The Big Score
He was waiting for me on the front porch of my house when I got home. Big, bulky, suited, self-assured. A cop.
I opened the gate and stood just inside it.
‘Are you Hardy?’
‘What if I am?’
‘Then I want to talk to you.’
I went back onto the footpath, closed the gate and fished out my mobile.
He advanced down the path and almost tripped on one of the pavers a tree root had lifted. ‘What the hell are you doing?’
‘Calling my solicitor. He lives close, can be here in a flash.’
I hadn’t noticed the unfamiliar car parked across the street and a little way down. My peripheral vision isn’t what it used to be. A uniformed policeman got out and began walking towards me.
‘Takes two to tangle,’ I said. ‘And three’s a crowd.’
The plain clothes man waved the uniform away. I heard the car door close. ‘They told me you were a smartarse.’
‘Did they tell you I don’t like being accosted by rude people at the end of a hard day?’
We stood with the gate between us. He was much the same height as me-say, 186 centimetres-and outweighed me by a good ten kilos. Years younger. It’s an old habit- estimating men by the centimetre, kilo and, lately, age, expecting competition or conflict. Doesn’t make for friendliness, but can head off personal injury.
‘Let’s start again,’ he said. ‘You-’
I said, ‘No. We’ll start with you identifying yourself and proving that identity and then telling me why you’re here. Of course, if I’m a terrorist suspect you don’t have to bother with any of that, or anything much-’
‘You’re determined to piss me off
I shrugged and juggled the mobile. ‘I hate bullies. Show me you’re not one.’
He didn’t like it, but he’d been out-boxed and he knew it. He produced his warrant card, identified himself as Detective Sergeant Christopher Wilson, and said he wanted to interview me in connection with a shooting.
I was mollified, but another old habit is making life tough for policemen. ‘Of whom?’ I asked.
He knew I was taking the piss, but held in his irritation and played along. ‘Cleve Harvey.’
‘You know him?’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘I’ve just about had enough of this, Hardy.’
I opened the gate, put the mobile away. ‘Yeah, me too. I know him. Can’t say I’m sorry he’s been shot. Or surprised. What’s it got to do with me?’
‘You haven’t asked how he’s doing.’
‘How’s he doing?’
‘He’s going to die.’
‘You don’t think I shot him?’
He raised his hand and I heard the car door slam across the street. Footsteps. ‘Let’s just say that you’re a person of interest.’
They took me to the Surry Hills police centre where I phoned Viv Garner, my solicitor. He said he’d be there within the hour. I waited, got up to go, escorted, to the toilet, and waited some more. Viv arrived and we were shown into an interview room. Decor functional, lighting adequate, atmospherics, since smoking went the way of the telephone directory slam and the kidney punch, sterile. Viv and I didn’t talk much. We’d been through the routine before and knew how to handle it unless there were any big surprises.
Wilson came in and fired up the recording devices. He announced the names of those present, the date and the time.
‘What’s the nature of your relationship with Cleve Harvey?’ Wilson said.
Viv said, ‘I think my client should be given some indication of why he’s a person of interest.’
‘It’s okay, Viv,’ I said. ‘I’ll cooperate as far as I can. Clue me if you spot anything sticky.’ I switched my attention to Wilson. ‘I met Harvey in Berrima gaol when I was serving a sentence for-’
‘No need,’ Viv said.
‘Right. Harvey was in for GBH. He was a thug and a standover merchant, heavying the young ones for cigarettes and winnings at cards. I fronted him and we had a fight. I beat him. We met up again in a pub a few years later and had another fight. I beat him again.’
‘This was when?’ Wilson said.
‘Perhaps two years back.’
‘He’s made what amounts to a dying declaration that you hired someone to kill him. His wife has made out an affidavit that he said the same to her several times before the shooting.’
Viv and I exchanged glances. Viv shrugged.
I said, ‘They’re both lying. No, hold on, she might not be lying that he said so. I don’t know the woman. I’m surprised that he had a wife or that he kept one. He was a complete…’
‘Careful, Cliff,’ Viv said.
I wanted to annoy Wilson, couldn’t help myself. ‘Misogynist,’ I said.
‘If this person doesn’t die,’ Viv said, ‘his statement amounts to nothing more than an accusation from a convicted criminal. And the wife’s statement is hearsay.’
Wilson nodded. ‘He’s dead. Just heard. He was murdered and your client’s name is the only one we have in connection with his death.’
‘You better look harder,’ I said. ‘His middle name was machismo, if it wasn’t arsehole, and-’
Viv cut in, ‘My client denies any involvement in the death of Mr Harvey. Unless you are prepared to charge him, and I hardly think that likely on what you’ve told us, he should be free to leave.’
To underline the point, Viv and I stood up.
Wilson hit the stop button. ‘It’s early days,’ he said.
Viv drove me home. We were turning into Glebe Point Road before he said, ‘What’s going on?’
‘Okay. There’s nothing to it, so you’re just going to sit quietly and let it fizzle out, right?’
‘What d’you think?’
His sigh lasted almost until we were outside my house.
I said, ‘I’ll be discreet and careful.’
‘That’ll be a first on both counts. Your licence is hanging by a thread, mate, as always. And remember that whatever you do on this you’re not getting paid.’
He shook my hand, which is not something we usually do. It seemed to jar me into a more serious mood and I went into the house keen to have a drink and a think.
A person in my game necessarily has contacts in the criminal community-as I suppose it’s called these days. The next morning I put the cases I had on hold and made some phone calls. Then I trawled around several pubs and clubs. Eventually I located Ian ‘Spider’ Herriot, a retired burglar. Spider said that the security upgrade in residential and commercial properties over the past ten years put him out of work. A fall from a roof brought on various disabilities and he wangled a pension that kept him just above the breadline. I met him in the bar of the John Curtin Hotel in George Street-good Labor man, Spider.
It was middies of light for me and schooners of old for Spider for a round or two before we got down to business. Enthusiastic morning drinkers all around.
‘Cleve Harvey,’ I said.
Spider is a failed jockey-short in stature, strong once, but retirement had softened him and smoking had wizened his features. He had the jockey’s high-pitched voice. ‘A prick’s prick,’ he piped.
‘Right. He’s dead.’
Spider raised his glass. ‘The world’s a better place.’
‘I want to get in touch with his woman.’
Spider is an old hand at the information game since his retirement. There was only one thing he wanted to know, and it wasn’t why. ‘How much?’
He drained his glass. ‘Sol Levy’s is just down the way. Throw in a carton of fifties and you’re on.’
That would double the cost but I’d been prepared to shell out two hundred anyway. We walked down to the tobacconist’s and I bought the carton. Spider eyed it as though it was a life jacket floating towards a drowning man.
‘Lola Swift,’ he said.
I juggled the carton as foot traffic parted around us. ‘Address?’
‘Erskineville-the fuckin’ Belmont Arms at this time of day.’
I handed over the money and the cigarettes, but he didn’t thank me.
Before heading back to the John Curtin, Spider had given me a rough, highly unflattering description of Lola Swift and I spotted her as soon as I walked into the pub. About forty, looking fifty, stringy, gaunt-faced, blonde dye job, wearing a top and skirt more suited to a twenty-year-old. She was nursing a beer and bending over a racing guide.
The pub was the standard inner-city model that had undergone a bit of renovation some time ago so that the new surfaces were fast fading back towards the old. A few drinkers, singles, minding their own business, like Lola.
‘What’s Lola drinking?’ I said to the barman.
I bought a schooner of Tooheys black and a middy of light for myself. I sat opposite her at the small table and pushed the beer across. She looked up from the guide, pen held tightly in nicotine-stained fingers with blood-red nails. She gave me a practised smile.
I shook my head and moved the drink closer to her. ‘Sorry, love. I’m here for a talk, not for your services.’
The smile disappeared and with it the instinctive professional gestures-the raised eyebrows, tautened neck, straightened upper body. She pulled her drink a little closer.
I put a fifty down on the ring of moisture the glass had made so that it stuck there. She finished the drink she had on hand but didn’t touch the new one. Not yet, but she was paying attention.
‘My name’s Hardy.’
‘Oh, Jesus.’ For the first time a genuine emotion showed on her eroded face-disappointment, fear, regret… whatever it was. ‘I knew there’d be trouble.’
‘You were right. I have to talk to you about Cleve Harvey.’
‘And you reckon you can do that with a schooner and fifty bucks?’
She’d recovered and was presenting as a genuine hard case. There were two ways to play it-tough or soft. Mistakenly, I went for tough. ‘I could’ve made it a middy and twenty.’
‘You’re a bastard like Cleve said. I hope he nails you from the bloody grave.’
I had to retreat. ‘Why, Lola?’
She was in full outrage mode now, voice raised, standing up, surprisingly tall. ‘Drink your pissy light and your fuckin’ schooner yourself and fuck off.’
She stalked out, skinny legs in high heels, scrawny bum in a tight skirt, hair flying, shoulder bag scooped up and swinging. Most of the eyes-some amused, some antagonistic-in the bar were on me. I sat tight, didn’t fancy the idea of pursuing her up the street.
I drank half of the middy, picked up my damp fifty and left the bar. My car was a hundred metres away around a corner. I made the turn and became aware of someone close behind me. It was broad daylight at midday in Erskineville, which isn’t the rough place it used to be, but you can’t be too careful. I swung around, balanced, and with my hands ready.
‘Easy,’ the man said. ‘Easy.’
He was tall and thin in jeans and a sweater, sneakers. Not young, not old. After years in the job you develop the knack of noticing the people around you and filing the information. This guy had been in the Belmont bar, pouring a can of Guinness-the kind with the loud rattle and the sound of escaping gas-into a glass, a movement that had caught my eye.
‘Might be able to help youse, mate,’ he said.
I relaxed. ‘Yeah? How?’
‘Seen you talking to Lola and seen her take off. I can tell you where she lives. She’s a good root.’
‘You’d know, would you?’
He grinned, which didn’t improve his pinched, defeated look. ‘I should. Her flat’s just next to mine. When I’m flush I-’
‘Okay.’ I’d put the fifty in my jacket pocket and I fished it out. ‘I don’t mean her any harm. Fact is, I’m sort of more interested in the bloke she lived with.’
He nodded. ‘A real bastard, that one.’
‘Exactly.’ I showed him my card and my PEA licence. ‘It’s a private matter. Would fifty dollars get me to her door?’
‘Would it make you piss off and keep your mouth shut?’
‘Another twenty would.’
‘You’re on. You seem to know a lot about her. Where’s she likely to be now?’
‘In another pub, playing the horses for the rest of the afternoon. Then she goes out on the street.’
I took a twenty from my wallet and balled the notes in my fist. ‘Lead on,’ I said.
The block of flats had seen better days, much better days. It was square, squat, red brick and faded, but the remnants of some sense of style were there in the balconies and the garden out front and along the side, now dying of neglect. My escort said he and Lola were on the third floor. No security door, no lift. We went up the stained concrete steps in a dim light until we reached the top landing, which would have given a view of some sort if the window hadn’t been coated with grime.
I knocked at the door he indicated and got no answer. He took out his key and held out his hand for the money.
‘Put the key away,’ I said. ‘You piss off down the stairs and don’t show your face within a hundred metres for the next hour, minimum.’
He looked hurt, but he put the key back. I gave him the money and he started down the stairs.
‘Let me hear the entrance door slam.’
I did. He could’ve been faking but I didn’t think so. To someone with a set of picklocks attached to his always-present Swiss army knife, the old Yale lock was a piece of cake.
I’ve been in prostitutes’ flats before and Lola’s didn’t surprise me. It was a tiny, one-bedroom job and it was neat as a new pin. It also smelled of cigarette smoke, perfume, room freshener and basic, underlying dirt. The double bed was precisely made with a black bedspread and a white sheet folded down at the end of the bed the way the working girls do. The decks were cleared for action. The bedside light held a red bulb; the table featured a packet of ribbed condoms, lubricant, dildos in three sizes. There was a strategically placed mirror along one wall, a small TV with a VCR and a stack of videos. The handcuffs were probably in a drawer, the lingerie in the closet.
Lola was in that grey area of the sex business-not flush enough to be in the phone book, but a notch above the streetwalker with the arrangement at a motel. The bathroom was quintessentially feminine except for a few traces of shaved whiskers in the basin.
I slid open the closet doors, probed drawers and shelves. The only thing out of place professionally was a heavy suitcase at the back of a broom cupboard. I pulled it out and released the clasps-no locks. It contained all of Cleve that had remained in the world-some clothes, some shoes, shaving gear, some papers and some photographs in a big manilla envelope. The envelope was old and sealed with old, crisp sellotape until I slit it. I took the envelope and left the flat.
One question occupied my mind as I went down the stairs. Why hadn’t the police examined Cleve Harvey’s effects?
In the office I dealt with a few phone and email messages, keeping business afloat. I emptied Cleve Harvey’s envelope out onto the desk and sifted through the contents: several papers relating to his release after prison sentences; a decree nisi divorce from a marriage to one Rachel Fremantle; a shooter’s licence long expired; a collection of parking fine notices apparently unpaid; and a faded membership ticket for the Painters and Dockers Union.
The bulk of the material consisted of newspaper clippings. Between prison stretches Cleve had been quite a star in his day-a wood-chopping champion, a circus strongman, a long-distance swimmer, a movie and television stuntman, a Commonwealth Games trap-shooting medallist. He’d attracted notice for a one-round knockout of a Rugby League heavy in an off-season exhibition fight to raise money for Police amp; Community Youth Clubs in NSW.
One reason for his savage denunciation of me presented itself-fury that a man older and smaller than himself could beat him in a physical contest not just once but twice. It was hardly enough. I went through the documents again. Something there niggled at me but I couldn’t pin it down. I knew I had enemies, but a dying enemy trying to screw me was a new and unsettling experience.
I trod on eggshells for the next month or so but the police didn’t approach me again and nothing out of the ordinary happened. I got on with the usual run of things-serving notices, a bit of bodyguarding, the tracing of a missing husband. Eventually the Harvey killing surfaced in the papers. Cleve Harvey, it emerged, was a small-time police informer, and he was shot by one of the men he’d dobbed in on a minor matter that eventually led to a conviction on serious drug charges. There was another informer, DNA and a weapon, and the shooter went down for a long stretch. A small-time player who had struck it unlucky hadn’t concerned the police enough for them to probe closely into his life. That explained their lack of interest, but it didn’t explain why Cleve had fingered me. I thought I was within my rights to contact Detective Sergeant Wilson.
‘Cliff Hardy,’ I said when he answered the call.
‘Good result on the Harvey killing. I see you got a mention.’
‘I didn’t, did I?’
‘Don’t piss me off, Sergeant. Did the shooter say anything about me?’
He hung up, leaving me with the question.
The answer came quite a bit later and in a strange way. I’d lost interest in Rugby League after the Murdoch manoeuvre ruined the competition. I was never keen on Union for the mauls and scrums, and I found just looking at the no-hands game frustrating. I began to watch a bit of Australian football and to enjoy it for its positive character-forward passing, hands and feet, the high marks, long kicks, the flow. I was watching a match called ‘the Derby’ between Fremantle and the West Coast when the name hit me. Cleve Harvey had been married to a woman named Rachel Fremantle. The name took me back a couple of years.
With my occasional offsider Hank Bachelor, I was staking out a sports store in Marrickville. The owner had somehow got word that yet another ram raid-he’d already endured two-was to happen. He’d lost faith in the police and hired us to catch the raiders red-handed. We did, two kids in a stolen 4WD. Nothing to it. We blocked them off and they gave up without a murmur. We handed them over to the police, made our statements, collected our fee and that was that. They were too young to go before an adult court and, for one reason or another, we weren’t required to give evidence. One of the kids was a Brian Fremantle.
I had a contact in the relevant section of the justice department and I phoned her to enquire about young Brian.
‘Normally,’ Bronwen Armstrong said, ‘I would be breaking all the rules to tell you anything.’
‘But…?’ I said with a sinking feeling.
‘He’s dead. He was sentenced to a year in juvenile detention and was stabbed to death resisting a rape.’
I let out a long, sour breath. I was at home with a drink I thought I might need to hand. I took a pull on it.
‘Thanks, Bron. Do your records give you the names of the parents?’
They did of course. Cleve Harvey had been Brian Fremantles father. Brian had taken his mother’s name. I doubt that Cleve had done anything much for his boy along the way, but in his own twisted fashion he’d tried to exact a bit of revenge as he went out.
I stood on the balcony in a block of flats in Dover Heights. The view back towards the city was spectacular-a swathe of suburbs grading into city high rise with the promise of the Blue Mountains far beyond. The view towards the water was blocked by a double-row stand of lofty trees. Not quite blocked-there was almost a gap where one of the trees appeared to have withered.
Pointing, Joseph Young said, ‘Some criminals are poisoning those trees. Beautiful Norfolk Island pines. I want it stopped.’
He’d phoned me at my office and asked me to come and visit him. He said he’d pay me for my time even if I didn’t take the job. I had nothing much on and a visit to the eastern suburbs is always a pleasure. I’d toyed for years with the notion of selling my Glebe terrace and moving there. Could never seem to do anything about it though.
Young was in a wheelchair, partly paralysed from a car accident. Insurance and compensation had made him comfortable. He was a widower with no dependents and he owned the flat. One of his pleasures was to look out at the stand of trees. He was a Norfolk Islander himself, a Bounty descendant, and the view reminded him of home.
‘I’m sure it’s a crime,’ I said. ‘Wouldn’t the council or the police…?’
He waved the point aside. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if a councillor is one of the culprits. As for the police, they’re too busy worrying about imaginary terrorists.’
There was a row of large houses below on more or less flat land. The trees would block their view of the water absolutely. Standing 186 centimetres and on tiptoe, I could just get a glimpse of the far horizon over the top of the trees, or thought I could. Couldn’t have held the pose for long.
Young was a well-preserved seventy, at a guess. Full head of white hair, neat white beard, casual clothes. His olive skin was a legacy of his Polynesian forbears. He saw me craning for the far view and laughed.
‘I suppose you can see the water,’ he said. ‘I could myself before the accident. Stood six foot four and a half. Can’t see it now of course and I don’t give a shit. I want to watch the trees. The water’s overrated in my book. Just sits there. Trees are different-they move.’
‘Not sure I agree,’ I said. ‘The water moves, changes colour.’
‘Have you got a water view, Mr Hardy?’
‘Not really-a glimpse of Blackwattle – Bay between blocks of flats. What would you want me to do, Mr Young?’
‘Keep watch at night. Make a citizen’s arrest and hand them over to the police?’
‘With photos of them in action?’
He nodded. ‘Good idea.’
‘How do they do it-copper nails?’
‘You know about that, do you?’
‘Not really. I remember my father trying it to kill off a rubber tree that got out of hand. Can’t remember if it worked. Most of the things he tried didn’t.’
‘That’s old-fashioned. No, I’m told they drill holes and pour in some poison or other.’
‘Who told you?’
‘I’ve got a mate, Chester Ivens, lives in the flat below this. He went over there and took a look at the dying one. He’s as pissed off about it as me, but he’s another old fart and can’t stay up much beyond nine o’clock.’
Didn’t sound too hard. Young wheeled himself back inside. I’d brought a contract form with me. He signed it and wrote a cheque. I said I’d get on the job straightaway and I did.
I called on Young’s mobile mate. There were quite a few more things I needed to know. He came to the door and seemed pretty spry. A medium-sized bloke, bald, stringy lean, with a cheerful attitude. I introduced myself and he shook my hand enthusiastically.
‘Glad Joe took my advice. About time something got done. Come in.’
‘Thanks, but I thought you might take me over and show me what’s what.’
‘Be glad to take a walk with a bit of company. Gets bloody lonely and boring, this retirement. Hang on while I grab a coat.’
He came back, pulling on a padded jacket, slapped his pants pocket to check that he had his keys and yanked the door shut.
‘Stairs or lift?’ I said.
‘Stairs every time. Gotta keep moving, going to be a long time still.’
He went down the stairs at a pretty good clip, not using the handrail, talking the whole time.
‘Don’t get old, Mr Hardy, and don’t retire. When you’re working you reckon retirement looks great-all the time in the world to read, play golf, watch telly, whatever. Doesn’t work out like that.’
Just to have something to say, I asked him what he did before he retired.
‘I was an accountant. I thought that was boring and it was, but this is worse. Look, we’ll cut across here and get down to the trees and I can show you a few things.’
We walked over a stretch of parkland, through a patch of scrub and reached the trees. A stand of a dozen or more in two rows, they towered over us with a light breeze stirring the fronds. One was bare, as if it had been sandblasted.
‘A couple of things to notice,’ Ivens said. He was enjoying himself. ‘See the holes around the trunk of the sick one? They go pretty deep and are spaced out. These bastards knew what they were doing. See how dark it is here even though the light’s still good? No street lights, nothing. It’d be pitch dark at night. They’d do it with a battery drill. You can muffle the sound of those things easily.’
I examined the tree. All I know about trees is that their roots lift and crack the tiles at my place, they get into the pipes and the leaves clog the guttering. Still, I like them well enough to have sympathised with Young and Ivens.
‘You said bastards-plural. Wouldn’t it be a one-man job?’
‘Don’t think so. Easy enough to drill and pour, but-’
‘Someone has to hold the torch.’
He chuckled. ‘Right.’
‘You reckon they know what they’re doing. Sounds as if you’ve studied up on this.’
‘I have. The internet’s a wonderful thing. That’s why I can tell when the next attack’s likely to happen.’
‘If you can do that, you’ve practically done my job for me.’
He beckoned, ‘Come over here.’
He showed me two trees in the next row close to the dying one. I couldn’t see anything wrong with their trunks, but he scratched with a Swiss Army knife and revealed the drill holes. He caught the material he’d dislodged in his hand.
‘Cunning buggers sort of puttied them up.’
‘More evidence that they know what they’re about.’
‘Yeah, but I’m reminded of a couple of my clients who tried to be too bloody smart.’
Ivens set about carefully repairing the damage, using the blade, the stuff he’d trapped and saliva. I let him have his moment of triumph and looked back towards the line of houses, a cluster really, that would benefit from the enhanced view. Something about them struck me as odd, but I couldn’t pin it down.
Ivens finished his repair work and indicated to me that it was time to go, so we started back through the scrub.
‘As I said, Mr Hardy-’
‘Cliff, I’m Chester-never liked it but I got stuck with it. As I said, this retirement stuff’s got whiskers and I’m glad to have something interesting to deal with. I’d be pleased if you’d come back to my place, have a drink and I can sort of spell it out for you.’
‘Glad to, Chester,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a feeling you’re going to be even more useful.’
Ivens’s flat was a duplicate of Youngs but it was set up in a very different way-much less neat, many more books and state-of-the-art TV, stereo and computer gear. He said he was having trouble filling in the time, but he was giving it his best shot.
‘I’ve become fond of vodka and tonic,’ he said after he’d shown me around. ‘What would you say?’
‘I’ll be in it. Thanks.’
In the kitchen he took the Smirnoff and Schweppes tonic out of the fridge with a tray of ice cubes. He sliced a lemon. ‘I like to make a good strong one and have it last. I find I drink less that way.’
The drink had a kick all right, welcome at the end of the day. Ivens sat down at his computer and I pulled up a chair, prepared to be bored as his fingers tapped the keys. I’m slow with this stuff, he was fast. He found the webpage he was looking for.
‘This pretends to be conservationist,’ he said, ‘but that’s bullshit. It’s really a manual on how to poison plants. The thing is, these people we’re dealing with are following its prescriptions precisely-where to drill, what to use. It’s not a one-off operation, you understand. Takes time and this site spells out the right intervals.’
He was scrolling down as he spoke, too quickly for me to follow, but I could see where he was heading.
‘I’m beginning to get the drift,’ I said. ‘You know when the last holes were drilled so you know when they’ll be at it again.’
He spun around in his chair with his drink in hand. We clinked glasses.
‘Got it in one,’ he said.
According to Ivens’s calculations, the attack on the trees would take place in two or three days. I thanked Ivens, reluctantly refused another souped-up vodka and tonic and left.
Two or three days gave me time to recruit Hank Bachelor to help me do the job and to hire some equipment that would film the action in the dark. Naturally, Ivens couldn’t tell me whether the poisoners would do their thing late at night or in the early hours. It was mid-June, pretty cold at night, and it wasn’t likely that there’d be anyone around after dark. It looked as though Hank and I would have to stake out the place from about eight o’clock to a bit before dawn.
‘Jesus,’ Hank said when I told him. ‘I came to this country to be warm. Now you’re talking about down jackets, gloves and earmuffs.’
‘You came here because you couldn’t bear to live in the same country as George Bush.’
‘That’s true, but I wasn’t figuring to freeze my butt camping out.’
‘All good experience. I once spent a night in a car with no blanket halfway up Mount Kosciuszko.’
‘You better lay on the coffee and bourbon.’
On the first of the favoured nights we took up our positions, checked our equipment and waited. And waited. We worked our way through two thermoses of coffee and a good bit of Jack Daniels. It was dark and cold and a bit creepy with things rustling in the trees and the scrub. Nothing happened.
We arrived a bit after eight the following night to find what turned out to be four men in two teams. One pair spread out just inside the patch of scrub. Hank’s eyes are sharper than mine; he spotted them first and pulled me down.
‘Two guys up ahead,’ he whispered, ‘and I can see two more-one on the left and one on the right.’
‘What re they doing?’
‘Think they’ve seen us?’
‘Can’t tell, but they’ve got weapons. Baseball bats, maybe.’
‘What about down by the trees?’
‘Could be a faint light showing, not sure. What d’we do, Cliff? Call the cops?’
‘They’ll be gone before the police could get here.’
‘Wait up,’ Hank said. ‘I can hear something.’
Oh to be that young. His ears picked up the soft hum of a drill. He demonstrated the action.
‘Shit,’ I said, which wasn’t much help.
After a couple of minutes a voice cut through the night loud and clear: ‘Keep your distance and you won’t get hurt.’
Hank poked his head up. ‘They’re in a group heading off towards the road up thataway. Think I see four. Taking their time. Reckon we should follow?’
I stood, easing stiff muscles and joints. ‘They’ll split up. No point.’
For what it was worth, Hank filmed the departure of the men. Not my finest hour.
The hardest part was telling Young and Ivens.
‘That’s bad, Cliff,’ Ivens said. ‘They’ll only need another couple of treatments and the next one’s not due for a month or so.’
We were in Youngs flat and he was looking pretty deflated. ‘They must’ve been watching,’ he said, ‘and they saw you and Chester sniffing around.’
‘My fault,’ I said. ‘That was careless of me, but I think I’ve got an idea.’
‘What?’ Young said.
‘It’s to do with the number of people they had on the job, and something I spotted the other day just clicked in my head when I arrived this morning.’
‘Care to elaborate?’ Ivens said.
‘I’d rather not in case nothing comes of it and I look silly, again.’
The two men exchanged glances. ‘We have faith in you,’ Young said.
That didn’t make it any easier.
One householder wanting a better water view doesn’t employ four men. Someone had a big stake in the poisoning. The thing that had been niggling me for the past few days was triggered into clarity when I took a closer look at the properties affected by the killing of the trees. I’d thought of them as a cluster, perched up in a series of interlocking cul-de-sacs, and that was accurate. The houses in what might be called the front line were all substantial, well-maintained residences, obviously their owners’ pride and joy. So were most of the places further back, but off to one side in the third street was a row of houses showing wear and tear. I’d noticed them almost subliminally at first, because my house has some of the same signs-shaky guttering, overgrown garden, faded fence. Now I drove up to take a closer look.
There were five houses, freestanding brick and tile bungalows on quarter-acre blocks. They were far from derelict and were obviously occupied, but there was enough neglect in their appearance for them to stand out. I took note of the street name and the numbers of the houses. One displayed a ‘For Lease’ sign and I wrote down the agents name. Any one of them afforded a perfect view down to the parkland, the scrub and the trees. With four or five of the trees dead, the vista of the Pacific Ocean would open up nicely. Perfect development site. Low rise, but you could fit in quite a few townhouses.
Then it was time to visit the council office to check the titles of the properties. Over the past two years a development outfit by the name of Todd Holdings Pty Ltd had acquired the five houses in question. I was beginning to enjoy myself. I kept a discreet watch on the houses for the next few days. Two were occupied by families; one by a gay couple; the other two by men without women, men who wore overalls and went to work at a couple of building sites where Todd Holdings was doing the honours.
I phoned Hank. ‘Tell me you kept the video of the guys on the retreat.’
‘Sure I did.’
‘Any chance you could blow up and identify an individual?’
‘Did it already. Got a reasonable shot of the guy carrying the can.’
Being American, irony and puns aren’t Hank’s strong suit. I suppressed a laugh. ‘Want to do some more filming?’
There was a good deal of weed to clear at one of the Todd Holdings building sites and one of the Dover Heights tenants was clearing it. Hank and I parked advantageously and Hank captured him on film-or tape, or disk or whatever it is.
Hank closed off as the poison treatment stopped. He examined his digital result and nodded. ‘It’s him. So it ain’t over?’
‘We never say die,’ I said. After a bit of web research I had what I needed and called a meeting with Young and Ivens.
