t need to know why. How did she get involved with your escort agency?’

He folded his arms across his skinny chest. ‘I’ve nothing to say to you.’

‘No?’ Like me, he had the key to his locker pinned to his towel. I yanked it free, checked the number and opened the locker. Lewis made a move as if to get to the door but I stopped him with a look. I opened the locker and there was a smart suit, shirt and tie, shoes and socks all hanging nicely. I reached inside the breast pocket of the jacket and took out a thick wallet and a small notebook.

A note of panic entered his voice. ‘What’re you doing? Leave that alone. Take the money, but…’

‘I don’t want your money. I don’t even want your dirty little secrets. I want the answer to the question I asked you.’

He thought about it and while he did I started pulling cards and bits of paper out of the wallet and dropping them on the floor. One of the cards had a familiar look and feel and I glanced at it before dropping it — Dr Ephraim Cross. Lewis still didn’t speak so I tore a page from the notebook, crumpled it and flicked it towards him. ‘The next one I tear out I’m going to make you eat for ruining my sauna.’

‘OK, OK. Mrs Price came to us through one of our personnel.’

‘Name?’

He sucked in a deep, wheezy breath and looked at the door as if hoping Stivens would burst in and save him. He knew it wasn’t going to happen though, and he reached out a shaky hand for the notebook. ‘Jason Jorgensen,’ he said.

11

‘Pick up your stuff!’

Lewis started to gather up his things as I opened my locker and got dressed. I took my time about it and that increased his distress as I’d intended. Everything had gone wrong for him and he wasn’t used to it.

When I was ready I pointed a finger at him. ‘You knew where to find me, but I know where to find you. I don’t think either of us wants to meet up again, do you?’

Lewis shook his head and I took a wire coathanger from my locker and twisted it into something nasty in case Stivens was outside the door. He wasn’t and I was surprised. I thought he’d have a bit more go in him, but you can never tell. The spa room was empty and I opened the door to the sauna. Stivens was sitting on the top bench. He’d mopped up the blood and was getting the benefit of the steam.

‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘Mr Lewis and I talked things over. You can leave now.’

‘Fuck you.’

No marks for originality. I let the door swing back and walked out, thinking that the tough guys didn’t seem to be as tough any more. In the old days men like Rhino Jackson and ‘Haitch’ Henderson went all the way and it’d take a bullet or a lead pipe to stop them. The modern heavies seemed to know when to call a halt. Maybe there’s a TAFE course on it.

The rain had stopped but it was dark now and I exercised some caution in the parking lot. It’s always possible that the muscle you meet and deal with isn’t the only muscle around. But all was quiet. At a guess the gunmetal Saab parked a few spaces from my car was Lewis’s and I was tempted to do some work with my Swiss Army Knife on the tyres. But there was no way to be sure. From habit I made a mental note of the number. I put the twisted coat-hanger on the bonnet; if I was wrong about the car, no harm done, if I was right — message delivered. I was well ahead of Lewis and Stivens on points anyway, and it was definitely time for a drink.

I had one small glass of red with a plate of spaghetti in Leichhardt. Over the meal I pondered why the beautiful Sammy had needed to employ professional escorts and whether she’d had her first encounter with Jason in that capacity or as a poacher of Danni’s boyfriend. Maybe she just had a taste for commercial sex. Emotion-free, producing fewer lines and wrinkles. Maybe the escorts were good drug contacts. I bought a bottle of champagne for three times the price I was used to paying in case I needed an entry prop and then headed for Strathfield. The rain stopped and started and a blustery wind added to the discomfort and danger of driving. It was a night for any sensible person to stay at home, but I was hoping that the woman in the high-security house in Henry Street hadn’t called off her Wednesday night parties.

No worries. When I drew up outside the house the lights, the music and hum of voices and the fact that there was nowhere close by to park told me that there was a party going on. I parked on the other side of the street fifty metres away and watched while a taxi dropped a passenger. She was neither young nor old, fat or thin and she was dressed to the nines in a stylish frock and an elegant jacket that shimmered under the streetlight. I watched her go up the path and step inside. Open house, and not BYO.

Although I was never a Boy Scout I try to be prepared. I keep a tie, a jacket and an electric shaver in the boot of the car in case I have to tog up. I put the jacket on and tied the tie, taking three goes to do it as it’s something I don’t do that often. I customarily shave with a blade on account of my heavy beard, but I ploughed away with the shaver and got the stubble down to a sandpapery smoothness. A red Porsche sports car pulled up a bit ahead of me and a woman got out and activated the automatic locking. She was tall and slim to the point of gauntness and had silver hair flowing to her shoulders. Black velvet pants suit, high heels, white silk scarf. She crossed the road and headed for the house and I followed her, just far enough back not to be annoying but close enough to surf in on her stylish wake.

That’s how it happened. She went through the open doorway and I followed her into a well-lit passage that led to a big double room on the right. Party room. The music was Van Morrison down low, like the lights. There must have been about sixty people there and a preponderance of females. A waiter in dress shirt and bow tie cruised up with a tray of glasses and Silver Hair and I took one simultaneously. She noticed me for the first time and I smiled, confident now that I was in and had a glass in hand.

The dim light must’ve helped because she returned the smile. ‘Tanya Scott.’

I lifted the glass in a restrained salute. ‘Cliff Hardy.’

‘Available?’

‘Could be.’

She reached into the little bag hanging from her bony shoulder, took out a silver cigarette case and extracted a smoke. ‘Don’t play too hard to get, Cliff. You’re longish in the tooth for this gathering.’

I watched her flick a flame up from a lighter attached to the cigarette case. It all felt a bit Charles Boyer or even older, but she did it with style. I drank some of the champagne — very dry and cold and good, and looked around the room. She was right: most of the women were around my age, plus or minus, but the men were decidedly younger, and definitely better looking.

Tanya Scott blew some smoke over my head, not hard for her to do because in those heels she was as tall as me or taller. ‘Take a look around and see if you can come up with something better. I doubt if you can.’

‘OK,’ I said, ‘but I have to be polite. Where’s our hostess?’

She pointed with the cigarette extended in slender fingers with long, silver-painted nails. ‘Over there, but forget it. She’s given up sex.’

Of course I wasn’t looking for the lady of the house in order to meet her but to avoid her. In that crowd and smoky atmosphere it wasn’t hard to do. I moved across and stood in the archway between the two rooms and looked around. I don’t go to many parties and even fewer now than in days gone by, but I know that they’re all different. Some go with a bang from the first cork pulled or can cracked; some take a while to warm up and some just lie down and die. This one was curious. The people seemed not to know each other but to be keen to rub along. The women were cruising the men and some were getting attached and some were staying loose. Some of the women seemed more interested in other women than the men which evened the ratio up a bit. I got a few glances and smiles but I was way too rough to be high on anyone’s list.

I was an odd man out and it would only be a matter of time before I was brought to the attention of the hostess. I lifted another glass of bubbly and wondered if Silver Hair would give me the drum on what the gathering was all about, although by now I had a pretty fair idea. I looked across to where I’d left her but I’d missed my chance — she was deep in conversation with a tall, blond classical profile in an Italian suit.

I sidled past people, ducking and weaving with my glass, and when I was sure no-one was watching and there were no waiters about, I scuttled down a passage past the kitchen where three or four Asian women were working towards the back of the house. The place was a lot bigger than it looked from the front. The block sloped severely and the house was on two levels at the back. There was a sitting room and three smaller rooms on both levels, plus bathrooms top and bottom. I did a quick recce: double beds in each of the rooms. I flicked on a light and went into one — TV and VCR with raunchy videos lined up ready to roll; condoms, lubricant and three sizes of vibrator in a drawer.

I pushed open a door and stepped out into the subtly lit back garden: tall trees around the edges, a few shrubs and a little grass, but most of the space was taken up by a twelve metre pool and a number of cabanas built close around it. The joint could sleep two dozen people easy, or not sleep.

I walked down the terracotta path, skirted the pool and looked into one of the cabins. Very cosy. Light rain began to dapple the surface of the pool and I dashed back under cover. The door to the house swung open.

‘Just exactly what d’you think you’re doing?’

It was her, glass in hand, teased up hair, red dress and stoked. I moved towards her, twiddling my glass in my hand. ‘Nice party,’ I said. “Think I’ll get a refill.’

‘You will not! You’ll leave immediately. Good God, you’re the man…’

‘That’s right, I’m the man who came looking for Ramsay Hewitt, and you’re the woman who lied to me about not knowing him.’

‘You’re trespassing and being offensive. I’ll call the police.’

‘Will you? I wonder what they’ll say about the set-up here? All these fuck rooms?’

‘You’re revolting.’

‘I don’t mean to be. I’m open minded. It’s your business but it sure looks like a business and that could be your problem, Mrs…?’

She took a gulp from her glass and I wished mine wasn’t empty. It was an edgy kind of standoff for us both. In the dim light she came across as an attractive woman and if Tom Bolitho was right about her age and the surgical intervention, she’d done the right thing. Maybe she noticed and appreciated my evaluation, because she abruptly changed her manner and tone of voice.

‘I’m Prue Bonham.’

‘Cliff Hardy. And I’m still looking for Ramsay Hewitt.’

‘I can see I was hasty and underestimated you, Mr Hardy. I do know Ramsay of course. I know him quite well.’

‘If you can tell me where to find him I’ll be on my way.’

She drew in a deep breath and her breasts rose impressively under the red silk of her dress. But somehow I knew it wasn’t for me. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ she said. ‘Come back in and have that drink. Have a couple. I think you’ve cottoned on to what happens here. The numbers’ll be down to next to nothing in a couple of hours and we can talk.’

‘And what will we talk about, Mrs Bonham?’

‘We’ll talk about love and life, life and love. They should interest a man in your occupation. And after that I’ll talk about Ramsay.’

Occupation, I liked that. By not saying profession she kept an edge. Suddenly, I liked her a lot. ‘Is there any Scotch?’ I said.

For the next few hours I nursed a couple of Scotches with water while couples paired off and adjourned to the bedrooms and cabins out the back. Prue Bonham circulated, kept conversations going, made sure the food and drink kept coming. Towards the end Silver Hair, whose name I’d immediately forgotten, approached me again.

‘And?’

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m otherwise engaged.’

She puffed smoke. ‘Not my night. Don’t tell me you’ve scored with the chatelaine?’

‘We’ve got business to discuss.’

‘Yeah, I didn’t think you were up for grabs. Well, goodnight.’

She sauntered out of the room in her smart black outfit, bound for her Porsche. I watched her stylish departure. Prue Bonham appeared beside me and watched likewise.

‘Poor Tanya. Still hunting,’ she said. ‘Go out to the kitchen and make yourself useful. You look so obviously out of place.’

I dried dishes, amusing the hired help, and kept an eye on the passage as the traffic went by. A few pairs I’d seen go out earlier came back and looked the better for the experience. The exodus slowed and the last couple I saw was female. The voices were fewer from the party room and then faded away altogether with the music — Ella Fitzgerald by now. The two waiters finished up and the kitchen hands got everything shipshape and gave me little salutes as they went out. I hung up my dishcloth, went across to the table that was serving as a bar and mixed a last weak Scotch and water.

Prue Bonham came into the kitchen, looked around and nodded approvingly. She crooked a finger. ‘Come in here. I can give you a few minutes now.’

I followed her back to the party room. It smelled strongly of smoke and wine and perfume. She waved her be-ringed hands in the air. ‘The only thing I don’t like about this is the smoke. Disgusting habit. I can’t think why they do it.’

‘Neither can they now, most of them.’

She sank into an armchair and gestured for me to sit close by. Her skirt rode up and showed her nice calves and knees. ‘You’ve surprised me,’ she said.

‘How’s that?’

‘Moon Teh says you’re a gentleman.’

‘When I have to be. In her case it’s probably a matter of racial guilt.’

She raised her artistically plucked eyebrows. ‘Why so?’

‘I killed a few Chinese guerillas in Malaya.’

‘You don’t look quite that old.’

‘Thanks for the quite. I was young and it went on longer than most people think. Can we get down to business?’

‘Fine. How did you know there’d be a gathering here tonight?’

‘You have a secret admirer in the street.’

Her hand flew up to her mouth in a gesture that was just a bit too young for her to carry off. ‘Oh, God. Old Tom. That poor old bugger.’

‘He’d be flattered you know his name. He doesn’t know yours.’

‘I suppose he’s told you all about my scarlet womanhood.’

‘As I said, he admires you. But he did let slip a thing or two.’

She said nothing for a moment and then drew in another of those figure-enhancing breaths. ‘Do you have any idea how many women in this city are sick and tired of having sex with their husbands? Oh, they might still love them and be committed to them, but the thought of going to bed with them bores them to tears.’

‘I don’t. Do you?’

‘Not really, but it must be thousands, tens of thousands most likely. I was like that. The tedium of it… Anyway, I provide an outlet, relief, an alternative. Call it what you will.’

‘For a fee?’

‘Of course.’

‘I’m not up on this but I’d imagine you’re breaking several laws to do with introduction services and so on, and your tax situation must be interesting. Your power bills’d be worth looking into and I wonder if your building modifications had council approval.’

‘Are you threatening me?’

I swilled the dregs of my drink. ‘Not at all. I couldn’t care less one way or the other about your lonely hearts club. I suppose I’m just encouraging you to tell me about Ramsay Hewitt.’

‘Hmm, you might not have as much leverage as you think. I paid a good deal to steer certain things through the council.’

‘Corruption.’

Peter Corris

CH24 — Lugarno

She nodded. ‘Grease to the wheels of enterprise, call it. And there are a couple of police who are not unaware of what goes on here.’

‘Good for you, but I suspect you’re smart enough to know how easily it could all come tumbling down. Ramsay Hewitt.’

‘I met him on an environmental demonstration. Don’t look so surprised; I have a life apart from this. He was so full of aggression and so vulnerable underneath.’

‘Yeah, and then with a good thick layer of self-pity under that.’

She let that pass. ‘I contributed some money to the cause and then sort of took him under my wing a bit. Not sexually, I thought I’d made that clear to him. I’m on a different path in that regard as I’m sure Tanya told you. But Ramsay turned out to be a very needy boy and I wasn’t about to give him what he needed. So…’

‘So you didn’t give him the Merc and the clothes and pay his university fees?’

She shook her head.

‘He wrote a note to his sister using your notepaper but blanking out the phone number. I’m told he stayed overnight.’

She shrugged. “There’s room.’

I was tired and not in the mood for a jigsaw puzzle. ‘You’ll have to tell me a bit more, Mrs Bonham. I’m puzzled.’

‘Don’t call me that! Call me Prue. I’m not some dried up suburban housewife.’

Her flare-up sparked me a bit and I straightened in the chair. I could tell her reaction wasn’t only to being called something she didn’t like. What was really bothering her was close to the surface now and I just had to ease it up.

‘Tell me,’ I said.

‘Did you take any notice of the men who were here tonight?’

‘Youngish, good-looking. Rent a bloke?’

‘Yes, some of them are escorts. Some are the male equivalents of the females.’

‘Very interesting,’ I said. ‘An overhead for you if you’ll excuse the expression. But where’s this going?’

‘I’m not proud of this. I told Ramsay to leave me alone. He was too clinging. He took it very badly. Before he went, he took some things he shouldn’t have, including cash. He just disappeared. I tried to contact him but I think he felt so guilty about stealing from me that he went to ground.’

‘So, you don’t know where he is now?’

‘No.’

‘He was here not so long ago.’

It was getting late and even under the flattering light she was beginning to wilt and talking to the likes of me about this subject hadn’t helped. But she was game; she got up and held out her hand for my glass. ‘I think I’ll have a drink. You?’

I nodded and admired her still athletic movements — nothing surgically enhanced there. She left and came back quickly, carrying glasses that seemed to hold the same sort of booze. I took a sip; it was better Scotch than she’d given me before. This woman knew the angles.