We met in Young’s flat again. My phone call had bucked them both up.
‘D’you reckon the stuff would be stored at one of those houses?’ Young asked.
I nodded. ‘Probably.’
‘Wish I wasn’t in this bloody chair. I’d like to come on the raid with you and your mate. You’d be in that, wouldn’t you, Chester?’
Ivens smiled. ‘I think Cliff’s got something else in mind.’
I said, ‘We’d have trouble proving that any given poison had been used in any given case. It’s not against the law to own it, or a hand drill or a torch.’
Young looked puzzled. ‘But you’ve got the man on tape.’
‘But not committing the act.’
Ivens grasped it. ‘The thing to do is go to the top, to whoever put them up to it, and that’s this Todd Holdings mob, right, Cliff?’
‘Right. I don’t know the ins and outs of the law, but I imagine that the penalty for causing that kind of environmental damage in the interest of a property development would be severe. I’d guess any development approval would be withdrawn. The company’s name would be mud.’
‘I get it,’ Young said. ‘Who’s the boss?’
Just to look professional I got out my notebook. ‘Guy called Peter Todd.’
‘Hey, I know him,’ Ivens said. ‘State Liberal candidate.’
‘Wannabe,’ I said. ‘He challenged the sitting member. Didn’t quite make it but he might next time.’
‘Vulnerable,’ Ivens said.
I put the notebook away. ‘Very,’ I said. ‘I propose a two-pronged attack. Present the evidence to Todd and to the can-carrying guy. If Todd tries to bluff I’m sure the can-carrier won’t carry the can, if you see what I mean.’
‘You’re a sly bastard,’ Young said.
I nodded. ‘Thank you. I didn’t like them outfoxing me.’
That’s the way it worked out. Royce West admitted that Todd Holdings was letting him live in the house at a peppercorn rent in return for certain services. Peter Todd admitted nothing, but knew he was in a corner and asked for terms. I consulted Joe Young.
He’d already made a list and he ticked the items off as we enjoyed a celebratory glass of merlot. Agreement to pay for a supervised treatment to try to revive the affected trees. Agreement to renovate the houses over there and not to destroy them. Complete confidentiality at our end. Think he’ll come at it, Cliff?’
‘It’s the best of all possible worlds.’ I said. ‘He has no choice.’
Becomes final today
She’s convinced he’s holding something back,’ Roger Carlson said.
‘Don’t wives make an ambit claim to allow for that?’ I said.
He nodded. ‘Some do, but Mrs Morgan just went for a thirty-seventy split of the assets.’
Carlson was a lawyer handling the divorce between Ralph and Danielle Morgan. My solicitor, Viv Garner, had suggested Carlson talk to me about a problem he had in drafting his client’s response to the other side’s version of the settlement.
‘Seventy-thirty,’ I said. ‘That seems on the generous side.’
‘She’s a nice, intelligent woman and he’s a prick, but she acknowledges that most of the money that came in during their marriage was earned by him. Not all, by any means, but she estimates her contribution at less than twenty. She tops it up to thirty on the basis of home-making, and social and personal support.’
‘No, thank Christ.’
Carlson looked uncomfortable in his suit and tie. He was a big, athletic type who’d have looked more at home on a golf course or a boat. Just as I was thinking along these lines he loosened the tie and slid it down-maybe he fancied himself as one of those wildly eccentric Hollywood movie lawyers who don’t wear a tie and have a ponytail.
‘A sticky one?’ I said.
‘Didn’t look like it at first, at least from her end, but things took a turn for the worse. I’d hate to think what would’ve happened if there’d been custody involved. His strategy is delay, delay, delay. If there’d been a young child it’d be voting before things got finished.’
I don’t much like working for lawyers. They live in a world of their own with its own rules, most of which outsiders don’t know and wouldn’t want to know. They think and sometimes talk in subsidiary clauses and hypotheticals. Straight-talking Rumpoles are rare-I’ve never met one. Even Viv Garner has his cagey moments. Carlson was doing his best to make sense.
“Why does Mrs Morgan think he’s dudding her?’
Carlson smiled. ‘My dad used to use that expression, haven’t heard it for a while. The husband owned up to a number of bank accounts. He’s a builder so he operates a company and has various accounts-fair enough. The statement he submits says there’s twenty thousand in one account. She says that at the time of their split there was close to three hundred grand in it. She says he’s bought something and tucked it away for afters.’
‘What are we talking about all up?’
‘Not that much-a house worth maybe seven hundred thou but with a pretty heavy mortgage. Bank accounts, cars, furniture and all that, about another hundred thou. So she’s looking at about two hundred and forty thousand, with her share of the equity in the house and the other bits and pieces. Not a lot if she wants to live in Sydney. Another hundred thousand’d make a big difference-get her a decent flat anyway.’
‘Leaving him a bit light on for a builder.’
‘Part of the problem. She admits that he hadn’t been doing so well lately, but she reckons that the three hundred grand was a backstop amount and she’d kicked into it a little over the years.’
‘What does he say happened to it?’
I laughed. That’d be checkable-there’d be a paper trail at the casinos or the clubs or with the bookies. People notice three hundred grand going and coming.’
‘He claims it was at private card games, and he says he can provide witnesses.’
‘She doesn’t believe it. She says he never gambled- wouldn’t buy a lottery ticket or enter a sweep. He reckoned gambling was for idiots.’
I shrugged. ‘Might have got in a hole and changed his mind. Took a chance.’
‘You’re following my line of questioning exactly. She dismisses the idea, says he couldn’t play cards, never did, not even Snap. You’d have to be out of your mind to go into high-stakes card games given that.’
Carlson gave me a level stare. Okay, I don’t care to work for lawyers and, although I did a little divorce work back in the ‘Brownie and bedsheets’ days, I didn’t like it and hadn’t done any for years, ever since Lionel Murphy got a sane law through. But the situation intrigued me.
Carlson grinned. ‘Viv said he thought you’d be interested. I’m glad to see that you are.’
‘You’re right, but what would you want me to do?’
Lawyers make a living by scoring points. It’s in their blood. They join debating teams at school, do moot courts on the way to their degrees, sign up with Toastmasters. The smug ones, and I’ve worked for some in the past, make you feel small when they kick a goal at your expense. Carlson wasn’t like that-he just got down to business.
Part of my brief was to follow Morgan and watch what he did, where he went, see who he met and try to get a line on what he might be up to, if anything. He lived in Randwick in a big house on a big block. Position, position, position, and he had it-close to schools, shops and transport, as the ads say. The house looked well maintained, as you’d expect, and would certainly command the sale price Carlson had mentioned.
It looked too big for a childless couple, but perhaps he had his office there. He didn’t seem to have business premises anywhere else. Maybe his wife was an artist who needed a studio. I hadn’t asked what she did. Should have.
Morgan drove a Land Cruiser that looked neither new nor old and over the course of a day he visited a few building sites: small jobs-an art gallery refit, a house renovation, repairs to a cricket ground grandstand damaged in a recent storm. He wasn’t in a big way of business. That could have been deliberate, winding down to keep the pool to be divvied up small. But builders operate with big overheads-licences, insurance, salaries, materials, equipment-and shoestring operators mostly go under. It occurred to me that he could have been trying to construct a bankruptcy, but with the house and the other assets unprotected it seemed like too much to lose for the sake of a hundred thousand. I remained intrigued as I tracked him about.
The other requirement Carlson had was for me to try to get to know Morgan if I could. Tricky, but I’ve got a few tricks. I have a friend, Dick Worth, who has a house in Clovelly. I arranged for him to allow me to contact Morgan to ask for a building inspection of the property. No skin off Dick’s nose-I’d pose as the owner thinking of selling, pay Morgan’s fee, and it’d go on my expense account to Carlson. I phoned Morgan, said he’d been recommended by someone whose name I’d forgotten, and we set a time.
Dick’s house is a freestanding number with high-growing shrubs and trees all around affording it a lot of privacy. No water view but a good location. Dick absented himself after taking me around to show me the quirks of the place and giving me a key to an outside shed and a side gate. Morgan turned up on time. ‘Cliff,’ I said as we shook.
He was small, a bit overweight with some of the muscle of earlier years turning to fat. I put him in his mid-forties- ginger hair fading, weathered complexion, strong grip. ‘Nice place, Cliff,’ Morgan said. ‘What’re you asking?’
‘Haven’t got that far yet. Give me a fair report and I’ll also be grateful for your opinion-you know, off the cuff.’
We wandered around. He had a digital camera and took pictures. He probed and prodded, squatted to look at foundations, hopped up with a bit of effort on the brick fence to take a look at the roof.
‘Seems pretty good. Could stand some paint and gutter work. What’s she like inside?’
‘Come and have a look. Fancy a drink?’
‘Wouldn’t say no.’
We sank a can each as we wandered through the house and had another out on the back deck.
He was wearing jeans, a flannie and a light jacket. He fished out cigarettes. ‘You mind?’
He held out the packet. I shook my head.
‘Don’t tempt me, trying to stop.’
He lit up, inhaled. ‘You said a fair inspection and an opinion. What d’you mean exactly?’
‘It’s like this… want another beer? It’s only mid-strength.’
I brought out the cans and pulled my chair a little closer to his. ‘The wife and I have split up. Bugger of a business. We have to go halves in the house. I’ve got a bit put by and I could maybe buy her out. Save all the hassle. But I’d have to get a valuation down the lower end. Know what I mean?’
His small grey eyes went angry-shrewd. ‘Do I what! I’m in the middle of the same sort of crap myself, but she got in first and had the place valued way up. Bitch!’
He was one of those men whose tongue was easily loosened by grog, or perhaps he just needed an outlet for his grievance. He ranted on for a while about his wife’s rapacity and complimented me on my strategy.
He polished off his can. ‘You have to play it as tough as they do, Cliff. Tougher.’
I nodded. ‘Got any other suggestions, Ralph?’
He winked sloppily as he got up. ‘I’ll mail you a report you can do something useful with-no worries. But you said you had a bit in reserve. Invest in art, mate. Invest in art.’
The art gallery, had to be a connection.
Two days later Morgan’s men had finished their work on the gallery and the place was open for business. I went in for a look-see. I know less than nothing about art. I like the Impressionists and the Heidelberg School, Goya and a few others like Francis Bacon. I suppose I can see what Picasso had going for him, but I can do without Andy Warhol and religious art of all kinds.
I wandered around with the catalogue. The sculptures mostly left me cold except for a few done in wood that I thought I could live with. Not on, with the prices the way they were. I was looking at a big piece of carved and shaped driftwood mounted on a plinth when I saw him. Morgan sauntered into the gallery, nodded to the attendant, an attractive young woman, and stood in front of a couple of large daubings that I hadn’t given a second glance. He moved slightly to gauge how the light fell, checked the catalogue and nodded his approval. He looked so proprietorial I thought he might take out a handkerchief and whisk away a speck or two of dust.
I kept well hidden and he didn’t see me. No chance of that really-the paintings, and presumably their position and the prices, were all that interested him. After he left I checked the catalogue. Items 12 and 13 were Imbroglio and Lassitude by Thomas L Matthiesson. The notes said Matthiesson was a renowned abstract artist who’d exhibited in Paris, London and New York.
The paintings were for sale at two hundred and fifty thousand dollars each. The attendant, who apparently doubled as a saleswoman, approached me because I’d been standing in front of the pictures for several minutes and paying close attention to the catalogue.
‘Superb, aren’t they?’ she said.
I nodded. ‘Superb.’
‘Bound to appreciate.’
‘Oh, dear old Tommy’s on his last legs. He’ll die any day and a dead artist fetches more than a live one, generally speaking. Are you interested?’
‘Yes and no,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’
She looked puzzled but still gave me a bright smile. ‘You’re welcome.’
I phoned Carlson and told him what I’d learned.
‘That’s great work. I’ll let Mrs Morgan know. She’ll be very pleased. Send in your account, and thank you.’
Three days later he phoned and asked me to come in for a meeting with Mrs Morgan. That was a turn-up.
‘What’s wrong? I thought she’d be pleased to be getting a hundred thousand.’
‘She’s pleased as punch, but she’s not getting any money. She wants to explain it herself, to both of us. I don’t know what’s going on.’
I went to Carlson’s office in Coogee. He told me that, although Mrs Morgan was living in a flat above a shop nearby, she was always late for their appointments. She arrived and apologised. She was a nice-looking woman, in her late thirties at a guess. Casual in jeans and top, a bit ill-kempt but in an attractive way. She couldn’t stop smiling and I couldn’t help liking her and being pleased she was happy, without having the faintest idea why.
‘I’m a picture restorer,’ she said, ‘that’s my job.’
I nodded. ‘Okay.’
‘I went to that gallery to look at the Matthiessons. I know about paintings-Australian pictures anyway. They’re fakes. I happen to know that the original of Imbroglio is in private hands in Brisbane. Don’t know about the other one but it’s a fake, too. The tones and the brush-work are wrong.’
‘That’s a pity,’ Carlson said.
She laughed. ‘No, it’s great. Ralph and I fell out a long time ago. One of the reasons was his resentment at my doing the course that got me into this line of work. I don’t make that much money but I love it, just love it, and I’m pretty good at it. Ralph hates what he does and he’s not good at it anymore. When he decided to hide that money he must have enjoyed the thought of doing it this way. The art world’s full of crooks and shysters. Someone would have told him how to work it on the quiet.’
‘He’s deprived you of a lot of money,’ Carlson said.
She shook her head. ‘You keep saying that, but I would only have gone for thirty per cent, as with the rest of the assets. I wanted to be fair but he tried to dupe me and I can’t help a bit of malice. Poor Ralph, he’s blown the lot.’
The big score
Jerry Fowler came up to me in the pub on a cold winter night. He was drinking rum and smelled of it.
‘Cliff, my man, I’ve got something you’ll be interested in.’
At that moment I was mainly interested in my pint of James Squires-first drink of the day and it was well after six. I was feeling proud of myself for my restraint. Something to boast about to Lily when I got home while we had a few more. Quite a few.
‘What would that be, Jerry?’
‘Money, of course. What else is there to be interested in when you come right down to it?’
That was Jerry’s philosophy all right, plain and simple. He’d been in and out of gaol for most of his life-worked up from car theft to B amp; E to small-time holdups. No violence, no drugs as far as I knew. He was a Glebe character who always returned to the suburb when he was released. He’d picked up a lot of history from his father and grandfather, who went way back, never living more than a stone’s throw from Glebe Point Road. I enjoyed Jerry’s stories and I liked him. I switched off when he got onto cricket, a passion I do not share. There was no harm in him. He was about seventy, on the pension, doing other bits and pieces, and just getting by.
‘Money’s good,’ I said, ‘but what about family, friends, health, sex?’
‘Money’ll buy you most of them. Seriously, I’ve got something to talk over with you and I can’t do it here. Where’s your office these days?’
That was a surprise. I hadn’t figured Jerry as the appointment-making type, but his whole attitude seemed to have undergone a subtle change in a more serious direction.
‘Newtown,’ I said.
‘What’s the address?’
I reached for my wallet. ‘I can give you a card.’
His voice was a hiss as his eyes darted around the bar. ‘Don’t give me a fucking card. We’re just a couple of old mates talking.’
I drank, he drank. I told him the address.
‘Nine o’clock tomorrow,’ he said. He finished his drink, slapped my arm and walked out. I turned away and looked across at the pool players. You don’t watch an old mate leave a pub after a casual conversation, even if you can scarcely contain your curiosity.
Gentrification is spreading along King Street in Newtown like a grassfire. An African restaurant recently opened next door to the boarded-up shop my office sits above. Renovation and rent rise are inevitable and not welcome, because my business is shrinking as the private enquiry corporations with HQs in LA and NYC take over. For as long as it lasts, the office has the right feel for me-plain, reasonably clean, functional and cheap.
Jerry was precisely on time, meaning that he was waiting outside the door when I arrived a couple of minutes late.
‘Time is money, Cliff,’ he said. ‘I oughta know, I did the time for the money I stole.’
I’d heard it before but it was still worth a laugh. I opened the door and ushered him in.
‘I can make coffee, Jerry. No milk though.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t want coffee, mate, I want your ear and your help.’
I sat behind the desk and he took the client’s chair. ‘Okay, you’ve got the first, the other depends.’
Jerry cleared his throat to make his pitch. ‘Charley Sanderson had a… home invasion. Three guys broke in and tied up Charley and his wife and got Charley to give them the safe combination. They took a little over half a million in readies.’
Jerry still uses old BBC cop show slang, which is one of the things I like about him. He paused to pull out a pipe and stuff it. I’ve never minded the smell of pipe tobacco and I pushed an almost clean ashtray towards him for the several matches I knew it would take him to light it.
Sanderson was a bookie, a big one. His reputation was better than some, not as good as others. I hadn’t picked up anything about the robbery in the media and I told Jerry so as he struck matches and puffed.
‘You wouldn’t,’ he said when he had the pipe drawing. ‘Reason’s obvious.’
‘Sanderson’s readies aren’t something he’s ready to declare.’
‘This is serious stuff, mate-half a million.’
That was one too many ‘mates’ for comfort. Jerry and I weren’t that close-a few drinks, a few pool games, chats about the boxing, such as it was, and the history of Glebe.
‘Get to the point, Jerry.’
‘Sanderson’s offering a reward for anyone who can… help. Fifty grand.’
Jerry is nothing if not an actor, probably from watching all that TV in gaol. He let the figure hang in the air like a balloon while he cast a look around my basic fittings. ‘How does that sound, Cliff? Twenty-five thou.’
‘You know who did it, do you?’
‘Not exactly. But, you know I do a bit of consultancy for this security firm. Me having certain experience.’
‘So you told me. So what?’
‘It’s not much, peanuts really. But I heard a whisper and I think I know how to go about finding out who did the business.’
It was starting to sound thin. ‘To answer your question, Jerry, it looks bloody dangerous. If Sanderson wants to keep everything quiet, what plans does he have for the ones who did the job? They’d know how much money was involved and they could sing an interesting song to the tax people and the bookie licensing board. Sounds as if they’d be expendable from Sanderson’s point of view.’
Jerry’s pipe had gone out. He shook his head as he fiddled with it. ‘Charley’s not that sort of a bloke.
‘Think about it. And think how he’d feel about anyone who fingered them. His whole future’s on the line. From what I know of him he could probably gee himself up to take drastic measures. You’re in danger just knowing about it. How come you do?’
‘Can’t tell you while you’re taking this attitude. Look, Cliff, this is my last chance for a big score and I need it bad. All I’ve got’s the fucking pension and you must know what a room costs to rent in this fucking city. I’ve gotta eat, have a drink, and I’ve got health problems.’
‘You’re healthier now than if you were dead.’
‘Ah, that’s you all over. Always fucking joking. Look, I’ve got a brother who’s getting a good deal on a decent-sized caravan in a park up on the Hawkesbury. Twenty-five thousand’d get me a half-share. I could live up there rent-free on the pension. Fish, breathe clean air. Give me another ten years.’
‘You’d miss Glebe.’
‘Fuck Glebe. What’s Glebe ever done for me?’
I had to laugh at that. Jerry laughed too and got his pipe going. The mood changed.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘I don’t much like the idea of playing according to Charley Sanderson’s rules, but if you want to let me in on how you know about this and the way you’re thinking, I could perhaps give you some advice. Help to keep your nuts out of the blender.’
‘Don’t talk like that.’
Jerry puffed his pipe and thought about it. Hard to tell what he was thinking. As an experienced but not very successful card player, he could keep a blank face. Maybe he was thinking of a way to lock on to the whole fifty thousand. He got up from the chair, old joints creaking.
‘You could give me one of them cards now, mate. I’ll be in touch when I’ve had a bit more of a think.’
I gave him a card and he left.
The call from the police came two days later. I was told to drop in at the Glebe station and ask for Detective Sergeant Johnson. Johnson came down from upstairs, suggesting that he wasn’t going to take me up to the interview room for the third degree. We’d met before and treated each other with a certain amount of respect. We talked in the space between the door and the reception desk.
‘Just a word, Mr Hardy,’ Johnson said. ‘You know a man named Jerry Fowler?’
‘What would you say was the nature of your relationship?’
‘We have the odd drink together, have a yarn. He’s a Glebe identity, knows a lot about the place. Why?’
‘He was shot and killed last night.’
‘Jesus! Who by?’
‘I thought you might have some ideas. We found your card in his wallet. Was he your client?’
‘Come on, I know I don’t command top dollar, but Jerry couldn’t afford me.’
‘Card looked new. When did you give it to him?’
I shrugged. ‘Can’t remember. Put a card in a wallet and it stays looking new, doesn’t it?’
It was his turn to shrug. ‘I suppose. Well, just asking. No idea yourself about who’d want to kill him?’
‘Not a clue. When did you say this was?’
‘Last night. Well, early hours.’
‘I’m sorry, really sorry. He was a character.’
‘He was a habitual criminal.’
‘Once a crook, always a crook. Get in touch if anything occurs to you.’
He gave me his card and I brushed it clean and made a show of putting it away carefully in my wallet. He knew what I was doing and didn’t like it. Probably not a smart move on my part.
I went in to the office to deal with routine matters, thinking that the last person who’d been there with me was Jerry. I was genuinely sorry about his murder and I resolved to go to the funeral, if there was one. But I didn’t feel a strong sense of responsibility. Jerry had been in the criminal world for a very long time and he knew the risks he was taking dabbling in the murky waters of rewards for snitching.
Of course I’d lied to Johnson. From the little I knew, Jerry’s killer could have been associated with the people who robbed Sanderson or with Sanderson himself, who might have thought Jerry less than helpful. I’d leave it to the police to sort out if they could or if they wanted to. The murder of an old lag like Jerry wouldn’t make them put their best foot forward.
The stairs up from the street to the first floor in my building are narrow and pretty dark. My habit is to take them three at a time as a little bit of aerobic exercise before sitting at the desk. That’s what saved me. Two men were waiting on the landing where the stairs take a turn. I came barrelling up, bent over a little, and the swing one of them took at me missed. He lost his balance and went down a step or two. His mate was obviously hoping to deal with someone incapacitated and he was surprised when I straightened up and slammed a fist into his gut. Soft gut. I grabbed his arm and swung him against the banister. It caught him in the kidneys and he went down.
The first guy came up with a baton at the ready but I was above him and balanced. I kicked him in the face; he dropped the baton and tumbled to the bottom. I was breathing hard and in the seconds I took to suck in some air the soft-gut scuttled past me. I collected the baton and went down to the door. Holding the baton behind my back I looked up and down the street. Nothing.
‘You’ve still got it,’ I said to myself as I went back upstairs.
I was undamaged, which is not always the way you come out of a two-man attack. But I didn’t kid myself- they weren’t very good, and it was lucky that I hadn’t just climbed the stairs normally. Of the two other offices on this level one was unoccupied and the other, allegedly the home of an independent record company, Midnight Records, was unused until late at night. To my surprise a young man in black jeans and T-shirt opened the door.
‘Hey, what?’ he said, flicking back long locks.
‘Hey, nothing,’ I said.
I went in to the office and made coffee as an aid to thinking. There was really only one line of thought-who hired them and why?
For the rest of that day and the next I kept an eye out for trouble but nothing happened. Lily was away interstate working on a mining story. She’s the one who reads the papers closely, I just skim them, so I missed the notice of Jerry’s funeral. Daphne Rowley brought it to my attention that night in the Toxteth after a game of pool.
‘You going?’ I said.
‘Wish I could but I’ve got a full day. Just can’t get away. I liked Jerry.’
‘So did I. Where is it?’
Daphne told me that the service would be held in the Unitarian Chapel in Darlinghurst and that Jerry was to be buried at Waverley Cemetery. That surprised me. I thought the cemetery was more or less full and that only people who’d booked plots could still get in. I didn’t see Jerry as someone who’d invest in that way.
I was late getting to the chapel after wasting time looking for a parking spot. The service was coming to an end. There were five people present. Four I recognised as Glebeites, the other I didn’t know, but he bore a striking resemblance to Jerry. Younger, better preserved, well dressed, but clearly of the blood. The coffin was put in the hearse and I was wondering how I was going to follow it to Bondi when the look-alike came up beside me.
‘You’d be Cliff Hardy.’
‘Zack Fowler, Jerry’s brother.’
We shook hands. ‘I guessed that,’ I said. ‘You’re a lot like him.’
‘In some ways, not all. I’d like you to ride along with me, if you don’t mind. There’re things I want to discuss with you.’
You don’t say much in a funeral car. Something about the fittings, the driver, the pace keep you quiet and leave you with your own thoughts. The car was followed by another carrying the other mourners. The burial was conducted smoothly and efficiently. When it was done Zack Fowler went to the Glebe people and handed them some money. Then he came back to me.
‘I thanked them for coming and asked them to hold a bit of a wake for Jerry at his watering hole.’
‘I’m sure they’ll do that,’ I said. ‘I’d be in it. Shouldn’t you be there?’
‘No. Hold on.’
He spoke to the two drivers and the cars pulled away. It was then that I noticed the quality of his clothes-the suit, the shirt, the shoes. He’d obviously paid for the whole thing and the burial plot. This man had money.
‘We can get a taxi back. I’m hoping you’ve got some time.’
I nodded and we began to walk between the rows of graves and the ornate tombs as the early afternoon wind took on an edge.
‘A wake for Jerry’d be okay,’ Fowler said. ‘I always expected I’d go to his rather than him coming to mine. But I’ve got more serious business. I want to hire you to find out who killed my brother.’
Fowler told me that Jerry had been the black sheep from the start, always in trouble for thieving and fighting. The parents were religious-hence the names Zachariah and Jeremiah-but it didn’t take with Jerry.
‘I was a couple of years younger,’ Fowler said. ‘I thought it was all bullshit, the religion, but I played along to keep the peace. Jerry was causing them so much trouble they needed something to make them feel worthwhile.’
‘How did you get along with him?’
Fowler shrugged. ‘Okay, what I saw of him. He was in and out of reform schools from his early teens and then he graduated to gaol. As I say, I toed the line, did okay at school, Fort Street, got a commerce degree, started a business that did well. Mum and Dad didn’t live to be very old but I helped make them comfortable for the last few years. Mum always said Jerry broke her heart, but there’s nothing to that. They were cowed, frightened people who clung to their religious delusions and then just sort of faded away.’
CH32 – The Big Score
We walked back towards the gate. I had a pea jacket over a sweater and the cold didn’t penetrate too much. Fowler just had his business shirt and suit coat but he didn’t seem bothered. Reminiscing had removed him physically from the scene.
‘It’s a funny thing,’ he said, ‘how unforgiving Christians can be. They never forgave Jerry, wouldn’t have spoken to him more than half a dozen times since he became an adult.’
‘I’ve seen that,’ I said, ‘churchgoers shunning their unmarried pregnant daughters.’
‘Yeah. Anyway, I stayed in touch with Jerry as best I could, but my business took me overseas a lot and when he was out of gaol he was always in some rooming house or other-hard to track down. I gave him a helping hand when I could but
‘He probably shouted me a drink sometime or other with what you gave him.’
That’s when Fowler apparently started to feel the cold. He hailed a taxi. ‘Let’s go somewhere and have a drink. Jerry told me about you more than once and he spoke about you recently. That’s why I want to talk to you.’
The taxi took us to Fowler’s hotel-the Novotel at Darling Harbour. We installed ourselves in a warm comfortable bar and Fowler bought double scotches, putting them on his room account.
‘Jeremiah Fowler,’ he said as he raised his glass.
We drank the toast. Fowler unbuttoned his suit coat and leaned back in his chair. As a man in late middle-age, he was comfortably padded but not fat. Probably worked out a little when he had the time. He took another pull on his drink and got ready to talk.
‘About six weeks ago, when I was just back from the States, I found out where Jerry was living and went to see him. In Glebe, of course. That’s where the family had been for a couple of generations.’
The scotch was smooth-bound to help talking and listening.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘I’m a comparative newcomer. Jerry filled in the background for me.’
Fowler nodded. ‘He would. It was his only interest apart from a quick easy dollar. Well, I went to see him and found him pretty close to the edge financially, and health-wise. I told him about this caravan park that I’ve got an interest in. Well, I own it really, but I didn’t tell Jerry that, and I said he could have one of the mobile homes to live in rent-free. He seemed interested and the next thing I know he rings me and asks how much to buy the unit. I told him forty-five thousand just to name a figure and he said he thought he could raise it. Next thing I know I get the news that he’s dead.’
‘Did you tell any of this to the police?’
‘No, I knew the detective I talked to wasn’t interested. The only way Jerry could have got hold of that sort of money was through something criminal. He must have stepped on somebody’s toes and got himself killed. I want to know who killed him and I want to see them in gaol. Jerry spoke very well of you, said you’d helped him out a few times. One of the Glebe people pointed you out to me at the service and here we are.’
‘Where are we exactly, Mr Fowler?’
‘I’m trying to enlist you to find out who killed Jerry and I’m happy to pay your going rate. More if necessary.’
‘What makes you think I’d be able to do that?’
Fowler shrugged. ‘I feel that I let him down. I have to do something and this is all I can think of
‘You sent him off nicely. Isn’t that enough?’
‘No. I haven’t told you anything about my business, have I?’
‘I’d have got around to asking you.’
‘I run a freight company that operates here and in Europe and the United States. Not huge, but big enough and profitable. When I got started with a few trucks I ran into trouble with a competitor who wouldn’t play by the rules. Jerry rounded up a few blokes he’d met inside and it got sorted out. But Jerry was up on charges again at the time and I didn’t do enough for him: I was battling, short of time and money. He went away for a long, hard stretch and I prospered. As far as I could tell he didn’t hold it against me, but I felt I’d let him down. That’s why I made the caravan park offer. I didn’t want to look patronising or superior… But Jerry threw me with his claim to have the price. Does any of this make sense, Hardy?’
Of course it did, almost too much sense, and I felt obliged to tell Fowler what had happened between Jerry and me. It didn’t reflect well on Jerry-given the price Zack had named for the mobile home, Jerry obviously was going for the whole bundle and planning to cut me out-or on me for not coming down harder, telling him to leave it alone. Over another couple of drinks I laid it all out.
Fowler listened intently, forgetting his drink. When I finished he shook his head.
‘That’s Jerry all right. Too proud to accept charity from me but ready enough to diddle you out of your share of the reward. He was my brother and I was fond of him, but he couldn’t lie straight in bed.’
‘Perhaps I’ve wronged him. Maybe when I was lukewarm about his proposition he decided to just go it alone.’
‘I’d like to think so, but I doubt it.’ He took a small notebook from his coat pocket. ‘When did he come to you?’
I told him and it became clear that Jerry had spoken about having the fifty thousand Sanderson had on offer before he spoke to me.
‘I’m sorry about that,’ Fowler said. ‘I was starting to feel encouraged that you knew something of what he was up to. That means you wouldn’t be starting from scratch. But now you know that he intended to cheat you I suppose you’re not inclined to help.’
With the scotch working, I smiled at him. ‘Mr Fowler, you don’t imagine that I approve of all the people I work for, do you? Let alone like them.’
‘Then you’ll do it?’
‘Got your cheque book handy?’
Knowing that Jerry had planned to cut me out of the deal made it easier in a way. I could be objective about the job and not feel any obligation to him. The other thing was that I was in the loop already, although I hadn’t told Fowler about the attack on me. I wanted to sort out who had me in their sights and I figured I might as well get paid while I was doing it.
A while back I’d done some work for a bookmaker named Tim Turnbull. A missing daughter case that didn’t turn out too badly for all parties. I’d stayed vaguely in touch with him and had backed a couple of his tips successfully. I phoned him and arranged a meeting.
Tim lived in Paddington in a three-storey terrace with all the wrought iron, white pebbles and native garden you could wish for. He’d demolished a smaller house beside his own to provide garage space with a swimming pool and a lavish entertainment area. Tim’s parties were legendary.
I penetrated the layers of security and Tim led me into his den-cum-bar. The chairs were deep and comfortable, the bookshelves held a mix of racing books and hardback best-sellers, and the bottles of liquor were seductive in the subdued concealed lighting. It was mid-afternoon.
‘What’ll you have, Cliff?’
‘Jesus, a couple of hundred grand’s worth of booze and you want light beer.’
‘If you have it, Tim.’
‘Smartarse. Of course I’ve got it. No one drinks seriously anymore.’
Tim was out to prove his point. He gave me a stubbie of Cascade Light and a glass and let some cognac glide into a crystal balloon for himself. I sniffed the air.
‘What happened to the Havanas?’
Tim, forty pounds overweight with a purple nose and florid complexion, scowled. ‘Had to give them up. Doctor’s orders.’ A reminder of this injunction damaged his sociability. ‘What can I do for you?’
I spun him a line about a client being unhappy after his dealings with Charley Sanderson. I said I wanted Tim’s opinion of Sanderson and how heavy he was likely to come down on anyone who got in his bad books. Turnbull had started out as a runner for his fathers SP book and he knew a bit about the rough side of the game. He seemed to enjoy letting his mind work along these lines.
‘Charleys a wimp,’ he said. ‘Wouldn’t have the guts to come down hard.’
‘What about getting someone to do the business for him?’
‘Nah. He’s afraid of the law. That’s one of the three things he’s afraid of.’
I had to play along. ‘The other two are…?’
‘His missus. A real dragon. Keeps him on a very tight leash. She’d be afraid of what might happen if he got into bad company like that Rivkin. Charley’s wife likes to move in respectable circles. The other thing he’s afraid of is going broke.’
‘Any risk of that?’
Tim looked around the room, at the wood panelling, teak bookcases, chromium and glass bar-signs of wealth too solid ever to be lost, you’d think, but he said, ‘It can all go down the gurgler really quick if things go wrong.’
‘That’s interesting. Not that this business my client’s pissed off about is that big a deal, but what would Sanderson do if his finances collapsed?’
Tim swilled his brandy and took a sip. ‘He’d wriggle out of it somehow.’
I finished my beer and got up. ‘Thanks, Tim. This is all between us, of course.’
Thinking about the old days and getting a sniff of a competitor’s problems had restored Tim’s good mood. He got to his feet and clapped me on the shoulder. ‘I remember how you played things so sweetly when I had that trouble with Kirsty. You protected all our arses. Whatever you say’s okay with me.’
I was flying by the seat of my pants, but I had to start somewhere. I could have trawled through some of Jerry Fowler’s mates, or people I knew in what they’ll probably soon call the criminal industry, to try to get a line on who might’ve knocked over Charley Sanderson’s stash. That would have taken time and expense. An approach through Charley Sanderson himself, stamped by Tim Turnbull as unlikely to have anyone killed, seemed the better option.
Big bookmakers are on the web with office phone numbers supplied. I made contact and arranged a meeting with Sanderson by posing as a journalist wanting a story. My mate Harry Tickener, who runs the Searchlight web newsletter, would cover for me. Searchlight operates on a shoestring and its motto is ‘We name the guilty men’. It does, too, and Harry has all his minimal assets protected from libel suits.
Important people, or people who think they’re important, don’t make same-day appointments, even if they’re publicity prone like Sanderson. My appointment was for late morning the following day.
I’m not a keen or constant punter and I couldn’t have named more than one or two horses then in the news. I bought a couple of papers just to acquaint myself with something of the racing scene and went in to the office. No assailants lurking.
I looked through the papers and then picked up the baton I’d left on my desk. It was about 70 centimetres long and retractable, the top half sliding into the bottom section which had a rubberised handle. Portable. It was ceramic and weighed about two kilos. It had four or five notches filed into it near the top. I slapped it against my palm quite softly and it hurt. I looked forward to returning it to its owner-the hard way.
For two men in the same profession, Tim Turnbull and Charles Sanderson couldn’t have been more unalike. Where Tim’s lifestyle fitted the image of the ‘colourful racing identity’, Sanderson’s was more like that of a chartered accountant. Tim’s operational centre was somewhere in his grand pile, Sanderson’s was in a Randwick office complex. Sterile was too warm a word for it. I was shown by a neatly dressed and scrubbed female secretary into a room that had all the personality of an empty stubbie. No books, no bar, just a desk and filing cabinets. It only lacked an eye chart on the wall to feel like a medical office.
Sanderson was a grey man in a grey room. He wore a grey suit and he barely acknowledged me as I walked in. Then he surprised me.
‘You’re not a journalist,’ he said.
‘How d’you know that?’
‘I’ve met too many of them over the years. I never saw one who looked like you. You’ve got the half-decent clothes but not the look or the manner.’
“What’s the manner?’
‘Stealthy. You don’t look stealthy. Have a seat and tell me quickly what you want before I have the security people up here.’
I sat in a well-worn chair and looked at him more closely. He was bald and freckled; he wore rimless glasses and his shoulders were narrow in the padded suit jacket. He looked as though he’d made a decision to remove colour from his person, his surroundings and his life. Except for his eyes behind the lenses. There was something alert, almost predatory about them. No red glow like in those of Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, but not dissimilar. This wasn’t a man to fool with and I wondered how Tim T had got it so wrong.
‘I’m a private detective,’ I said.
‘Why am I not surprised? I’m a busy man, Mr Private Detective. What do you want?’
He had me on the retreat, feeling for the ropes. I could take it on the arms like Ali against Foreman, or come in swinging. I decided against the Ali option.
‘I’m wondering if you had anything to do with Jerry Fowler’s murder.’
‘Who’s Jerry Fowler?’
I studied him. It was a critical moment. If he genuinely didn’t know who Jerry was I’d eliminated one of the ‘possibles’. He’d put the question neither too quickly nor too slowly. Delivered it flat, with all the appearance of ignorance mixed with indifference. I had to make a decision and I made it.
‘Jerry Fowler was a small-time crim of my acquaintance. He came to me a few days back with a story about you having been robbed of a certain amount of money and offering a reward for the identity of the people who robbed you.’
I was watching him closely and he didn’t react beyond a blink and a slight tightening of the jaw, which could have meant something or nothing. ‘Story’s not right,’ he said. ‘I haven’t been robbed of anything.’
‘Haifa million, hidden from the ATO.’
‘I’m not sure I believe you.’
He tried to hold my gaze, couldn’t, and looked down at his empty desk as if he thought something useful might appear there. ‘Believe what you please. I’d like you to leave. I’m busy.’
After a pause I shook my head. ‘You’ve overplayed your hand. Do you know the meaning of the word disinterested?’
That caught his vanity. ‘Yeah, I’m disinterested in everything you have to say.’
I stood. ‘You’ve got it wrong. Look it up. It means uninvolved, having no stake in something. You’re not disinterested in this, Charley. You’re up to your balls in it.’ I dropped a card on his desk. ‘I couldn’t care less about you or your stash or any reward. I cared about Jerry. Get in touch when you’ve thought it over.’
I walked out, nodded to the secretary and left the building. I thought I’d accomplished something, but I wasn’t sure what.
The answer came before I reached my car. My mobile rang.
‘This is Sanderson. We have things to talk about. Come back.’
I wasn’t going to let him get away with that. I told him I had other matters to attend to and that if he wanted to talk he could see me in my office that afternoon. He didn’t like it but he agreed.
I’d left the Falcon in a multi-storey car park-the kind where bad things happen in movies. I was watchful and I had my pistol and the baton in a light satchel that I kept unzipped. Quick-draw Hardy.
A man stepped down from a huge fire-engine red 4WD parked next to my car. Big guy, dark suit. I dropped the satchel and took the baton in one hand and the pistol in the other. He threw his hands in the air.
‘Hey, hey, what’s the problem?’
His pale, flabby face was a mask of innocence. His car keys dropped from his hand and I could see that he was shivering. But you never know. I kept the pistol pointed at him and put the baton on the ground as I picked up his keys.
‘If you want the car, take it. Just don’t hurt me.’
There was a sob in his voice and tears in his eyes. I threw the keys about twenty metres. They clattered against another car. I picked up the baton and the satchel and put the weapons away.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘My mistake.’
He stood rooted to the spot, his hands still half raised. I unlocked my car, reversed out and drove away. A quick glance in the rear vision mirror showed him slowly walking to recover his keys.
I knew I’d overreacted and I wasn’t happy about it. I hadn’t even come close to shooting the guy or bashing him, but I should have read the signs earlier-the face and figure, the car. No one intent on mischief drives such a distinctive vehicle. Not for the first time I reflected that I needed a break, a holiday. Maybe Lily and I could go to the Maldives, snorkel in crystal-clear water, eat and drink whatever they ate and drank there, send postcards.
I did some routine stuff in the office, drank coffee, tried not to think how much I’d have liked a couple of glasses of wine. I used the baton as a paperweight-I was starting to get used to having it around. I was standing by the window looking down into the street when Sanderson arrived in a white Mercedes and found a park on the far kerb. He waited for a break in the traffic and crossed quickly and anxiously, moving his head from side to side. He stumbled a little on gaining the footpath. He was a clumsy man with a lot on his mind.
He was breathing hard when he made it up the stairs and was grateful to sit down, no matter how plain the surroundings and uncomfortable the chair.
‘I’m not a well man,’ he said. ‘Heart trouble. I’m in line for a transplant.’
‘Should be out in the fresh air doing something healthy that you like, not sitting in offices.’
‘I like sitting in offices. Let’s get down to it. I asked around about you, Hardy. The word is you’re fairly honest.’
‘Is that the best I rate?’
‘In your game it’s pretty high. You had it right. I was robbed. Close to half a million that I was keeping from the tax hounds. Looking around, I don’t imagine you go out of your way to pay tax.’
‘I pay as little as I can get away with.’
‘Right. Well these bastards who broke in threatened me and the wife and took the money. I couldn’t make too much of a song and dance about it because of the tax angle and because my wife had no idea how much it was. She’d give me hell if she knew.’
‘So you put the word out that there’d be a reward for information.’
‘I did. I spoke to a couple of people. I told them that I had the serial numbers of the notes and that I’d do a deal with the bastards. And that there’d be something in it for whoever pointed me in the right direction.’
‘And nothing. No feedback.’
‘Do you have a record of the serial numbers?’
‘What fucking good would it do? I’m not going to let the banks know I’ve got all this loose cash, am I? But I thought these people mightn’t know that. I thought the possibility of the money being traced just might induce them to cut a deal.’
‘So either the people you used to get the word out didn’t reach the right ears or the ones who grabbed it don’t believe it can be traced and have got on with spending it.’
He looked old and sick but it was hard to sympathise with him unless he’d been hoarding the money to make a donation to the hospital after his transplant. I doubted it. I told him that Jerry Fowler had somehow got wind of the robbery and the reward and had a line on the perpetrators.
‘But he got killed,’ I said. ‘They got a line on him first.’
Sanderson shook his head. ‘That’s rotten. If I’d known something like that was going to happen I’d have just cut my losses.’
He looked at me, his pale, glittering eyes hard behind the lenses. ‘Probably not.’
‘That’s what I thought. Well, I’ve got a client who cared about Jerry Fowler and is willing to spend some money to find out who killed him. I’m going to try, but I’m not optimistic’
‘If you do find out, will you tell me? I’d make it worth your while.’
‘I’ll bet you would.’
‘Would your client want to… proceed legally?’
‘That’d be a complication for you, right? I don’t know.’
I could see Sanderson’s brain working, trying to figure out how he’d cope if the matter was to be played straight. What deals might he strike with cops, lawyers, the tax office? I didn’t like his chances and neither did he. I picked up the baton just to have something to do while he went through the options. The action caught his attention and his already pale face lost more colour.
‘What… where did you get that?’
I told him. He held out his hand for the baton and I passed it over. He examined it and let it slip from his hands. It clattered against the desk on its way down. He retrieved it, thumped the desk with it, turned and swiped at the filing cabinet. He moved towards me, suddenly energised, and swung. I ducked, gripped his wrist, twisted and the baton fell free. The momentary strength left him and he sank into the chair, breathing hard. He scrabbled a pill from his shirt pocket and held it up. He gasped, unable to speak. I rushed to fill a cup with cold coffee. He gulped the pill down, gripped the edge of the desk and fought for control. When he was composed I pointed to the baton.
‘You recognise this thing?’
‘Yes. It belongs to my stepson.’
Sanderson’s stepson, Nathan, worked for a security firm. They weren’t close, had little in common, but he’d never thought that Nathan was anything other than honest, if a bit thick and prone to violence on the football field. He’d shown Sanderson his baton and the nicks he’d filed in it for the number of heads he’d cracked. The notches hadn’t meant anything to me, but to Sanderson they stamped Nathan as the owner of the baton.
Between us, we put it together. The home invaders had worn balaclavas and tracksuits and one of them hadn’t spoken a word. Nathan would have known about the safe and suspected that it held a lot of money. He’d heard his stepfather rant about taxes enough times to doubt that the money could be traced. Somehow, through his association with a security firm, Jerry must have got a sniff of the involvement of Nathan or someone like him. Nathan or his associate got wind of Jerry’s interest and took care of Jerry and came after me. Jerry must have let slip my name somewhere along the line.
We sat and looked at each other. Sanderson’s colour was bad and I hoped he wasn’t going to have another cardiac episode there and then-didn’t look as if he could stand many more.
‘The one who tried to hit you with the baton-what did he look like?’
‘It was too quick and too dark to tell. Middling in every way’s my impression, but that’s all it is.’
‘And how did you say you dealt with him?’
‘I kicked him in the face and he went arse over tit down the stairs.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘He rang his mother the other day. She asked him why his voice was funny and he said he had a broken jaw that he’d got from an intruder with a baseball bat he’d run up against.’
‘I have to go after him,’ I said.
Sanderson’s smile was a grimace in a death’s-head face. ‘He flew out to South America yesterday. Holiday, he said, but with that amount of money…’
I met Zack Fowler again in the Novotel bar and told him what I’d found out.
‘Get Interpol onto it,’ he said.
‘No chance. The only evidence is the baton and you can bet Sanderson wouldn’t testify to it. It’s a dead end, Mr Fowler. I’m sorry.’
‘Poor Jerry. It was to be his big score but he struck out.’
‘It happens that way sometimes, but you’ve spent too much time in the States. Jerry would have said he made a duck.’
Theo Baldwin phoned me from Silverwater Correctional Centre and asked me to come and see him. Said he’d arrange for me to pay a visit even though I wasn’t a relative or a lawyer.
‘Sounds as if you’ve got some pull,’ I said.
‘You know me, Hardy. Always working the angles.’
‘You’ve got yourself a right angle now.’
‘One of your crummy jokes. Excuse me while I split my sides. Seriously, this is important.’
‘It’s a bit of a drive and my car’s heavy on petrol. Call it most of a morning. At my going rate you’re up for a few bucks.’
‘I can arrange to pay you as if I were a free man.’ Theo was always good with grammar.
‘You were supposed to have no assets.’
‘So was Alan Bond.’
‘Will they let you sign a contract with me?’
‘We can work it out. Make it eleven am tomorrow.’
It was too intriguing to pass up. Theo Baldwin had been sentenced to five years for fraud. He’d run insurance scams, a phoney investment consultancy, a dodgy mortgage brokerage and various online fiddles. A lot of people were out a lot of money and, when he was convicted, Theo’s assets were found to be nil and there was no compensation available. But Theo was a charmer and his contrition convinced a soft-hearted judge and resulted in a light sentence. He’d almost done his time and, with his undoubtedly good behaviour, would be out in a couple of months.
I’d met Theo via a client of mine who’d come through a bit of trouble as a professional tennis player-injuries, a drug suspicion, a doubt about his commitment to winning. A gambler had tried to pressure him to throw a game and he wasn’t interested. He was seriously on the comeback trail and didn’t need the aggravation. Theo was the go-between, the honest broker, and I persuaded him to get the gambler to lay off. He claimed not to know what was really going on and I gave him the benefit of the doubt. After that we ran into each other here and there and had a drink. I wasn’t really surprised when the law caught up with him, but it takes all kinds, and he wasn’t the worst. Most of the people he’d conned had been greedy.
I drove out to the gaol and went through the routine of surrendering almost everything I had about my person. I walked past the sealed-off exercise yards where they kept the Asians, the blacks and the whites away from each other. The interview room was Spartan, with plastic tables and chairs and a guard keeping watch. Theo was in prison greens-jumper, tracksuit pants, sneakers. Despite the sloppy dress he still managed to look like the con man he was-closely shaven, sleek hair, bright teeth. He was about forty and stood about 180 centimetres-looked younger and taller.
He was conducted to a chair by a guard and made it look as if the officer was his aide-de-camp.
‘Hello, Hardy,’ he said. ‘You’re looking well.’
‘Why do I take everything you say with a grain of salt?’
He shook his head. ‘Eliminate cliches and well-worn phrases from your pitch. They don’t build confidence.’
‘You’d know all about that. Why am I here, Theo?’
He leaned back in the cheap chair as if he was the CEO of something big. ‘I’ve written my memoirs. Sensational stuff.’
‘I mean it. You don’t think I could’ve got away with some of the stuff I did if I hadn’t had help, do you?’
‘I never thought about it. Help?’
‘Insiders, in the insurance firms, car dealers, importers. I name the guilty men. Plus a few of New South Wales’s finest who took a cut. And a pollie.’
‘Sounds like waffle to me.’
‘I wish you’d keep the lousy jokes for the right audience. This book lifts a lot of lids that people thought were jammed down tight.’
‘Okay, suppose I accept that. What d’you want me to do?’
Theo glanced around to make sure the guard was well out of earshot. ‘They wouldn’t let me use a computer so I bashed it out on a typewriter. One copy. I had no carbon paper-does it still exist? I pretended I was writing a dirty joke book-I’ve got a million of ‘em. The screws were amused. Anyway, I gave the typescript, which was pretty rough, to one of the guards to smuggle out and get to an agent. I mean, this book needs careful treatment-legal vetting, fact checking, a lot of editing. The guard I gave it to hasn’t been seen here for a couple of weeks. I can’t find out what happened to him. And I haven’t heard anything from the agent I had in mind. I want you to talk to them both. I know how forceful you can be.’
‘Names and addresses?’
‘I’ve got both for the agent, of course. Just a name for the guard. They won’t let you write anything here, you’ll have to memorise them.’
He gave me the information and I locked it in.
‘I’m not going to do this on a promise for something out of your royalties.’
‘Of course not. I’ve got another name for you. You submit your accounts to her and you’ll get paid.’
He gave me the name and I put it in the memory bank with the other two. I pushed my chair back and stood while he sat there, composed and assured. ‘Theo,’ I said, ‘if this is another one of your scams, you’re safer off in here than on the outside.’
First things first. I certainly wasn’t going to give Theo a freebie and I was sceptical about the job anyway. The name of his supposed provider was Rosemary Kingston. I had the number and I phoned her on my mobile when I was outside the prison. She agreed to see me as soon as I could get to her in Alexandria. I made the drive in good time and stopped by the office to pick up a contract form. If Rosemary was paying, no reason why she shouldn’t sign the papers.
Her place was a flat in a neat block in a street off Botany Road. Time was when this whole area was given over to light industry, but now a lot of the factories have gone and there are more residents going to work in suits than blokes in overalls. She buzzed the door open and I went up two flights of stairs, ignoring the lift for the aerobic benefit.
She had the door open when I arrived and I realised that she was vaguely familiar. I had a faint memory of her joining Theo in a pub one night and him leaving the small group of drinkers of which I was one. She was tall and well built, athletic looking, and wore a white blouse, dark red velvet skirt and boots with medium heels. Her hair was short and styled in a way that suited her long face- horsey if you wanted to be unkind, otherwise just strong featured.
'I've got a feeling I've seen you before,' she said as she ushered me into the flat.
We went down a short passage past a kitchen and bedroom to a good-sized living room with decent windows and a balcony.
‘It’s mutual,’ I said, ‘and it’s coming back to me. I think it was in the Forest Lodge pub. I was having a drink with a few people including Theo. You came in and he sloped off.’
‘That’s right. He pointed you out to me and told me you were a private eye.’
‘Still am and that’s why we’re here. Theo phoned you from the slammer?’
She nodded. ‘Yesterday. He said you’d be in touch today.’
‘Confidence should be his middle name.’
She smiled. ‘Right. Have a seat. Coffee or a drink?’
Her living room was nicely furnished with leather or pseudo-leather armchairs, a coffee table, a dresser holding books and CDs and a unit with a wide-screen TV and everything that goes with it. There was a drinks tray on the sideboard-gin, several whiskies, brandy. I pointed to tray. ‘How about an Irish coffee?’
She went back to the kitchen and I wandered around the room looking at the books and CDs and the magazines in a rack. The music ranged from classical through to hard rock, stopping short of punk and rap. The book collection was eclectic-some classics, reference stuff, popular fiction, biographies. One section took my interest-a clutch of criminal biographies and autobiographies-Reggie Kray, Ronnie Biggs and Buster Edwards, the Great Train robbers, Neddy Smith, Roger Rogerson, ‘Chopper’ Read. Teamed up with them were Richo’s Whatever It Takes and books on Bond, Skase and Packer.
She came back with two mugs of coffee and a jug of cream. Set them on the table and brought over the bottle of Jameson’s. I turned away from the bookshelf.
‘Theo did his research,’ I said.
‘Before he went away and since. Put your own spike in, Cliff, and let’s get down to business.’
She told me that she was a partner in an importation business and that she’d been in a relationship with Theo for about a year before he had what she called ‘his mishap’. She had a strong belief in his book, which she thought would expose corruption in high places, and she was happy to finance my efforts to get it in the right hands.
‘You haven’t read it,’ I said. ‘How can you tell what it’s like?’
‘Theo’s told me about it in some detail.’
Theo had made a career out of telling people things in detail, most of which turned out not to be true. I asked a few questions designed to find out just how much he’d drawn her into his web. Subtly. The Irish coffee was going down well.
‘Mr Hardy, Cliff, in my business I hear all sorts of stories from all sorts of people. Many of them are trying to take advantage of me. That’s all right, sometimes I’m trying to take advantage of them. Do you follow me?’
She signed a contract. I stressed the retainer clause and she wrote me a cheque. She told me to invoice her for my expenses and daily rates by email.
‘You’re not set up for BPAY?’ she said.
‘No. Just post the cheques to my business address.’
‘Very old-fashioned. Clearance times and all that. What’s wrong with electronic deposit?’
She’d snookered me before and I felt I had to stay in the game. ‘I don’t have your level of trust.’
I finished off the second coffee which I’d spiked pretty heavily. I’d need a long walk around Alexandria and Zetland before I could drive. Always wondered about Zetland and how it came to be called that.
In my game you need connections and I had one in the Correctional Services Division. She sold information to journalists and people like me, charging according to the importance of the data. The address of a serving officer was sensitive and pricey, and the seller was taking a big risk. Rosemary Kingston’s account was up and running.
The guard, Colin McCafferty, lived in Homebush, not far from the gaol. Nice to be close to your place of work. I drove past the house, a semi with an overgrown front garden and a brick fence that looked as if a truck had ploughed into it at some time and minimum repairs had been made. The front porch held a sagging couch and a stack of broken Kmart plastic chairs. But there was no mail sprouting from the letterbox and no collection of free newspapers and advertising bumpf. Somebody was at home or had been very recently.
I went up the path and knocked at the door. No security here-a tattered flywire door, a window open ten centimetres at the bottom. I knocked again, louder, but got no response. A head poked around the brick divide between the two houses.
‘Are you looking for Col?’
The speaker was a shrunken, elderly type in a cardigan. He had bright, inquisitive eyes and his hands, supporting him on the brickwork, were trembling. Maybe, I thought, with excitement at something actually happening in his life. But not so.
I told him I was looking for Mr McCafferty-an administrative matter, I said.
‘You’ll find him at the Parramatta District Hospital, poor bugger. He got broken into and attacked right here- what’s the expression the telly uses?’
‘Home invasion,’ I said.
‘That’s it. I didn’t hear anything-pretty deaf, you see. But when Col came staggering out shouting, I woke up and when he collapsed I called the ambulance and they took him off.’
‘You were mates?’
‘No, no, hardly ever saw him. Worked funny hours, he did. But when a bloke’s been bashed like that you do what you can, don’t you?’
‘Davis, Ted Davis.’
‘So you rang the hospital, Mr Davis, and what did they tell you?’
The lively eyes squinted. ‘How did you know I rang up?’
‘I marked you down as a concerned neighbour, whether you knew him well or not.’
‘You’re right. He was renting, but I never had any trouble from him. Didn’t keep the place up very well but the owner’s a… Well, the hospital people only talked to me because I was the one who phoned the ambos. Apparently he’s got no family. They told me he’s in a coma and it’s touch and go.’
‘When was this? Where’s the police crime scene tape?’
‘Some kids nicked it. Two days ago. Hey, who’re you with all these questions?’
But I’d got what I needed from Ted. I gave him a salute and I was on my way. I rang the hospital, but with no right to ask all they would tell me was that Mr McCafferty was in intensive care. That could mean a lot of things, none of them good for me. Would anyone bash a man into a coma to steal a manuscript? It didn’t seem likely and perhaps the attack on McCafferty had nothing to do with Theo and his opus. Impossible to say.
Being unable to talk to McCafferty, my only other point of contact was the agent. Phillip Weiss had an office in Paddington. I phoned and was told he was out of town for the day. The woman asked me my business and I gave her a very general account. I made an appointment for the following morning. Then I rang Rosemary Kingston and let her know how things stood.
‘That’s distressing,’ she said.
‘Yeah, especially for McCafferty. Did Theo have a lawyer representing him at the trial?’
‘Not really. You’ll recall that he had no assets. He had a lawyer friend who just went through the motions. There was no serious defence and Theo didn’t really want to mount one. He was counting on contrition getting him a reasonable sentence and it worked. Why d’you ask?’
‘I don’t know really. I just thought Theo might have discussed things with him and mentioned a name or two. Could be useful in trying to find out who might be interested enough to assault someone in order to get hold of the manuscript, if there is one.’
‘You’re carrying your scepticism a bit too far, surely?’
‘I’ll start believing in it when I meet someone who’s seen it. Do you have the name of the lawyer?’
She did and she gave it to me along with the phone number. Efficient person, Rosemary. Too efficient? I lined up an appointment with Courteney Talbot for a few hours after the agent. A busy day coming up and I’d done all I could for now. Time to go home, ring my live-in, live-out partner Lily Truscott, and see if she was free for the night. The case wasn’t an earner yet but it might be, and I thought I could shout us a decent meal on the strength of it.