‘He came around a couple of times. He had a nice car and clothes. I don’t know. He was a little drunk. He paid me back some of the money he’d taken. I felt guilty.’

‘He’s an adult, sort of.’

‘Yes. You’re right. Sort of. D’you know why he’s like that?’

I thought I did, based on my past experiences with Ramsay, but I wasn’t telling. ‘Not sure doesn’t mean don’t know,’ I said. ‘Where do you think he is, Prue?’

‘With some woman, and living off her no doubt, but I don’t know who.’

I had the feeling that there were things she wasn’t telling me and wouldn’t, but I didn’t know what they were or whether I wanted to know. I finished my drink and left. She didn’t see me out.

When I reached the porch I smelled cigarette smoke and there was Silver Hair, standing in the shadows.

‘Hey, Mr Hard-to-get,’ she said. ‘I think I can help you.’

‘How’s that?’

‘I hung around for a bit out here with another prospect but he didn’t work out. I was eavesdropping. I know where Ramsay is.’

‘Where?’

She took me by the arm and steered me away from the house. ‘I’ll tell you, but there’s a price.’

We reached the street and crossed to where our cars were parked. ‘What’s the price… Tanya?’

‘You remembered my name. That’s a start. Come home with me and stay the night. You don’t have to sleep with me. I just can’t bear to be alone tonight. Please.’

‘You can’t be serious. You don’t know a thing about me.’

‘I’m a risk taker. Are you?’

‘When the odds are right. You know where Hewitt is?’

‘I do, as of last week anyway. She boasted to me about getting him.’

‘She?’

‘Right. Are you on?’

Following the Porsche in the Falcon was like a duck following a swan. We ended up in Coogee at an apartment block that overlooked the water. She glided into the underground car park and I found a space on the street. She’d told me the unit number and I buzzed it at the security gate and she let me in. I took the lift to the fourth floor.

‘This is it,’ she said as she opened the door. ‘What d’you think?’

‘Give me a minute.’ The track lighting was held down low and everything under it gleamed — the polished wood, the glass, the paintwork. The living room had a knockout view of the water through a window that occupied the whole wall. The balcony outside it was bigger than my backyard and had more greenery on it. I waved my hands in the air, imitating a conductor. ‘What can I say. It’s fabulous, darling.’

She laughed. ‘You’re right. It’s over the top. It was his, now it’s mine.’

‘Sounds like a Patsy Kline song.’

She sat down on one of the overstuffed leather-covered chairs. ‘Something like that. Thanks for coming back with me. You don’t really have to stay. I just didn’t want to walk into this bloody mausoleum alone tonight.’

She made coffee and we talked. Her very rich husband had left her for a very young woman and it had rocked her badly. Trying to restore her confidence she’d tried escorts and Prue Bonham’s soirees but the artificiality of it wasn’t working for her.

‘What did she say about me?’ she asked. ‘I know she said something.’

‘She said you were still hunting.’

She gave the kind of throaty laugh only a pack-a-day cigarette habit can give you. ‘She’s right. You bet I am. But you’re taken, aren’t you?’

I wasn’t and wasn’t looking to be, so I said, ‘Sort of. Yeah.’

She shrugged. ‘That’s the way it is. Give me a hug and a kiss and I’ll tell you what you want to know.’

We embraced and her firm, slender body sent out a Siren call I responded to despite myself. We kissed and I was carried back twenty years to when every kiss tasted of smoke and no-one cared. I was getting hard and I tried to kiss her again but she eased back.

‘Bad timing,’ she said. ‘Ramsay’s with a woman named Regina Kipps. She’s fat and fifty and she lives in Concord. She’s in the book. Goodnight, Cliff.’

12

I creaked and groaned through my routine at the gym next morning and then met Peter Lo in the same place as before. He was his usual cheerful, well-exercised self, while I was still feeling the effects of my encounters with Stivens, one whisky too many and a late night. I was also feeling guilty about not returning Tess’s call of the day before. Truth was, I wasn’t sure what to say to her.

‘So, Cliff,’ Peter said after taking in some coffee and a chunk of blueberry muffin, ‘I hear you’re mixed up in a murder down Lugarno way.’

I drank some coffee. ‘I wouldn’t say “mixed up in”. As you boys would say, I interviewed the deceased before he was the deceased.’

‘You wouldn’t catch me using language like that. Not long before, I gather.’

‘That’s right. Is this on the record? I didn’t kill him.’

Lo grinned and munched on some more muffin. ‘No-one thinks you did, but some people think you could’ve been more helpful.’

‘What is this, Peter? It sounds as though you’ve spent more time chatting about me than asking about the drug scene down there.’

‘The two matters are kind of connected, wouldn’t you say?’

‘What’re you telling me?’

‘They did the autopsy yesterday. Jorgensen had a considerable amount of coke and heroin in his system.’

‘Is that right?’

‘Weird bit of overkill, what with the other signs. The thing is, I just had to make a little noise or two about drugs down there and this all came up, including your name. So what’m I going to do? Play dumb and when someone later finds out I do know you and I was showing an interest, what’re they going to think? You follow me?’

‘I don’t want to get you into trouble.’

‘Don’t worry. I’m not. The thing is, the way the job is these days, you just can’t afford to leave question marks in people’s minds.’

‘So.’

‘So I went to Stankowski and told him that I knew you from the gym.’

‘That’s all?’

‘That’s all. He said he’d seen you and wanted to see you again. I’m surprised he hasn’t already. No, I’m not surprised. You must’ve left home at around six.’

‘That’s right. So you didn’t pick up anything useful, or if you did you won’t tell me.’

‘How good’re you at lateral thinking, Cliff?’

‘About as good as I am at transcendental meditation.’

‘You ought to try that. I can tell that you’ve got a lot of unresolved internal conflicts.’

‘I wouldn’t know what to do without them. What’s the point?’

‘Just this, Inspector Beth Hammond has been assigned to liaise on the Jorgensen case with Stankowski.’

‘I don’t know her.’

‘You don’t want to know her. She’s a bluestocking with a rat-trap mind. That’s not the point.’

I swilled my cool coffee around and drank it down. It tasted bitter, unusual in Paolo’s place, but the taste might just have come from the knowledge that a cop was seeking me out and I was being asked to play guessing games. It was one of those moments when in the old days I’d roll a cigarette, fiddle with it, and hope for enlightenment. Nothing to fiddle with now and I wasn’t going to start biting my fingernails. Peter was about to speak but I stopped him. ‘A woman.’

He smiled. ‘That’s right. Somehow there’s a woman’s angle to the business.’

Peter left and I ordered another coffee to wash away the taste of bitterness and considered what to do next. It seemed to me that the field was narrowing down. Jason had said that a woman had threatened him over what he knew about drug selling and now he was dead of physical and pharmaceutical assault. There were two women involved with him — Sammy and Danni — and both could be candidates, unless the cops had some others, always a possibility. But from where I stood it didn’t look as if Marty Price was headed for a happy outcome. Me either. From what I’d seen of Sammy I judged her to be capable of many things, but I didn’t rate her as either a drug tsarina or a murderer. Conclusion inescapable — it was time to take a look at Danni.

I rang Price and caught him before he went to work. The clean-up must have been pretty good and Sammy must have had a good explanation for her injury because Price didn’t mention anything untoward happening.

I asked him whether his daughter was at home and whether he knew her movements.

‘She tells me nothing. We leave notes for each other.’

‘Did you leave her a note about Jason’s death?’

‘No. She’s left her skateboard and protectors in a heap by the front door so I guess that’s where she’s going. I’ve got to rush, Hardy. If you have anything to communicate call the office.’

And speak to Junie, I thought. I said I would and hung up.

Kingsgrove was not one of those places touched by the magic Olympic wand. Nothing significant had gone on or passed through here. The rain of the day before had cleared and the sun was shining, showing the place in its best light, but it still wore a slightly depressed and neglected look. The railway station looked much the same as it had since its last facelift quite a few years back. The skateboard park, going by the name of Skate City, was in a barn-like building tucked away in a lane behind the main drag, Kingsgrove Road.

It wasn’t the sort of place a man my age could blend into. I was too formally dressed as well, even though I was tieless and jacketless in drill trousers and a dark shirt. I parked as close as I could in the lane and stayed in the car. The skateboarders, male and female, waiting for the place to open, wore a uniform of back to front caps, baggy pants to just below the knee, loose T-shirts and sneakers. Hairstyles varied from number ones to ponytails. Backpacks were almost universal.

The skaters ranged in age from the pre-pubescent to the early twenties and at least half of them, young and old, male and female, smoked cigarettes. Most of them arrived on their skateboards, wheeling in, jumping gutters and slaloming through other riders to come to what looked to me like ankle-snapping halts. There was a small car park, littered with signs warning: LOCK YOUR CAR, wedged between the building and an anonymous structure with no apparent function. I kept an eye on that space for Danni’s Honda. That was a mistake. Skate City opened and the riders filed in, feeling in their pants leg pockets for money or passes. A low-slung car pulling into the car park took my attention and by the time I was sure it wasn’t Danni’s I was too late to get more than a fleeting look at a group of three rollerbladers who arrived together at speed: I got an impression of smarter clothes, helmets, colourful knee and ankle protectors and smooth styles before they disappeared into the building.

Could be her. It was dumb of me to have thought she’d drive up. Inviting a snapped aerial or worse. I got out and did a slow recce of the surrounding streets. A racing green Honda sports coupe carrying the registration number Price had given me was parked in a No Parking zone a block and a half away. The inside of the car was in the same condition as Danni’s bedroom, if not worse — clothes, magazines, drink bottles, cigarette packets, food wrappers. I could see the strap of a shoulder purse sticking out from under the front seat where it had been carelessly shoved and I wondered briefly whether it’d be worth my while to break in and take a look. But the Honda was almost new and the security alarm was bound to be working, and by now there were people on the street and traffic on the road. Nothing for it but to get a look at her in motion and then tail her to wherever she might be going.

I shifted my car to a legal position a short distance from hers and then walked back to the skateboard park. I could hear the noise of the place from a considerable distance — a series of resounding metal clangs and clashes. There’s an open-air skateboard run in Glebe behind the Harold Park Paceway so I had some idea of what to expect — a dipping, swooping, swirling surface with flat sections at either end. The Glebe kids perform amazing sweeps and flips and other manoeuvres that look potentially fatal, each pass ending with the skateboard slamming down on the metal surface. They seem to find it fun and they do it for free. I wondered what you got for your money inside Skate City.

A black kid wearing a Skate City T-shirt and sporting dreadlocks and two lip rings was sitting behind a desk just inside the door. He wore earphones and was watching a rock video on a portable TV set. I flashed my licence folder at him.

‘Health and safety,’ I said. ‘No trouble. Just a look around.’

‘Two dollars.’

‘Did you hear me?’

He took his eyes off the screen just long enough to indicate that he knew I’d spoken. ‘Two dollars.’

I paid and went inside. The interior was darkish but probably not inconveniently so to these kids with 20/20 vision. It took me a minute or two to adjust before I could make out the curving, W-shaped surface and a wide, looping flat track that ran around the edges. The flat track seemed to be confined to rollerbladers, but both skateboarders and rollerbladers used the other area. It was hard to tell what previous function the building had served — a warehouse or store of some kind. A mezzanine ran around three sides, reachable by a narrow iron ladder. The riders and rollers were moving too fast to pay me any attention and I went up the ladder to the mezzanine to get a bird’s eye view of the whole thing.

From my vantage point and with my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see that at the far end of the building there was a bank of soft drink and food vending machines, toilets and a couple of doors leading to God knows what. This area was in shadow, but I could see a dozen or so kids hanging about there drinking from cans and smoking, despite the NO SMOKING signs everywhere. The noise of the skateboards slamming down on the metal and the shrieks and yells were deafening, plus there was music blaring from a PA system. It wasn’t a place for conducting quiet conversations but other kinds of intimacy were possible. A little way along from me, wedged into a galvanised iron corner, two boys with their pants around their ankles were kissing and mutually masturbating.

I turned my attention to the slightly banked track, wide enough to allow three rollers to travel abreast, and spotted a dark, strongly-built young woman whizzing around in a blur of lycra, Nike and spandex. She appeared to be involved in a race with at least two other people, one male, one female, and they weren’t letting other people get in their way. They swept around the track using elbows and hands to clear their paths and drawing verbal and physical responses from the other rollers. I squinted as the dark one, now clearly in the lead, swooped down not far below me. Dark hair escaping the helmet, strong jaw, full mouth, squarish face — Danni Price for certain.

Her movements were forceful rather than graceful, but she attacked the bends and hammered down the straights with a determination that impressed me. Even more impressive was her disregard for the safety of others. She caused at least two spills and it slowly dawned on me that this was, at least partly, the name of the game. Fainter hearts soon left the track to Danni and five others who seemed bent on being the last one rolling. In their pants, T-shirts and helmets it was hard to tell males from females and it didn’t matter because no quarter was asked or given.

The two lovers sneaked past me and I hardly noticed because I was drawn into the drama on the track. The skateboarders kept slamming away regardless but a small audience had formed for the knockout derby. Danni disposed of another competitor with a shoulder bump, narrowly avoided a swooping charge and saw the charger sail off the track to crash into something hard that hurt. It was down to two now — Danni and a tall, skinny boy with a wispy chin beard. They did a few laps side by side as if feeling each other out. Then the boy made his move, drifting up the track to make a downward swoop with one arm swinging. Danni sailed on below him seemingly unheedful but, as he made his descent she jumped forward, cocked her left leg back and tripped him. He went sprawling on his hands and knees ahead of her, she jumped again, cleared him and sailed on with her clenched fists held high.

It was a fine, fearless, ruthless display. The audience cheered and I almost felt like doing the same.

13

Danni and a couple of the others did a few more laps with fancy flourishes and then retreated to the shadows for drinks and a smoke. Tailor-mades. I left the balcony; the kid at the desk was flicking through a surfing magazine now as well as listening to his headphones and keeping an eye on the TV. Multi-skilled.

I got into my car and wound the windows down. The morning was warm but a coolish breeze from somewhere was helping. Where do you go after you’ve creamed someone on the rollerblade track? The pub, a video game arcade, the movies? I had no idea. Danni came into view with two other young women. They were walking and carrying their blades and skateboards. They seemed a little old and affluent for what they were doing but they were having fun. A car load of youths went by and whistled. Danni gave them the finger.

Danni took the parking ticket she’d received from the windscreen, shoved it into her backpack without a glance, and was away. She drove like her stepmother, fast and well. Her head swayed and I guessed they were listening to music on what was probably a six-disc CD player. (The Falcon’s radio works but the cassette player had admitted defeat some time back.) The direction was south-east through Bexley and Carlton down to Ramsgate on Botany Bay. Not hard to see why — the foreshore park featured paths that could have been designed for skateboarding. Slightly cambered, they swept through landscaped gardens giving clear views of the water at high points and not too much of the industrial mess.

Danni and her mates hopped onto their skateboards and sped away. I climbed a rise and watched idly as they swept around a bend. Danni was just as good on the skateboard as the roller-blades, with the same vigorous, hard-hitting style. She went at it strongly, doing all the dangerous-looking tricks you see the kids doing around the streets. She jumped and span, flipped and twirled. After a while she broke away from the other two, expertly foot-slapped the board up, grabbed it and walked to a point where she could look out at the water. The other two seemed to know to leave her be. I watched while she stood very straight, almost rigid, gazing out to the east. Then her shoulders shook and her head dropped. After a while she pulled herself together and turned back towards the path.

She rejoined her mates and they headed back towards the car with me following at a safe distance. Then she stopped and reached into her backpack and pulled out a mobile phone. She held it to her ear for a short time then dropped it back in the bag. I was closer now and tried to read her expression. She was certainly thoughtful, possibly quietly pleased but trying to hide it. Or perhaps confused. She shook her head and looked up at the sky. She re-joined her companions and shrugged at their questions. She skated hard and fast back to the car.