I had my hand on the car door when the mobile rang.
‘This is Detective Sergeant Rule, Parramatta police. We understand you telephoned the Parramatta hospital today enquiring about the condition of Colin McCafferty.’
These days they’ve got you in the crosshairs as soon as you draw some money or make a phone call.
‘That’s true,’ I said.
‘He’s a friend of a friend.’
‘Why didn’t the friend make the call?’
‘He had reasons.’
‘That’s not a satisfactory answer.’
‘It’s all I’m prepared to give you at this stage, Sergeant.’
‘We have your occupation down as private enquiry agent. That entitles you to no privileges whatsoever in regard to withholding information.’
‘I know. All I can say is that it’d cause you a lot of trouble to haul me in and it wouldn’t be worth your while. I might have something useful to contribute later.’
‘Yeah. You’ve got my number and you know where to find me. Give me your number and we’ll stay in touch. Tell you what, you let me know if and when McCafferty’s able to talk and I’ll tell you what my connection is.’
‘You’ve got a fuckin’ nerve.’
‘Is it a deal?’
He cut the call but I had a feeling he’d cooperate. The bashing of a prison guard was a fairly important matter whether the man died or not, and if DS Rule had no leads he’d be smart to play along. Couldn’t be sure, though, particularly about how long his patience would last. I rang Lily from home and found she was keen to go for a feed and whatever might follow. Lily lives in Greenwich.
‘Great,’ I said. ‘Let’s make it over your side and your bedroom.’
‘I know what that means. Who’s after you-Philip Ruddock, Alan Jones, Mr Big? Never mind, see you when you get here, if you do.’
We had a good night as we always do-a North Sydney eatery, a walk, and long, slow lovemaking-all the better for not being every night. I drove to Paddington feeling in harmony with the world, a mood I had to jerk myself out of-not appropriate in my profession.
Phillip Weiss’s office was in a tiny two-storey terrace in a narrow one-way, closely parked street. I had to circle a few blocks to get the car anywhere near it. The Weiss Literary Consultancy was a small operation with a female secretary who probably doubled as several other things. She was fortyish, bookish-looking and efficient. She said that Phillip had an office upstairs but would be down in a minute and we could have our meeting at her desk while she went upstairs in his place. Meanwhile, would I like coffee?
A voice preceded its owner down the stairs. ‘He’s a bloody private eye, Claire, and it’s after eleven. The man wants a drink.’
Weiss was large in every way-tall and thick through. He had a head of wiry grey hair and the facial features of a man who enjoyed life, with laughter lines and a wide, smiling mouth. He had a long-neck bottle of Coopers in one hand and when I shook the other I wasn’t surprised at its strength. For a literary consultant he’d pass muster as a wharfie. He shooed Claire up the stairs in a non-objectionable, affectionate way, sat down at her desk and waved me to a chair. I took the pile of books from it and sat. He produced a bottle opener, flicked the top off and took two glasses from a shelf behind him. He poured with a practised hand and pushed one glass across.
‘Claire’s note was almost cryptic,’ Weiss said, ‘but my guess is you’re here about Theodore Baldwin.’
'Theodore,' I said. 'I suppose he is, but he's Theo to me. I guess Theodore would look good on a book cover and spine.'
'Certainly would. I hope you're here to tell me the manuscript's on its way. From what Theo told me on the phone I'm not surprised there's a serious level of security involved.'
I studied him closely. I haven't had a lot to do with literary types but I imagine, from all the reading they do, they must know a few tricks about dissembling. But Weiss betrayed no such signs. Maybe it was the residue of my cheerful mood, but I was inclined to trust him. I shook my head.
‘No such luck, Mr Weiss. Things have got sticky.’
I brought him up to speed with everything that had happened. He drank his beer and listened without interrupting. I took a good gulp of my drink when I’d finished.
He put his glass down as the phone rang. He pressed a button and diverted the call upstairs. ‘You say McCafferty might die?’
‘Comas are dodgy. The thing is, it’s all so uncertain. If McCafferty was a regular smuggler-out of stuff from the gaol there could be all sorts of reasons why he’d be attacked-disgruntled former prisoners or pissed-off people on the outside. On the other hand, if Theo’s book is as hot as he says and word leaked out
‘It could be ashes by now. More hopefully, it could be sitting quietly in McCafferty’s house. The funny-no, the strange thing is, not many books are written on typewriters now. With anything done on a computer you have backup options, as I’m sure you know.’
I nodded. ‘I have a journalist partner.’
‘I don’t want to sound heartless, not with a man on the brink…’
Perhaps his true colours were showing now. ‘But you will,’ I said.
‘Just so. The commercial value of this property, given its… provenance, and the possibility of continued criminal involvement, is very considerable. The advances for true crime, non-fiction books can be large, with the film or television potential to be considered. What do you propose to do now, Mr Hardy?’
‘It’s probably better you don’t know.’
‘Let me guess. You’re going to break into the McCafferty residence. I foresee a stunning introduction or preface if you succeed. I trust my verbal agreement with Theodore Baldwin is still in place. I have taped copies of the phone calls. Can’t be too careful.’
I left feeling a bit less friendly towards Weiss than I had at first. But he had the experience in this and you have to respect that.
There are two ways to break in to a house-you have to be either bold, just walk up and do it, or bashful-try to talk your way in. I decided to be bold. I’d taken a good look at the front of McCafferty’s house on my first visit and I didn’t think it’d present any problems. There was a simple Yale lock and no sign of an alarm. The place was rundown and neither the owner nor the tenant seemed inclined to spend money on security.
I drove to Homebush in time to see Ted Davis, the neighbour, drive away in a battered Cortina. The street was quiet with only a few lights showing. I went through the gate, unshipped my picklocks, held a pencil torch between my teeth and had the door open inside half a minute.
I closed the door quietly and stood still to allow my sight to adjust to the gloom. A little light was seeping in from the street through broken slats in the front room’s blind. I worked my way down the passage and turned on a low-wattage light towards the back section-it wouldn’t show from the street and the fence on the freestanding side of the house was high.
I used the torch to probe into the two small bedrooms, sitting room, kitchen and bathroom. The place was dirty and untidy. The kitchen smelled of tobacco smoke and fried food. Two chairs had been overturned in the sitting room and there were a couple of broken bottles and glasses that seemed to have been swept from the table, perhaps by whatever implement had been used on McCafferty. The spattering on the floor and one wall was dried blood.
Other than that, there was no sign of any particular disturbance, no evidence of a search. That gave me heart. The second bedroom held a wardrobe containing various items of clothing including a wrinkled corrections officer’s uniform. A battered overnight bag, crumpled to about a third of its normal size, was shoved into a strut of the iron bed frame. I pulled it out and found I’d been wrong about the search. The bag was padlocked but had been slit open. It contained a pair of socks and a change of underwear. I inspected it closely in the beam of the torch. There were a couple of very small round pieces of foil, a scrap of plastic cling wrap, more fragments of foil and under the loose cardboard base of the bag a mostly decayed white pill. It was pretty clearly Col McCafferty’s drug-smuggling stash, now in the hands of others. So where was the manuscript?
There were no bookshelves, no desk, no filing cabinet, nothing to suggest that McCafferty had ever had a book in the house, let alone a typescript. I searched the bedrooms with no result-no creaking floorboards, no sealed-off fireplaces. The kitchen was the least appealing space, with its smells and the film of grease over the surfaces. It was one of those rooms in which you’re reluctant to even breathe. But the laminex table was piled with a stack of tabloid newspapers, and a thick wad of A4 paper, fastened by a bulldog clip inside a manilla folder held together by rubber bands, was sitting near the top of the pile, with only a few newspapers lying haphazardly over it.
I opened the folder and read in typewritten upper case, ‘MY LIFE OF CRIME amp; THEIRS’. Another rule of breaking and entering is-get out quick. I restored the rubber bands to the folder, turned off the light and left the house. Mission accomplished, and all quiet on this western front.
On the drive back I began to feel that things weren’t as wrapped up as I’d thought on finding the manuscript. My certainty that the assault on McCafferty had to do with his drug dealing would be useful to DS Rule, but I wasn’t prepared to impart that knowledge just yet. On the evidence of the dates on the newspapers, McCafferty had been in possession of the manuscript for some days before he was attacked. Why the delay in passing it on to Weiss when he must have been on a promise of a reward for delivering it? Was he contemplating or in the process of dealing with someone else? And what of Weiss? McCafferty’s name had rolled off his tongue easily after my brief mention of it. Which side was he playing for, apart from his own?
I stopped in Newtown at a twenty-four hour copying joint and made two copies of the manuscript. I put one copy in a hiding place in the car-a virtually undetectable slit in the upholstery that self-sealed with velcro. Although it was late I phoned Rosemary Kingston, told her I had the manuscript and wanted to bring it to her.
‘I thought you were supposed to give it to this agent?’
‘I’m not sure I trust him.’
‘In that case, come on over. I was watching a late movie anyway.’
‘Your bill’s not going to be that high,’ she said as she let me in. ‘What-petrol money, a few phone calls?’
‘I had to grease some palms, but you’re right. It wouldn’t be much if it was really all over.’
She ushered me into the flat and poured me a scotch.
‘It isn’t over? You wouldn’t be trying to inflate the account, would you? Sorry, I don’t really think that.’
‘Think what you like. I’ve barely earned the retainer as things stand, but there’s something off about it all.’
‘What do you mean, Cliff?’
‘I don’t know. It’s a kind of instinct. Anyway, thanks for the drink and here’s the book.’
She took the package and opened it. ‘Hey, it’s supposed to be written on a typewriter. This is a photocopy.’
‘I don’t trust anyone, including myself,’ I said.
I went home and although it was late I made myself something to eat, poured a drink and turned over the pages of the original manuscript. The prose was racy, the structure was artful and, superficially, the tone had a nice blend of contrition and defiance. Some of the names of officials, politicians and media types mentioned were familiar, but without doing a close reading I couldn’t see the book as a crime Krakatoa-more of a fizzing catherine-wheel with bits of mud spinning off it. There was a bit too much self-aggrandisement, a touch of religion, an obeisance to the conservative law and order agenda. I went to bed.
I slept on it but didn’t come up with anything new. I told myself I’d done my job. I took the original manuscript to Phillip Weiss, who practically slavered over it. I kept the third copy for no good reason. I submitted my invoice to Rosemary Kingston and received prompt payment. Case closed.
But of course it wasn’t. Theo got out not long after and he rang me with his thanks and the news that he’d got a high five-figure advance from a publisher.
‘Good one,’ I said. ‘You’ll be on TV soon.’
He laughed long and loud and I found out why when Rosemary Kingston stormed into my office with the sort of anger that only a deceived and jilted woman can muster.
‘I want my money back!’
‘I don’t think so. We had a contract. Why?’
‘That bastard,’ she said. ‘The book’s a fake. After they’d paid over the advance, someone more cluey took a look at it and found out that it’s a total pinch from an English true crime story, with just the names and the local details changed.’
‘Well, he’ll have to return the money.’
She laughed bitterly. ‘No chance. He flew out for God knows where the other day. Left me a note.’
Theo had struck again.
The note was word-processed, the ultimate in anonymity and much less messy and time-consuming than cutting out letters from a newspaper or magazine. It read: ‘We have your wife. If she’s worth half a million to you call now!’ A mobile number followed.
‘I was shocked,’ Bruce Haxton said. ‘I rang the number without hesitating. What else could I do?’
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘Nothing, or almost nothing. A voice just said to wait. Shit!’ His mobile rang and he turned away to take the call.
Haxton was an Australian film director, a successful one, with a batch of Hollywood movies to his credit, and a couple of Oscar nominations. He was back home scouting locations for a film to be shot in Sydney, although, from what I’d read of it in the papers, it was actually set a thousand years in the future on another planet. I’d met him when I was doing a bodyguarding job for an actor in one of his earlier pictures. The actor, Lance Hartley, was a paranoid, coke-addicted nightmare, more in danger from himself than anyone else, but the job paid well. Haxton and I had got along under difficult circumstances then, and we’d stayed vaguely in touch-had a few drinks, went to a Kostya Tszyu fight together on his complimentary tickets- like that. He’d called me in his hour of need.
‘No chance,’ he said to his caller and hit the end button. He let out a long sigh and it was impossible to tell whether it was for his kidnapped wife or some other matter.
Haxton was forty plus, tall and lean with a prematurely grey head of hair and beard. He wore a sloppy outfit that probably cost more than my entire wardrobe, and the laces on one of his Nikes was undone. Possibly an affectation, but more likely a sign of stress. Stress was his middle name, but after a few beers he relaxed and could be good company.
He popped a Nicorette and chewed without enthusiasm. ‘The thing is, she’s not worth half a million. She’s not worth a buck and a half, to quote Sinatra. God, Cliff, I’m losing my mind. I need a drink. You?’
‘Sure. Beer. Thanks.’
It was mid-afternoon. He’d told me he found the note pushed under the door of the house he was renting in Rose Bay when he’d got up in the morning after a very late night. He’d made his immediate response, stewed for a while and then called me. We were in the back, where the sitting room, kitchen, sunroom and deck flowed into each other. He built himself a solid vodka and tonic, opened a Budweiser and poured.
The house was a million dollar dream, so quiet, comfortable and well appointed it was boring. The traffic noise was a distant, soothing hum and if planes passed over they were well aloft and infrequent. We sat around a table, just above a courtyard with every brick and plant in place. Haxton worked on his drink while still chewing. He looked around and his shake of the head spoke volumes.
‘I grew up in Blacktown. How about you?’
‘Beachside. Brilliant, but you know what I’m talking about. Fibro, dunny out the back.’
I nodded and drank expensive, imported beer.
‘I married Cassie after my first movie won a couple of AFI awards and got me offers from LA. Guess what her job was on the picture?’
‘I’m betting she wasn’t the writer.’
He snorted and took another pull on his drink. ‘I always liked your one-liners. You know how things were back then. What was it, ten years ago?’
‘Yeah. Everyone was screwing each other. Cassie was the props girl. She was on with the DOP who said he was training her. In advanced fellatio, it seemed to me. I wasn’t complaining, mind you. We got it on and got married. I can’t remember why. It was never good enough to commit to or bad enough to quit. We sort of came and went. She didn’t really want to leave LA for this trip but she did, out of boredom probably.’
He finished his drink and got up to make another. He told me that they’d only been back for ten days and that Cassie had spent most of the time catching up with old friends and shopping. They’d spent four of the ten nights apart with no questions asked. He had no idea who she’d been with. They were together the night before last. She went out the next day and didn’t return. That didn’t worry him because he had what he called a ‘dinner meeting’. He came back to the house late and found the note in the mid-morning.
‘You’re getting around to saying that you’re not going to pay. That right, Bruce?’
‘Jesus. It’s like a scene out of one of my crappy movies. Moral dilemmas and all that ethical shit mixed with sex and money. In this case it’s straightforward. I can’t pay even if I wanted to-which I don’t-because I’m broke.’
I swung my head from side to side, taking in the glass, the chrome, the cedar decking, the hot tub.
‘It’s all on the budget,’ he said. ‘And don’t worry, your fee’ll be covered in the same way. I took this shitty job on because I need the fucking money. Only reason.’
‘How come you’re broke?’
‘You haven’t kept up. The last two pictures were flops. Went straight to DVD and didn’t do any business even then. It costs to live in LA. The mortgage and car leases you wouldn’t believe, and you have to keep up appearances in this game. Look like you’re down and you’ll be there.’
‘I’m flattered that you called me, but really it’s a job for the police.’
He shook his head. ‘No way. There’re still a few holes to fill in the picture’s budget and if word got out that I’m under this sort of pressure the whole thing could fold. I can’t afford bad publicity and I certainly can’t afford to let it get out that I’m broke. You see the bind I’m in.’
‘Plus you don’t care about her, one way or the other.’
‘Hey, I don’t want to get her ears in the mail or anything like that. Shit-movie talk again. What do you think I should do?’
‘I guess, when they get in touch, negotiate. Buy time.’
‘I suppose I could sell something, raise a hundred grand at a pinch.’
That’s the thing about the rich. When they say they’re broke they don’t quite mean it the way most people do. I was willing to take the job on even though I knew the people involved were flaky and the outcome was very uncertain. Just sitting tight waiting for a kidnapper to make contact didn’t appeal to me though. There had to be more I could do.
“You say you don’t know who she’s been spending time with, Bruce, but you must have some idea-some names, some suggestions. Let’s get proactive here, as they say.’
He gave it some thought as he worked on his drink. Then he left the room for a few minutes, returning with a notepad and some cards. ‘I found these in the bedroom-a few places she seems to have gone to.’
He handed them to me while he scribbled on the notepad. The cards were for a Double Bay wine bar, a disco at the Cross and a Thai restaurant in Newtown. The woman got around. Haxton tore off the page and passed it over.
‘That’s a few of the people she used to hang with and she mentioned them casually when we were together here. She scribbled down some cell numbers by the phone that seem to relate to a couple of them. That’s the best I can do.’
I examined the list-two men and three women; mobile numbers for one of the men and two of the women.
‘These blokes-friends or lovers?’ I asked.
‘Don’t know, but don’t rule out the women-Cassie swings both ways.’
I put the cards and the sheet in my pocket. ‘It’s a place to start. What you have to do is keep your mobile charged. That’s how they’ll contact you. You have to play it as hard as you can. Just get a response and buy some time.’
He nodded. ‘So I… go about my business?’
‘That’s right. There could be someone watching you, so act the way you feel. Shouldn’t be too hard. I’ll have someone keep an eye on you. Might spot a watcher if there is one and that’d give us an edge.’
‘Two more things. Try and confirm that they’ve got her. Has she got a birthmark or a mole or something distinctive? A tattoo?’
‘Right. Then ask for confirmation that she’s alive. Ask to talk to her. They might not play. If they’ve got her she might be drugged.’
‘Wouldn’t be the first kidnap faked by the supposed victim. Does Cassie know you’re broke?’
He shook his head and I left him to his troubles.
I didn’t really intend to ring the people whose names I had. What would I say? ‘Hello, I’m a private detective looking for Cassie Haxton who’s been kidnapped. Please don’t tell the media.’ Getting the names was just a way of drawing a bit more out of Haxton, which had worked, and making me look efficient. I haven’t handled more than a couple of kidnapping cases and only one was a serious matter. But I’ve dealt with ransom demands for objects quite a few times, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re not always just about money. Putting the money angle aside, you have to ask yourself- who benefits!
Haxton had given me some clues and I phoned Ingrid Svensson who runs an agency for people-in the film business-actors, producers, directors and all the rest. She was the one who got me the minding job on Haxton’s earlier effort and we’d shared some jokes about Lance Hartley and his little habits. I’d since done a few jobs for her, like running an actor through some of the things he needed to know to look and sound like a private detective, and locating a producer who’d skipped without paying a couple of her clients.
Ingrid was busy but she found some time for me. Her office was in Surry Hills near the park named after the politician Eddie Ward, ‘the firebrand of East Sydney’. My mother, an ALP groupie, had played the piano at his wake. I went up seven floors to Ingrid’s ‘suite’, which was festooned with photographs of film people, not all of them beautiful. Ingrid is sixty and looks forty-one of those. Olive complexion, white-blonde hair, dark eyes, sharp cheekbones. She sat me down at her desk in the open plan office and lifted her Scandinavian eyebrows.
‘All this is confidential.’
‘But of course.’
‘Who would stand to gain if Bruce Haxton’s film…’
‘ The Golden Galaxy.’
‘… didn’t get off the ground?’
‘Not me, for one. A few people on my books are down to work on it. What have you heard?’
‘My lips are professionally sealed. All I can tell you, and I shouldn’t but I want to be as straight with you as I can, is that Haxton’s my client.’
‘Ah yes, I remember that you shared an interest in drinking and wrestling.’
‘Disgusting; it’s been banned in civilised countries. But go on.’
‘That’s it. Are there rumours, doubts, fears, jealousies?’
‘This is the film business. All those things are a given.’
‘Anything specific? Come on, Ingrid, you know everything that’s going on.’
‘Well, I know they’re not quite there with the post-production budget. I hear they’re working on Henry Stawell to try to get it up to scratch.’
‘A lawyer, a stockbroker and a merchant banker, all done with flair.’
‘Is he likely to come through?’
‘Only if he’s sure the human structure is in place, the right people.’
‘Which brings me back to the original question.’
Ingrid doesn’t do things like scratch her head or fiddle with things on her desk. Her moments of hesitation are signalled by a slight tightening of her well-shaped lips. It came now. ‘There has been some talk about the script.’
‘I thought they just moved the actors around, lip-synced them and let the special effects people do all the work on films like this.’
‘It’s anachronistic to talk of films-there are no celluloid reels or sprockets anymore. It’s all digital.’
‘I’ll try to remember. The script?’
‘There’s a story that the script’s based on a book and that the writer’s been cut out of the action. In fact that his book’s not even acknowledged as a source, let alone earned him a payment.’
‘And who would that be? Not one of your clients?’
‘No, but as I told you, I’ve got a stake in this movie. Is what you’re investigating more or less likely to make it happen?’
Good question. Needed consideration. The light was dimming outside and at that elevation I could see a bank of fog moving in from the east. I quite like fog-the headlights, the honking at intersections, the lack of definition.
‘It’s hard to say.’
Ingrid let out a sigh. ‘You’d never make it in this game. Too honest. The writer’s name is Tom Crabbe. He was on my books for a while as an actor until he punched a director and now no casting agency will look at him. He worked on one of Bruce Haxton’s films a while back. He turned to writing and had a few things published. I can give you his address and phone number. I know he’s still there because I phoned him about a residual payment.’
‘Thanks. A wild child, is he?’
She flicked open a teledex and scribbled something on the back of a card which she passed across. ‘You could put it so. Except that he’s ex-SAS, a black belt, and at least as big as you and younger. I’m not sure boxing with him would be a good idea.’
‘I think you’re right. Many thanks, Ingrid-keep me in mind for jobs, eh? Easy stunts, bit of driving. I’d be okay as an armourer.’
She smiled. ‘Perhaps you could shoot Tom Crabbe in the leg to subdue him. Or in both legs?’
Crabbe’s address was in Newtown in a street I knew running down towards the park in Church Street. I’d fancied buying around there when Cyn, a North Shore girl, and I got together. She resisted the inner west with all her might, but eventually gave in to me and agreed to Glebe. She said it would go ahead faster than Newtown and for a time she was right. Not now, though. I checked in the Gregory’s that I had the street right and was about to start the car when my mobile rang.
‘Cliff, he’s been in touch. Jesus, this is weird.’
‘Tell me what happened.’
‘I should’ve said that it’s an electronically modified voice. He sounded very reasonable. I made the pitch like you said and he listened and said he’d think about accepting two fifty. Made me repeat the figure. I said I’d need time to get close to that.’
‘Good. Did he offer any proof that he had her?’
‘He described some tattoos, but Cassie did a shoot for an article on body decoration for an art magazine a while back. He could’ve seen that.’
‘Nothing else from her-a voice, a recorded message?’
‘I don’t suppose you got the number he was ringing from?’
‘I tried that but it didn’t come up.’
‘It wouldn’t, probably a stolen phone ditched straight off anyway. How are you feeling-more alarmed or less?’
‘That’s a funny question.’
‘It’s a funny business.’
‘Okay, well less, I suppose, given his manner.’
‘He said he’d be back in contact?’
‘Sort of. Yeah.’
‘Sit tight. I’ve got something to check. What’re you doing tonight?’
‘Going to a fucking party thrown by one of the worst actors who ever drew breath. Naturally enough, he’s in my picture.’
‘Hard to crash? Black tie?’
‘Shit no, the more turn up, the more the ego gets fed.’ I got the address and told Haxton I’d get someone to keep an eye on him to see if there was anyone else doing the same. I knew Hank Bachelor wouldn’t be able to resist a celebrity bash. I phoned Hank and lined him up. I was working the case and free to try my luck with Tom Crabbe. From the sound of him, I’d need some.
The house was a single-fronted, one-storey terrace-the sort of place I should have instead of my crumbling pile. Night had fallen and the street was dark. A newish Toyota 4WD, black with tinted windows, was parked in a bay in the front yard. Someone, not an urban purist, had created the spot out of the limited space available, destroying the original look of the house. The vehicle was ideal for transporting a kidnap victim. What was left of the skimpy front garden was reasonably well cared for and, unlike a few others in the street, there were no sagging armchairs or bottle-filled milk crates in evidence. Tom Crabbe was keeping up appearances.
You don’t knock on the front door of a suspect, you scout about. A lane ran behind the terraces. Sometimes people put their house number on the back fence or gate, some deliberately don’t. I’ve known some whose house looks immaculate facing the street and scruffy behind a high fence at the back to deceive malefactors. Mind you, they have state-of-the-art alarm systems in their elegant back courtyards.
There were no numbers along the lane and I had to count rooftops and TV aerials to work out which was the house of interest. A few cats prowled the lane, but it’s no use asking a cat anything. They wouldn’t tell you if they could. I was fairly sure I’d spotted the right house and I craned up to look over the fence. Lights on, music playing, or perhaps the television.
I went around to the front again and tried to think of a strategy. Nothing came. I crossed to my car to sit while I thought. The door to the house opened and a man came out, used a remote to unlock the 4WD, and rummaged in the back. He left the door open, swearing as he failed to find what he wanted. A woman and a child came to the door. The child laughed and ran out to help. A girl of about ten. You don’t put a kidnap victim in a house with a woman and a child, but maybe you put her somewhere else. There was nothing for it but to front him.
I crossed the street and stood beside the car. ‘Mr Crabbe?’ I said.
‘That’s my daddy,’ the girl said.
Crabbe straightened up as he pulled away from the open door. He looked at me and didn’t like what he saw.
‘My name’s Cliff Hardy. I’m a private detective working for a man named Bruce Haxton. I’d like to talk to you.’
‘Go inside, Chloe,’ Crabbe said.
‘Did you find my book, Dad?’
‘In a minute, love. Hop inside and close the door. I have to talk to this man.’
The kid scampered away and Crabbe gave me his full attention. A well-trained man, he’d been giving me ninety-nine per cent of it while instructing the kid. He wore jeans, sneakers and a pullover. He was about my size, as Ingrid had said, and looked, from the way he held himself, ready for anything. So was I.
‘What about Haxton?’ he said.
‘What about his wife?’
‘Cassie? What about her?’
‘You know her?’
‘Knew her. Wish I didn’t. Goodnight.’
He half turned to dismiss me. That was a mistake, a small one but enough. I took advantage of the split second he was off balance to hit him with a shoulder, making him grab at the roof of the car for support. I stepped back.
‘Let’s not get off to a bad start.’
‘We already have. Gotta admit you’re quick, but I can hurt you.’
‘I believe you, but if you kidnapped Cassie Haxton you’re in enough trouble already.’
He dropped the hurting hands. ‘What?’
‘You heard me.’
‘Heard but don’t believe. Cassie’s been kidnapped? Christ help the poor bastard stupid enough to do that.’
This was a violent man who’d learned to control his violence. It’s impressive when you see it up close, especially if you’re the beneficiary. It was a snap judgement, but everything about Crabbe’s voice and manner told me he wasn’t the kidnapper.
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘We should talk. Hang on a minute while I find Chloe’s bloody book.’
We were both wary. I stepped away and Crabbe kept an eye on me as he resumed his search.
‘Got it,’ he said. ‘She can’t finish the day without it.’
‘What is it?’
‘ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.’
Inside the house and he introduced me to Wendy and Chloe. He gave Chloe the book and she took off with it. Wendy returned to the television and Crabbe and I went through to the kitchen. The house was in that pleasant state between renovated and left alone. It was tidy without being obsessively so. Crabbe opened the fridge and took out two stubbies.
He gave orders to the manner born and I wondered what rank he’d held in the army. I took a few steps and looked at the row of cooking books before sitting down and accepting the beer-it never does to do what you’re told straightaway. We twisted off the tops and drank.
‘You really thought I’d kidnapped Cassie?’
I shrugged. ‘It was a line of enquiry. I was told you had a grievance.’
‘I did, but I’m over it. The thing about writing is that you can move on to another book and forget about the last one and any shit that might’ve gone down. The next one’s always going to be better.’
‘Okay. I’m in a spot here. I’ve told you something of what’s going on. Apparently the budget for Haxton’s picture isn’t quite settled. If news of this trouble got out it could be scuppered.’
Crabbe thought that over. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, maybe a bit older. Like me, he’d had his nose broken more than once, and there was a scar on his forehead not quite concealed by the dark hair falling near it. Ruggedly handsome was an apt description with an emphasis on the rugged. He drank as if he enjoyed the beer rather than needed it.
‘I couldn’t give a shit about Haxton’s crappy film,’ he said, ‘but I’m interested in anything to do with Cassie.’
‘It so happens that the book I’m writing uses her as a model for the main character. I’m thinking of having her kidnapped-art imitating life. Not that my work’s art exactly.’
My look must have been sceptical.
‘I’m told it happens from time to time to writers,’ he said. ‘This is the first time for me, but it’s kind of…’
He shook his head. ‘Come on, Hardy, what sort of a prick d’you think I am? The woman’s a bloody nightmare, but I don’t wish her any harm.’
He told me that he’d had a brief affair with Cassie when doing stunts for a Haxton movie and that she’d worked him over emotionally in ways he didn’t care to describe. He’d almost lost Wendy and Chloe due to the affair, and now, quite a few years later, he was projecting his feelings into his book.
He drained his stubbie. ‘So now I’ve told you things I shouldn’t and we’re even.’
‘Right. My feeling is that whoever has Cassie, or is pretending to have her, or is being put up to it by her-if you follow me-isn’t a hundred per cent serious. Has a grievance maybe, wants the money maybe, but isn’t quite fair dinkum.’
‘Fuck, I should make notes. I didn’t realise you investigators worked so much on instincts.’
‘Some do, some don’t. But from what I’ve told you about the state of the picture’s finances, can you think of anyone with anything to gain by sinking it?’
‘Take me through it again.’
I did, mentioning every name that had come up in my conversations with Haxton and Ingrid and showing him the names on Haxton’s list. The only thing I held back was Haxton’s financial plight.
‘You say he’s negotiating,’ Crabbe said. ‘Is he that mean?’
‘It’s a ploy to gain time and try to find some leverage.’
By this time Crabbe was taking notes, on the back of a magazine, as he listened. He put his finger on the spot. ‘This name’s interesting-Ben Corbett. He was a stuntman and an extra. I was in a few things with him then he went off the rails. He was caught trying to hold up a service station. He bashed the woman attendant and got a few years. I reckon he’d be out by now.’
‘Haxton didn’t mention anything like that.’
‘Directors live in a world of their own. He probably wasn’t in the country when it happened.’
‘Did he work on one of Haxton’s pictures?’
‘I think so. I could check.’
‘Did he have an affair with Cassie?’
I’d given him my card and he looked at it to refresh his memory of my name. ‘I’d like to help you with this if I can, ah… Cliff
CH32 – The Big Score
‘For the most selfish of reasons-to get material for my book.’
‘Not to get back at Haxton?’
‘Wouldn’t hurt, but no. It was that producer bitch that dudded me. As I said, I’m over it.’
I finished my beer. ‘I admit I’m a bit out of my depth with this-not the crime, if there is a crime, but with the relationships of the people. I’d be grateful for any help I could get.’
Crabbe nodded and held up a hand in a comradely gesture. ‘I wonder how I would’ve gone up against you.’
‘I’d back you,’ I said. ‘Ten years ago it might’ve been even money. This Corbett, reckon you can track him down?’
He made some phone calls, explained to Wendy that he had to go out, said goodnight to Chloe and we were on our way.
‘Which d’you reckon makes the better impression, my SUV or your clapped-out Falcon?’ Crabbe said after I’d pointed out my car.
‘Depends whether we want to be frightening or comforting.’
‘We’ll take yours.’
Crabbe drove expertly but without flourishes. ‘I’m told he’s living under a shop in Marrickville, probably selling dope and speed. He had a bikie period, not sure if he’s still into that.’
The shop in Addison Road was boarded up but lights were showing in the flat, more or less underground, below it. There was a ramp to the door.
‘Bit weird,’ Crabbe said.
We went down and Crabbe knocked on the door. After a short wait we heard a sound inside and then the door opened. If this was Ben Corbett, he wasn’t doing any kidnapping in person because he was in a wheelchair.
‘Hello, Ben,’ Crabbe said.
‘Fuck me, big Tom Crabbe and a mate come to do me harm. I heard you was on your way.’ He produced a pistol from under the blanket over his knees.
Crabbe’s move was as quick as I’ve ever seen. Almost like a conjurer, he plucked the pistol from Corbett’s grasp and pointed it back at him.
‘No need for that, Ben. I think we got the wrong end of the stick. Sorry to see you like this. What happened?’
‘Come off me bike, what d’you reckon? What do youse want then?’
‘Nothing.’ Crabbe activated the safety on the gun and handed it back.
‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘Mr Corbett, I’m a private detective looking for Cassie Haxton. I understand you-’
Corbett may have been a cripple but there was nothing wrong with his lungs. He threw back his head and let out a roar of laughter.
‘Bugger me. Cassie. You want me to tell you about her?’
‘Anything you can.’
‘Take a while. Come in. Truth is I’d be glad of the company. You’ve got no fuckin’ idea how many people avoid you when you’re crippled. Got anything to drink, Tom?’
‘I think there’s some rum in the car.’
‘Why don’t you go and get it while
‘Cliff Hardy,’ I said.
‘… him and me get comfortable.’
Corbett swung the chair around and I followed him into the flat-just a sitting room and bedroom as one space and a kitchenette tucked in a corner. If Corbett was selling dope as Crabbe suggested, he wasn’t doing very well at it. He looked as if he could have been passably handsome at one time, but confinement in the wheelchair had put flesh on him and blurred his looks. He sported a bikie ponytail, but the hair was thin and receding at the temples.
I heard the door close and Crabbe came in with a half-bottle of Bundy. Corbett had things arranged so as he could reach them. He got ice and a carafe of water and some glasses from the bar fridge and set them out on a battered pine table.
‘Pour us a strong one, Tom, and youse can have what you like.’
Crabbe obliged, half filling a glass and adding two cubes of ice for Corbett and making us two heavily diluted versions. Corbett took a long slug.
‘Jesus that hits the spot. These legs are fuckin’ useless but they hurt like hell sometimes. Nothing like a bit of Bundy to dull the pain. I remember when-’
‘We don’t need any of that, Ben,’ Crabbe said. ‘When did you last see Cassie?’
Corbett laughed. ‘That means when did I last fuck her-same thing.’ He brought his left fist down hard on his knees. ‘Before this. That’d be when I was in LA. She was hot, like always, and she reckoned she was going to take that stuck-up prick Haxton for fuckin’ millions. Crazy bitch had this plan-that what youse want to hear about?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
I moved around the table, reached under the blanket and grabbed the pistol Corbett had tucked down beside him. I checked the load, jacked a shell into the chamber, and pointed the gun at the side of Corbett’s head.
‘You’re depressed, Ben. Drinking hard. It all got too much for you not being a king of the freeway. You ran yourself off the road one last time. It’s easy to arrange.’
Corbett lost colour. ‘You wouldn’t.’
‘I would,’ I said. ‘I’ve done it before.’
Corbett shot a desperate look at Crabbe, who shrugged. ‘He’s a hard bastard and there’s a lot of money at stake. But he doesn’t seem to want to share any of it with you.’
Corbett steadied himself with another belt of rum. ‘All I know is, she had this idea to show him up as a cheap bastard and then blackmail him. Said she’d lop an ear off like that fuckin’ mad painter if she had to.’
I cleared the magazine and breech and put the gun and the shells in Corbett’s lap. ‘Did she say anything about having an accomplice-a helper?’
‘I know what an accomplice is, you prick. Yeah, some dyke who has it in for Haxton.’
Crabbe and I left Corbett the rum and we drove back to Newtown, barely exchanging a word. He backed carefully into his parking bay.
‘Has to be Emily-Jo Taplin,’ he said.
‘You mentioned a female producer in uncomplimentary terms.’
‘Got it in one.’
We stood in the street and I thanked Crabbe for his help.
‘I can handle it from here,’ I said. ‘Don’t quite understand it but I expect I will.’
We shook hands. ‘I believe you. That was nice work of yours back there with Ben. Very scary. Have you ever offed anyone like that?’
‘Good bluff. Can I ask you to let me know how it works out? Could be very useful.’
If this scenario was the real one, and instinct told me it was, it seemed to me that the pressure was off. Wouldn’t hurt to let Haxton stew a bit, and Cassie wouldn’t come to any harm. I went home to sleep and to think about how to play out the last act-the whole thing now seemed like a bad movie script. The modified voice was a clue, suggesting that Haxton knew the real voice. Can that modification make a woman sound like a man? Why not?
I drove home. It was a night sans Lily, which is okay as long as there aren’t too many and they’re well spread out. There was a message from Haxton on the answering machine. He complained about my mobile being off and said the caller had been in touch again.
‘It’s fucking weird. He asked how I’d feel about a hundred grand and I said okay. Then I got a bit pissed off and said things about Cassie that I shouldn’t have. There’s something else. Ring me.’
So much for a good night’s kip. I called him and told him I had the mobile off because I was dealing with dangerous characters. A true egotist, he didn’t even register what I said.
‘The fucker was recording me,’ he said. ‘I know about this stuff-the clicks and that. I swear I was being recorded. What’s all that about?’
Recording him fitted the scenario. I was sick of him, sick of the whole fantasy world he and his kind lived in. I told him to take a pill and get some sleep.
‘What the fuck are you talking about?’
‘I’m tired. I’ll see you in the morning and explain. Just be assured that your darling wife is in no physical danger.’
He was drunk and energised perhaps by some illegal substance and he ranted at me but I cut him off. ‘It’s more or less sorted, Bruce,’ I said. ‘Calm down. See you tomorrow at ten. Sleep.’
Haxton was dishevelled, unshaven and hungover when I arrived. The day had turned grey and cold and wasn’t helping his mood. For all that had happened he was still preoccupied with his profession.
‘Couldn’t shoot for shit in this weather, even locations,’ he said as he ushered me in. The place was a mess of glasses, a bottle or two, Budweiser cans, a pizza box, newspapers and ring-bound scripts. The kitchen smelled of burnt toast and spilled coffee. Haxton cleared a dressing gown from a chair for me and offered me a beer.
‘Got any champagne?’
‘Celebrating, are we?’
‘Yes and no.’
I gave it to him the way it appeared to me. His normally pale face became flushed under the stubble and his hands shook as he poured himself some vodka, not bothering about me or the tonic.
‘That dirty bitch. Those dirty bitches. That fucking modified voice sounded like a man. They’ll go to gaol for this. See how they like it with the bull-dyke screws.’
‘You’re not thinking. From what I’ve learned it looks as if Cassie knows you haven’t got much money but wants to bleed you for whatever you’ve got or are going to get. Okay. I understand that. But what about this Emily hyphen-something-something? What’s in it for her?’
Haxton’s face was a mottled mask of rage. ‘She wants co-director status on the picture. She’s a grasping, ruthless, ambitious… I’ll finish her in the business.’
‘No you won’t. Don’t forget she’s got tapes of you being willing to negotiate over your wife’s kidnapping. It’s all shit of course, but the American media’ll give it a tremendous play. There isn’t any evidence that Cassie and this woman are behind it, but you can bet the National Enquirer’d love it.’
Haxton groaned. ‘What can I do?’
‘Play along, Bruce. Give them what they want for now. That’s show biz.’
‘She’ll bleed me dry, Cassie will, and the other one…’
‘Get yourself an LA lawyer. They can work miracles, we’re told. Think of OJ. Meanwhile, how about a cheque for my retainer and expenses to date?’
‘You bastard,’ he said. ‘What did you do?’
I leaned forward, took the glass from his hand and tipped the contents out on the floor. ‘I called in a favour from a friend and fronted up to an ex-SAS guy ten years younger than me. Then I took a loaded pistol from a bikie and threatened to blow his head off with it, Dirty Harry style. How’s that for a night’s work while you were scoffing pizza and getting pissed?’
‘Okay. I’ll write the cheque.’
‘Nothing personal. Sorry, that’s another of my crummy jokes, Bruce. Make it out to cash on the movie account,’ I said.
Last will and testament
I’m dying, Cliff,’ Kevin Roseberry said.
‘The doctors and me.’ He tapped his pyjama-clad chest. ‘I can tell.’
‘Doctors have been known to be wrong,’ I said. ‘Even you’ve been wrong once or twice, Kev.’
Kevin Roseberry was seventy-five but looked older. He’d been a lot of things in his time-wharfie, boxer, rodeo rider, boxing manager. When he won two million dollars in a lottery he hired me, who’d known him just as someone to drink with in Glebe, to get a blackmailer off his back. It wasn’t hard, the guy was an amateur, easily persuaded of the error of his ways. Kevin and I became friendly after that. He bought a big terrace at the end of my street, held some great parties. Now he was in a private room in a private hospital and I was visiting.
‘I’ve been wrong heaps of times, but not now. The big C’s got me and they reckon I’ve got a month at the most. No kicks coming. After the life I’ve led I was thankful to make it to the new century, let alone two years in. I’ve got that doctor you recommended onside.’
‘He’s a good bloke. He’s put me onto another quack who knows the score. I’m going home next week and he’s arranged for a nurse who’ll know what to do.’
I nodded. That’s exactly what I’d want for myself-not that it’ll ever happen.
Kevin used to be big but he’d wasted badly. Even his craggy bald head looked smaller. His voice was still the hoarse bark it had always been and his eyes were bright under the boxer’s scar tissue. He pointed to his bedside cabinet. ‘Let’s have a drink.’
I opened the cabinet, took out a bottle of Teachers and two glasses. I poured two generous measures and handed him his. We raised the glasses in a silent toast to nothing in particular.
‘I’ve got a problem,’ he said. ‘Who to leave my bloody money to.’
‘I could take some of it off your hands. Just say the word.’
‘Funny. You can tell jokes at the wake. No, this is serious. You didn’t know I had a kid, a daughter, did you?’
‘Never saw you with a pram.’
‘Yeah, well it was all a fair while ago. I didn’t treat the woman well and I never had much to do with the kid, nothing in fact. Back then, it was work, fights, the rodeo circuit, grog and more grog. You know.’
‘You’ve got the scars to prove it.’
‘You bet I have. The thing is, I’d like to help the kid and her mother. It bloody worries me, Cliff. I’m on the way out and I’ve been a selfish bastard all my life. I don’t believe in any of that religious crap, but I’d like to go with a sort of clean slate if I can. Does that sound nutty?’
‘No, Kev. It sounds like a decent man trying to do a decent thing. Nothing wrong with that.’
‘Good. Thanks. You helped me once and I want your help again. I want you to contact the girl and her mother and tell me how things stand with them.’
“Well, last I was in touch with Marie, and this is nearly ten years back, she wanted nothing to do with me. Warned me not to try to get in touch with the girl. This was just before I came into the money, but I had a bit and I wanted to know if Marie and Siobhan needed anything. Marie said she was doing fine, so I backed off and I thought, fuck her. But now things are different. The house is worth the best part of a million. I blew a fair bit on horses and having fun, but there’s still a couple of hundred grand left. It’s invested and brings in a decent amount. Now if Marie’s doing well that’s fine, but Siobhan’s in her twenties and I don’t see why her mother should still speak for her. Shit, she might have children, my grandchildren. The money could be useful for them if not for… you see what I’m getting at.’
‘Why can’t you get in touch yourself-ring up or write?’
Kevin shook his head and the loose skin on his neck was grey and mottled. ‘I tried. I rang the last number I had but the people I spoke to had never heard of her. I didn’t know what else to do and I’m too crook to go hunting them up. But that’s your game, isn’t it-finding people?’
‘Part of it. I can give it a shot, Kev, but people can move a long way in ten years. Women marry and change their names. How old would Marie be?’
‘Twenty years younger than me, mid-fifties. I met her when I was managing a middleweight who fought Jimmy O’Day. She was some kind of cousin or auntie or something of Jimmy’s. A good bit older, Jimmy started real young. She was at the fight and afterwards we got talking and that.’
‘Just a bit, like Jimmy.’
‘That bit can mean a lot these days. You’d better give me the names and the address and anything else that might be useful. Got a photo?’
He gestured at the cabinet. ‘In my wallet. A couple of snaps from back when we were sort of together. Siobhan was just a baby.’
Snaps was right: they were polaroids and pretty faded. In one of the photos, Kevin, with more hair on his head and flesh on his bones, stood beside a tall woman who was carrying a baby. In the other, Kevin was holding the baby securely in his big, meaty hands, but the look on his face suggested he was afraid of dropping it. The woman was handsome rather than pretty, with strong features. Impossible to tell her colouring from the old pictures, but dark rather than fair, I thought. I put the photos back in the wallet. Kevin took it from me and extracted a wad of hundred-dollar notes.
‘Eight hundred do you?’
‘For starters, sure. You might have to hang on a bit longer, Kev. These things can take time.’
‘I’ll try, mate, but don’t count on it.’
I got Marie’s last known address, in Leichhardt, and left him there with the television on and the remote in his hand that was like a claw.
I remembered Jimmy O’Day. He was a fast-moving middleweight back when boxing was very much in the doldrums. He fought in the clubs, had a few bouts in New Zealand, and won the Commonwealth title, which meant practically nothing at all. I saw him once at Parramatta and thought he was pretty good without being sensational. He was a boxer rather than a puncher, and that didn’t please the pig-ignorant club crowd all that much. He dropped out of sight after losing the title to a Maori. I still had contacts in the boxing world and it might be possible to get a line on Marie O’Day through him if all else failed.
It took me a couple of days to clean up a few other matters before I got around to visiting Leichhardt. The young woman at the address Kevin had given me, a neat single-storey terrace not far back from Norton Street, remembered Kevin’s call and could only say she knew nothing about former residents.
‘I think it had been a rental property in the past,’ she said. ‘Tess and I had a lot of repairs to do when we bought it.’
I got the name of the agent she’d bought through, thinking they might have had the letting of the house beforehand, and thanked her.
‘Does the house have a history?’ she asked. ‘Like a criminal past?’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Oh, you look like a policeman or… something.’
I rewarded her with an enigmatic smile.
Ten-plus years ago, when Marie O’Day was there, Leichhardt was already gentrifying, with properties turning over quickly as people took their capital gains elsewhere and new residents moved in, renovating and restoring. None of the houses in the vicinity looked as if they were owned by old-timers who knew everything that went on in the street. I knocked on a few doors and got confirmation of that impression. As a last gasp I tried the corner store at the end of the street, one of the few survivors. The proprietor was an elderly Italian with limited stock, just hanging on. I bought some things I didn’t need and asked him how long he’d had the shop.
‘Twenty years, mate.’ His accent was pure Italo-Australian.
I showed him my PEA licence. ‘I’m looking for a woman who used to live at number 76. Her name’s Marie.’
He shook his head. ‘They come and they go.’
‘Good-looking woman, darkish maybe, with a child.’
He sparked up. ‘Oh, si, Marie, with the kid. I couldn’t never get the name right.’
‘Yes. I called her honey because of the colour of her hair. Beautiful hair.’
‘She was in here a lot, Marie?’
‘Most days. Nice woman. No trouble. She do something wrong?’
‘No. I don’t suppose you know where she went when she left here?’
He rubbed his hands together and looked around at his meagre stock. ‘I’m trying to remember. Some people say, “Carlo, I’m off to Queensland”, and I say, “Take me with you”-for a joke, you understand. But no, Marie, she just…’
‘Si, I remember. Her cousin paid her bill. I let her have a little bit of credit because she always paid when she got her pension. But I didn’t see her to say goodbye, ciao -she used to try to speak Italian. But this man came in and paid. He said he was her cousin.’
‘What did he look like?’
Carlo squared his shoulders and set his fists in front of him. ‘Qui cosa!’
‘No.’ He drew his index fingers across above and through his eyebrows. ‘With the scars. Like you. A boxer.’
Trueman’s Gym in Erskineville retains the name although Sammy Trueman died years ago. It has undergone periods of prosperity and adversity, renovation and neglect. Now, with boxing in Sydney on the upswing, partly due to the charisma of Anthony Mundine, the gym had attracted a respectable number of wannabe fighters paying respectable fees for the facilities. Footballers use it and some actors, waiting for the follow-up to Cinderella Man.
For generations the gym has served as a poste restante address for fighters and trainers often too down on their luck to afford proper accommodation. A couple of sports journalists drop in regularly in search of colour for their columns. I go there once in a while just to stay in touch with the business I had thought of taking on professionally until a hard left hook from Clem Carter in an amateur six-rounder convinced me otherwise. I’d done some work for a couple of the trainers and managers over the years, scaring off touts and persuading promoters to pay what they owed.
Wally Tanner was one of those trainers and I knew he hung out at Trueman’s, always on the hunt for a promising fighter. I didn’t think he’d trained Jimmy O’Day, but O’Day had certainly put in time at Trueman’s and there was a good chance Wally would know something about him.
In the old days a boxing gym smelled of tobacco smoke, sweat and liniment, now it’s just the sweat and liniment. It was early in the afternoon, not the best time when most of the fighters have jobs and only get to the gym after they knock off, but Wally was there watching a couple of heavyweights plodding around the ring.
He nodded to me. ‘Gidday, Cliff. Look at these no-hopers. It’s a disgrace to let ‘em in a ring.’
‘As they say-they’re slow but they can’t hit.’
‘That’s right. Haven’t seen you for a while. What brings you around?’
‘D’you remember Jimmy O’Day?’
Wally turned disgustedly away from the ring to watch a skipper and a kid working on the speed ball. They didn’t please him either. ‘Sure I do. He was a good boy-good, not great. Why?’
‘I’m trying to locate a cousin of his named Marie. I’m told they were pretty close at one time.’
Wally was an old school racist. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘well they’re like that, aren’t they? Especially when one of ‘em’s got any cash. Jeez, they bled Dave Sands dry. Lionel too, I reckon.’
‘Any idea where Jimmy is now?’
‘Be in Redfern, wouldn’t he?’
‘Come on, Wally, keep up. There’s Aborigines in parliament, in the law, in business.’
‘Not ex-boxers. The money goes and they get on the grog.’
‘Have it your way. I’ll ask someone else.’
‘Hang on, don’t get shitty. I don’t know anything about a cousin, but I did hear that Jimmy was doin’ something. What was it? Oh, yeah-he’s got a band. They play country music’
‘What’s the name of the band?’
‘Dunno. I just heard someone mention that Jimmy was the leader. I suppose he plays the guitar and sings. Don’t they all play the guitar and sing, the leaders?’
‘Mick Jagger didn’t play guitar, though I gather he does a bit now.’
Wally would’ve spat into the sawdust in the old days, now he just sneered. ‘That ponce. Big in the bedroom, but I’d like to see him inside the ropes.’
‘The man’s over sixty.’
‘So am I, and I can still go a bit. Better than them two.’ He turned away to watch the cumbersome sparrers and I left him to it.
It was a lead of a sort, and what you always dread in the early stages of an investigation is the absolute dead end. Avoid them for a while and you can start to make progress if you know your business.
I don’t buy many CDs these days after replacing a lot of my seventies vinyls and cassettes. I don’t really keep up much since Cold Chisel and Dire Straits, though I quite like The Whitlams. With country music I mostly preferred the women-Patsy Cline, Lucinda Williams. I’d bought Kasey Chambers’s first album at Hot Music at the Cross and that’s where I went next.
The place is distinguished from many others by having staff who know about the stuff they sell and how to get it if it’s not in stock. The young woman I approached had a fair amount of silverware in her face, a lot of eye makeup and an indoor pallor.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘do you happen to know about a country music band with a leader named Jimmy O’Day?’
‘Would that be James O’Day?’
‘Well, sure-they’re called the Currawongs. Want to hear them? They’ve got two albums.’
She put a disc on and gave me the headphones. I’m no great judge of country, but the music sounded tight and professional. The lead singer had a sweet voice, something like Gram Parsons. I listened to a couple of tracks and nodded.
‘I’ll take it.’
I produced the plastic and as she was inspecting the disc and wrapping it, I asked if she knew where the band played.
‘You like it that much, eh? Maybe you want the other album?’
‘This’ll do for a start.’
‘Okay, worth a try. Their webpage is on the line notes. You can probably find out from that. I know they tour a lot, like all those groups. Have to make a living, dude.’
‘Don’t we all, isn’t it a pity?’
I took the disc to my office and inspected it. The album was simply called The Currawongs. The photograph of the band was small and dark and I wasn’t able to identify O’Day from that. Any one of the four-keyboard player, two guitarists and drummer-could have been him, but the notes said that James O’Day was the keyboard man, singer and lyricist. I looked at the photo again but couldn’t match the man at the piano with the kid I’d seen in the boxing ring nearly twenty years back.
As you'd expect, the band's webpage was Currawongs. net. I got it up and learned more. One of the guitarists was Brian O'Day, James's brother, and the drummer, Larry Roberts, was their cousin. The other guitarist was Luke Harvey. The band had evolved from several earlier groups and taken their name a few years back. They'd toured the east coast extensively and played at the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival. Biographical information was sketchy; no ages were given, there was no mention of Aboriginality or boxing, but the title of one of the songs, 'Blues for Jimmy Sharman', struck the right note. Sharman Senior and Junior were the bosses of the most famous of the old-time touring boxing-tent shows. It was looking good.
As the cluey woman in the music shop had thought, the band’s dates were listed on the website. In two days’ time they were playing at the Bulli Hotel in the Illawarra. Easy drive, pleasant setting. I took the CD home and played it. It didn’t make me want to rush out to buy the other one, but I liked it well enough. The songs had a freshness to them and varied between bluesy laments, standard country stuff and something verging on hard rock. There seemed to me to be a touch of the Stones in country mood, with a bit of Van Morrison, maybe some Paul Kelly, and that note in O’Day’s voice that reminded me of Gram Parsons, especially on the downbeat tracks. I listened closely to ‘Blues for Jimmy Sharman:
You went in much too often
And you got real beat down
When the country boys who took a glove
Weren’t just the usual clowns
But you stayed at it longer
Than they ever thought you might
‘Cos your woman and kids was hungry
And Dad you had to stand and fight.
Sounded as if he knew what he was singing about.
I phoned Clarrie Simpson, one of the journalists who frequented Trueman’s and someone I occasionally had a drink with. We shot the shit for a while. Clarrie was semi-retired and glad to talk.
‘Remember Jimmy O’Day?’ I asked.
‘Yeah-held the Commonwealth Mickey Mouse middleweight title, briefly.’
‘Know anything about his background?’
‘I should. I wrote a piece about him.’
‘Tent fighter with Sharman Junior.’
Thank you, Clarrie. ‘How old would Jimmy be now?’
Clarrie’s of an age where everyone not as old as him seems to get younger. ‘Not old,’ he said. ‘He started young and he quit right after that Kiwi beat him. Nasty, that was. He got cut badly above both eyes and they didn’t stop it as soon as they should have. I’d say early forties. Anything in this for me?’
‘Could be, not sure.’
I rang the Bulli Hotel and found out you could book a table close to the stage for a meal and a ticket to the show for a price that wouldn’t take too much of Kevin’s retainer. Pay by credit card. Why not?
I booked into a Thirroul motel, thinking that I’d probably have a drink or two and wouldn’t want to drive back. A short hop from there to Bulli. Great old pub on the highway, heritage protected for sure. The structure had been preserved and the renovations hadn’t destroyed the charm. A Hyundai people-mover and trailer were parked in the lane beside the pub. The room where the band was to play held about twenty tables and there was plenty of standing room with a bar at the back. I gave my name and was shown to a small table off to one side with a clear view of the stage. I ordered a bottle of Houghton’s white burgundy and the barramundi with chips-what else do you eat on the coast within the sound and smell of the waves?
The wine was cold and the food was good. The room filled up quickly with all the tables being taken and the standing room packed. Evidently the Currawongs had a following. They came on about ten minutes late, which is pretty standard. The MC just spoke the band’s name to raucous applause and went off. Before the lights went down I got a good look at the keyboard man. James was Jimmy all right-the same dark curly hair, olive skin and fluid movement. I couldn’t see the boxing scars but, like me, he had the heavy brows that stretch the skin and lead to cuts. The band tuned up briefly and launched into one of their country rock numbers I hadn’t heard. The crowd had and showed its approval.
They played for forty-five minutes, switching from fast to slower but never slow, and keeping the energy up. James, as I told myself to think of him, was active at the electronic keyboard, standing up when appropriate and giving it some body as well as fingers. All four seemed to be on top of their game with some good slide guitar at times and nice harmonies. They took a ten-minute break and came back with more of the same. James didn’t do the corny stuff of introducing the band, but each member had a couple of solo moments that said more than words. I paced myself with the wine and still had a third of the bottle left when they did their last song and their encore. I was probably one of the oldest people there, but I was on my feet and cheering like the youngest.
‘James will be signing CDs in the bar when he catches his breath and has a drink,’ the MC announced.
A crowd clustered around as O’Day propped himself against the bar with a beer to hand and chatted to the people buying the record. As I got closer I could see the scar tissue, which gave him a slightly threatening look. Even if you didn’t know he’d been a fighter, he’d strike you as someone not to mess with. I took the album I didn’t have from the roadie who was supervising the business and paid cash for it. I hung back until I was the last in the line.
‘Hi,’ O’Day said, ‘enjoy the show?’
I handed him the record. ‘I did.’
‘Cliff Hardy. I’m a private detective and I want to talk to you.’
He paused the pen over the record. ‘Yeah, what about?’
‘I saw you fight a couple of times when you were called Jimmy.’
He scrawled something illegible and stood. ‘Good for you. I’m off now.’
I moved to stop him and suddenly the roadie and someone else were beside me, hemming me in against the bar as O’Day slipped away. The roadie threw a punch. I ducked it and gave him a hard one to the ribs that crumpled him. The other man attempted to kick me in the balls and I up-ended him. He came back quickly in a karate stance. By this time some of the hard-core drinkers had clustered around, ready to enjoy the second show of the night. I didn’t oblige them. I pulled out my wallet and held up my PEA licence card.