I hung back until it was safe to circle around to the Falcon. Then we were back on the road again heading along the coast to Brighton-le-Sands. I was very puzzled. I’d seen a strong, apparently healthy athletic young woman at play. Admittedly she was aggressive and went at things full tilt, but she didn’t have any of the furtiveness associated with some kinds of drug-users, nor the hectic, manic activity common to some others. She appeared to react with vigour to a challenge, to good news with joy. She seemed to me to be physically and emotionally in good shape.

The Honda pulled in near a pub along The Grand Parade and the three women settled down at a table in a glassed-in area where it was easy to watch them from the bar. I ordered a beer and was drinking again earlier in the day than I’d intended — the game’s hard on the liver as many have found. Danni and her mates lit up and ordered what looked like rum and Cokes. The first round disappeared like a shower of rain in the desert and the second went down almost as quickly. They were on their third drink and hoeing into crisps before I’d finished my middy. Danni was hectic. She was motor-mouthing and waving her hands about, but it was just the alcohol fuelling her. There was no slipping off to the toilet, no nose-rubbing.

I couldn’t see any point in sticking around. The only danger Danni appeared to be in that morning was getting picked up from DUI and that wasn’t my problem. I decided I’d have to have another talk to Price, because his image of his daughter didn’t stack up against what I’d seen. But maybe she was a different person at night or under a full moon. I drove to Darlinghurst to check on the office and consider my next move towards finding Ramsay Hewitt. I’d decided to ring Tess and bring her up-to-date. Maybe the information Prue Bonham had given me would be enough to satisfy her. I hoped so. Ramsay was old enough to take care of himself, and if he’d decided to finance a law degree by being a gigolo he probably wasn’t the first man to do it and good luck to him as far as I was concerned.

I played the messages. Tess, repeating what she’d said on the home phone and keen for news. The next message spluttered angrily on the tape.

‘Hardy! Where the fuck are you? I’ve been trying to get you on the mobile for an hour or more and it’s not fucking working. You said you might be watching Danni this morning, didn’t you? I hope to Christ you were. Ring me at home as soon as you get this!’

I could account for the dead mobile easily enough — flat batteries. I was always forgetting to recharge the thing, probably because I hated it so much. Price’s voice was urgent but still I tossed up whether to call Tess first. I didn’t like being ordered around like that, especially as I was beginning to have my doubts about Price’s grip on things. Still he was paying, so I made the call.

‘Mr Price? This is Hardy.’

‘Hardy. About time. Where the fuck’ve you been?’

‘Knock it off,’ I said. ‘That line won’t get you anywhere with me. What’s going on?’

‘What’s going on? My wife’s dead! That’s what’s going on.’

He said it as though it was my fault, but I let that pass. Grief and stress distort everything. I said I was sorry and asked where, how and when in as consolatory tone as I could muster.

The anger went out of his voice and he said in what was almost a whimper, ‘An overdose of some kind. It must’ve happened between when I left for work and when the emergency service got the call about two hours ago.’

‘Who called?’

‘They don’t know. Someone found her in the house and called but they didn’t give a name and they didn’t stick around. Jesus, I don’t know what to do.’

‘Is there anyone with you? Are the police there?’

‘They’ve just gone. No, I’m alone.’

‘Is there anyone you can get over?’

‘No, I don’t fucking need anyone. I rang Danni and told her what had happened and she said she’d be home soon. Where is she?’

‘What?’

‘You said you would find Danni today.’

‘I watched her for most of the morning.’

‘So where is she now?’

‘Why?’

‘Are you that dumb? Sammy died of a drug overdose, Jason’s dead, and the cops’re sniffing around Danni. What conclusions are they going to draw?’

‘Look, Mr Price, this is all a bit hard over the phone. I think we’d better talk face to face. There’s all sorts of things that don’t add up here.’

‘I don’t give a fuck about your adding up. Where’s Danni?’

‘I last saw her in a pub in Brighton-le-Sands drinking with some friends. This is after getting some news on her mobile.’

As soon as I said it I realised what had happened and what the impact on Price was likely to be. The silence on the other end of the line confirmed my assessment. I heard him draw in a deep breath and expel it and realised that he was smoking again. Little wonder.

‘You’re not telling me she was celebrating?’

‘She wasn’t grief-stricken.’

‘Who’d have a family? I should have stayed in the army and rooted whores and looked after number one.’

I could have told him a few things about men who did that but I suspect that he already knew them. Price was smoking and I wished I had a drink — it was that kind of situation. He took what I guessed was another deep drag and then I heard a different noise and he started coughing and I realised he was drinking as well as smoking. He coughed hard and then his voice cut in strongly.

‘All right, Hardy. This is a fucking mess and it might spell an end to my business, but I still want to protect Danni. She’s my flesh and blood and that makes a difference. I want you to find her.’

‘How? Why?’

‘Fuck me! Why? To get her out of the country. How? That’s what you blokes do all the time, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, but usually with something to go on. All you’ve told me is where she lives and where she skates. That’s it. I doubt she’s still at the pub and you said you didn’t know any of her friends. You’ve tried her mobile again?’

‘Of course. It’s switched off or out of range. God, friends. I don’t know…’

‘She was with two young blonde women today. Sisters or twins.’

‘Wait on, I know them. They are twins. Shit, I can’t think.’

‘That’s not surprising after what’s happened. Look, chances are she’ll come home soon. Why don’t you hang around, have another drink and get yourself together. You’re going to have to do a lot of unpleasant things. And make all sorts of arrangements. Sit tight. If she doesn’t show up try to remember anything you can about the twins. It looked to me as if they were planning to stick together for a bit.’

His voice was bitter. He sounded as if he could swing from sorrow to anger to almost any other state within seconds. ‘To celebrate. All right, Hardy, that’s good advice. I’ll do as you say. I’ll give her till five and if she doesn’t show up I’ll ring you. What number?’

‘I can’t say. You’ve got all three. I’ll get the mobile recharged.’

He hung up and I settled back in my chair. I wondered if he knew about Dr Feelgood. I wondered if he knew Danni and Sammy had been competitors for Jason Jorgensen’s affections. Did he know that his daughter behaved more like a daredevil on wheels than a druggie? I hadn’t told him about the secondment of the female detective to the Jorgensen case and what that might imply. I figured he didn’t need any more bad news just then.

It was early in the afternoon and I’d missed lunch. I didn’t want any but on the way back from getting the mobile from the car I bought a large black coffee, put two spills of sugar in it and made do with that. I drank the coffee slowly and felt it pick me up gradually the way it does. Not for the first time I thought there might be something to this emailing. I’d have far rather tapped out a note about Ramsay and his doings and waited for Tess’s written response than talk about it. I had no idea of her university schedule but I rang her anyway and got the machine. An easy out. I left a message that said I’d learned certain things and would tell her when I could but that I was also busy on another matter.

I updated my notes and my diagrams without getting any flashes of insight into either case. I tidied some files. I emptied the w.p.b. A couple of faxes arrived and I replied to them. Likewise with three phone calls. Hilde Parker invited me to dinner a week ahead and I said I’d let her know. We’re old, old friends who have never been lovers although we came close. She married Frank Parker, once my main man in the police force.

‘You sound tense, Cliff,’ she said.

‘Busy.’

‘Make it if you can. Peter wants to ask you something about surfing.’

I plugged the mobile charger into the mains and made the connection. I killed time. At five o’clock sharp, just as I was expecting the phone to ring, Price walked through the door I usually leave open.

‘I couldn’t stay at home any longer so I thought I’d… No sign of Danni and the mobile still doesn’t answer.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Sit down. How are you?’

He lit a cigarette. I could smell liquor on the smoke he expelled but he seemed sober enough. ‘Ratshit.’

‘Did you have any thoughts about the twins?’

‘Yeah. It came to me just before I left. Gretel and Anna Larson. Danish.’

‘Where do they live?’

‘I don’t know, but I’ve got a phone number. Danni scribbled it down on the telephone book one time and I remembered it being there.’

He read the number off the palm of his hand and I wrote it down. Price didn’t strike me as the sort of man who’d normally write numbers on his hand but I had to make allowances for circumstances. He was smoking pretty furiously, obviously shaken to the core. His colour was bad and he couldn’t keep still.

‘So what’ll you do?’

‘If the name’s not in the book I can crosscheck phone numbers and addresses. One of the tricks of the trade. What’s wrong?’

Price had jumped from his chair and was pacing the small space there was to pace in. He stopped, looked around for an ashtray and I slid the w.p.b. towards him with my foot. He bent and stubbed the cigarette out. ‘I… I didn’t tell you everything when we first spoke.’

‘No?’

‘No. The police are treating Sammy’s death as suspicious.’

“They always do that with overdoses.’

He lit another Camel and blew smoke impatiently in my direction. ‘No. This is to do with the phone call that alerted the emergency service. Someone was in the house. Someone…’

‘Take it easy.’

‘They always suspect the partner, don’t they?’

I nodded. ‘It’s generally a safe bet, but you’re in the clear. You were at work.’

He shook his head. ‘No, God help me, I wasn’t. I was at Junie’s.’

14

Price dropped his cigarette on the floor and hid his face in his hands. I came around the desk, retrieved the cigarette and stubbed it out. I wanted to comfort him in some way but didn’t know how. I touched him briefly on the shoulder and went back behind the desk. He was wearing an expensive suit like the ones I’d seen him in before, but now his tie was slipped down, the lapels of the jacket were wrinkled from its being thrown somewhere and there was something spilled on the front — at a guess, cigarette ash and whisky. His thick, dark hair was awry; he was one of those men with sinister dark-blue beard shadows, like Richard Nixon, and he was well overdue for his second shave of the day. He looked a mess.

I tried a firm but friendly tone. ‘Marty, you need to go home, swim in your pool, eat something, have another couple of drinks and get some sleep.’

That was a slip — how was I to know he had a pool? But pool owners don’t usually object to people assuming they have them and, anyway, he wasn’t listening.

‘I don’t want to get her involved.’

With adulterers, as I know from personal experience, a statement like that can be code for, I don’t want to be found out. But that didn’t seem to fit Price’s case just now. I made a gesture intended to be sympathetic. ‘The police will want to question her to confirm your whereabouts,’ I said. ‘All being well, it shouldn’t go any further than that. Have you made a statement?’

He looked sullen and in his dishevelled state that gave him an aggressive, threatening appearance that wouldn’t go down well with the cops. ‘Not yet, but they said I’d have to make one. It’s obvious you don’t know who Junie is.’

I was wavering in my reaction to my troubled client — between respect, sympathy and dislike. ‘No, Mr Price,’ I said, ‘I don’t. Should I?’

‘She’s Jade Delaney’s sister.’

I switched off from music round about Dire Straits and couldn’t tell the Spice Girls from Bardot, although I know the names. Jade Delaney was something different again. The media billed her as a cross between Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin, both of whom I’d liked, so I’d taken the trouble to listen when she came on the radio and had even seen a video clip once. She was a tall blonde with white hair and a long jaw that was almost misshapen but wasn’t. Stick-thin in black leather, she was erotic, anorexic, neurotic-looking, an assemblage of jangled nerve images that compelled you to look at her. All that combined with a voice that threatened to cause your head to explode and part you from your senses. I could see the similarity to Junie — the pallor and the face structure, the huge eyes.

‘That’s difficult,’ I said.

‘The media vultures’ll eat this up.’

There was truth in what he said. Everything Jade Delaney did or touched was newsworthy and a sister involved with a drug death was about as bad a story as her handler could dream of. Or maybe not.

‘A nine-day wonder maybe,’ I said. ‘All publicity is good publicity for pop stars isn’t it? Look at Keith Richards.’

‘That was then, this is now. It’s all different. Drugs are out, God is in.’

‘Well fuck that.’

Price was pulling himself together again and he helped the process along with a cigarette. ‘Easy for you to say. Junie idolises her sister. The thought of damaging her in any way would tear her apart. And she’s just on the brink of starting a singing career herself.’

None of this was cutting much ice with me. Presumably Junie volunteered to screw the boss whom she knew was married. No happy ending guaranteed. It seemed to me that Price had more important things to worry about, like who might have had a hand in his wife’s death and what he was going to do about his daughter. I got up and sat on the end of my desk, a move calculated to budge him from the seat he’d settled down into with despair in his body language.

‘Look,’ I said. ‘What you have to do is contact your lawyer. I assume you have one?’

He nodded. Blew smoke.

‘Talk to him and…’

‘Her. Cathy Jacobsen.’

Great, I thought, I hope you’re not screwing her as well. ‘Her then. Tell her everything that’s been going on, or as much as you feel able to. You know, about your wife’s behaviour and what you suspect about Danni.’

‘Suspect bullshit, I know! Jason…’

‘Yeah, well you might not know as much as you think you do. You’ve admitted that you had poor communication with Danni. Leaving each other notes you said. And I think there were sides to Jason that weren’t obvious. He wasn’t the most truthful kid in the world. I think he got you in. I suspect he was a bit of an actor for one thing.’

He leaned forward, interested now. ‘And what else?’

Like he was fucking your wife as well as your daughter, I thought. ‘He had more money than he should have for a start. And as you know I followed Danni this morning.’

‘And found her celebrating her stepmother’s death.’

‘I didn’t say that and I don’t know that she’d think of her as a stepmother,’ I said. ‘But she didn’t look like a freaked-out druggie to me. She’s hell on wheels with those rollerblades and a skateboard.’

He stubbed out his cigarette and stood up, rubbing his bristled chin. ‘I’m too buggered to think. I’ll do what you say — ring Cathy for some legal advice — and go home and knock myself out.’

‘What about Junie? You should warn her.’

He moved towards the door like a man who’d just experienced bad cramp in both legs. ‘You’ll look for Danni? I’m good for whatever it’s costing.’

I nodded. ‘And what do I say to her when I find her?’

Price shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ he said and went out the door.

I opened a window and waved at the fug of smoke Price’d left in the air. I had the office repainted a couple of years ago but old stains had seeped back through and as a good many of my clients seem to be smokers the ceiling has taken on that brown-grey look cigarette smoke leaves behind. What with a bit of mould, dead insects and spilled coffee and red wine, the place had quickly re-acquired the worked-in look I quite like.

I went back behind the desk for some more doodling on my diagram. Question marks dominated now. Had the police forensic team found traces of blood and glass in the Price bathroom? Whose fingerprints had they found apart from those of the family members? Jason Jorgensen’s? Dr Cross’s? The mystery emergency number caller? Mine? They certainly had mine on file from the brushes I’d had with them over the years and could run a computer check. Would that information get to Detective Stankowski?

Another question I had was: would Samantha Price shoot up again carelessly after her experience of yesterday? If she needed the fix wouldn’t she at least go cautiously with the stuff? Give it a trial run? Or maybe it was a suicide. She seemed to have had the reasons — a failed pregnancy and depression, a drug habit, an unfaithful husband, a hostile stepchild, a dead lover. But if it wasn’t suicide or an accident, who would want to kill her? I put the notepad on the desk, unplugged the recharged mobile and was up and about to leave the office when the phone rang. I grabbed it.

‘Cliff? It’s Tess.’

‘Tess? Oh, right.’

‘Shit, you sound as if you don’t recall the name.’

‘I’m sorry, love. It’s this thing I’ve got on. It gets curlier by the minute.’

‘I’m sure you’ll cope. What’ve you found out about Ramsay?’

I sat down and tried to collect my thoughts. Ramsay was a long way from the top of my mental agenda and I had to struggle to recall where I was with him. I could feel Tess’s impatience.

‘Is there someone with you?’

‘No, of course not. It’s seven o’clock and I’m still in the bloody office.’

‘Don’t snap at me. I’ve had a hard day, too. I had to massage a one hundred and twenty kilogram monster. I’m aching all over.’

‘I hope he enjoyed it.’

‘She. Cliff, I’ve got a glass of wine here. You tap your cask of red and we can start again.’

I did as she said and told her all I’d learned about Ramsay and his comings and goings.

‘Do you believe this Bonham woman?’

‘I do, yes.’

‘And where does his so-called “sugar momma” live?’

‘Concord.’

‘God, what address?’

I dug out the phone book and looked the name up. I read out the address.

‘Jesus Christ,’ Tess said, ‘that’s only one street away from where we used to live. What do you know about her, this woman he’s supposed to be with?’

‘Virtually nothing.’

‘What does she look like?’

‘I’m told she’s fat.’

‘Thank God for that. I was thinking he might be finding substitutes for me. The other one, Bonham, doesn’t look like me, does she?’

‘Not a bit.’

‘Okay. It’s’ still a bit weird that he’s back in Concord but not as weird as it might be. I suppose it figures — Ramsay’s never had a normal relationship with a woman. This sort of stuff might be something he can handle. I don’t like the sound of him stealing from old women though. That’s a shitload of trouble waiting to hit.’

I was almost through the cup of red and thinking about another. ‘What d’you want me to do?’

‘I can read you like a book, Cliff Hardy. I know that tone of voice. You want me to say let him alone to go to hell in his own way.’

‘I’ll do whatever you want.’

‘I’ll have to think about it… How tough is the other thing you’ve got on?’

I usually only told Tess the funny bits, if any, or the barest outline of whatever I was doing and I saw no reason to change. I told her the case had taken me to parts of Sydney I didn’t know well and that a male escort agency was involved.

‘I hope I never have to resort to one.’

Awkward. We made some uncomfortable noises and she rang off.

No listed Larson had the number Price had given me so the phone was either unlisted or in another name. I didn’t have access to a reverse telephone directory and it was too late to call my Telstra contact who did. I could get, for a price, an address to equate with the twins’ telephone number. That’d be first cab off the rank in the morning. The Ramsay Hewitt matter was on hold. I was facing at best some pub companionship followed by an empty house, some radio or television and a book and, unless I watched out, self-pity. Be positive, Hardy, I thought. At least you ‘ve got a house.

I skipped the pub. Not in the mood. Instead I bought a bottle of decent white and some takeaway Lebanese in Glebe Point Road and headed for home. It’d been an early start and an eventful day and I was tired. I turned into my street and swore when I saw that the parking spot outside my house was occupied. I drifted on down the street and parked between a BMW and a sleek looking something-or-other — the street has gentrified since I arrived and I wasn’t keeping pace.

I set the crook-lock — which any decent car thief can crack in about ten seconds — and hauled myself and my wet and dry dinner up the footpath. When I got to my front gate the door of the car parked in my spot opened and a tall woman stepped out.

‘Mr Hardy? Inspector Beth Hammond. I’d like a word.’

15

I walked up, juggling food, wine and keys. ‘I’ll be happy to oblige, Ms Hammond,’ I said. ‘But I had an early start and a hard day and I haven’t eaten since this morning. I’m going to eat this food and drink some of this wine and nothing’s going to stop me. You can watch or join in if you want.’

She wore a black pants suit with a white blouse and her dark hair fell to her shoulders. The light in the street isn’t great and I couldn’t tell much about her features. Held herself well. “We’ll see how it goes,’ she said. ‘If I have to arrest you at least you’ll have eaten.’

She looped the strap of her purse over her shoulder, opened the gate and winced a little at the squeak. I went up the path, opened the door and stepped aside.

‘After you,’ she said.

Assertive. I turned on a light and got my first good look at her. She had regular, unremarkable features and wore no make-up that I could see. Her expression was determined and her movements were the same. She followed me down the passage to the kitchen where I turned on more lights and plonked down the food and wine. ‘Have a seat.’

‘Thanks.’ She squatted on one of the stools at the breakfast bench. Me, I need to lean back against a wall for support when I do that but she looked comfortable enough as she was, ramrod straight.

I opened the wine and picked up two glasses from the draining rack.

She shook her head. ‘Not for me.’

I poured a glass full and drank half of it, topped the glass up. I put the felafel and kebabs on a plate with the flat bread and opened the containers of hommos and tabouli. I extended a plastic fork to her. She half smiled and shook her head. Good smile and the hair swung nicely. She was a potentially attractive woman trying not to be.

‘Excuse me. I’m hungry.’ I pulled the stool nearer the wall and sat down and began to eat. She took a gold pen from the breast pocket of her jacket and a notepad from her shoulder purse.

‘You don’t seem surprised to see me.’

‘I was told about you.’

‘By whom?’

Great grammar. ‘I forget. Detective Sergeant Stankowski maybe.’

‘I hope you’re not going to make this difficult, Mr Hardy.’

I chewed and swallowed, drank some wine. ‘No more than it has to be, Inspector.’

She glanced at her notebook although I could tell she didn’t need to. ‘You interviewed a man only hours before he was murdered and your fingerprints have been found in a house where a woman died under suspicious circumstances. That puts you uncomfortably close to two deaths in the space of two days.’

‘I’m certainly not comfortable about it myself.’

‘Your attitude isn’t helping,’ she said. She seemed to think she’d scored a point though. ‘But at least you don’t deny being in Mrs Samantha Price’s house. What is your connection with these people?’

I ate some more of the food and drank some wine although my appetite was fading fast. ‘As I told your colleague, I’m pursuing an investigation and I’m not at liberty to talk about it.’

‘You won’t be at liberty at all if you don’t.’

Nice comeback. ‘Still no clues on the Jorgensen thing, huh?’

She glared at me. ‘I’m questioning you, not the other way around.’

‘I thought perhaps an exchange of information might be in order.’

‘Certainly not.’

I shrugged. ‘Mexican stand-off then. Why a Mexican stand-off, have you ever wondered?’

‘I advise you to take this seriously.’

‘I do. I only met Jason Jorgensen and Mrs Price once. They were young and not bad people as far as I could tell. If I find out what happened to them before you do I’ll let you know, but I’ve got a client to protect.’

‘I could arrest you for obstruction.’

‘You won’t do that. You know that my lawyer’d have me out in no time and you’d have gained nothing.’

‘Your last word?’

‘Not at all. I’ll talk to my client in the morning and see what room there is to manoeuvre in.’

She stood up and tucked her pad and pen away in her purse. I guessed her age as early thirties and her IQ as high. Also her ambition. ‘You’ll be at Hurstville Police Station at nine-thirty tomorrow morning, with or without your lawyer, to make a statement. Otherwise, a warrant will be issued for your arrest.’

I nodded and followed her down the passage towards the door. She walked tall but I had a sense that the interview had disappointed her and she was re-grouping. Before she reached the door she spun around and sucked in a breath. It wasn’t deliberate, but her breasts rose, her lips parted and there was colour in her smooth-complexioned face. She hated to do it but she said, ‘You made a remark about an exchange of information?’

I opened the door and motioned her forward. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘The moment passed.’

My finest hour: two cops pissed off at me and a client who didn’t know what he wanted to happen next. I put the leftover food in the fridge and poured a last glass of wine. I didn’t blame the police for coming after me but I knew I couldn’t help them in any substantial way and they threatened to be a hindrance to the job I had on hand. I settled by the phone, rang Viv Garner and told him the state of play.

‘I take it you didn’t kill them?’ he said.

‘Ha, ha.’

‘If they’ve tapped your phone, mate,’ he said, ‘you’ve told them all they’d be likely to get. True?’

‘I suppose.’

‘When did you last have it checked?’

‘Yonks ago.’

‘So it could be tapped?’

‘What’re you getting at, Viv?’

‘I take it you don’t want to front up in the morning?’

‘That’s right. I’ve got other things to do and I owe you too much money as it is.’

‘Didn’t you hear a funny clicking then?’

‘C’mon, Viv.’

‘I could ring them tomorrow and say you’ve instructed me that your phone has been tapped and that they therefore know all you know. That’ll surprise them and set the cat among the pigeons. Should buy you some time. With any luck Stankowski will suspect Hammond of stealing a march on him and vice versa.’

‘You didn’t learn that in law school.’

‘I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in law school. Have you caught up with the bloke enrolled at Lachlan yet?’

‘No, not yet.’

‘What about the rich woman paying his bills?’

‘I talked to her. Apparently he’s moved on to another one.’

‘And no-one in that connection is dead yet? Not bad. I’m moving around a bit tomorrow, Cliff, but you’ve got my mobile number. Call me if they throw you in the cells.’

I rang off and hoped that was it for the day. I didn’t need any more phone calls or visits. I collected the book about the Burns-Johnson fight from the bedroom and settled down in the living room in the only comfortable chair in the house to read and unwind. There’s nothing like an account of two blokes pummelling the shit out of each other to make you feel relaxed. Except that in this case the pummelling was all done by Jack on Tommy.

I read until loss of concentration told me it was time to stop. Just for that moment I was back in the Sydney of nearly a hundred years ago when the men wore waistcoats in summer, the papers called Johnson a ‘nigger’ and Hugh D ‘Huge Deal’ Mcintosh, the promoter and referee of the fight, carried a pistol. A different world and not a better one.

I put the book on the stairs and carried the wine glass out to the sink. I rinsed it and moved away to put it on the draining board. The glass in the louvred window shattered and I was sprayed with fragments which mostly caught me on the side of the head and high up. I dropped to the floor with the glass still in my hand in case there was another shot and felt blood dripping into my ear. I stayed down and watched the blood drip onto the lino. The thought came into my shocked and tired brain that louvred windows and linoleum dated back to the time of the Burns-Johnson fight.

16

My house is overlooked at the back by a tall block of flats and that’s where the shot must have come from. By the time I felt ready to stand up he would have been well away. I mopped at my head with the dishcloth, not a hygienic practice but the glass hadn’t hit me anywhere vital. I was cut in several places on the ear and higher up but my hair had taken the brunt of it. Thank you Grandad. At a guess the bullet must have struck in those couple of centimetres where a set of louvres overlapped and been deflected. With the kitchen well lit and me standing relatively still at the sink in front of the window I would’ve made a good target. I couldn’t say how many times people had told me to get the daggy louvres replaced and I’d resisted, more out of inertia than aesthetics. One up to inertia.

The surge of adrenaline that the near miss had pumped through me started to ebb away almost immediately, leaving me drained and spent. I’d been shot at before, hit before, but not by a sniper in quite that clinical way. More than once my ex-wife Cyn had said, I wish you were dead. Well, now there was someone out there prepared to grant her wish. Except that she was dead. I wasn’t thinking straight. How prepared was I for such things? For a man in my business, my security alarm system is lousy, apt to be short-circuited by cockroaches, but I set it and checked the doors and windows.

I showered and used a caustic stick, something we blade shavers still have on hand, to deal with the cuts on my ear. I dumped my bloodied shirt in the wash, knocked back a stiff brandy and went to bed with my Smith amp; Wesson for company.

I slept in fits and starts, waking up to all the small noises an old, poorly maintained house is prone to. I got up as soon as there was light in the sky, made coffee and settled down to think about what had happened in the cool calm of day. Was it a professional shot? Hard to say. The distance wasn’t great and the target would have been clearly illuminated. I could probably have made the shot myself when I was younger using a good rifle fitted with a decent telescopic sight. Again, it could have been no more than a warning. It was hard to tell where the bullet had hit exactly or what calibre it might have been. I’d be lucky to find the slug among all the weeds in the backyard. The big question was, who would want to kill me or warn me so dramatically?

I drank two cups of coffee and warmed up some of the Lebanese in the bachelor’s friend, a newly acquired microwave. Strange breakfast for a strange morning. There was a howling wind outside and I had to hope the piece of galvanised iron I could hear flapping wasn’t on my roof. I’d been in the private inquiry game for more than twenty years and had made my share of enemies, some of them hard men. But the only ones I could think of who’d take such a drastic step were either too old, too dead or in gaol. Conclusion, the hit attempt or warning had to be connected with a current case. Apart from trying to find out about Ramsay Hewitt and keeping Danni Price safe from the arms of the law, my only other cases were minor matters. Nothing heavy.

By the time I’d mulled these things over, shaved and made sure none of my cuts were bleeding, it was 8.30. I rang Viv Garner, caught him as he was about to leave, and asked him to put in his call at about the time I was due at Hurstville.

‘Might have to be a bit later,’ he said. ‘I’m in a meeting just then.’

‘Later’s okay,’ I said. ‘Later’s better. Further up their noses.’

‘You’re feisty but I haven’t got the time to ask why. Will do, Cliff. Call if you need me.’

He was right. I felt pro-active as they say, whatever that means. I rang my Telstra contact, negotiated a fee to be paid into his TAB account, and got an address for the Larson twins in Hunters Hill. I was through being discreet. This thing had become very personal and I was going to talk to Danni Price and not necessarily in a soft voice. I rang Martin Price and he came on the line speaking slowly, the way you do when your head is throbbing with a hangover and every limb and digit feels heavy.

‘Mr Price, this is Hardy. I’ve got an address for the Larson girls and I’m going over there to see if Danni’s around or they know where she is. I take it she hasn’t come home?’

‘No. No. The police just called. They want me to make a statement about Sammy and everything. Cathy’s advised me to make the statement. She’s going in with me.’

‘Right. Does she know anything about all this? About Danni and the drugs? About Junie?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Is she good?’

‘Very.’

‘Experienced?’

‘Yes.’

If she is, I thought, she won’t let. you say anything much, especially if they ask about me. ‘Be guided by her. I’ll be in touch.’

He sounded almost panicked. ‘What’re you going to say to Danni?’

I gave him back his own medicine. ‘I don’t know,’ I said and rang off.

Hunters Hill was considered a dangerous place in the old days, what with the insane asylum and the convict barracks on Cockatoo Island nearby. Not any more. Just about the whole of the district is classified by the National Trust and I’d have to sell my house to buy a unit there. The address I’d been given was close to Kellys Bush, the bit of native bush that residents and the Builders Labourers managed to save from developers in the 70s. Nice area. I pulled up outside a sandstone squatter’s city mansion that had been divided up into flats. Enough of the land the mansion had originally occupied was left to provide undercover parking space for a dozen cars and room in the open for visitors. I drove in and parked about a metre and a half away from Danni’s sporty Honda.

The squatter would have had servants and dogs for protection, now there was a state-of-the-art security door and intercom system installed inside a tiled entrance with leadlight windows. I buzzed the flat number I’d been given and a female voice answered.

‘Yes? Who is it?’

‘Ms Larson?’

‘Who is it?’

‘My name’s Hardy. I’m a private detective working for Danni Price’s father.’

‘You’re joking. A private detective?’

“That’s right. I want to speak to her, please.’

‘What makes you think she’s here?’

‘Her car’s here.’

The intercom cut out and I swore and buzzed again.

“This is Danni Price. What d’you want?’

‘I want to stop having to press this buzzer. Then I want to come inside and talk to you fast.’

‘Why?’

‘Listen, I know about Jason and your stepmother. I know about your father’s mistress. He’s making a statement to the police right now. He wants to help you.’

‘I don’t need help.’

‘I wish I could say that. I think you do, Danni. You’re probably going to have to talk to the police, but it’d be better if you talked to me first.’

‘No. Go away.’

‘Okay, better get yourself ready to be charged with conspiracy to murder your stepmother.’ I left the entrance and walked back to the cars. The wind hadn’t let up and there was a bit of an edge to it that made the cuts on my head sting. I opened the car, dug an old poplin jacket out of the mess and put it on. The zipper was stuck but the extra layer was welcome.

Danni came out a few minutes later. She was wearing the same clothes as yesterday — tank top, jeans and sneakers — and she shrugged into a denim jacket as she walked towards me. She was taller than I’d thought from seeing her mostly from a distance or sitting, and bore a strong resemblance to her father. She stopped a metre away and looked me over.

‘I saw you yesterday. At the pub.’

‘I followed you. Doing my job.’

‘Shit. Show me some ID.’

I did and she examined it closely before handing it back.

‘Can we go inside or sit in my car?’ I said, ‘It’s blowy out here.’

She shrugged and I opened the passenger door of the Falcon. She climbed in and I went around and got in behind the wheel.