‘Federal police,’ I said. ‘Don’t make things worse for yourself.’
He straightened his body and unflexed the stiffened fingers. ‘Sorry, I was just…’
‘Doing your job. It’s okay.’
The drinkers lost interest. I looked about but the roadie had gone. I went out onto the tiled verandah and around to the side where the band’s people-mover and trailer had been parked. Gone. When I went back into the pub the karateist had faded away as well. Great work, Cliff, I thought, you scared everyone off and learned bugger-all.
I went back into the room and recovered my bottle. My hair was in my face, my shirt was half pulled out from my pants and I was angry. A frightened-looking kid behind the bar handed me a cork and I gave him a nod that didn’t make him any happier. A woman came bustling towards me; she was angry, too.
‘I don’t care who you are,’ she said. ‘I’m going to report you for causing a disturbance here.’
‘Who’re you?’ I said.
‘I’m the events manager.’
‘In your place I’d do exactly the same thing, but think about it. Would a bit of a stoush after the band finished playing really do your venue a lot of harm? I don’t think so.’
She was smart enough to take the point. She was pushing middle age but holding up well. She wore a white blouse, blue velvet jacket and black trousers with heels that made her tallish. Her hair was dark with red highlights.
‘You’re not a policeman,’ she said.
‘No. I told Jimmy O’Day that before things got wild.’
‘We go back a bit. You are…?’
‘Rennie Ellis. Well, you’ve made life interesting tonight, but you’d better take your bottle and go.’
‘Who was the guy with the karate moves?’
She shrugged, nicely. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I think you do. I’m booked into the Thirroul Lodge, room six. I’ll be there until ten am tomorrow. I’d like to talk to him and I could make it worth his while.’
‘Goodnight,’ she said.
At the motel I parked the wine in the mini-bar fridge and opened one of the small scotches for a nightcap. I’d barely tasted it when a knock came on the door. I opened it and Rennie Ellis stood there with a trench coat draped around her shoulders and a bottle in her hand.
‘We got off on the wrong foot,’ she said, and handed me the bottle. ‘A peace offering.’
I took the bottle-champagne. ‘Come in.’
She moved past me and looked at the room. ‘A while since I’ve been here,’ she said. ‘Not bad. They’re trying.’
‘I was having a nightcap. Want a scotch?’
She dropped the coat on a chair and sat down on the arm. ‘I’ll take the other half, sure.’
She was a good-looking woman with a full figure and the sort of confidence that comes with experience on top of adequate self-esteem. She sipped of the scotch, bent easily and picked up the book I’d put down beside the chair, intending to read for a while before going to bed.
‘Dark Safari? she said. ‘Paul Theroux. What’s it like?’
‘Good. Confirms my feeling that I don’t want to go to Africa.’
‘What do you want?’
‘To know why you’re here.’
‘Knew you’d be direct. Anything else?’
‘I asked you in, didn’t I?’
She drank the rest of the scotch. ‘I saw you in action in the pub. I was impressed.’
‘Didn’t come across to me.’
‘That was for the management. I’m here for me now.’
It was a semi-invitation I couldn’t refuse. We finished the scotch in the mini-bar and opened the champagne. She told me she was a swimming instructor not getting too many clients given the time of year. She said she was tired of young surfies and old hippies. At some point she moved to the bed and we were sitting together and things went on from there. She kissed as though she needed to, and so did I. She had a condom in her coat pocket and by the time I’d kissed her breasts and slid my fingers inside her I was ready. We pulled back the covers and made love vigorously enough to pull the sheets away from the mattress. After we finished we clawed at the sheets and blankets, suddenly aware that it was cold.
‘Hey,’ she said. ‘My first private detective.’
‘How d’you know that?’
‘Someone heard you speak to James O’Day. That someone told me.’
‘Is it the person I think it is?’
‘Could be. Tell you in the morning. I’ve got another rubber-think you’re up to it?’
‘In the morning?’
‘Possibly, just possibly.’
Rennie was the sort of woman who knew what she wanted and what she was prepared to give. We were comfortable together in the morning-both feeling better about the world and ourselves.
‘Where’s the breakfast?’ she asked. ‘The soggy toast and the cold coffee?’
‘I don’t eat breakfast.’
‘Oh Christ, an ascetic’
I pointed to the miniature scotches and the empty champagne bottle. ‘Hardly.’
She had a quick shower and got dressed. ‘Well, that was fun, Cliff, and I’m going to get Claude to call in on you. He might know why James O’Day took off like that and why they heavied you-tried to, at least. Are you trouble for him, the singer?’
‘Not at all. Would you believe I just want some information about his auntie.’
She laughed. ‘Big case.’ She blew me a kiss and was gone.
I showered and dressed, tidied the room a bit, put the condoms and the bottles in the rubbish bin. The day had dawned fine but cool and I could smell the sea as I stood outside the room with a cup of instant coffee. A Holden ute, about the same vintage as my Falcon, pulled in to the slot beside it. The man who got out looked bigger and darker in the daylight than in the pub gloom. He wore jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt that revealed his muscles and tats. There were rings in both his ears-not a good idea if you’re serious about fighting people who know how to fight.
‘You’d be Claude,’ I said. ‘Gidday, my name’s Cliff.’
He didn’t offer to shake hands, but he didn’t try to kick me. ‘Rennie says you’re okay.’
‘You freaked Jimmy a bit last night.’
‘Didn’t mean to. Come inside. Want some coffee?’
He smiled. ‘You’re a private eye, on expenses, right? How about a beer from your mini-bar?’
We sat at the table in the room, me with my instant and him with a Crown Lager. He drank half of it in a gulp. ‘Hits the spot. Rennie mentioned money, too, and she says you’re not after James for nothing dodgy. How much money, bro?’
‘Depends-on a scale from a hundred to two hundred depending on the information.’
‘Not a lot.’
‘Got a better offer right now, Claude? Look, I’ve got no grief for Jimmy. I saw him fight when that was his name.’
He drank some more beer and looked less hostile. ‘Yeah? He was good, wasn’t he? I was too young to see him.’
‘Pretty good and he quit when he was ahead. He’s in a better business now. Might hurt his ears, but it won’t scramble his brains.’
‘Right. That’s why martial arts is better, I reckon, ‘cept there’s no money in it.’
‘Which brings us back to where we were. Why did Jimmy sic you guys onto me and take off like that? What’s he worried about? Tell me that and I’ll pay you something, tell me how to get to talk to him and I’ll up the ante.’
‘Tell me what you’re on about first. Then I’ll think about it.’
I made myself another cup of coffee, got him another beer and told him, without mentioning names or sums of money. When I finished he rolled the bottle in his hands as an aid to thought and decision-making.
‘That was a pretty neat move you made on me in the pub.’
I shrugged. ‘I always think one foot off the ground leaves you vulnerable.’
‘If the other guy’s quick enough. I was a bit pissed, a bit slow.’
I nodded. It was probably true. He was circling; I played along. ‘How d’you come to know Jimmy anyway? Are you related?’
He laughed. ‘You think I’m an Abo? I’m Maltese, mate. I played in the band for a while, wasn’t good enough when they got on to the bigger gigs and recording and that. No hard feelings. I do a bit of work for them now and then. I’m good at the electrics. Okay, well Jimmy had this manager who ripped him off every which way. The guy’s a crook, but he’s still trying to get a share now that they’re getting bigger. I reckon when you said you were a private detective Jimmy thought you were on his case. That’s why he gave Chicka and me the sign.’
I took two fifties from my wallet and handed them over. ‘That again if you tell me how to reach him. But you contact him first and tell him I’m not any sort of threat.’
‘If you’ve lied to me, I’ll fuckin’…’
I gave him the money. ‘I’m sure you would, but it’s not like that and you know it.’
‘He hangs out in Newtown, him, a couple of the guys, and Jimmy’s wife.’
He gave me the address and I tossed across my mobile phone. ‘Give him a ring.’
He shook his head. ‘Too early, man, they wouldn’t have got back till late and probably had a bit of a blast, you know. Good gig, sold some records.’
Claude gave me the phone number off the top of his head and said he’d ring at around midday. He advised me to call mid-afternoon when they’d be ‘mellow’.
They say that terminally ill people can get a surge from good news. I rang the hospital and left a message for Kev that I was making progress.
I took my time on the drive back to Sydney and it was almost midday when I reached Newtown. I had a quick drink in the Marlborough and then threaded my way through the narrow streets to the address Claude had given me. It was a two-storey terrace on a corner, two blocks from King Street and a block away from the Memorial Park. Biggish place, room for quite a few people. There looked to be a small courtyard out the back with a vine of some sort growing wild. The narrow front porch was mostly taken up by the wheelie bin and the two recycling bins, but there was space for a couple of pot plants that looked as though they got a certain amount of tending. No broken-down sofas, Jack Daniels bottles, defunct TV sets. Rock groups had cleaned up their act.
I parked fifty metres away and used the mobile. I got an answering machine telling me the names of the residents and asking me to leave a message. My response was interrupted.
‘This is James O’Day. Claude phoned me about you. Where are you?’
‘Stay there. I’ll come out and we can go for a walk.’
I met him in the middle of the street. Newtown people walk on the street because the footpaths are narrow and often blocked by overhangs from front gardens and the trees planted in the gentrification era. He still looked like a middleweight-medium tall, sloping shoulders, narrow waist. He wore jeans and a flannie, denim jacket with a sheepskin collar. He held out a hand, not to shake, a gesture of apology.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘You should be. You cost my client two hundred bucks.’
He smiled as we walked down the street towards the park. ‘That what you paid Claude? Good for him. You said you saw me fight. Was that just a line?’
We reached the park and began walking down a path beside a wall covered in graffiti, some of it not too talentless. ‘No, I saw you a couple of times when you won. I didn’t see the one you lost.’
He took his hands from the pockets of his jacket and touched the scar tissue. ‘I got cut. Best thing that ever happened to me.’
‘Made me quit before my brains got mushed. You’ve done a bit yourself, eh?’
‘Amateur only, before headguards came in. I did enjoy the show and I did buy the record. Bought the first one, too, when I was trying to get a line on you.’
‘Wow, that could put fifty cents or more in my pocket. Okay, now we’re here let’s get to it. Claude said you’re looking for someone in my family. He was a bit vague, the way you were, I suppose.’
This was evidently a familiar walk to him and he was setting a cracking pace. He swerved off onto another path and I had to trot to catch him.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’ve mapped out this kilometre track and I do five or six circuits when I’ve got the time.’
‘Terrific. I do something the same around Jubilee Park in Glebe, but right now I’d rather talk than trot.’
We cut across the grass where some kids were kicking a soccer ball around, past a group that looked to be in some kind of therapy session, to a bench in the sun. Just to appear professional, I took out my notebook and leafed through it.
‘About ten years ago, you paid a corner store bill for a woman named Marie O’Day in Leichhardt. The shopkeeper said you looked like a fighter. I got onto an old-timer at Trueman’s who knew you’d gone into what he called the music business. Tracking you down wasn’t that hard after that but then…’
He smiled again, the smile he’d given to the photographers in his fighting days and on the stage in his new incarnation. ‘We ran into a spot of bother. Okay, I’m impressed with your investigative skills. Did you find out that after boxing I went to TAFE to get an education and worked on my piano playing until I was game to perform in public?’
‘You just thought I segued from middleweight champ to rock star?’
I was getting sick of this. ‘Look, Jimmy,’ I said, ‘I don’t give a fuck about your brilliant career. I’ve got a client who needs to make contact with Marie O’Day and any kids she might have-to her and their advantage.’
He wasn’t used to being talked to like that and his first reaction was antagonistic. He swivelled on the bench and his handsome face took on the sort of look boxers wear when they touch hands before the fight. I didn’t react-not what he expected. He struggled for control.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘I deal with too many arseholes.’
‘And too many people who’re scared of you.’
‘I suppose. You’ve got it right. Marie’s my cousin. She was leaving Leichhardt and she was short of money so I paid her bill. Wasn’t much.’
‘You ever heard of Kev Roseberry?’
‘Might’ve, not sure.’
‘He’s the bloke Marie took up with and had the child by. He trained some bloke you fought and that’s how they met.’
‘I don’t remember him. When I was fighting all I thought about was fighting. Full stop.’
‘Marie didn’t tell you who the father of the child was, and you didn’t ask?’
He shook his head. He’d relaxed by now and was half turned away, watching the people in the park. His voice was full of irony, sarcasm, anger. ‘You know what Abo women are like, fuck anyone.’
‘That’s a bloody stupid thing to say and you know it.’
He sagged against the backrest and all the aggression was gone. ‘They call me an Uncle Tom, you know, some of the people, because I don’t make a thing about being Aboriginal.’
‘That’s understandable, sounds as if you’ve got a problem with all that. I’m sure you’re not alone, but I’m not your psychiatrist. Roseberry’s dying of cancer. He’s got some money to leave and he wants to know about Marie and about her kid, Siobhan, if there’s any grandchildren and if they need help. No, make that if Marie’d accept it. She told Kev years back that she didn’t want to know him.’
‘How did he treat her?’
‘Got a guilty conscience now, has he? Is he some kind of religious freak?’
I sighed. ‘I’m getting tired of talking to you, Jimmy. Can you tell me anything about Marie and Siobhan or not? Yes or no. Yes, and I’ll be grateful, no, and you can fuck off and I’ll tackle it some other way.’
‘You’re a hard bastard, aren’t you?’
‘Sometimes not, sometimes I have to be.’
‘What’s in it for you?’
I got up and started to walk back towards the path. A soccer ball came skidding towards me and I kicked it back as hard as I could. The kid closest to me shouted when it went past him.
‘Sorry,’ I said.
I got to the path and kept walking. I heard footsteps behind me. O’Day tapped me on the shoulder.
‘Come back to the house. I’ll help you find Marie, but it’s tricky.’
O’Day took me through the house to a back room he’d set up as an office-cum-recording studio. There were guitars lying around, a drum kit, a couple of keyboards and electronic equipment I couldn’t identify. He rolled and lit a joint which he offered me. I refused.
‘Got a beer?’
He fetched a can and we sat facing each other over a tangle of cables.
‘Marie’s had a lot of trouble in her life,’ he said. ‘Grog, blokes, illness. She went hyper-political and got into demonstrations, sit-ins, protests. She got bashed by the police and hurt pretty badly. She’s on a disability pension and just getting by. I help her out from time to time, but she’s proud and doesn’t like it. I do it through a third party. Also, she reckons I’ve sold out to whitey.’
‘What about Siobhan?’
From just puffing, he now drew deeply on the joint, sucked the smoke in and held it down. Then he did it again. He seemed to need the comfort of it, or perhaps something else. I took a sip of beer and waited.
‘She’s with Marie. She’s got a kid. They’re doing it tough.’
‘Where are they?’
‘She won’t accept charity from-’
‘Whitey, okay. This isn’t charity, Jimmy-it’s long overdue support money from a decent man trying to make amends.’
‘Marie doesn’t admit there’s any decent white people.’
‘And that’s as stupid a thing as what you said before.’
‘I know. Okay, I’ll tell you where they are and you can try your luck.’
‘You won’t come with me?’
He sucked hard on the joint again and shook his head.
He’d smoked the joint almost down to the end but he wasn’t done. He drew on it again until it must have singed his fingertips. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’
He let the roach fall to the floor, got up, went to one of the keyboards, hit some switches and began to play. Straight blues riffs. He was stoned. He kept playing, seemingly in a trance. I looked around the room and saw a desk with a computer and printer wired up to other equipment. I opened a drawer in the desk and found a contact book. There was an entry for ‘Marie O’ with an address in Marrickville but no telephone number. I copied down the address and left him to do whatever he thought he was doing, wherever he thought he was.
My mobile rang as soon as I started the car. It was a nurse at the hospital where Kev was being treated. She said that Mr Roseberry’s condition had deteriorated and that he wanted to see me urgently. He’d asked the medical staff to hold off on palliative medication until my visit.
‘It’s that bad?’ I said.
‘I’m afraid so.’
I drove to the hospital and was ushered into Kev’s room. A man I didn’t know was there with Kev’s doctor who I had met, and a nurse. Kev was propped up in the bed and the life seemed to be leaking out of him. His voice was a croak.
‘Sorry to rush you, mate. Is she alive, Marie?’
‘And the kid?’
‘That’s all I needed. You’ll do the right thing, I know. Okay, let’s get this bloody thing signed. This is Ed Stewart, Cliff. He’s a solicitor and pretty honest for a lawyer. That’s a joke, Ed.’
Stewart smiled dutifully and produced a document which he, Kev and the nurse signed. The effort seemed to drain Kev to the dregs. He held out a hand and I shook it, gently. ‘Ed’ll explain it to you, mate. I knew I could count on you and…’
A spasm shook him and robbed him of the power of speech. He nodded at the doctor and closed his eyes. The nurse shepherded Stewart and me out of the room. We stood in silence outside the door for a second before walking away.
‘I hope I’m up to making a joke as I go out,’ Stewart said.
We went into a waiting room and Stewart showed me the paper. ‘This is Kevin’s last will and testament, revoking all others, while of sound mind, blah, blah. He had me draw it up this morning. It leaves his estate to be divided equally between Marie O’Day and her daughter Siobhan. And there’s provision for any issue Siobhan might have. You are named as the executor.’
‘What if I hadn’t been able to confirm that they were around?’
‘He seemed to have every confidence that you would.’
Kevin Roseberry died that night. As executor I was responsible for his funeral arrangements. I made them and tossed up whether to contact Marie and invite her along. I decided not. Dealing with her was going to be tricky enough without it happening in an emotion-charged atmosphere. Kev was cremated; I said a few words, so did some of the denizens of the pubs he’d frequented. We had a bit of a wake at the Toxteth Hotel and that was that.
Stewart, the solicitor, said he’d put Kev’s estate through the probate process and then it’d be up to me to arrange the distribution of the assets. No point in putting it off any longer. I drove to Marrickville, located the flat in a small block sitting in a sea of concrete, no balconies, and wearing an air of defeat. I knocked and the woman who answered was recognisable as Marie of the photograph, but only just. She was rail-thin and haggard; her dark, wiry hair had a wide white streak in it of a kind I’d seen before. Not a cosmetic touch-the effect of hair growing back on the site of a serious wound.
‘Yeah?’ she said, packing as much hostility as it was possible to get into the word.
‘Ms O’Day, my name’s Hardy. Your cousin James O’Day gave me your address because there’s something very important I have to discuss with you.’
‘What would that be?’
‘Can I come in, please? It’s to do with quite a lot of money and better discussed in private.’
‘I don’t want any money from Jimmy.’
‘It’s not from him.’
‘I don’t know anyone else with money.’
‘You knew this man. Come on, it won’t take long.’
For a minute I thought she was going to slam the door but she didn’t. She stepped back and let me push through and follow her. I doubted that she’d ask me to sit down or do anything even mildly hospitable. The front door opened straight into the living room, which was shabby but tidy. There was a TV set and a VCR, a well-stocked bookshelf and a milk crate filled with baby toys near one of the chairs.
She was wearing jeans, sneakers and a faded black cardigan. She crossed her thin arms over her thin chest and gripped her shoulders as if she was physically holding herself together.
‘Well?’ she said.
‘Kevin Roseberry died a couple of days ago.’
‘Well that’s one less white prick.’
‘He had quite a lot of money when he died.’
‘Bullshit. What he didn’t piss up against a wall he gave to the bookies and the TAB.’
‘He won a lottery, Ms O’Day. He owned a house worth almost a million dollars and there’s a couple of hundred thousand in investments. I’m a private detective. Kevin hired me to find you. He wanted you and your daughter to have the money. I understand there’s a grandchild, too.’
Her hands flew from her shoulders to her face and she collapsed into a chair. She lost colour and her olive skin went a blotchy pink.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said.
‘Crook heart.’ She fumbled in the pocket of her cardigan and got a pill jar in her shaking hand. ‘Get me a glass of water, will you.’
I went through to the kitchen and filled a glass. When I got back she was struggling to get the top from the bottle. I helped and shook a pill out into her hand. She got it to her mouth and I helped her steady the glass as she drank.
‘Thanks,’ she said. The colour slowly returned and she pulled herself up from the slumped position. ‘Sorry about that.’
‘Jimmy told me you were ill.’
‘Jimmy talks too bloody much. So he told you about Siobhan and the baby, eh? They’re at the park just now. Lovely little kid. Prick of a father, but, just like… Did I hear you right-Kevin left over a million bucks?’
‘To me and Siobhan?’
‘And the grandchild. Kevin hoped there were some.’
She drank the rest of the water. ‘Sit down, Mr… whatever your name is.’
I sat and she looked around the room. ‘Crummy, isn’t it? All we can afford on a couple of pensions. Look, who’s got the say about this money?’
‘When I told Kev I’d located you he made me the executor of his will, so the answer is-me.’
She said nothing for a minute, fixing me with a stare that seemed to strip me bare. ‘Kevin wasn’t a bad man. Just weak, like so many.’
‘Black and white,’ I said. ‘And like some women.’
The first smile I’d seen from her appeared, making her look younger and stronger. ‘You’re not so bad. Okay, let’s see how you handle this-I’ve never been certain that Siobhan was Kevin’s child. Could’ve been one of a couple of others. I was a wild girl at the time. You’ve met one of the other possibles.’
‘Right. He’s sure she’s his although she’s fairer than both of us. Buggered him up and he gave me a very hard time when I kept saying I wasn’t sure, which was the truth. Oh, I know he gets a bit of money to us from time to time. Bet he doesn’t know I know.’
The smile came back. ‘Men. All right, Mr Detective, what d’you make of all that? Kev’s left his dough to a woman who fucked around and a child and grandchild who might not be related to him at all.’
I didn’t even have to think about it. The will was rock solid, there was no clause about verifying parenthood or anything like that.
‘Kev was a gambler like you said, Marie. I reckon he’d have taken a punt.’
I put the Currawongs CDs on the shelf somewhere between the Beatles and Dire Straits and whenever I play them I raise a glass to Kev.
You play tennis, right, Cliff?’ Sydney Featherstone said.
‘After a fashion,’ I said.
‘Come on, your mate Frank Parker told me you played at White City. Schoolboy championships.’
‘Yeah, got to the third round of the doubles. Newk and Roche had nothing to worry about.’
‘But you know the difference between a topspin backhand and a lob?’
I nodded. We were in the bar of the Woollahra Golf Club. Featherstone was a senior partner in a sports management agency with top level clients in a variety of sports. They had men and women on their books, Australians and internationals. Doing well, Frank had told me when he arranged the meeting. An old mate putting business my way.
‘We’re thinking of signing this kid, Cameron Beaumont. He’s just turned eighteen.’
‘I read about him,’ I said. ‘Reached a hundred in the world the other week.’
‘That’s him. Stands about one eighty-five, ideal for tennis, weighs eighty kilos. Leftie, quick; held the New South Wales junior one hundred metres record. Bench-presses his weight plus quite a bit more. Looks like Tom Cruise with legs.’
‘Sounds like money in the bank. What’s the problem with the superstar-to-be?’
‘He goes missing for days at a time. No one knows where or why.’
‘Nothing wrong with girlfriends on the tennis scene. Within reason. If that’s it, fine. But why the secrecy?’
‘A boyfriend, then?’
‘Those who know him say not.’
‘When he comes back is he out of shape, distracted?’
‘No. Plays just as well as ever or better. It’s a mystery we need to solve.’
‘Why? Let him have his privacy.’
‘Are you kidding? There’s no such thing in elite sports.’
‘Is one hundred in the world elite?’
At his age, potentially.’
‘Lleyton Hewitt won an ATP event at sixteen, I seem to recall.’
‘He had the background. This kid’s a battler, up from nothing-local courts, no support. Both parents dead. He was fostered out as a kid. Pillar to post. You know how it is. He got on the satellite circuit at sixteen through a sports master at school and he’s been going through the opposition like a dose of salts. It’s a hand-to-mouth living but he’s come on strong just recently.’
‘Why hasn’t he been picked up before this?’
‘That’s a funny thing. A couple of sponsors and management mobs have approached him but he’s pissed them off. Must be waiting for a top drawer offer.’
‘Have you approached him?’
‘Not yet. There’s one thing I haven’t told you. He takes off on these jaunts from time to time over the last year or so, but always after he wins a tournament or comes close. He’s playing in an event next week that he’s got a shot at winning. A few of the top players have pulled out injured and Beaumont’s in really good form. Got in on a wild card. He’s bound to take off-should give you a chance to see what’s up.’
‘Why is it important that I know something about tennis?’
‘You’re going to have to watch him play. Be bloody boring if you didn’t like the game. Plus, Frank said you were a good judge of character. That comes out on a tennis court, win or lose, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Sometimes,’ I said.
Beaumont was playing late in the afternoon of the first day and I arrived in time to watch him. Just as well. He was up against a veteran who’d beaten a lot of top players in his time. He had a good serve and a wide variety of shots plus experience. It didn’t matter. Beaumont blew him away in under an hour with a mixture of power and guile.
Featherstone turned up at my shoulder as I was loading sun-dried tomato and cheese onto a biscuit. The second glass of white wine, out of a bottle with a label, had gone down well. ‘Impressive, huh?’
‘Definitely. I’d like to see him up against someone his own age, especially a runner.’
‘Not next time up. He’s got a qualifier who can scarcely believe he got through the first round. But if the other matches go according to the seeds and he keeps on like he started, he’ll meet Rufus Fong in the semi. He can run.’
Cambo, as the papers had decided to call him, advanced to his semi-final with Fong. I went along, found a seat in the shade, and witnessed the most devastating destruction of a top-liner by a newcomer since the unseeded Boris Becker won Wimbledon. Fong hadn’t won a Grand Slam event but he’d come close, and had more than a dozen other titles to his credit. He could run all right, but he couldn’t hide. Other players made the mistake of giving him angles. Fong’s speed allowed him to run the balls down and his strength permitted him to return the angles with spades. Beaumont hit straight at him with extraordinary power. Fong had to either get out of the way or play defensively, moving back and off balance. No contest. Beaumont volleyed away Fong’s weak returns with ease, dispatched his serves, and never went to deuce on his own serve.
Beaumont was demonstrative on court, lamenting his occasional misses-never on crucial points-and giving himself the odd triumphant fist. But he had charm. He applauded his opponent’s few successes with sincerity and shrugged off the several bad line calls he got. At the net, having won, his handshake appeared genuine, and he chatted with Fong all the way to the umpire’s chair. No chucking away of sweatbands, just a courteous wave to the crowd and the signing of a judicious number of autographs.
In the final, Beaumont played an American hardcourt specialist who gave him some trouble. The American dropped the first set but came back strongly to win the second in a tie break. Beaumont served some double faults and appeared rattled. But he was his old self in the third. He broke serve early, held his own easily, broke again and held and the American wilted. Beaumont won the match 6-1 in the third and that’s when I started to go to work.
Beaumont must have checked out of his hotel in the morning because, after the victory ceremony was over and he’d had some obligatory interviews and photos taken, he changed his clothes, loaded his tennis gear into the back of a beat-up 4WD, and took off. Thanks to my pass, I was close by in the privileged parking area and I dropped in behind him as he left the car park, picked up the motorway and headed west. Not the coast then, but there was nothing wrong with the mountains at that time of year.
Beaumont drove fast but well. His 4WD laboured a bit on the hills and I had no trouble keeping tabs on him in my recently serviced and tuned old Falcon. Daylight saving was a week or so away and the light started to fade quickly in the late afternoon. He stopped in Katoomba, went to an ATM for money and then spent up big on groceries. The carton of cigarettes surprised me, as did the bottle of brandy and the six-pack of beer he bought at the pub after showing his ID. I didn’t have to show mine to buy a half-bottle of Bundy. I had a sleeping bag and a donkey coat, but if I was going to spend a night in the mountains I thought I might need some internal heating as well.
Beaumont drove as if he knew the back roads well. We were soon on dirt, winding through the bush. There was no traffic and I had to hang well back, keeping tabs by the flashes of his brake lights. Eventually, after a hill climb, a descent and another climb, he pulled up outside a cabin set back from the track and shielded by a long stand of she-oaks. By then I was on foot watching this from a sheltered place. I’d stopped a hundred metres away when I heard his noisy engine turn off.
We were at a decent elevation and it was cold. I wrapped the coat tight around me and watched as Beaumont came back to his car to unload the supplies. The cabin opened and a tall man stood in the dim light-at a guess from a Tilly lamp-inside. Beaumont handed him a box and scooted back for another. The two went inside and the cabin door closed. The windows were curtained but I could see another light coming on and silhouettes of the figures moving inside.
It was cold but quiet, and I managed several hours of fitful sleep with a few periods of wakefulness in between. The extra chill just before dawn woke me and I got out to piss, stamp around and get the stiffness out of my limbs. No mail, no neighbours for kilometres-a perfect hiding place. For what? For whom?