‘Okay, Mr Fucking Detective, what’s this shit about me murdering Cunt-face?’

I told her that I had learned from her father that Jason had told him Danni had been supplying drugs to her stepmother and that the police were investigating drug dealing in the Georges River area. Now her stepmother was dead of a drug overdose, there were suspicious circumstances and the police were likely to question her closely.

She listened and unless she was a brilliant actress her growing expression of disbelief was entirely convincing.

‘Fuck me,’ she said. ‘Jason told Dad that and he believed him?’

‘So your father says.’

She shook her head and raked her fingers through her dark hair. “That’s crap. Jason must’ve been nuts to say a thing like that. I’ve never given cunt… Samantha any drugs. I would’ve had to breathe the same air as her to do that and I fucking wouldn’t.’

‘Why would Jason lie?’

‘Lots of reasons. You said you know some things about him and her. You work it out. This is such shit. Why’s Dad got you on the job?’

‘The original idea was to find out who was pushing drugs down your way including to your friend in the coma and use that as a lever to get you a break. Now he’s thinking to get you out of the country.’

She laughed and took a packet of cigarettes out of the pocket of the jacket. She put one in her mouth and leaned forward to use the lighter.

‘It doesn’t work.’

‘Shit. Have you got a light?’

‘No. I understand all about kids not liking replacement parents and if your… Samantha took Jason away from you I can see why you’d hate her. But your attitude seems a bit stronger than that. The woman’s dead and you celebrated the fact when your father told you. I saw it.’

She fumbled in the pockets of her jacket and came up with a lint-covered, scratched, disposable lighter. She wiped it on her sleeve and flicked it at least ten times until it worked and she got the cigarette alight. She wound the window down an inch or two and blew the smoke out. Manners. ‘I’ve got reasons, don’t you worry. You don’t know much at all. There’s no one in a coma.’

‘I know your father’s worried.’

‘Let him worry, the prick. Let little fucking A-cup Junie take care of him. They can do it at home now instead of in the office.’

I was getting out of my depth. She seemed to hate everybody, lucky there was no family dog. She smoked and stared through the windscreen at the trees being lashed violently around by the wind as if that was quite all right by her.

‘Look, Danni,’ I said. ‘Put your feelings about Samantha and Junie and your father aside. Two people are dead. Jason was murdered and Samantha might have been. Do you know anything…?’

‘What do you care? You’re just a fucking minder, aren’t you? A glorified bodyguard.’

I lost it a bit then. I grabbed her shoulder and turned her towards me. I poked at my ear a little too hard and felt the blood start to trickle. ‘See this? I got shot at last night at my house. And it has to be because of you and Jason and Sammy and your father and the whole fucking mess I’ve got involved in. This is personal for me now.’

The violence of my action and the blood had some effect on her. The hard shell fell away and she was a kid again and looking all the younger for smoking a cigaret te. She stared at me and her lower lip trembled.

‘You got shot?’

‘No, not really. The bullet missed. Glass cut me. But if you know anything about what’s been happening you should tell me now. Let me help.’

She recovered fast. ‘Yeah, so Dad can get me out of the country and fucking Interpol can come after me.’

‘I agree with you. That’s not a good idea. But there’s someone very dangerous out there. Do you know who pushes drugs in a big way in your part of the world?’

She shook her head.

‘Or why anyone’d want to kill Jason and Samantha?’

‘No. Except me.’

I reached in front of her to the glove box and got a tissue to blot up the blood. She took a last drag and dropped the cigarette out the window.

‘Well, we can rule you out for Samantha. I was watching you all morning.’

She nodded. ‘Will the cops search the house?’

‘I suspect so. Why?’

“They’ll find my stash.’

‘Of?’

‘Just dope. Look, I reckon Samantha’s been using drugs for years. All those models do to stay thin. She probably just got hold of a bad batch. Just dumb luck.’

‘What about Jason?’

She shrugged, took another cigarette and tried to light it but the lighter wouldn’t work. She shrugged. ‘I don’t know about Jase any more. I didn’t like some of the things he was getting into. Then, once he started fucking her I didn’t give a shit about him.’

Is that why you keep his picture there? I thought.

She fiddled with the cigarette and then crushed it in her hand. ‘Is that it, then?’

‘You should go home. See your father and talk to the police.’

‘Fuck you and him and them.’ She jerked open the door and ran for the house, moving like a sprinter. I couldn’t have caught her even if I’d had a reason to.

17

I considered going over to Hurstville and making a complete statement to the police and getting shot of the whole thing. Something held me back. Professional pride? I don’t think so. Possibly it was something about Danni, who seemed different from the image I’d had from talking to Price and Samantha about her. When I’d said she needed help I meant it, but what kind of help I wasn’t sure. Something. But it was probably mostly to do with someone having shot at me. Couldn’t have that. I had to know who and why and had to do something about it. Anyway, the police’d catch up with me sooner or later. Stankowski and Hammond didn’t look lazy or like quitters.

I’d watched my back very closely on the drive to Hunters Hill and I watched it again as I made my way to Concord to call on Ramsay Hewitt’s sugar momma. I hadn’t had the go-ahead from Tess but I was pretty sure she’d give it eventually. Her attachment to Ramsay was too strong for her to leave things dangling. I was curious myself, and a bit of driving around would give me time to think more about the Price matter while hanging myself out as a target, although an alert one. But I was increasingly coming to think of last night’s shot as a warning. Anyone seriously trying to kill me would have had plenty of easier opportunities than at night through a window. In a way it raised a more interesting set of questions: warn me off what, and why?

Concord was flat and leafy — as I remembered it from when I first met Tess there and we went through a few hoops together. I pulled up outside the address I’d got out of the phonebook — a California-style bungalow on a quarter acre block with a deep front garden. Shrubs, grass and a huge ghost gum with thick branches that would brain you if they fell and you happened to be underneath. I didn’t expect to see Ramsay’s flash Merc parked in the driveway and I didn’t. The wind was still blowing hard and a couple of plastic bags and soft drink cans bowled down the street. Otherwise it was quiet and still with only the occasional car cruising by. I hadn’t been followed from Hunters Hill. I watched the postman arrive on his motor scooter. Nothing for the place I was watching.

The private detective business, whether you’re looking for people or serving subpoenas or bodyguarding, is basically a matter of making house calls. Some turn out to be profitable and pleasant, others not. But it becomes a habit and having found a place where someone I was looking for was alleged to be I was incapable of just driving off. A few questions to Regina Kipps would surely be in order.

Most of the houses on the street had no fences and no front gates and Mrs Kipps’ house was one of these — a testimony to the safety and security of suburban Australia until very recently. I examined myself in the rear-vision mirror and picked away the pieces of tissue that had clung to the cuts. The bleeding didn’t start again and there was no blood on my shirt. I went up the cement drive that led to a garage and branched off on another similar path leading to the front porch. The paths were painted green with raised edges picked out in red but the paint had faded badly, and if Ramsay was living here he certainly wasn’t spending any time weeding the garden beds or pruning the shrubs.

I rang the bell and got out my credentials, quite unsure of what I was going to say. In any case, it’s not always a good idea to map it out beforehand because you might have to adjust to the unexpected. After a short wait I heard footsteps approaching and the door opened, leaving a good strong security screen door between me and the woman inside. It’s odd looking at someone through metal mesh. It’s almost as if they’re wrapped in armour and the mesh stops you seeing certain bits. The woman was medium height and, while not fat, she was certainly well-covered. She was in her fifties at a guess with a pale, slightly puffy face. She wore her fair hair in a style too young for her, although, in a silk blouse with the top buttons undone showing a deep cleavage and a bit of black lace, and a short skirt, she was doing her best.

‘Mrs Kipps?’

I’ve met a lot of different receptions on doorsteps, from passionate embraces to kicks in the teeth, but this was a new one. Every muscle in her face registered disappointment. She glanced at the small gold watch she wore before answering.

‘Yes, I’m Regina Kipps. You’re not… I’m sorry. Who are you?’

I showed her the folder. ‘I’m making enquiries into the whereabouts of Ramsay Hewitt.’

Small cracks seemed to appear around her mouth, leading me to think that the make-up was laid on pretty thickly. Her eyes crinkled and the same thing happened there. She drew in a deep breath. ‘You’re a policeman?’

‘No, not exactly.’

‘Worse luck.’ She looked at the watch again. ‘I’m sorry. I’m expecting a visitor. I can’t…’

‘Is he here, Mrs Kipps?’

‘No, thank God.’

‘When can we talk?’ I got out my notebook. ‘Can I have your number? I’ll call you.’

She went up on her toes in her high heels to look over my shoulder. ‘I want him in gaol.’

‘That could happen,’ I said. ‘Your number?’

She reeled it off and I scribbled it down. ‘I’ll call later today.’

‘I don’t know where he is.’

‘That doesn’t matter. I want to hear what you have to say. Thank you.’

She was looking anxious and I didn’t want to press my luck. I scooted down the path and drove away briskly but U-turned further up the street and parked on the other side about fifty metres away from the house. Within a few minutes a taxi pulled up and a man got out. He was dressed in a suit and was a tailor’s dream — tall, broad-shouldered but slim everywhere else, with a glowing head of fair hair. He walked up Regina Kipps’ concrete path in a stride that was almost, but not quite, a swagger. Hot to trot.

Catching up with Ramsay Hewitt was proving to be tricky. If he kept on the move like this I could be at it for weeks. But I thought it’d be worth giving Mrs Kipps a ring later on. She’d said she didn’t know where he was but with Ramsay it was more a matter who he was with, and Mrs Kipps just might have some ideas about that. Her remark about wanting him in gaol might be something I’d have to edit out when I next talked to Tess.

I drove back towards the city at a leisurely pace, turning things over in my mind. I’d decided there was no-one out to kill me just now so I didn’t pay much attention to the traffic around me until I spotted a police car some distance back and weaving through other cars. Being a mostly law-abiding citizen, I eased my way over to let the car get through to wherever it was going.

It drew alongside of me and the uniformed cop in the passenger seat waved me into the kerb. The Falcon is a bit shabby but has no obvious unroadworthy features I was aware of, though who examines their tail-lights on a daily basis? There was nowhere to stop so I cruised along until there was. The police car stayed right behind me and I could see the one who wasn’t driving talking on his two-way. Not a cracked light or a bald tyre then. We were in Queens Street heading for Drummoyne and I pulled over into the car park adjacent to a small reserve. I did a quick mental check: no opened bottles containing alcohol, no concealed weapons, no bodies in the boot.

I sat there while they approached and when I saw they were both young I got nervous. Ninety per cent of police shootings are done by an officer under thirty — something like that. I wound the window down and put both hands on the steering wheel. See, no gun.

One approached and the other hung back with the two-way in his hand, as per regulations.

‘Mr Hardy?’

‘That’s right. What’s up?’

‘Step out of the car, please.’

Things are looking up. The old-style cops would have said, ‘Out!’

‘You open the door,’ I said. ‘If I drop my hand you’d have an excuse to shoot me.’

He nodded and opened the door. Serious guy. I climbed out slowly, partly not to alarm him with any sudden movement, partly because with a still braised stomach and a few years on the clock, that’s how I felt like getting out of the car.

‘Could I see some identification, please?’

‘You think I’ve stolen my own car?’

He was young, nervous and lacked a sense of humour, bad combination. He put one hand on his pistol and held out the other. I gave him my driver’s licence and he examined it closely before handing it back. ‘You’re wanted at Hurstville Police Station, Mr Hardy.’

I shook my head, ‘My lawyer phoned in early this morning.’

He spoke to his mate with the two-way. “The gentleman says his lawyer… made representations.’

The other cop spoke into his radio and then indicated in the negative. ‘Still wanted.’

‘Are you going to take me or can I drive myself?’

‘You can drive.’

‘Going to give me an escort?’

I said it partly to get up his nose, partly to get an idea of how serious this was. Predictably, he took it seriously and had to check with his mate again. More two-way talk and the second cop approached, looking relieved. My guess — no escort.

‘They say it’s in the nature of a request, but if the gentleman shows any signs of resistance we’re to escort him.’

I held up my hands in surrender. ‘I’ll go. I wouldn’t want to take you blokes from Drummoyne to Hurstville. What’s Hurstville got?’

The two-way cop grinned but the other one seemed to be considering the matter. ‘C’mon, Charles,’ two-way said. ‘He’s said he’ll go in.’

Charles, he would be a Charles, looked at his watch. ‘I’ll advise them of the time you started. Drive carefully, Mr Hardy.’

‘Always,’ I said and got back in the car. It was lunchtime or close enough, and I’d be buggered if I’d turn up at a police station for how long I didn’t know without having had lunch and perhaps a couple of quiet nerve-soothers.

Inspector Beth Hammond leaned forward slightly across the desk that separated us. ‘Would you mind telling us why it took you three hours to get from Canada Bay to Hurstville?’

‘I stopped for lunch.’

‘This isn’t a joke, Mr Hardy.’

‘I agree with you. I don’t find anything funny about being stopped by policemen and ordered to go somewhere without being told why.’

Stankowski stood against the wall of the bare and cheerless interview room. Perhaps their version of good cop, bad cop was standing cop, sitting cop. ‘It was a request.’

‘The man making the request put his hand on his pistol.’

The two detectives exchanged a glance before Hammond got back to business.

‘Your client, Mr Price, has made a statement in which he says he hired you to investigate his daughter because he feared she was getting into bad company.’

‘That’s true as far as it goes.’

‘He says as far as he knows you’ve never been to his house. Your fingerprints were found in the house in association with some of Mrs Price’s blood. Coming on top of you being one of the last people to see Jason Jorgensen alive and the professional at the golf club identifying you as a man who misrepresented himself as a sports agent, I think you have some explaining to do.’

I said nothing and thought about it. I was still thinking when Stankowski spoke up. ‘Getting your lawyer to phone in some cockeyed story about your phone being tapped doesn’t help your credibility.’

‘Yours isn’t so hot either, Detective-Constable. I don’t know the status of this interview. You don’t seem to be making a record of it unless you’ve got some sneaky device and I haven’t been told of my rights. If you think I’m involved in a couple of murders…’

‘You’re helping with our enquiries,’ Hammond said.

I nodded. ‘That makes it sound voluntary.’

Stankowski lost patience first which might help to explain why he was out-ranked by Hammond. He pushed off from the wall and would have loomed over me if he’d been a bit taller. ‘Come on, Hardy. You’ve been around. You know the ropes. Something’s going on with these people, this Price and his family and friends. Two of them are dead. Someone brained that kid and dumped him in the river and someone shot that woman up with pure heroin..’

That was news. Hammond gave him a furious look and I knew why. I shook my head and made a movement to suggest I was going to get up from the chair, if not immediately then soon. ‘No way. You’ve got me implicated in two murders. I’m not going to answer any questions without my lawyer present.’

‘We can hold you for a time,’ Hammond said. It was warm in the room and she was beginning to look a little uncomfortable in her suit. Same style as yesterday, blue instead of black.

‘You won’t,’ I said. ‘You know it isn’t worth your while.’

‘I’d do it to take you down a peg or two,’ Stankowski muttered.

‘But you’re not the boss.’

It was the second time I’d faced Hammond down and she didn’t like it. Stankowski liked it even less. In the old days they’d have locked me up, planted something on me or verballed me, had their way. But times have changed. I almost sympathised with them. Almost.

I pushed my chair back. ‘Will that be all?’

They didn’t answer and I walked out of the room. I got to the car and dialled Price’s home number. No answer. I tried the office with the same result. Hope I get you as you’re just about to slip it in, I thought as I punched in the numbers for his mobile.

‘Martin Price.’

Martin now — widower, serious man. ‘This is Hardy. We need to talk.’

‘Yes, we do. Did you find Danni?’

‘I did. Look…’

‘I thought you would. Those police are hopeless. I want to hire you to find out who killed my wife.’

18

‘That’s a crazy idea,’ I told Price. ‘I can’t question people who don’t want to be questioned or get warrants to search places, or offer immunity to informants who might be involved. That’s how it’s done and it’s police work.’

We were in a pub in Bankstown, not far from Price’s office. We were both drinking Scotch and water and I’d told him about finding Danni and how she’d reacted before we got on to his idea.

‘I know that,’ he said. ‘And I don’t mean for you to make a citizen’s arrest or anything.’

‘Then what?’

He had a drink and fidgeted. Off the smokes again. ‘You must have some ideas you could follow up. You’ve been right in the middle of this thing. Anything you come up with could point the police in the right direction. They haven’t got a clue.’

I drank some whisky and thought about it. It was tempting to keep on earning money from something that had twisted and turned and was far from resolved. ‘Let’s clear a few things up first. I believe Danni when she says she didn’t supply your wife with drugs. She said your wife had been using them for years, since her modelling days. But, with one thing and another, it’d got out of hand.’

‘Jesus. But Jason told me…’

‘I don’t think we can put too much faith in Jason. He wasn’t very bright and my guess is that your wife told him that because she hated Danni so much.’

‘I knew they didn’t get along but… hated? Why?’

Was this the time to tell him? I thought it probably was. He was hardly the grieving widower. When we’d shaken hands on meeting I’d noticed a faint perfume on him and it wasn’t his aftershave. In fact he hadn’t shaved and with the stubble and in jeans and a Sydney 2000 Olympics T-shirt he looked younger than in his business gear, despite the haggard face and sleep-deprived eyes.

‘Your wife was having an affair with Jason, or had had one. She kept a photo of one of their meetings among her things. Danni has a photo of Jason as well. Those two women had reason to hate each other. Danni seems to have some special reason she sort of taunted me with. Any idea what that might be?’

‘No. None. This is all news to me. God, what a fuck-up.’

‘When did the police search your house?’

He scratched at the stubble as if doing it would scrape away an unpleasant memory. ‘They arrived just as I was leaving to go and make my statement. I let them go ahead. I didn’t think there was anything to hide.’

‘There’s always something to hide. They’ll have found those photos and be interested in them and in you and in me. I know they’re interested in me.’

Price drained his drink and got up for more. We’d been there a while and he was on his third while I had a fair bit left of my second. He was buying and I suspected that his were doubles. He came back and plonked the drinks down. Maybe he’d skolled one at the bar because he was suddenly aggressive.

‘How’d you know about what’s in Sammy and Danni’s bedrooms?’

I told him about my visit and Samantha’s injury and Dr Cross. The aggro drained away from him as he listened and he seemed to lose interest in his drink. When I’d finished he ran his hand over his hair and looked desperate.

‘Go and buy some fags,’ I said. ‘It’s not worth the grief.’

‘No! Look, Hardy, I know it’s all a fucking mess but I need to feel I’ve got someone on my side.’

‘What about your lady lawyer?’

‘She’ll do everything she can but…’

‘Did you tell them you were with Junie that morning?’

‘No. I said I was at work.’

‘Great. They’ll blow that open very bloody soon. They’re not as dumb as you think, Marty. They’ve got us both in their sights.’

‘All the more reason to stick together.’

It was a pretty good line to come up with at that point, but it wasn’t what convinced me. As I’d said to Danni, with cuts on my head and glass on the kitchen floor, I was personally involved. I agreed to stay with the case and to follow up on a couple of ideas I had. Price didn’t even ask what they were. He said he’d put a cheque in the mail and then he noticed his almost untouched drink. He picked it up, took a moderate sip and pulled his mobile out of the sports jacket hanging over the back of his chair. He dialled and got an answer and I turned away politely but kept listening while he said a few words I couldn’t quite catch.

He put the phone on the table and took another pull on his drink. ‘Danni,’ he said. ‘She answered. Said she thought you were OK and she’ll stay in touch. Thanks, Cliff.’

First good news of the day.

Price left and I got a hamburger from the snack bar and ate it with a cup of coffee. I decided that I’d pursue the relatively straightforward Ramsay Hewitt matter and let the complex Price case swill around a bit in my brain. I washed my face, rinsed my mouth and combed my hair in the pub toilet and was ready for work. I called Regina Kipps on my mobile and hung up when she answered. Concord it was.

It was almost dark when I arrived at Mrs Kipps’ house but quite a few interior and exterior lights were on. Odd. I bowled up to the front door and stood, bathed in light on the porch, thinking that if someone really wanted to shoot me this’d be the moment. The thought was so strong that I span around and looked at the street, but it was quiet. Still, I was spooked and moved a little to get protection from one of the porch pillars. I rang and heard the footsteps as before and there was Mrs Kipps, wrapped in a red silk Chinese robe looking at me through the metal mesh. She had a glass of clear liquid in her hand in which ice tinkled as she stood, not all that steadily. Gin and tonic maybe, but where was the lemon?

‘Yes?’

‘Mrs Kipps, I called earlier. I want to talk to you about Ramsay Hewitt.’ I showed her my licence folder and tried to look serious.

‘Oh, yes. The sort-of policeman. I suppose you’re really a debt collector or something.’

‘Among other things. May I come in?’

‘I don’t know. I’m on my own.’

The way she said it made it sound like the worst thing in the world. Maybe it is. I tried to seem harmless — a bit difficult looking the way I do. I gestured at the floodlit porch. ‘We could talk out here. It’s about as bright as the Olympic Stadium.’

She giggled, fine for Cathy Freeman, but an unfortunate sound coming from a middle-aged woman. ‘I’m being silly. Of course you can come in, and if you rape and strangle me what would it matter?’

She opened the security door, backed up cautiously on her high heels, and invited me in with a movement that caused the ice in her glass to tinkle again. She walked away with a sway of the hips that was more alcohol-induced than seductive. She shot me a look over her shoulder and tried to toss her long bleached hair aside at the same time and almost lost balance. She steadied herself against the wall.

‘I’m drunk,’ she said.

‘I’ve been that way myself, Mrs Kipps. It isn’t terminal.’

‘Misery is. Call me Regina.’

We got moving again and went through to a sitting room that looked like something out of a pornographic movie — the carpet was snow white, the couch and chairs were covered in fake tiger skin and the cushions were black satin. A bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin sat on the low table along with an ice bucket holding a tall bottle of Schweppes tonic water. She slumped down on the couch and pointed at the empty glass on the table. ‘Help yourself, but I’ve run out of lemon.’

What can you do? I made myself a drink and sat in one of the tiger chairs. I raised the glass to her. ‘Cheers.’

‘Huh,’ she said.

I tapped my glass. ‘You were expecting someone?’

She swigged and had almost nothing left. ‘No.’

‘Ramsay’s got a sister

‘Poor thing.’

‘Yes, well. She’s concerned about him.’

‘Should be,’ she slurred, ‘he’s headed for gaol or worse.’

‘Worse? What’s worse than gaol, Regina?’

Her eyes narrowed the way they can with drunks who know their faculties are impaired but want to get something straight. I know the feeling — it’s like looking back at a building wave and wondering whether you can catch it. But being drunk makes it harder to come at something directly.

‘Who told you about me?’ she asked.

‘A woman I met at Prue Bonham’s place.’

‘Prue Bonham! Her! I could tell you some things about her. She hates me ‘cos I took Ramsay away from working for her. She’s a criminal, that woman. A bloody criminal.’ She waved her glass, noticed it was almost empty and leaned forward to top it up. ‘You’re not drinking.’

I took a solid swig to appease her and to keep her on this promising track. Her robe fell open showing white, slack breasts. I tried to look appreciative and she giggled again.

‘What d’you mean, Regina? About Prue Bonham?’

‘You know,’ she said, ‘I was very disappointed when it was you at the door this morning. That was you, wasn’t it?’

I nodded.

‘Yes. I was expecting something… someone else. But you’re not so bad in a rough sort of way. I’ll bet you didn’t get anywhere with Prue though. She says she’s given sex up but I’ll bet she’s a lesbian. They make me sick. Sick!’

She underlined her heterosexuality with a slug of gin. I kept her company. I don’t know anything about gin except that it comes in bottles and you put tonic water with it, but this stuff had a taste that beat what they serve at the Toxteth to a frazzle. Regina Kipps was in a very confused state — two-thirds drunk, lonely, randy, filled with resentment. The resentment seemed to gain the upper hand because she pulled the robe closed and her thin lips clenched into a tight line before she took another drink.

‘She’s a blackmailer. Ramsay told me. He was afraid of her and those people: They prey on women who… have needs. Women who… you know, want… Women with money. Married ones with rich husbands. They threaten to tell the husbands unless the women pay them money.’ She hiccupped. ‘Wouldn’t work with me. Haven’t got a husband. He died and left me… Haven’t got any children. Haven’t got anyone.’

She was close to tears and from experience I knew that a crying jag would jolt her out of this confessional, recriminatory mood. I got up and sat next to her on the couch. I clinked my glass against hers.

‘Drink up, girl. You’ve got them beat. They can’t touch you. What did Ramsay say?’

She gave me a brave smile. ‘You’re nice and you’re right. They can’t get to me with their blackmail and their drugs.’

‘Drugs, too?’

‘Oh, yes. They’re very bad, those people. They get the women hooked on drugs and then they can do anything they like with them.’

‘What people, Regina?’

She slumped against me but not amorously. The gin was getting to her motor centres and she was starting to drift to another time and another place. She hummed a tune and then murmured the words, ‘Lloyd George knew my father, Father knew Lloyd George. Know that one?’

‘Yes.’ I hummed along.

‘Not Lloyd George, Lord George. They’re the people. Not nice. Not nice boys even. Not like Randall’s boys. Nice boys.’

‘Are you saying Ramsay’s with the Lord George Agency?’

That I knew about her recreational activities didn’t seem to surprise her by this time. She was past making judgements. Anything can connect with anything else when you’re in that state. Pressed hard against me, she shook her head violently and I got a whiff of gin and perfume and sweat.

‘No! No! He wouldn’t. She tried to entice him into joining them but he heard things. He saw things in her house and he got out. He came to me. He’s a lovely boy.’

It was about the last way I’d describe Ramsay Hewitt, but Regina Kipps was in a maudlin world of her own. She pushed away from me, reached her glass and knocked the contents back as if she knew the effect it’d have and wanted it.

I eased away on the couch. ‘Regina, I have to go.’

‘S’all right. Everybody’s gotta go. Know that one? Everybody’s gotta go. Rolling Stones. Great music, Stones. Hubby didn’t think so but hubby’s dead. Mick’s still alive. Good old Mick.’

She was slipping fast. I took the glass from her hand and put it on the table. ‘Where’s Ramsay now? Who’s he with?’

‘University,’ she said. ‘That university bitch. He’ll steal from ‘er. He’ll break ‘er heart. Bad boy.’

She slid sideways and her eyes fluttered, then closed. I put a cushion under her head and lifted her feet onto the couch. She wore silver ankle-strap sandals with very high heels. I undid them and put them aside. She looked comfortable enough but sad as a child’s coffin in her red silk robe on the tiger skin couch.

I did a quick recce of the house to make sure there was no gas leaking, no hot plates burning, no coffee maker simmering. I finished my drink and touched her on the top of her blonded head on my way out. She didn’t move.

19

Finding Ramsay Hewitt now became a matter of urgency. My two cases had merged. Surprising, but not entirely — the escort business unites the most unlikely partners across social and gender barriers and if you apply that ‘six degrees of separation’ stuff you’d come up with some amazing connections. I had to find Ramsay and grill him for what he knew about the Lord George operation because it looked as if blackmail and drugs were the forces that could make some sense of the murders of Jason and Samantha. To say I watched my back as I drove home from Concord would be an understatement. I’d seen the lengths the Lord George people would go to deter me from taking an interest in them and the stakes were higher now. I had to hope they didn’t know that and so far, so good.

When I reached Glebe I decided not to go home. The police might be there, wanting to press me for more of the information that they must know I held or maybe Mr Stivens had been taken off the leash. I booked into the Rooftop Motel where they know me and where they close the gates on the car park fairly early. If s a good hidey-hole and you can have a swim in the pool on the roof when you’re in the mood. No mini-bar though. I bought two packets of crisps from the machine and settled down with them and several coffee sachets and the little containers of long-life milk.

I unshipped my notebook and got to work on the diagram with the arrows and dotted lines and just before fatigue got me I reckoned I’d worked it out. I saw it so clearly that I thought there was no need to write it down. I put the air-conditioning on low, stripped off and slept in my boxer shorts. It’s a glamorous life.

I woke up at first light and had a cup of instant coffee and the complimentary biscuits for breakfast. I showered and shaved with the tackle I keep in the car and rang Viv Garner, an early riser.

‘Viv, it’s Cliff. I want you to do something for me.’

‘You always do. I have to tell you those coppers at Hurstville didn’t like the story too much.’

‘Doesn’t matter. They hauled me in anyway. I need to know the address of the faculty secretary in the Law School.’

‘Come on, Cliff. I can’t…’

‘You have to. It’s important. The guy I’m looking for has taken up with her but he’s involved in some pretty sticky stuff. I have to talk to him. I won’t let on how I got the address.’

‘Shit. All right. I’ll get it off the computer and ring you back.’

‘Make it quick, Viv and I’m not at home.’ I gave him the motel and room numbers.

‘That’s the Rooftop. What’re you doing there?’

‘Long story.’

‘The police want you?’

‘Possibly. I have to get this sorted first.’

He rang back in a couple of minutes. ‘Gwendolyn Carroll, 13 Sheedy Street, Lane Cove. She’s filling in for the secretary who’s sick. Ah.. she’s got most of a degree herself. Part-timer. She does a bit of research assistanting too. Ambitious.’

‘Busy woman, fitting in blond toy boys as well.’

‘Word is she has a private income of some kind and property. I don’t like her but I sort of respect her. Bear that in mind.’

I said I would and I checked out just as the news theme came on the ABC radio for seven a.m. I resisted the impulse to cruise past my house and headed for Lane Cove. Along the way I stopped for petrol and rang Price at home and on his mobile and got no answer. Looked like I’d have to learn Junie’s number to keep in touch with my client. I rang Danni and she picked up straight away.

‘It’s Hardy, Danni. Are you still in Hunters Hill?’

‘Why?’

‘Look, I know you’ve talked to your father and tried to settle things down.’

‘Yeah. Did you know the cops found my stash at home and want to talk to me?’

‘No. What did Marty say about that?’

‘He said he told them he didn’t know where I was.’

‘OK, well, that shows he’s on your side.’

‘Are you?’

‘I am. I’ve got some stuff on why Jason and Samantha were killed. Maybe. I’m working on it. If it comes out all right I don’t think anyone’s going to worry about your bit of dope.’

‘I told Dad I thought you were OK.’

‘He told me. Thanks. Just keep cool, Danni, wherever you are.’

‘Hunters Hill,’ she said and cut the call.

Going against the traffic flow I made it to Lane Cove in twenty minutes. Gwendolyn Carroll’s house was in a street off River Road in a bushy location where the houses would fetch three quarters of a million or more depending on the view. Hers was one of the more modest ones, maybe struggling to get much over the half million mark, but comfortable enough on a decent sized sloping block with a well-established native garden. The house was a white stucco job with a tile roof and plenty of windows. It looked as if it could do with a bit of work; a creeper of some kind was sneaking up towards the chimney and TV aerial and satellite dish. Something was sprouting in the guttering. Whatever else he was doing, Ramsay wasn’t rolling up his sleeves and getting stuck into his ladyfriends’ gardens.

It was getting close to eight when the garage door rolled up and a white Subaru backed out into the street. I was in a good position to see that the sole occupant was Ms Carroll. Back when I was briefly a university student I tried as hard as I could to keep Fridays clear for surfing and drinking and other activities not related to my studies. I had to hope that Ramsay was doing the same. I waited until the Subaru had left the street and then waited some more in case of last-minute rememberings before getting out of the car and crossing the street. No fancy security here. You opened the gate and walked up the path to the steps that led to an entrance at the side of the house. Classy. I kept on going; the garage roller door was still up and I took a look inside. Nice car the Mercedes, my accountant has one.