I had gym clothes in the car-sweat pants and top, T-shirt, sneakers. I changed into them and equipped myself with a couple of the tools of my trade-binoculars and a good camera with a zoom lens. I’d had nothing to eat since some canapes back at the tennis while Beaumont was accepting his horrible crystal trophy and his no doubt very welcome cheque. My stomach was growling as I took up my position and saw wisps of smoke from the cabin chimney drift up into the clear blue sky. I could smell the eucalypts and the scents of all the other trees and bushes whose names I didn’t know. One of the names for us PEAs is snooper. I was one now and, in this setting, quite happy about it.
They came out around eight o’clock. I got a good long-range shot of the man. He was fortyish, shorter than Beaumont but more strongly built. Both men carried tennis rackets and Beaumont had a string bag full of balls. Keeping under cover I followed them to where there was a clearing about half the size of a tennis court. Beaumont’s companion was smoking. He puffed away while Beaumont did some stretches and warm-up exercises. For the next thirty minutes Beaumont had balls belted at him, aimed high, low, left and right, at very close range. He missed only two, getting his racket solidly onto them and knocking them clear of the other man-except one which caught him on the shoulder and spun him round. He dropped his racket and a spasm of coughing erupted from him. Beaumont comforted him with an arm around his shoulder. When he recovered the session began again. They must have had fifty balls in the bag and Beaumont darted around picking them up from the ground and in the thin scrub around the clearing when they’d all been used. Then they started over again.
After that Beaumont chopped wood at the back of the cabin for an hour. There was a pile of old railway sleepers in a lean-to shed. He carried them out, chopped through them, making half-metre lengths, and then split the lengths with a block buster. I’d done something similar as a punishment fatigue in the army, and I knew how hard that old weathered wood could be. It made me tired just to watch him.
The day warmed up and the insects buzzed and birds sang. I snapped a few more photos in a better light and with a better background. As a city man born and bred, a few hours in the country goes a fair way with me and I was getting tired of holding my position behind a tree. Beaumont’s host brought out two mugs of tea or coffee. They squatted companionably near the chopping block. The man smoked and spiked his mug with brandy. He also had another coughing fit.
Beaumont changed into shorts and a singlet and set off along a fire trail into the bush. He was away an hour and came back moving at the same speed as when he’d left. I was about ready to call it quits. The relationship appeared to be somewhere between fraternal and professional. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t going to do the boy’s tennis career any harm.
I ducked down suddenly when I saw the man moving towards where I was hiding. I was working mentally on a paparazzi story when he stopped a few metres away. He looked quickly back at the cabin, sucked in several deep breaths, bent over and vomited heavily into a pile of leaves. He recovered, used a stick to clean up, and went back to the cabin. I got a much better look at him then and he was somehow familiar. I’d seen him before, or his photograph, but I couldn’t remember where or when.
I went straight to the office, hooked the camera up to the computer and printed out copies of the photographs. I picked out the best shot of the mystery man and made a couple of blown-up copies. I studied the face intently: square jaw, thin mouth, heavy brows, straight nose, thick grey hair worn long. No scars. I looked at it too long so that in the end the feeling of familiarity had gone.
The FBI or the CIA could no doubt have run it against the millions of other faces they have digitally recorded and search for a match. Not an available facility for a one-man operation in Newtown. My best bet was Harry Tickener, a journalist who has worked the streets, boardrooms, courts and parliament in Sydney longer than he likes to recall. Harry’s up with the technology, but he receives so many emails a day you’re lucky to hear back from him within a week. I took one of the photos and went to see him in his Surry Hills office where he runs an online newsletter that prints stories others are afraid to touch.
Harry groaned when he saw me walk in the door carrying two styrofoam cups of coffee. ‘Jesus Christ, there goes an hour’s work,’ he said.
‘But here’s the best coffee in Sydney.’
Harry grinned, took the top off his cup and flipped it towards the bin. Missed. ‘Thanks, Cliff. Always good to see you. What’s up?’
I put the photo on his desk, keeping it covered with my hand. ‘Take a quick look at this. Just get an impression and see if a name springs to mind. I felt I knew the face but I’ve studied it too long.’
I uncovered the image. Harry looked at it, blinked and snapped his fingers. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he said. ‘I’d swear that’s Daniel Murphy twenty years down the track. You’ve found him. Where is he?’
I shook my head. The name triggered the recollection I’d been searching for. Daniel Murphy was an international hockey player who’d killed his wife’s lover. The couple were separated at the time with a young child and Murphy had been told that the lover had a record of child abuse. He shot him, went on the run and wounded a policeman before he was captured. His counsel stressed the mitigating circumstances, but the wounding of the cop counted heavily against him and he was sentenced to eighteen years to serve twelve before being eligible for parole. Murphy had escaped from Goulburn goal four years into his sentence, injuring an inmate and a guard, and had never been recaptured.
I said, ‘It wasn’t quite twenty years back, was it? What happened to the wife and child?’
‘The wife committed suicide when Murphy was convicted. That’s all I know.’
Usually, when Harry helps, I promise him the story if it can be told when everything sorts out, if it sorts out. The strike rate isn’t that good, but there wasn’t a chance of it happening this time. I thanked him and left him grumbling.
Using the name I had, I trawled through the Sydney Morning Herald database and came up with the information in detail. My recollection was confirmed, with additions: Murphy had emigrated from Ireland to Australia when he was barely more than a youth and had no relatives here. His wife’s maiden name was Wexler. She’d been a street kid with emotional problems and when found dead in her flat from a drug overdose the infant was dehydrated and suffering from various illnesses to do with malnourishment and neglect. It was odds on that the child had been put in care and fostered out to become, in time, Cameron Beaumont.
I emailed Sydney Featherstone that I was on the job, making progress and that the omens were good. I drove straight back to the mountains and pulled up outside the cabin early in the afternoon. I approached the building and a dog, tethered near the steps to the front porch, began barking loudly. I stood where I was and waited.
Cameron Beaumont opened the door and looked me over suspiciously. Despite my jeans and leather jacket I might still have been a cop. Can’t tell these days.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘To talk to you and Daniel Murphy.’
That rocked him. He looked over his shoulder and his body language directly contradicted what he said: ‘There’s no one here of that name.’
I held up the photograph. ‘Was yesterday.’
Like all great tennis players, he had vision like a jet pilot and he didn’t need to come any closer to see the picture. ‘Who are you?’
‘We can talk about that and a few other things.’
The dog kept barking. I heard hacking coughs coming from inside and then Murphy appeared in the doorway.
‘He’s sick,’ Beaumont said.
I nodded. ‘I know. I saw him chuck his guts up yesterday. You didn’t.’
Beaumont turned his head. ‘Dad?’
Murphy shrugged. ‘Don’t worry, this had to happen some day. You a reporter?’
‘No, I’m a private detective and right now I’m thinking about all this staying private. That is, if you’ll talk to me. You could start by calling the dog off.’
‘Quiet, Max,’ Murphy said. Raising his voice caused him to start coughing again. When he recovered his breath he invited me in. I went past the dog and Beaumont into the cabin. It was a mobile home that had been put up on stumps and ceased to be mobile. It was cramped but everything appeared well ordered and arranged. Several windows were open and there was a fresh eucalyptus scent mingling with the smell of cigarettes. Everything was spotlessly clean except for an ashtray brimming with butts.
‘Make some coffee, Cam,’ Murphy said, ‘and we’ll let the man tell us who he is, first off.’
Beaumont moved towards the back of the room and ran water. Murphy sat on one side of a built-in eating bench and indicated to me to sit opposite. I put the photo on the surface and showed him my PEA licence.
Murphy lit a cigarette. ‘I met a few blokes in your game inside.’
‘You would,’ I said. ‘Hazard of the job. I’ve been there myself.’
I told them my story and then Daniel Murphy told me his. After he escaped from gaol he’d made his way to Queensland, where he worked on fishing boats, and then to Wollongong and into a plastics factory.
‘Little show,’ he said. ‘No one cared who you were or where you came from. I got a driver’s licence in a false name, Medicare card-the works. One day there was a chemical spill-Dioxin-and I got two lungs full, thank you very much. Like inhaling that Agent Orange shit. Fucked my lungs first and then it spread. I took a payment to keep quiet about it. Didn’t like doing it, but I couldn’t afford to make a fuss.’
By the time we’d finished the coffee Murphy had worked his way through a few more cigarettes. He asked Cameron to get him a drink and the young man set a couple of cans on the table.
‘Doesn’t drink himself,’ Murphy said as he cracked a can. ‘Smart.’
‘How did you end up here?’
‘I had some money. Went to Sydney and tracked Cameron down. I always meant to do it but I didn’t have the chance till then. Wasn’t easy, couldn’t go through official channels, but I had a few names from people who’d written to me in the early days in gaol. I found him. Doesn’t look much like me, but he’s the spitting image of my dad as I remember him. Show him the photo, Cam.’
Cameron produced a faded, slightly creased photograph of a man in football togs with a 1950s look to them. Murphy was right-the resemblance was striking.
‘That’s all I’ve got of him. He was a champion Gaelic footballer. He was IRA and the Brits killed him.’
Cameron had hardly spoken a word. Now he handled the photograph like a precious relic, smoothing it in his big, strong hands.
‘Anyway, when I found out that Cam was a tennis champ I was that proud. I’d had a pretty useless life up to that point and I decided I’d do something with the time I had left.’
‘Dad’s a natural sportsman,’ Cameron said quietly.
‘Was,’ Murphy said. ‘Any ball game, I could play it.’
‘We met up about eighteen months ago when I was battling away in the satellites. His training and help got me to where I am now.’
‘You’ll be well inside the top one hundred after that win,’ I said. ‘I saw it.’
Murphy stubbed out another cigarette and looked at me. ‘I wish I had. I’d give anything to see him play, but it’s too big a risk. Too many people who’d pick me.’
‘You could wear a disguise,’ I said.
Cameron smiled. ‘Yeah, we thought of that, but Dad hasn’t got the breath to get up stairs and that. And he needs to smoke all the time, and
‘Couldn’t handle it, Hardy,’ Murphy said, ‘and the way the fucking world’s going with the pricks in charge now, they’d come down on him like a shit shower for having a crim for an old man and harbouring him. Cam’s been seen around here. They’d put it together.’
Murphy and I drained our cans. He fiddled with a cigarette and then put it down. ‘I’ve had chemotherapy and it only made me worse. I haven’t got long. I know how to take myself out peaceably and I’ll do it when it gets too bad. We’ve talked about it-Cam and me. He’ll help me to disappear.’
Cameron’s eyes were wet. ‘And every fucking thing I win’ll be dedicated to him in my mind and in my heart.’
‘The question is, Hardy,’ Murphy said, picking up the cigarette and lighting it, ‘what are you going to do?’
I reported to Featherstone that his intended client was merely doing some specialised training on his own in a bush location. No girls, no boys, no drink, no drugs. Featherstone was edgy about it, but when he heard that a pitch from another management group had fallen on deaf ears, he agreed to go along.
Daniel Murphy died six weeks after our first interview. I’d seen him a few times subsequently, did a bit of ball collecting. Cameron contacted me when his father died and I went up there and helped him with the burial. We put Daniel Murphy deep in the ground in the national park at a place where the birds sing and the insects buzz and the leaves fall softly.
Worst case scenario
Come on, Cliff,’ Lily said, ‘tell me about your worst case, your worst cock-up.’
‘Confession’s good for the soul.’
‘I don’t have a soul.’
‘Neither do I. Tell me anyway.’
Lily Truscott and I are partners, sort of. Separate houses-Glebe and Greenwich-and we’re together in one or another by arrangement dictated by work. Lily is a journalist and often out of Sydney. My work can take me anywhere at any time with very little notice, but we were together in Glebe one evening, just talking, drinking a bit. The case was a long time ago and the scars had healed, so I told her about it.
I’d cleaned the desk in my Darlinghurst office, not that there was much to clean, when the knock came on the door. A Mormon, I thought, or a JW or an SDA. They’re
everywhere. I needed a sign: NO JUNK MAIL-NO GOD SQUAD.
I got up to repel the invader at the threshold. I opened the door to find a man who certainly didn’t have a Pentecostal look about him. He was casually dressed in jeans and a flannie, with sneakers. He was tall, a little soft-looking, with thin fair hair. His hand came out tentatively.
‘Mr Hardy, my name is John Turner. Mario Ongarello suggested I see you.’
‘I know Mario, known him for years. Please come in, Mr Turner.’
Mario was a florist at the Cross. Way back, my then wife, Cyn, was in St Vincent’s with encephalitis and complications. I bought flowers every couple of days and struck up a friendship with Mario. Cyn recovered. Maybe the flowers helped. Anyway, over the years we’d have a drink together, talk boxing, disagree about soccer versus rugby. Good bloke, apart from that, but I’d never expected anyone in his line of work to present me with a client.
Turner stepped into the office, looked around briefly and took the chair I pointed to. He put his hands on the desk as if to steady himself.
I went behind my desk, opened a notebook, picked up a pen. Just props.
‘What’s the problem?’
He took a few seconds to answer. ‘I’ll try to be as clear and concise as I can,’ he said. ‘My wife died four years ago. She drove her car off the Great Ocean Road down in Victoria. D’you know it?’
‘I was there once a long time back. Dangerous then.’
‘It still is, especially if you drive a high-powered car at speed and haven’t quite got the skill to go with it. Paula drove a Porsche. The car went through the rail and down into the water. It was winter and the sea was wild. The car, what was left of it, washed up, but Paula’s body was never found.’
‘Like Harold Holt.’
‘What? Yes, I suppose, something similar.’
Prime Minister Holt had vanished in the surf at Cheviot Beach in 1967-quite a long way east of where he was talking about. I was young at the time and barely remembered it, but the event was regularly revived in the media on the anniversary. It’d be well and truly history to him, but it’s always worthwhile to test a potential client’s grasp. Politically incorrect, but who cares? I guessed his age at forty-max.
He went on. ‘Paula was a wealthy woman. She was a little older than me and she’d built up a sporting goods consultancy business. She negotiated with the management of sports stars for their endorsements and helped to organise the manufacture of equipment bearing their names. All done overseas on the cheap, of course. Then she was involved in handling the importation, the advertising and distribution.’
‘It sounds lucrative.’
He nodded. ‘Very. But she worked incredibly hard to get it that way. She was a triathlete in her younger days and she had the contacts and the respect-both very important in that business.’
‘I can imagine.’
‘I worked for her. I had the qualifications as well-a business degree and I’d swum competitively at a high level. I worked hard, too, and we… clicked. We appreciated each other’s abilities. We married. Standard stuff-boss marries worker, except in reverse, gender-wise. When everything was running smoothly, she… we began to have fun-holidays, beach house, the Porsche for her, an Audi for me. She was thinking of branching out into wine tourism. And so the trip to Victoria on her own-I hate the cold. It was a new challenge.’
I nodded. I’d always tried to avoid new challenges, finding the old and present ones quite enough
‘Paula’s will left me very well provided for. The house, the consultancy in its entirety. There were no children. Her mother was still alive but they’d had a falling out years back and hadn’t had any contact, although Paula knew where she lived-in Darlinghurst. There was no mention of her in the will. I ran the business for a while but gradually eased out of it and sold it eventually. There were cashed-up bidders, and I judged that it had needed Paula’s special touch. I’m taking a long time to get to the point, aren’t I?’
He smiled and his bland, composed face came alive. Easy to see why the boss’d go for him. There was charm in the smile. He reminded me of an actor whose name I couldn’t quite call to mind-someone who could play on the emotions with a look.
‘Take the time you need.’
‘When the business was sold it was worth less than I’d thought. There were… encumbrances-outstanding debts and loans that were hard to trace. The house carried a bigger mortgage than I’d expected. I admit I didn’t try too hard or get my people to pursue it. I had enough. Plenty. I began to take an interest in the stock market and did pretty well. Do I sound cold?’
He did, a bit, but you have to cut a potential client some slack. ‘I wouldn’t say so necessarily, Mr Turner. You sound sane and sensible. Grief has its place, I guess, but it never did anyone any good in the long run. After a while it’s mostly just self-pity.’
‘True. I was very fond of Paula and we got along well, but it was never a grand passion. Anyway, as I say, I soldiered on. Then just last week I happened to see in the paper that Paula’s mother had died. I’d never met her, you understand, but the name and the address matched. I have a lawyer friend-he made discreet enquiries. She suicided apparently and left quite a bit of money and instructions that she was to be cremated and her ashes scattered from Tom Ugly’s Bridge over the Georges River-she and Paula had lived in Sylvania when it wasn’t as expensive as it is now. She’d made arrangements in advance with a funeral parlour.’
He stopped talking and drew a breath. ‘Sorry I’m still being so long-winded.’
‘Don’t be. Better to get the details upfront. And it’s interesting-the Tom Ugly’s touch.’
‘It gets more interesting. I don’t know why, but I found out when the cremation was to take place and I went along. I never got to say goodbye to Paula, so I suppose I was sort of filling in that gap in a funny way. Well, I was the only person there and I bought a wreath on the way, but there was another wreath. I mean, she, Claudia Ramanascus, didn’t know anyone. She didn’t know her neighbours. She was dead in the flat for a week before anybody
‘The wreath had to be from Paula. I know it’s a guess, an assumption, but as I see it there’s no other possibility.’
I could have told him there were always other possibilities, but the story interested me too much. I doodled on the pad, giving him time to collect himself.
‘The wreath came from Mr Ongarello’s shop down the road from here,’ he said finally. ‘I went to see him and asked if he knew who had ordered it. He didn’t, he’s busy, he has assistants, things are done over the phone and online. I’m afraid I became upset and told him something-not that much-of what I’ve just told you. He suggested that I see you to find out if an… investigation is feasible.’
I’d been watching him closely and decided that the actor he resembled was William Hurt. He had the same thin hair, pale eyes and winning smile. My suspicious nature made me wonder if, as well as looking like an actor, he was one. But his manner was direct and his story was intriguing. There were questions, though.
‘Faked deaths have happened before,’ I said. ‘There was John Stonehouse and that other one not so long back.’
‘But they got caught. It can’t be easy to bring off.’
‘No, but as I’m sure you know, with all crime more gets away than gets caught. Just suppose she is still alive and I could find her. Wouldn’t that jeopardise your financial position?’
‘No. As I said, there was no life insurance to speak of and the assets weren’t quite what was expected. I had some investments of my own at the time and I worked with that as well as with what I got from Paula’s estate. What I have now I mostly accumulated through my own efforts and I could prove it. Besides, if you did find her I wouldn’t want to… expose her.’
‘Why bother to look, then?’
He released the slow smile again. ‘D’you remember Kerry Packer saying that acquiring Fairfax would amuse him? It’s a bit like that. No, that’s not quite honest. I admire her if that’s what she did, but I do feel… tricked. I’d like to know. I’d like to know how she did it. How she squirreled away a good deal of money. Not that I want it, not that I’m entitled to it.’
‘You’d also like to know why.’
‘How about- with whom?’
He shrugged his broad ex-swimmer’s shoulders. ‘If it worked out that way, so be it. But as I say, I don’t bear any serious grudge. If you can find her and have some solid evidence, an address and a photo, say, I’d take it from there.’ He plucked a wallet from his shirt pocket and extracted a couple of hundred-dollar notes as if they were tens.
I wasn’t sure that I quite believed him. People’s motives in coming to private detectives are often devious, but he told a good story and evidently had the money to pay for my time, which I had plenty of. I went through the usual routine-told him my retainer and fee structure, and that no outcome could be guaranteed. He showed a polite interest, signed a contract and paid the retainer. He handed me a full-length photograph of his presumed-to-be-late wife. Tall, slender, as you’d expect for a triathlete, with just a suggestion of weight gain around the face.
‘Now,’ I said, ‘who’s this lawyer who made the discreet enquiries?’
‘Do you have to know that? I told you what-’
I moved the signed contract back towards him a little. ‘I need to know, or this is cancelled by mutual agreement. And you get your money back, minus a small deduction for my time.’
He studied me for most of a minute. ‘Mr Ongarello said you were thorough. I’m beginning to see what he meant. Okay, his name is Simon Amherst. He’s a solicitor and his firm is Amherst and Bruce. They’re in the book. Good afternoon.’
He was getting up from his chair as he spoke- suddenly not charming, not pleased, not giving me time to be polite.
‘You realise that if she is still alive and you just satisfy your curiosity and do nothing more, you’d be conniving at… I don’t know
… some kind of civil, maybe criminal, deception?’
He smiled again. ‘I wouldn’t worry a whole hell of a lot about that, Mr Hardy. Would you?’
My first port of call was Mario’s shop. He greeted me in his Mediterranean way-big laugh, slap on the back, offer of a drink in his office. It was late in the afternoon, so why not? Some grappa’s like paint stripper, but not Mario’s. The stuff went down smoothly. I swear I could see olive trees and the Colosseum when I closed my eyes.
‘Mr Turner,’ I said. ‘The widower, or maybe not.’
‘Ah, yes.’ He opened a drawer in his desk and took out a credit card slip.
‘You told him you didn’t know who bought it.’
‘Different things-what I tell him and what I tell you. I wanted you to talk to him first. I can’t just give out information about customers. D’you think he’s genuine, Cliff?’
‘I’m flattered by your confidence in me. I’m not sure about him, but I’ve taken the matter on.’
‘Fair enough. Anyway, what I said was partly true. I don’t remember who bought the wreath, but this is how they paid.’
I examined the slip. The customer had paid with a MasterCard that had nearly two years of life left before it expired. It was a company card for Victory Motorcraft.
Back in the office, I phoned Bob Lawson, who worked for a credit checking company and did freelance stuff for people like me. He gave me the address.
‘Post office box in Ballina, up north,’ Bob said. ‘You lucky bugger. Off up there, are you, all expenses paid?’
‘Including you. Thanks, Bob.’
The Yellow Pages for the Northern Rivers area told me that Victory Motorcraft was a luxury boat-building operation on the Richmond River. The advertisement was minimalist-a thumbnail photo, phone and fax number, no names. Bob was right-at that time of year with a well-heeled client, a trip to Ballina was definitely required.
I flew there, hired a car and went to look for boatbuilding operations along the river. Winter down south, pretty mild up here. I needed the air conditioning in the car.
It didn’t take long to find the place. A quick look in my battered copy of Exploring Australia had told me that the river used to be home to dozens of boat builders but the business had gone elsewhere. Victory Motorcraft consisted of a large shed on an acre of land hard by the river. There was a slipway, a wharf or jetty with rails running from the wharf to the shed, winches, a small crane and other equipment unfamiliar to me.
I parked above the site where I could get a good view of it through my field glasses. A big, expensive, apparently brand new boat that looked ready to go was tied up at the wharf with people clustered around it. Three men in casual dress, two more in overalls and a woman. I trained my camera on her and adjusted the focus and the zoom. A bit older, a bit leaner and more tanned, but the woman was definitely Paula Turner, nee Ramanascus. I took several photographs of her in profile and then two full-face when she turned away, with a nod at one of the overall-wearers, from the river. Job done-hers and mine. She shook hands with the non-workers who stood looking at the boat and strode back towards the shed. She moved like an athlete, long striding, loose.
I had a boozy, slightly troubled night in Byron just for the hell of it and flew back the next day. I thought about it. From what I remembered of the Great Ocean Road, the ‘accident’ would have been difficult to stage. She must have needed help at that point and perhaps at other points. Resourceful woman. Was it any of my business? I couldn’t decide. I had the photos developed, typed up a report and Turner came by after I phoned him. The retainer had covered everything but he thanked me and gave me a bonus.
When I finished talking Lily looked disappointed. ‘What’s so bad about that? Cliff works fast, does good.’
‘Turner shot them all.’
‘His wife, her lover up in Ballina, and Amherst, the lawyer who helped her set it all up. And himself.’
Craig Minson runs a second-hand book shop in King Street, Newtown. I go in there occasionally to pick up something I’ve noticed in the review sections of the papers. Craig deals with a couple of the writers who flog him books they’ve reviewed. One is a specialist in sports books and the other mostly reviews biographies, so I stand a fair chance of running across something I’m interested in. He also stocks fiction at reasonable prices. Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Tim Winton, Bernard Cornwall-my kind of thing. Usually when I go in he has a book set aside as a suggestion for me. Not this time.
Craig beckoned me over to the counter before I could even browse. ‘I’ve got something for you, Cliff,’ he said.
‘Let’s see it.’
He shook his head and his tangled greying locks flew. Craig is stocky, fortyish, with a grey beard and grey hair. He once told me he always wanted to run a bookshop and he was pleased when he went prematurely grey because it was the right look.
‘It’s not like that,’ he said. ‘It’s a mystery-something for you to investigate.’
‘I investigate professionally, Craig. For money.’
‘I think a few of us can come to some arrangement.’
‘Booksellers. There’s someone stealing books from our shops.’
‘I thought you told me you wrote a certain amount off to pilfering.’
‘I do, we all do. But this is different. Whoever the thief is, he steals the same book from everyone. I’m talking about ten bookshops here in Sydney, one in Canberra, a couple in the country and who knows where else. Could be more but not many because there aren’t many copies around.’
‘That’s strange. Valuable book?’
‘Fairly. Worth three or four hundred dollars in good condition. It’s EB Lyell’s Northern Trekking. Ever heard of it?’
I shook my head. ‘Never heard of him, if it is a him, or it.’
‘Lyell was a him all right. Amazing man. He went looking for the Leichhardt expedition in the 1890s, or said he did.’
A bell rang, signalling that someone had entered the shop. Craig went forward to offer his help and I looked around the book-filled space. The room was lined with bookshelves reaching almost to the ceiling and there were several aisles of shelving down the middle. Footstools and ladders, good lighting, labels written in large type, pull-out reading supports-everything a bookshop should have. Craig got deep into conversation with his customer and I headed for the Australian history section. It covered several metres and was divided chronologically and, within that, alphabetically by author. As with the other categories, there was a collection of books locked inside a glass case. I wondered whether the book in question had been in there and, if so, how the theft had been managed. I was beginning to get interested.
Craig made a sale, wrapped the book and the customer went on her way.
‘Pretty good. Nice to see someone who knows what they’re after, and I made a tidy profit. Now, about Lyell. He claimed to have conducted three expeditions in search of Leichhardt. He certainly made one that didn’t get very far. In his book he details two other treks, as he calls them-he was South African, by the way-that got a lot further. And he reckoned he found some relics.
‘But it became pretty clear that these journeys were fantasies, or fabrications. He tried to claim the reward that was on offer for evidence about Leichhardt but some experts pointed out problems with the things he claimed to have seen. He was disgraced, threatened with prosecution for fraud, but before he went back to South Africa he published this book in a signed and numbered limited edition of fifty copies.’
‘Of which you had number…?’
‘One. It’s a curiosity really, not a significant historical document. Most of the copies have disappeared over the years. I suppose there’re still a few in private hands. As far as I know, none of the libraries, even the Mitchell, holds copies.’
‘I thought they got everything.’
‘There are reasons apart from self-published books being obscure. Lyell included some stuff about him and his men having sexual contact with Aboriginal women, and some drawings. Pornographic, really-the high-minded gentlemen librarians of the time wouldn’t have touched it, even if they’d known about it, which they probably didn’t.’
‘It’s interesting, Craig, but I can’t see what help I could be. Maybe it’s just some nutter of a descendant upset about the sex and wanting to eliminate all the copies as blots on the family escutcheon.’
‘No way. Lyell was an only child and he was drowned when his ship went down on the passage from Australia to South Africa. He was only thirty, unmarried, no issue, as they say.’
I shrugged. ‘Okay.’
‘There’s something else. Whoever stole the book has an accomplice.’
‘How do you figure that?’
‘The Lyell volume was in one of my locked cases. Somehow the glass was cut and the book taken. The thief must have got someone to distract me. I checked with a couple of the other booksellers and much the same thing happened in their places. We had a bit of an email conference and they agreed to let me have a go at… nabbing the culprit and getting the books back. Of course everyone’s interested in why.’
‘Yeah, but how would you, or I, go about doing that?’
Craig looked pleased with himself. He ran his fingers through his wild hair and tapped the side of his nose in an old-fashioned gesture. Running a bookshop can throw you back to the last century, apparently. He was about to speak when the bell sounded again and he moved away.
I returned to the Australian history section and, sure enough, a glass panel in the locked case had recently been replaced. Not that I doubted Craig’s word, but confirmation is the name of the game in my business. There were plenty of other explorers’ published journals in the bookcase and out on the shelves-Eyre, Stuart, Sturt, Leichhardt himself, Giles and others-and books about them. Some were handsomely leather-bound with gold lettering, collectors’ items. I wondered what could be motivating Craig’s mysterious thief. Some kind of obsession, but what?
This time Craig didn’t make a sale. He closed the door behind the non-customer and swung the ‘Closed’ sign into place.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘This is it. I got hold of a copy of the book. Cost me a bit but I did it.’
‘Don’t ask, trade secret. The thing is, I put out a monthly newsletter-cum-catalogue. Goes out tomorrow. I’m going to include the book in it. Bait, see?’
‘You reckon your thief keeps an eye on such catalogues?’
‘Bound to, mine in particular. I’m… ahem… a leading player in the field. What I do is give a date when special items in the catalogue become available. That’ll be next week. The punters turn up on the day. It’s a bit of a rush for a while and then it settles down.’
‘What if someone else wants to buy the book?’