I went to the door and rang the bell. Bare feet slapped on a wooden floor and the door opened. ‘Gidday, Ramsay.’

If I hadn’t been expecting him I wouldn’t have been sure the man I was facing was him. He was wearing white silk pyjamas; his hair was fashionably cut and he was clean-shaven. But he had the same aggressive, chip-on-the-shoulder manner and a slight whine in his voice.

‘What the hell are you doing here, Hardy?’

‘Tess was worried about not hearing from you.’

‘Well, you can tell her I’m all right.’

The screen door was a slider and I slid it. Ramsay stepped back half a pace and made to close the door but I braced myself and held it open. ‘You’ll have to do a bit better than that. We need to talk.’

‘I’ve got nothing to say to a thug like you, and if my slut of a sister…’

I gave the door a hard shove and he reeled back. He was young, tall and well-built but there never seemed to be any real strength in him. He retreated down the passage and I followed him.

‘You’re trespassing.’

I laughed and kept after him. We went through to an old-fashioned kitchen, not unlike mine. I backed him up against a bench.

‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Tess cares about you. I can’t see why because you’re a miserable bit of work in my book. But I have to talk to you about the Lord George Agency and what you told Regina Kripps.’

From being physically frightened he now seemed to be positively intimidated on a deeper level. The stammer I’d heard from him before when he was stressed broke in painfully. ‘W… what…?’

I backed up a bit in sympathy as he appeared to struggle for breath, for words, for his manhood, but I kept on. ‘You know what I’m talking about, Ramsay — blackmail, drugs, escorts, sex, rich husbands. It’s all connected with a case I’m…’

He gave a roar of terror and rage that froze me for a second. He grabbed a heavy wooden cutting board from the bench and launched it towards me. I tried to turn away and duck, but the solid chunk of wood caught me somewhere near the temple and I felt as though I’d stepped off a long drop into a dark, bottomless pit.

I don’t know how long I was unconscious or how long I stood at the sink, bathing the wound on my head and waiting for the dizziness to clear, but it was long enough for Ramsay to get dressed, go through his stuff and presumably take what he wanted and clear off in his Mercedes. Some of his clothes, a few books and magazines were strewn around in the room he’d occupied but he hadn’t been there as a lodger. The single bed in the room hadn’t been slept in but the double bed in the big bedroom had. A blue silk nightdress was folded on the pillow and Ramsay’s pyjamas were on the floor.

Simply looking about like this brought back the dizziness and I did some more head bathing in the kitchen. I found a packet of Panadol in a cupboard and took three with a glass of water. The headache that had started to throb cooled down and I gave myself a quick check for concussion: I knew who I was, what day it was, where I was and what had happened. I just didn’t like any of it.

My mere mentioning of the Lord George Agency had spooked Ramsay so badly it meant he was aware of the threat they were to him. Did he think I’d talked to them in my search for him and that made him fear they’d be after him? It was possible. I could’ve reassured him on that score if he’d given me a chance. Now he was running scared — of them, of me, of himself. It was a mess. Tess would not be pleased. A needy boy — who’d described him that way? My brain creaked but came up with the answer: Prue Bonham. What would a needy boy do? He wouldn’t go to the university and Gwen Carroll because he knew I’d found out about her. He wouldn’t run to poor Regina who couldn’t offer him anything. Tess had always been his lifeline but I’d queered that pitch for him. I thought of Prue Bonham, the strong woman who had been interested in him and not his body. If I was right she was involved in the deaths of Jason Jorgensen and Samantha Price through her connection with Lord George, but Ramsay wasn’t to know that. My guess was that in his desperation he’d go to her to try to put things right.

I seemed to be bouncing from one woman to another and not one of them having any interest in me or me in them, although I’d had some regretful moments about Tanya. With a ringing head and a dry mouth I went out to my car and contemplated what to do next. I didn’t have enough to appeal to the police for help and they were probably keen to see me for their own reasons anyway. It looked as if I had to hope my guess was right and that Ramsay was in Strathfield. Prue Bonham had increasingly become an unknown quantity. In the end I’d thought she was OK, but that was before I’d heard about blackmail and I’d never liked that. She’d struck me as strong, but was she ruthless? Maybe it was because I was bruised and battered that I got the. 38 in its light shoulder holster out of the glove compartment and put it under the driver’s seat.

The run to Strathfield was slow because of roadworks and heavy Friday traffic heading God knows where for God knows what reason. I felt light-headed and woozy and had to fight to keep my concentration. A danger sign was that I started to find it amusing that I’d lost blood on one side of my head from glass cuts and on the other side from a cutting board. A big four-wheel drive cut in, forcing me to swerve and control a skid. The adrenaline jolted me out of the mad mood and I found myself able to focus again on what I was doing and why.

As I was making a right turn into Henry Street, a car coming the other way, turning left but held up by a pedestrian, momentarily took my attention. It was past before I realised that the registration number had clicked. The car was the gunmetal Saab I’d guessed belonged to Lewis from Lord George and his heavy mate, Stivens. As soon as this hit me I realised that the car behind it was Ramsay’s Mercedes but the driver wasn’t Ramsay.

I made the turn and shocked two other drivers by throwing the Falcon into a U-turn that took me over the gutter, dug a groove in a manicured nature strip and put me in the right direction not more than fifty metres behind the two cars. I checked the time and tried to work out what could have happened. Poor old needy Ramsay must have done as I suspected — run to Prue Bonham, and she’d called in the heavy mob. Well, I knew where she stood now — she was all business.

20

Following cars is hard enough to do at the best of times. Following two is harder because there’s always the possibility that they’re going to diverge and leave you with a decision as to which one to tail. It’s tough, but with a sore head and a raging thirst it becomes even tougher. After a while I was praying they’d stop and give me a chance to get a drink and some more pain-killers but I knew it wasn’t likely. Also, I was out on a limb; I didn’t know for sure that Ramsay was in one of the cars but it seemed likely. I convinced myself of that and, Pollyanna-like, gave thanks for the overcast day. With the headache, a strong Sydney glare would’ve been too much to take.

The Saab and the Merc bowled along at a good pace but it wasn’t hard to keep up. What was hard was anticipating turns they might make, or stops. I couldn’t get too close. Stivens, the body puncher, certainly knew my car and on reflection I decided that he was the driver of the Saab. I’d only had a quick glimpse of him, but the set of the head on the wide shoulders had a familiar look. I risked getting a bit closer to the Mercedes, but I couldn’t tell anything about the driver except that he was male and tall and fair-haired. One of the Lord George escorts?

We’d joined the Hume Highway and were heading south. I had hopes of a stop in Camden but I was harking back to the old days and the Saab and the Mercedes took the bypass. I cursed modern road builders as we turned on to the Razorback Mountain. The Falcon chugged a bit but did what it had to do. There was enough traffic on the road to keep me hiding a few cars back and occasionally I got good cover behind a truck, but I couldn’t lose touch in case they took a turn-off. The longer the drive went on the more likely it became that I’d be spotted. If they’d been professionals they’d have picked up the tail by now. Evidently they weren’t.

Mercifully, they made a stop in Mittagong. The Saab driver was indeed Stivens and he mounted a kind of guard while the other man fuelled them up and bought things at the service shop. I ducked into a milk bar across the road and bought the only pain-killers they stocked — soluble aspirin — and a couple of mid-sized bottles of Coke. When we were kids it was said that an Aspro and a can of coke could get you high. I’d tried it with no result and it wasn’t what I was looking for now. My father and I used to pull my diabetic mother out of her hypoglycaemic episodes with Coca-Cola so I knew the sugar content was high. I needed the energy. I took the tablets dry with a slug from the bottle.

The blond guy was taking his time in the shop and I watched Stivens smoke a cigarette and then reach into the Mercedes and pop the boot lid. He went back, took a look and slammed the lid down. That was enough. I took hold of the. 38 and was almost out of the car when the other man came smartly up, tossed a few things through the open window of the Saab and started the Mercedes. Stivens gestured angrily at him but jumped in the Saab and they were off again before I even reached the street. I swore and got back behind the wheel. For all my dislike of Ramsay, I wasn’t happy about him being dumped in the boot of a car heading towards a few million hectares of bushland. Was he dead or alive? The stakes had risen and there was no way to tell about the odds.

We went through Berrima where I’d spent some time as a guest of Her Majesty not so long back. It hadn’t been too rough, but the place looked a lot better from this side of the walls. Further south I saw a sign and I suddenly knew where we were going and why. The Belangalo State Forest stretched away to the west. It was the place where Ivan Milat had buried the backpackers he’d murdered between 1989 and 1992. There was plenty of room for one more body and if it lay there long enough it was possible it could be taken for another of Milat’s victims. The police were convinced that he, and possibly an accomplice, had killed more people than had come to light.

The realisation immediately presented me with a problem. Tailing on a highway is one thing, doing it on back roads or bush tracks is quite another. The Saab slowed and the Mercedes followed suit and I hung back as far as I could while still keeping them in sight. I came over a rise and they were no longer on the road. The turn-off, onto a gravel road, came up fast and I slowed down to take it as quietly as I could without throwing up dust. Luckily the road bent sharply within a hundred metres of the turn and the cars were out of sight. I could see dust rising up ahead and estimated the distance between us at about half a kilometre. I couldn’t afford to let them get any further away than that. The road kept twisting as it descended and I blessed every bend. Stivens looked like a city type to me; with any luck he wouldn’t go any further into the bush than he felt he had to.

I finished one bottle of Coke and started on the other. The headache was down to a dull throb and I felt alert enough to tackle Stivens and his mate. I’d knocked him about once and this time I had a gun. But Milat had shot the backpackers with a rifle. I wondered how far Stivens intended to imitate him and if he had the equipment. That thought made the. 38 less of a comfort.

A couple of kilometres in and the dust cloud disappeared. Had they spotted me? I drove cautiously with the gun to hand. I’m no tracker but the two cars travelling in tandem had left discernible marks on the gravel surface and I could see where they’d turned off down a fire trail. After making the turn I could see the dust in the air ahead again but this track was running straighter, making the job that much harder. I crawled, ready to stop at any moment. At least they weren’t mounting an ambush. Straining my vision I caught a glimpse of a colour that stood out against the green and brown of the bush. Silver or nearly. The Saab.

I eased off the track on firm ground under the shelter of some trees. I took a last swig of the Coke, grabbed the gun and got out of the car, easing the door to. The trees and scrub beside the track were sparse but gave me enough cover to feel safe. I moved as quickly as I could, consistent with not sounding like an elephant crashing through the jungle. I could see the two cars now. They were drawn off the track and I saw Stivens and his fair-haired mate lifting something heavy out of the boot of the Mercedes. They stood it against the car and pulled away what looked like a lot of taped garbage bags. Ramsay Hewitt, with his hands tied behind him and his eyes and mouth taped, sank to his knees. Stivens went to the Saab and reached into the back. I expected to see a rifle but instead he took out a long-handled shovel. They pulled Ramsay up but he collapsed again and became a dead weight. They dragged him towards the bushes.

I was still almost a hundred metres away with less cover to work with. I moved forward, scuttling, bent low. The two men got tired of hauling their burden and stopped on level ground just short of the tree cover. They heaved Ramsay up to his knees where he swayed but stayed upright. Fair-hair lit a cigarette and turned away, Stivens took up a sort of baseball stance with the shovel gripped in both hands.

I ran until I was only ten metres away and shouted, ‘No!’

Fair-hair spun around towards me, but Stivens had taken the shovel back and didn’t look as if he could stop his swing. I propped, levelled the pistol and shot him. He staggered but the shovel was moving and I shot him again, hitting him lower this time, around the ribs. All the power went out of him and he flopped like a puppet with snapped strings. The shovel hit the ground, bounced and struck Ramsay on the back. He fell forward and lay twitching and weeping. Fair-hair didn’t move a muscle except for letting the cigarette fall from his fingers. I pointed the gun at him. I was sweating and shaking and his solarium tan faded as he opened and closed his mouth without any sound coming out.

‘Lie down on your belly,’ I said. ‘Spread your arms and legs and don’t move or I’ll put a bullet in you. Do it!’

He dropped down as if he was glad to and spreadeagled himself — ruin for his trousers and cashmere sweater. I ignored Ramsay, who was still crying, and examined Stivens. He was alive but only just. Both bullets had hit vital organs and his breath and pulse were fading whispers. He jerked three times, blood gushed from his mouth and he died as I crouched there.

I looked across at Fair-hair who’d lifted his face from the dirt. He was sheet-white. ‘He’s dead,’ I said. ‘Down!’

I moved across to where Ramsay was now lying still and silent on the grass. ‘It’s Cliff Hardy, Ramsay. You’re all right now, son. Rough on you, but you’re all right.’

His voice was a whimper. ‘Hardy?’

‘Yeah. I’ll get you a doctor soon. You’ll be okay. It’s over.’

‘Prue,’ he muttered.

‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘Prue.’

21

I unslung the mobile from Fair-hair’s belt and after that it was cops, cops and more cops. They came from all over the place. They put my gun in a plastic bag but they didn’t have one big enough for the shovel. Ramsay was a mess, barely coherent and unable to confirm my story. They took him away to Mittagong Hospital in an ambulance. I told them he had information about some serious crimes and had come close to being murdered himself and they said they’d keep an eye on him. It didn’t help that I admitted he was the brother of the woman I was involved with — gave it a domestic feel.

Simon Talbot was the name of Stivens’ accomplice and with dirt and grass stains down his sweater and pants he didn’t quite measure up as a Saab driver. He was scared but, give him his due, he kept his mouth shut apart from stating his name and saying he wouldn’t answer questions without a lawyer present. A car took him away and he didn’t look at me once.

A senior sergeant talked to me while the scene-of-crime people got to work around the body. He wasn’t friendly.

‘You had a gun, he had a shovel.’

‘He was going to bash the bloke’s brains in, or decapitate him, or both. What was I supposed to do — throw rocks?’

‘You shot him twice.’

‘He was a big man and he had some momentum up. It took two bullets to stop him and even then…’

‘What?’

‘He wasn’t quite dead when I got to him.’

‘Try to revive him?’

I shook my head.

‘Why not?’

I haven’t shot very many people apart from in Malaya — a handful, less, and it’s not like in the movies. It affects you and it was starting to get to me now. The headache kicked back in strongly and I had to massage my temples. I knew I was sweating and not making anything like a good impression. Also I was angry.

‘I felt his pulse,’ I said. ‘It was just there. Then he vomited a bucket of blood and that was it. What would you have done, Sarge?’

He left me alone and I sat on the ground and wished I’d never heard of Martin Price or Ramsay Hewitt. That led to complicated thoughts of Tess. Ramsay looked as if he could be heading for some sort of breakdown. Would Tess blame me and did I care? It was a low point — one of those moments when I wished I was someone else doing something else. Waste of brain power.

Eventually they bagged the body and took it away. I’d given the sergeant the names of Stankowski and Hammond at Hurstville and he’d contacted them. He came over to me, snapping his mobile shut.

‘Hurstville wants you, Hardy.’

‘I’m fucked,’ I said. ‘I’m not up to driving there.’

‘Not an option. One of our blokes’ll drive you. Nice city trip for him.’

‘Why not make it a her?’

‘You’re an arsehole. I’ve checked on you. You were in the service and you’ve been in this game for fuckin’ years. You could’ve fired over his head, but I reckon you wanted to kill him.’

I stood up and every bone from ankle to neck creaked. ‘I shouted,’ I said. ‘Pity I didn’t have a video camera and I could’ve filmed it so you might just possibly understand.’

‘Terrific. See you in court.’

‘What about my car?’

‘That beat-up Falcon? What about it?’

I discovered that I had the keys in my pocket although I didn’t remember taking them from the ignition. I tossed them to him and he fumbled the catch.

“This is a double murder and an attempted murder and a blackmail and drugs case, Sarge,’ I said. ‘And those Hurstville people are going to kiss my arse. If I was you, I’d make sure the Glebe cops have that beat-up Falcon safe and sound in their yard by tomorrow.’

I swung away and walked towards where a uniformed officer was standing juggling a set of car keys and looking anxious to be off. Before I reached him I turned and looked back at a place I never wanted to see again.

On the drive to Hurstville, with what turned out to be a taciturn constable, I thought about what the sergeant had said. Did I want to kill Stivens? I didn’t think so — we were one-all in our personal encounters and I had no particular animosity towards him. I might’ve if I’d known that it was him who took the pot shot at me, but I didn’t know that and never would. Was it the fact that Ramsay was Tess’s brother that made me fire directly at him twice? How can you tell? In a situation like that you do what seems to need doing at the moment and all later analysis is a waste of time.

At Hurstville they put me in the same interview room I’d been in before but I insisted on a cup of coffee and some pain-killers and that both Hammond and Stankowski sit down and make a video recording of the interview. I laid it all out for them: the allegations of blackmail and drug pushing by Prue Bonham and the Lord George organisation; the likelihood that they’d got their blackmail and drugs hooks into Samantha Price, but her association with Jason Jorgensen and my investigation sponsored by her husband had made them both seem like weak links. Expendable.

Stankowski looked sceptical. ‘What about you, then?’

‘They had a go at me. If you search my place you’ll see a broken kitchen window and probably find a rifle bullet somewhere about.’ I turned my head and showed them the cuts on my ear. ‘Flying glass.’

‘And Hewitt?’ Hammond asked.

‘Another weak link. He blabbed about the blackmailing to one of the women he’d been with and when I turned up knowing about it he panicked and went to Prue Bonham. Probably didn’t know how closely she was involved but he found out. She got the Lord George heavies around to solve the problem.’

Hammond coughed and looked at Stankowski. ‘It all hangs together OK as you tell it, Mr Hardy. But there’s no real proof of anything, is there? Just say you’re right and this Stivens killed Jorgensen and Mrs Price — who’ve we got to prosecute or get information from after you’ve shot him?’

I shrugged. ‘Ramsay Hewitt’ll tell you about the blackmail and the drugs.’

Hammond smoothed the cuffs of her white silk blouse. An olive green jacket was on a hanger on the back of the door. ‘Maybe so, but I’ve been on to the hospital and he’s in a pretty bad way emotionally.’

‘Not surprising. He was facing something like a Japanese execution. What about, what’s his name — Talbot?’

‘Tighter than a fish’s arsehole. Excuse me, Beth.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Hammond said. ‘You see the problem, Mr Hardy. Without something more solid to go on it’d be hard for us to take action against Mrs Bonham or the Lord George Agency.’

I saw it clearly enough, but I saw other things besides. ‘Look,’ I said. They must already be wondering why Stivens and Talbot haven’t got back or called in. If you don’t move against them now they’ll either run for cover or destroy everything that could possibly be seen as evidence.’

‘With what you’ve given us we couldn’t even get a search warrant. And as for arresting anyone — we’d be facing a lawsuit tomorrow.’

I was getting desperate as I felt it all slipping away.

‘There’s a guy called Lewis,’ I said. ‘Some kind of lawyer perhaps. He was there in the spa when Stivens tried to put the frighteners on me.’

‘So?’ Stankowski said.

‘He’s not the tough type. If you apply the right pressure he could give you what you need.’

‘Applying pressure seems to be your forte,’ Hammond said.

“What does that mean?’

Stankowski stood and moved to what was obviously his favourite intimidating position against the wall. ‘Right now, Hardy, we’ve got a whole lot of allegations and connections of this with that and explanations coming from you and no-one else. What we have hard and fast is that you shot a man to death in the Belangalo State Forest a few hours ago.’

It seemed like a lot longer ago than that. I raised my hands in surrender. ‘Look, you’d better let me call my lawyer.’

Hammond fiddled with a pen and swore when she skittered it and it put a mark on the sleeve of her blouse. ‘That’d be the lawyer who lied to us about your phone being tapped to keep you running free?’

I was too tired and wrung out to argue. ‘You wanted me here again, you got me. If you want to keep me you’re going to have to jump through some hoops. Get me a phone and turn the video off. That’s it.’

Hammond pressed a button on the console. ‘Interview terminated at 5.49 p.m.’

‘Just out of interest and off the record, Hardy,’ Stankowski said. ‘Who d’you reckon killed the golfer?’

‘At a guess, Stivens.’

‘Dead end. And Mrs Price?’

I had ideas about that but I couldn’t see any point in airing them to this pair. I shrugged. ‘Phone?’

Hammond shook her head. ‘No, I don’t think we want to keep you here any longer, Mr Hardy. I’ll make moves to have your PEA licence suspended pending further investigations.’

‘More lawyers.’

‘Inevitably.’

‘Don’t you want to solve those two murders?’

‘Oh, yes. And if Talbot and Hewitt back you up at every point and Talbot’s willing to testify, we just might solve them the way you think they should be solved and we’ll be grateful.’

A civilian working in the police station gave me a lift home. He wanted to chat about everything to do with his computer-based job and to find out why I’d been there with the detectives who were his gods but it was my turn to be silent. It was a disappointed good Samaritan who dropped me in Glebe Point Road. I had a quick one in the Toxteth and bought a bottle of whisky for medicinal purposes. I walked the block and a bit to my street and felt the better for it. My parking space was occupied again, this time by Danni’s Honda. She got out when she saw me walking towards the house.

‘Hello, Mr Hardy.’

‘Hello, Danni. What’re you doing here?’

‘Dad sent me. You look terrible, you’d better get inside and lie down.’

‘I’ll be OK. Why did your father send you?’

She was still dressed in her jeans, tank top and denim jacket and she shivered in the cool night air. ‘Can we go in? It’s cold.’

We went into the house where it wasn’t much warmer. She followed me into the kitchen, stared at the broken window and watched me opening the whisky.

‘You looked whacked,’ she said. ‘Should you be drinking?’

I took my favourite position on the stool, back to the wall. ‘I’m drinking because I’m whacked. Want some?’

She shook her head. ‘You wouldn’t have any bourbon and Coke?’

I poured a stiff one, knocked half of it back and looked at her. ‘There’s some white wine in the fridge and I’ve got a cask of red.’

‘Yuk. I’ll drink water.’ She took a glass from the draining board and filled it at the sink. ‘Can I smoke?’

‘Yeah. Stand over by the window and blow the smoke out. Don’t blow it at me or I might weaken. You and Marty’re on better terms all of a sudden are you?’

She lit her cigarette and puffed where I’d said to puff. ‘Sort of. The police at Hurstville rang him about you and they told him what had happened out in the bush. He rang me and asked me to come over and see you. You know who killed Samantha and Jason, do you?’

I finished the drink and poured a second, smaller one. ‘Drip a bit of water in that would you, Danni. I’m too tired to get up. Yes, I think I do, but I’ve got no proof. It’s all tied up with that escort agency Samantha used and Jason worked for.’

‘Sleazes.’ She finished her cigarette and ran the tap on the butt. ‘Dad wants whoever killed Samantha to pay for it and I feel the same way about Jason.’

‘I agree. I just can’t work out a way to do it just now. I’m too…’

‘Whacked. OK. Will you ring Dad tomorrow? He wants to talk to you.’

‘I will. It’s good that you’re getting along. What about Junie?’

She jiggled her car keys and grinned. ‘I think he might’ve learned his lesson. She won’t last. Don’t move, I can get out. See you, Mr Hardy.’

‘Cliff.’

‘Do you know you’ve got a big lump on the side of your head, Cliff?’

‘Company for the old ones on top and at the back, Danni,’ I said.

22

I have to admit the police tried to box clever. When Ramsay had recovered from his ordeal he told them all he knew about the Bonham-Lord George blackmailing operation. He’d overheard a telephone conversation by accident when he picked up an extension. It had frightened him but he’d remembered a name and approached the woman who’d been mentioned. She was in a state and almost clawed his eyes out. He said he was sure some of the women took drugs in the company of their hired companions at Prue Bonham’s house. He didn’t know who supplied the drugs. It wasn’t much but the police used it as leverage on Simon Talbot and it was enough. In return for a reduction of the charges against him down from abduction and attempted murder to assault he agreed to testify that Prue Bonham had ordered the despatch of Ramsay Hewitt.

But he insisted that he knew nothing about the deaths of Jason and Samantha. I got most of this from Peter Lo. The police were stalled. There wasn’t enough evidence to get Prue Bonham on the blackmailing or the drugs, and ‘conspiracy to commit murder’ — with the would-be murderer dead and murder not committed — was too weak to run with.

Ramsay, when I went to see him in the hospital where they’d kept him to treat infections arising from the taping of his mouth and eyes, refused to talk to me. Didn’t even thank me for saving his life. Out of hospital, he went back to living with Gwendolyn Carroll and resumed his university studies. I gave the phone number to Tess and she rang him and got the cold shoulder.

‘He says he wants nothing to do with anyone from his life before he met her,’ Tess told me when she made a flying visit. ‘Told me not to come near him. How mad is that?’

‘He was wrapped up like a parcel, stuffed in a car boot and about to get his head bashed in,’ I said. ‘He’s been through a bit.’

‘I’d like to… what’s the use? I’ll thank you for what you did, even if he won’t. Thank you, Cliff.’

“That’s enough for me.’

‘What about your client? How does he feel about things?’

I’d seen Price just once since the Belangalo episode. He’d looked aggrieved when I said I was sorry we hadn’t got things better finalised, but still paid up handsomely.

‘He’s not too happy,’ I said. ‘He keeps on at the cops to lay charges.’

‘And what’re they doing?’

‘Nothing, so far as I know.’

‘Mm. Well, you’re in funds and I’ve got a semester break in three weeks. What about coming up? It’s great in Byron in the autumn. You can still swim.’

‘Thanks, Tess. Have to see what I’ve got on.’

‘Sure.’

That’s how we left it.

I’m not sure what it was, the loose-end feeling of it all or the notice from the licensing board that my licence was suspended again, that got me angry enough to do anything. Maybe a combination of the two and a general bolshieness. It was certainly that which had led me to leave my car in the police yard for a few days to see if they were going to charge me for its sheltering. They didn’t. I phoned Ramsay in Lane Cove and told him he’d better come and see me or I’d drag him out of a lecture or out of bed with his girlfriend, whichever was the more embarrassing. He came, defensive and hostile as ever — you could tell by his knock on the door.

I let him in. ‘Bit of a slum, isn’t it?’

If anything, his dress and appearance were smoother than before. Was he touching up the fair hair? Maybe. His casual jacket and pleated slacks were modish. ‘Who cares?’ he said. ‘What’s this about?’

I took him through to the kitchen and showed him where I’d patched the louvres with two pieces of three-ply.

‘See there? That bloke who was going to kill you, or one of his mob or someone sent by Prue Bonham, took a shot at me.’

From his expression it was obvious that he was sorry they missed. He shrugged. ‘If you say so.’

‘I want the name of the woman you spoke to about the blackmail.’

He shook his head. I backed him up so that he was pressed against the breakfast bench. ‘Ramsay, I’m not asking you nicely, I’m telling you!’

Ramsay wasn’t quite spineless. ‘No.’

I eased off. ‘Okay, Regina Kipps has agreed to lay a charge of theft against you. I planted something of hers in that Lane Cove house and when I told her I’d found it there she wasn’t happy. She’ll go the distance. Do you know what a criminal conviction means for a law student?’

He did and it shook him. I could see his brain racing: he didn’t think… but he couldn’t be sure. ‘You’re a bastard, Hardy. You and Tess deserve each other.’

It was hard but I held it in. ‘The name and the address.’

He told me.

I rang Tanya Scott and asked her if she knew the woman in question.

‘I do, slightly.’

‘I want to talk to her. Could you arrange a meeting?’

‘I suppose. What’s it about?’

‘Can we leave it that you’ll find out then?’

‘Mystery man. Am I going to get a second go at you?’

‘You could try.’

She laughed. ‘When d’you want this?’

‘As soon as.’

The meeting was arranged for two days later in Tanya’s Coogee apartment. Mrs Kylie Petersen, who lived in Bellevue Hill, had no idea of what it was about. A little investigation had shown me that her husband was on the board of this and that, chairman of the other thing. The chances of my rolling up to her home and seeing her on spec were nil.

I arrived ahead of time and admired Tanya in her white trouser suit and her view and her good taste as we chatted. Mrs Petersen, in a blue silk dress, was a tall, slender blonde in the Samantha Price mould and she looked ready to jump out the window when Tanya introduced me as a private detective.

‘Don’t be alarmed, Mrs Petersen. I don’t mean you any harm. I know the trouble you’re in and I want to help. I think Tanya can vouch for me not being any kind of crook.’

Tanya nodded. Nice of her.

I spelled it all out — what I knew about the escorts, the blackmail, the drugs. I filled her in on the two deaths and the near miss. I mentioned Stivens and Lewis and gave her both barrels on Prue Bonham. Tanya looked shocked as it came out. Mrs Petersen was sitting down and trying valiantly to retain her composure and only cracked to the extent of asking Tanya for a drink. It was eleven a.m. and we were already drinking gins and tonic. Tanya was smoking furiously and Mrs Petersen looked as if she’d like to do the same but resisted.

‘They’ve got their hooks into you?’

She nodded. ‘A videotape and some notes. I was stupid and I’m paying for it. Not the drugs, though.’ She held up her glass. ‘They tried but I prefer this, although I’m taking about four times as much of it now as I used to.’

‘Any chance of squaring things with your husband and giving them the flick?’

She shook her head. ‘I wouldn’t dare.’

‘You’ve got to do something, Kylie,’ Tanya said. ‘You can’t go on paying that Bonham bitch forever.’

Mrs Petersen knocked back the rest of her drink and clearly wanted another. ‘I can’t see what else to do.’

Tanya looked at me and said, ‘Cliff?’ as she moved towards the gin.

‘I’ve got a suggestion,’ I said. ‘At a guess, Mrs Petersen, you know a few other women in the same fix.’

She accepted her refill. ‘Sort of, by implication, if you know what I mean.’

‘I suggest that you get together with them and talk over what I’ve told you. If there’s anyone willing to go to the police about it the thing’ll crack wide open and you’ll be off the hook.’

She looked doubtful. ‘I think we’re all in the same boat.’

I finished my drink and poured myself a bit more. I looked out the huge window at a blue sky and a sparkling sea before turning back to the two women. ‘It’s a dirty world. I’m willing to bet some of these husbands aren’t as clean as the driven snow.’

Mrs Petersen nodded. ‘I know of one who’s a philandering bastard.’

‘My point exactly. Now I know a female private detective who could investigate these gentlemen and… get the women we’re talking about some leverage. The thing is this — the police want to act but haven’t got the evidence. Just one solid testimony and they’ll move. They’ll protect the witness, but she’d have to… be secure. You know what I mean.’

For all her smart appearance and impeccable make-up, Kylie Petersen had worn a slightly defeated air from the first. Now it seemed to drop away a little. ‘That’s a very interesting suggestion, Mr Hardy,’ she said. ‘Can you give me the name of the detective?’

Glen Withers, the senior policewoman who’d dumped me to marry an even more senior policeman, had left him and the force and opened her own private enquiry agency. I’d spoken to her a couple of times over the phone, had a drink with her, and we’d exchanged cards. I handed the card to Kylie Petersen.

‘Is she good?’

‘Very good,’ I said, and felt an old pang as I spoke. Tanya seemed to notice and gave a knowing smile.

‘I can’t promise anything,’ Kylie Petersen said. ‘But you’ve given me some hope. Thank you, Tanya. Thank you, Mr Hardy.’

Tayna and I both nodded. Comrades. Tanya saw Mrs Petersen out and I wandered back to the window to look at the view again. The sun had gone behind a cloud and all the blues and greens were muted. But the clouds were moving and the colours would soon be back.