‘I thought of that. I’ll tag it as sold from the word go. I’ve installed video surveillance now-cost a bomb, but it’s worth it. Totally concealed, no warning signs the way shops usually have. You can be up there on the mezzanine in my office and watch it. You see the accomplice distract me and the thief move in. I’ll have the book on display with a card all about its history. No real security. You come down and that’s it-both birds snared.’
‘What makes you think I can snare both birds?’
‘Come on, Cliff. Have you had a look at yourself lately? You scare me and I’m sure there’s some kind of badge you can show. I don’t think you’ll need your gun.’
‘What happens then?’
‘We find out what the hell it’s all about. We hope to get all the books back, maybe get some compensation for the damage done to the bookcases. I’m not the only victim of that. What do you say, Cliff? A day of your time, maybe two if they decide to play it cool, which they won’t because they’ll be scared the book’ll go.’
Craig was almost jumping up and down with excitement as he envisaged the scenario. To me, it was all a bit strange and somehow unreal. I couldn’t fully believe in these two wide-ranging, desperado book thieves, but there was something infectious about his enthusiasm.
‘The main interest for me,’ I said, ‘apart from earning my appropriate fee, is what the fuck they’re playing at.’
‘Set it up, Craig. I’m in.’
Craig issued the catalogue and gave Northern Trekking a prominent place with a photograph. It was priced at a hefty four hundred and fifty dollars. The launching of the catalogue, a special evening social event for the regulars to place their orders, would be a couple of days before the items went on sale. I checked on the video surveillance gear. A four-way split screen gave good coverage of the whole shop. Crisp black and white images and a running time clock. The equipment had the capacity to record all four images on a hard disk and transfer them to a cassette or a CD. Must have cost a bomb and was way over the top for a shop like Craig’s, but he was on a mission.
I told Lily, my part-time partner who was staying over at my place that night, about the case and she said it sounded like fun.
‘How’s he going to pay you?’ she asked. ‘In books?’
‘Not a bad idea. Build up a decent credit.’
‘You’ve got an unread pile beside the bed.’
‘That’s because you distract me.’
‘I’m off to Canberra tomorrow for a couple of days. Give you time to catch up.’
As Craig had predicted, there was an early rush at the opening and no chance for anyone to do any stealing. I had a chair that was deliberately not too comfortable, and Craig’s office had a coffee machine. I’d brought sandwiches and a wide-neck bottle to piss in. As stake-outs go, it was one of the most comfortable I’d undertaken.
After a while watching the screens became boring, especially as nothing happened. Then something did: a woman wearing a loose, full-length coat took a book from a shelf and dropped it into an inside pocket. Then she browsed for a second or two before unhurriedly leaving the shop. Nothing I could do. The book she took wasn’t one of the pricey items but Craig was still out a few dollars. He was doing a brisk trade, though, taking orders.
After a while the numbers dropped off and there were empty spaces on the shelves, fewer browsers, fewer placing orders. Danger time. I kept a close watch on people coming through the door. Would they come in singly or in a pair? My bet was singly. Overall, there had been more women than men but there was no reason the thief couldn’t be a woman, or a man with a female accomplice or any other combination. I’d have put my money on a woman to do the distracting and a man to do the lifting. Glass cutting isn’t easy, although this time it wasn’t necessary.
The lights went down and the screens went blank. I’ll swear it was only for a split second, the blink of an eye, but it happened. As soon as the screen was active again I homed in on the stand that held the book. It was still there. I breathed a sigh of relief and went on with my watch. Coffee and sandwiches. The crowd thinned away to almost nothing, and Craig must have told the few people remaining that he was closing because they filed out obediently.
I came down the stairs. ‘Did you see the lights flicker?’ I said. ‘What was that?’
‘Something to do with the grid, I guess. It happens, but I’ve got generator backup because of some manuscripts that have to be kept at a set temperature. You didn’t lose picture, did you?’
‘Blink of an eye only. Anyway, the book’s still there.’
‘That’s disappointing. I felt sure they’d try on day one.’ He drifted over to the display stand. ‘Jesus H Christ!’
I was snooping at the credit card slips. I practically hurdled the counter to get to him. ‘What?’
He held the book in his hand. ‘This is a dummy-a fucking fake.’
We pieced it together. Somehow, someone had tripped the fuses located near the front of the shop. In the time the power was off the book had been switched. Craig was cursing himself for not thinking about the power supply and I was telling him it was my fault for not checking on it. That was true.
‘Shit, I’m out six hundred bucks and we learned nothing.’
‘That’s what you paid for it?’
‘I told you not to ask.’
‘Okay. But when we play back the video we should be able to see who was near the fuse box and who was near the display stand.’
We replayed the footage captured on the hard disk. At the time there were four people in the shop. One stood between two big shelves, spectacles hanging from his mouth, peering at the titles. One was Craig, busying himself behind the counter. Two were on the move, one towards the fuse box, the other towards the display stand. The trouble was, they must have known exactly how the cameras were placed because they kept their backs to them both on the approach and on the retreat. They wore coats and hats and were medium-sized. Impossible to tell their ages and my feeling that the one who’d dealt with the fuses was a woman was just that, a feeling, a guess, based on the way the person moved.
The browser took a book from the shelf, replaced his glasses and went to the counter.
Craig took the order with less than his usual enthusiasm. ‘Picked Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden,’ Craig said when the door closed, shaking his head in disappointment.
‘Yeah, but we learned bugger-all from the exercise.’
‘Not quite. They knew about the cameras and exactly where they were placed. How would they know that?’
‘Search me. I had it done when the shop was closed for the Easter break. Never showed it to anyone except you.’
‘And they knew about the fuse box, although I suppose that’s fairly easy to spot. But it means they’ve spent some time in the shop and checked things out. And had that dummy copy all prepared. Meticulous.’
‘Bastards! What can we do now?’
I replayed the footage. Another person had entered the shop as the thieves were leaving. I froze the frame.
‘Who’s that? She might have seen something about them that could be useful.’
Craig riffled through the order slips. ‘She chose something. Here it is-Oscar, Picture of Dorian Grey -MasterCard.’
‘Give me the number. I can track her down.’
‘Trade secret. You know how to operate that equipment. Pick out a couple of the clearest shots and blow them up. Could be something we’ve missed. I’ll get back to you if I turn up anything useful.’
I was mostly humouring him, but he seemed to take a little heart. He scribbled down the credit card number.
‘Thanks anyway, Cliff.’
‘We ain’t done yet.’
At home, with Lily away on her journalistic assignment, I poured a solid scotch over ice and was ready to turn on Lateline when there was a knock at the door. I opened it, drink in hand. A medium-sized man wearing a long coat and a hat and carrying an overnight bag stood there.
‘Mr Hardy,’ he said, ‘my name is Sylvester Browne- Browne with an e.’ He dug in the bag and held up a book- Northern Trekking. ‘I think we should have a talk, don’t you?’
I ushered him through to the living room. He opened the bag and stacked a number of the books on a chair.
‘Fourteen copies. The total in Australia.’ He opened his wallet and laid three one hundred dollar notes on top of the pile. ‘Payment for the damage to three glass cases.’
My jaw must have dropped. All I could think to do was offer him a drink.
‘Thank you. Whatever you’re having. May I take off my hat and coat?’
I nodded and he draped the coat over the stair rail and put the hat on the post. I recovered my wits and asked him to sit down.
I came back with his drink and the bottle and a bowl of ice and sat opposite him.
‘Cheers,’ he said.
He was pale, thin-faced, with sandy hair neatly parted. Horn-rimmed glasses. He wore a fawn v-neck sweater with a collar and tie, brown trousers and black Oxfords-not a good look. He took a solid swig of the scotch and let out a contented sigh.
‘I’m glad you brought the bottle in, Mr Hardy, because I have a peculiar tale to tell and it may take some time.’
I guessed him to be in his fifties. There was an accent, South African or thereabouts, and the slight clicking of false teeth. I drank, nodded, indicated my willingness to listen.
‘I am a bookworm, Mr Hardy…’
He told me that he was South African, an academic historian who specialised in nineteenth-century history. During his researches he had come across a letter written by EB Lyell to a friend in Cape Town. Lyell’s vessel, the Esmeralda, was held up for repairs in Mauritius and Lyell had sent a letter home by another ship that would get there earlier. This friend was a mining engineer of no importance until he went into politics and became a minister in the post Boer War government. The letter was included among his papers, which Browne was studying.
‘The letter was discursive, rambling even, and I have a suspicion that Lyell may have been under the influence.’ Browne raised his glass. ‘He alluded to his book and said that he had arranged to send some copies ahead of him and some to England and left some in Australia in the care of a man named Carter whom he described as his agent. He said that he had discovered a rich reef of gold while on his expedition in northern Australia and that he’d marked the spot on a map in one of the copies of the book, which he’d intended to keep with him at all times.’
‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘I’ve been told that he faked those expeditions.’
‘Not the first one. That was genuine. May I continue?’
I topped him up and he went on. ‘Lyell was in distress when he wrote this letter. He’d found, to his dismay, that the three copies of the book he had with him did not have the marked map. He’d been drinking a good deal after being exposed as a fraud in Australia, something he freely admitted to his friend, and now he didn’t know where the marked book was. Possibly still in Australia, or on its way to England or South Africa.
‘I took early retirement from the university on a generous settlement and I’ve devoted the last few years to tracking down the copies of Lyell s book. Fifty, as you know. I found twenty-three copies in South Africa and fourteen here in Australia. Three went down with the Esmeralda, leaving ten.’
‘Always assuming some haven’t just been lost or are mouldering away somewhere.’
‘Remarkably, that’s not the case. I located the papers of Richard Carter, Lyell’s agent, in the Oxley Library in Brisbane. They clearly show that he dispatched ten copies to his agent in England.’
‘You’ve been thorough.’
‘It’s something I pride myself on.’
‘Also criminal. Why didn’t you just buy up the copies as you found them here? You say you’ve got the money.’
‘I haven’t had a lot of excitement in my life, Mr Hardy. I was a dud at sport, which was all that counted when I was at school. I’m a bachelor with no children and only a few relatively insignificant books to my credit. I did it to see if I could do something out of the ordinary. I did it for fun, and now I’ve made recompense.’
I poured us some more scotch and asked him how he’d known what was going on at Craig’s shop. He said he smelled a rat when Craig’s catalogue came out and he conducted a careful surveillance of the shop. He’d seen me arrive, followed me to my office and knew my profession. He knew where the cameras were positioned and he found someone to help him disable the power supply.
‘Who?’ I asked.
He smiled. ‘Just a friend. Someone who’s helped me in my little escapade.’
He was determined to construct the whole thing as a sort of goofy adventure and I couldn’t blame him. It was, and Craig and I were both going to come out of it okay. Craig could restore the books to his colleagues and I could take credit for having resolved the matter. He read my mind.
‘Mr Minson will be satisfied with your efforts, won’t he?’
‘I guess so.’
‘You can imagine my disappointment when this last volume turned out not to be the one. I had high hopes of it. I always intended to return the books or to pay handsomely for the right one if I found it. But seeing that Mr Minson took the matter so seriously and went to some expense, it seems only fitting to return them to him.’
‘He’ll be grateful.’
‘Yes, but it would embarrass me to do it in person and his reaction might be problematical. I thought it best to ask you to do it.’
‘How did you know I wouldn’t be problematical?’
‘I’ve observed you. You strike me as someone with a sense of humour and of course what I’m doing is comical, ridiculous. You’ve been hospitable and patient, bearing out my judgement. I have a favour to ask. Could you please not reveal what I was about until you next hear from me? I’m off to England tomorrow. I don’t know how long the search will take me, could be months or years. But I’d be glad if you could keep it a secret until I let you know the result, one way or another.’
He was obsessed, more than a little mad, but somehow likeable. I thought of El Dorado and Lasseter’s lost reef. ‘It’s a deal,’ I said. ‘And good luck to you, Mr Browne with an e.’
Clayton Harrison was someone I’d known in the army. He was a fairly gung-ho type who stayed in longer than me. But we’d got along. We hadn’t exactly saved each other’s lives, but when you’ve been together in mutual support in some of those dangerous spots, there’s a bond. Now he was the editor of a couple of magazines of the outdoor persuasion-shooting, fishing, climbing. His office was in Newtown where I’d recently moved my modest operation and we ran into each other, had an occasional drink, yarned. Then he phoned, sounding serious, and asked me to come and see him.
His office was something of a macho shout of defiance, but there were two or three women working there who didn’t seem to mind. One showed me into Clayton’s bunker. No preliminaries. Clayton slid a glossy magazine across the desk. The cover showed a young man in semi-combat gear with backpack, slogging up a bush track. The name of the publication was Dare to Survive.
‘Don’t bother to open it,’ Clayton said. ‘You can imagine the contents-fitness instruction, equipment, weapons, medication, plenty of advertising. Plus articles on the psychology of readiness and ways of identifying enemies. Quizzes about paramilitary and terrorist matters. A rich brew.’
I flipped it open anyway. Classy photography, plenty of detachable coupons for advertised products.
‘What’s the problem, Clay-competition?’
‘No, not the same market. The problem is that I’ve got this son. He’s into all this stuff in a big way. Now this mob,’ he tapped the magazine, ‘run a sort of camp in the bush- survival stuff, toughen-you-up crap, orienteering, paint-gun exercises, that sort of thing.’
I nodded. ‘Like Outward Bound-used to be sponsored by Phil the Greek. Probably still is.’
‘Don’t take the piss, Cliff. This is paramilitary stuff. It worries me that Gary’s getting into it. His mother tells me he’s all set to go on the next bivouac-they use the term- and she can’t talk him out of it.’
‘How old is he? Is he a big bloke like you?’
‘He’s eighteen-no-nineteen. Yeah he’s about the size I was at that age, before I put on the flab.’
‘He’s an adult. What harm can it do?’
‘There’s more to it. Shit, I wish I was allowed to smoke in my own bloody office. The Nanny state is here, wouldn’t you say?’
‘I couldn’t care less. Get to the point, Clay.’
‘I split up with Gary’s mother years ago. Harriet, a bit of a ball-breaker. Okay, I wasn’t husband material. Anyway, give her her due, she didn’t stop me seeing Gary through all the important years-school, sports teams and that. I wasn’t very reliable though. We never got close. He’s at uni now. Just, started, part time. I offered to pay upfront but he didn’t want to know. He works as a motorcycle courier- cunt of a job.’
‘Yeah. But Harriet took up with this Arab bloke a couple of years ago. Sirdar something or other. I think he helped push Gary in the direction we’re talking about and I’m. worried that…’
‘Dare to Survive is a cover for a Muslim terrorist training camp? Come on, Clay.’
‘I know, I know, I’m overreacting. But you know how things are just now. The least smell of anything like that can bugger the prospects of anyone associated with it. I want my boy to have a decent career, a decent life.’
‘Spotted him reading the Koran?’
‘You can laugh, but I’m serious and I’ve got a serious job for you. That’s if you want to work and not just make jokes.’
I wanted to work, and I needed to. Business had been slow and the bills still came in quickly. I’d had to take out costly levels of protective professional insurance and cover for the people I occasionally recruit as helpers. I had a bit of a tax problem and the house needed repairs. I couldn’t afford to turn down work from someone who was in a position to meet my fees. I nodded and picked up the magazine to indicate that I was paying attention.
‘I’ve done a deal with the DTS people to send a journalist along on their next camp to write about it for one of my magazines. That’s you, if you’re up for it, Cliff.’
‘Hold on. Won’t your kid know you’re spying on him?’
‘Shit, you’ve got a great way of putting things. No.’ He struggled to keep the disappointment out of his voice. ‘Gary’s bored by my business. I’ll concoct a false name for the magazine, but he wouldn’t show any interest anyway. Like I say, we’re not close but I still care about him. I hope we can get on better terms one of these days.’
‘Suppose someone notices the names-yours and his being the same-and works out what’s going on?’
Clay shook his head. ‘We weren’t married when he was born. She insisted that he took her name-Pearson. I tried to get it changed later but we were finished by then, so…’
He opened a drawer in his desk, took out a photograph and handed it to me. There was something sad about that-keeping your kid’s picture in a drawer. Gary Pearson was Clay’s son all right, the way James Packer is Kerry’s. In fact there was a resemblance-the same big, strong features, thrusting jaw, aggressive hairline. He wasn’t handsome in the same way Clay wasn’t, but he caught your attention. Looked to have the same solid neck and shoulders.
‘He’s a lump of a lad,’ I said. ‘I doubt I could keep up with him in a cross-country run.’
Clay must have been confident I’d do it. He opened another drawer and took out a set of keys and a wallet.
‘There’s a Pajero standing waiting. It’s got all the gear you’ll need-camping equipment, camera, tape recorder, clothing, medical stuff, mobile, laptop, the works. Your authorisation as a journalist is here and some cash. I’ll sign a contract and pay your retainer. This is a legitimate job, Cliff. More so than some you’ve taken on, I bet.’
I let that pass. People like to think the worst of us and I like to let them and then give them a pleasant surprise. He told me that the DTS bivouac party was to set off from a meeting point to be named in two days’ time. Six vehicles, plus mine-twenty-four survivalists, plus me.
‘To be named?’ I said.
‘They’ll advise me and I’ll advise you.’
I scooped the keys and the wallet towards me. The wallet felt comfortably filled. ‘Destination?’ I asked.
He shook his head. ‘Dunno. To be revealed at the time of departure. You can bet they’ve got a bush camp out there somewhere.’
‘It’s a big “out there”. Any names?’
‘Just one-Hilary St James, would you believe. He’s the editor of their magazine and the head of the organisation. Whether he’s going on safari I don’t know.’
‘Did you check on him?’
Clay smiled in the winning way he had that redeemed that almost brutal face. ‘I thought I’d leave that to you.’
Clay got someone to drive my car home while I piloted the newish, slightly travel-stained Pajero. It handled well, but still felt like driving a truck, lending a false sense of superiority. The fuel tank was full and the service sticker indicated that it had been tuned up recently.
Clay’s driver took off and I went through the gear in the 4WD. The clothes and boots and other usefuls were newish but showed a bit of wear. Obviously I was to present as someone who’d been off the tarmac in his time-partly true, but it had been a while. I took the technical bits inside and made myself familiar with them. As well as the things Clay had mentioned, there was a folder of maps covering a good part of the state, and a compass I hoped I’d never need. The gas stove and cylinder were a potential comfort, like the medical chest and, especially, the bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. Luckily, the laptop was user-friendly for me-a Mac with Word installed, so I’d be able to make a show of entering notes and impressions. The digital camera was in advance of anything I’d used but simple enough.
Clay phoned me the following day. ‘0630 hours,’ he said. ‘Muster at Wentworth Park.’
‘You sound like you wish you were going.’
‘In a way I do. Take care of yourself, Cliff, and keep an eye on my boy. First sign of anything dodgy along the lines we talked about and you pull him out.’
‘You didn’t mention that-might not be easy.’
‘Probably won’t be necessary but you’ll manage if it is. I have confidence in you. And this St James character is going apparently. Wants to meet you and he says you’ll have no trouble spotting him.’
‘Wonder what that means.’
‘Nothing on where we’re going or for how long?’
‘How does Gary take off like this if he’s at university?’
‘He just does. Get a good night’s sleep. Stay in touch, Cliff.’
Despite myself, I was close to excited. I was never in the Scouts or anything like that, but with some teenage mates I went out west at weekends: we took old. 303s,. 22s and beer, ostensibly to shoot kangaroos and feral pigs, but really just to go bush and rough it. Then came the army. Training in Queensland was okay, fighting in the jungles wasn’t, but this felt more like a harking back to the good old days- with a professional edge.
I did a web check on Hilary St James. He was CEO of something called Survival Enterprises which, in addition to publishing the magazine, had several retail outlets selling outdoor and patriotic gear. The company claimed to have offices in Jakarta and Malaysia and to be affiliated with similar organisations in Britain, New Zealand and the United States. Its motto was, ‘We will be there!’
St James was born in South Africa and had served in that country’s army in the apartheid era. According to the webpage, he moved to Australia and ran a successful import/export business before turning his ‘talents and resources to stiffening the physical and moral fibre of Australia’s youth’. He was sixty years of age and the webpage described him as being as fit as a man half his age. A slightly faded postcard-sized photograph of him in semi-combat gear backed up the claim. St James stood half a head taller than others in the picture, and his tilted-back head showed a mane of fair hair, a strong neck and a sharp jawline. Icy pale eyes. Interestingly, the photo would not blow up. He’d self-published two books- Man Alive and Fight for Your Freedom. Go, Hilary!
I was at the rendezvous point at the stated time, wearing boots, jeans, a T-shirt and a flannie against the early morning cold. A two-day stubble. It was early July and the day was clear-hard to say how it’d develop in the city, let alone where we might be headed. The mobile had a hands-free hookup, and a quick check showed that it was fully charged. The laptops battery likewise. I’d slept well and I had a Smith amp; Wesson. 38 pistol wrapped in a towel tucked down in a backpack under a couple of books. Be prepared.
Three off-road vehicles were there when I arrived and two sedans. A covered truck pulled up soon after. I sat tight, preferring to have St James seek me out rather than the other way around. After a bit of confab between the various drivers, a man jumped down from the truck and came towards me. No mistaking him, although he wasn’t as tall as he’d looked in the photo. As he drew nearer, I could see why he hadn’t wanted a clearer photo-hair that had looked white-blonde was actually grey and the flinty eyes were surrounded by lines and wrinkles. If his birth certificate said he was sixty I still wouldn’t have believed it-he was at least ten years older. Still, he moved well, with a long, balanced stride, and looked trim inside dark pants and shirt and a tight down vest. I got out of the car.
‘Mr Hardy, I presume,’ he said, the voice strongly accented. ‘Welcome.’
‘Thank you.’ We shook hands. His grip was strong but not aggressive. ‘Cliff’ll do it, Mr St James.’
‘Oh, no,’ he shook his head. ‘We insist on some formality in this exercise. I’m simply known as Leader and what you might call our NCOs are called numbers one to five respectively. The trainees answer to code names, which will be stencilled onto the back of their clothing.’
‘Got it,’ I said. ‘Very efficient arrangement. Where are we bound?’
‘All in good time, Mr Hardy, all in good time. If you’ll just fall in to the middle of the convoy we’ll be on our way.’
I nodded and got back behind the wheel. 0630 hours, Leader, NCOs, convoy-military stuff, but there was nothing of that about the vehicles. The 4WDs were of various makes, sizes and colours and the truck was red with a blue covering. The lettering on its side read DTS but, with the sedans positioned between the truck and the 4WDs, a casual observer would see nothing alarming about us as we pulled on to the road and took off at a modest pace. Traffic was light and a grey, overcast day was building. Before too long at least our intended direction was evident-west.
Clay had provided me with a batch of CDs not to my taste-classical and jazz instrumentals, not even an aria or two. Music needs words to my mind, but I tried a few before switching off and tuning in to Radio National at news time. A congestion tax for the CBD was being debated-okay by me. Anyone who takes a car to within a couple of clicks of the city deserves to pay.
It wasn’t a problem here where we picked up the Great Western Highway and followed it to the Bathurst Road exit. The land rose, the air cooled and I was grateful for the Pajero’s heating system. We ran into a brief but severe rainstorm and the wipers coped well: heating and effective wipers both needed urgent attention on my Falcon.
I was impressed by the discipline of my co-drivers. No macho stuff. When cowboys wanted to pass they were permitted, and when the truck laboured a bit on the hills it was allowed to fall behind and then the convoy slowed almost imperceptibly to let it catch up. Give him his due, St James apparently had no need to be at the head of his troops. I was happy to stay more or less in the middle position. I amused myself by memorising the registration plates of the truck and several of the other vehicles-for no good reason, just staying in practice.
After we bypassed Bathurst my Clay-supplied mobile rang. It was St James, who’d evidently been given the number by Clay, something he hadn’t told me.
‘Any bladder pressure, Mr Hardy?’
‘I went before I came.’
He didn’t laugh. ‘Is that a no?’
‘Yes, that’s a no.’
I heard him draw in an exasperated breath, but he maintained control. ‘Good man!’
He rang off. A concerned commander, or testing my mettle? I shouldn’t have needled him but I couldn’t help it. Serious soldiering has my respect; play-actors should have a sense of humour.
We went off the paved road onto gravel and then to a dirt track winding through thick bush. Climbing and getting colder. A brief stop for a gate to be opened, and then it was over a cattle grid and onto a track that was wider than the previous one and had recently been graded. The bush was still thick, but I could see open patches through the trees. A bridge over a moderately large stream appeared to be new and solid. Then the convoy slowed, took a bend, and I came in sight of what St James probably referred to as HQ, or perhaps the operational base, with an electronically operated gate.
The farmhouse in the middle of the enclosed space was sandstone and old with a bullnose verandah running around three sides. It was long and low and three chimneys were smoking. There was a cement parking space for the vehicles to one side and four old-style Nissan huts arranged in a square around a gravel area with a flagpole in its centre. No grass, no garden except a small patch around the base of the flagpole. Nothing frivolous.
Uh-oh, I thought, square bashing and hard beds in unheated huts. Took me back and not to where I wanted to go. I determined to insist on my civilian status. I fancied being inside the house, nestled up to a fire with a drink in hand.
I parked the Pajero as far as I could from the other vehicles, got out and used Clay’s camera to take a few pictures of the scene. All of a sudden the site had assumed a military aspect despite the disparate character of the vehicles-the Australian flag, flying bravely above another carrying a DTS logo, in a light, chilly breeze, and the fatigues and berets being worn by the personnel did the trick.
St James approached me. ‘Should have asked permission, Hardy,’ he said.
He was annoyed enough to drop the Mister. ‘Sorry, Leader,’ I said. ‘I meant no harm.’
‘Hope not. Ask next time. You’ll be quartered in the house. Take your gear in and one of my chaps’ll show you to your room.’
Suited me. I almost saluted. I gathered together the stuff Clay had provided and my own equipment and organised it into a portable load. I spent longer at the task than needed, and used the time to inspect the NCOs and trainees as they got organised. I was more than fifty metres away and couldn’t be quite sure I’d spotted Gary Pearson. The code names were simply colours with a numeral, red 1, blue 2, yellow, etc. Pearson could’ve been one of three big blokes with a similar build.
As expected, the trainees looked young-early twenties or younger-and the NCOs were older. To my surprise, two of them had dark faces. Three or four of the trainees didn’t look like Anglo-Celts either, but they all seemed dead keen. They fell in smartly and were marched off towards the Nissan huts with duffel bags on their square shoulders.
I took my stuff to the house-laptop slung from one shoulder, overnight bag from the other, carrying other items. Just before I mounted the steps to the verandah, I looked around and experienced an odd sensation that stayed with me, although it meant nothing at all-I was the only man in sight not wearing headgear. Seriously undressed in military terms.
The big man who met me on the verandah wore a beret and a buttoned-up white Nehru-type jacket, with black trousers tucked into combat boots. Not quite a steward, not quite a soldier, but not far off either.
Over the next three days I spent some time participating in the trainees’ activities. I had a comfortable bed in a warm room while they slept in bunks in the huts with kerosene heaters that didn’t do much against the cold. I ate the same nutritious food as them but served motel-style in my room. I attended without encouragement one of St James’s lectures on courage and character, and that was enough.
I went on a couple of the route marches and didn’t fall behind, although I was carrying only a light backpack while they were heavily laden. A couple of trainees who finished well behind were given mild kitchen punishment duties. I passed on fording the waist-deep stream with equipment held up high above my head. Two trainees who fell into the water were roundly abused by the NCOs.
On the fourth day the trainees were mustered for shooting practice and I went along. I’d been permitted to take photographs up to then, but St James banned the camera for this exercise.
‘Might give your readers the wrong idea,’ he said. ‘You can write whatever you like, but pictures speak louder and sometimes more ambiguously than words.’
Nicely put. They marched, I walked, to a shooting site that had been constructed by bulldozers. A chute with sides about six metres high had been built with a solid earth wall at least twice that height fifty or sixty metres distant. Targets were arranged on the wall that sloped back slightly so that ricochets and deflections would be directed away from the shooters. There were six shooting stalls, all equipped with benches holding earmuffs, ammunition and semiautomatic rifles.
It had taken a while to identify Gary Pearson. The trainees wore their hats pulled down and seemed to delight in keeping their combat camouflage paint on, but I had him now and watched him closely. He appeared to be one of the keenest and most accomplished of the trainees- smartly turned out at all times, an early finisher in the marches, first or second man across the stream, beating a couple of the NCOs who’d had a head start. Now he was selected as one of the first batch of shooters.
St James took me aside. ‘In case you’re wondering, Hardy, DTS is registered as a gun club. In any case, this is private property.’
‘Really? I meant to ask. How many acres?’
‘About a hundred and fifty hectares.’
One for him.
A volley of shots sounded.
‘I hope you’re not a pacifist.’
‘Not me,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t have the courage.’
One for me, maybe.
The shooting continued and there are few more boring things to watch and listen to-motor racing, perhaps. The targets were human silhouettes of various shapes, sizes and colours. After a while the bullets had shredded them into unrecognisable tatters. One of the dark NCOs, still known to me only as number three, announced that Pearson had scored more direct and well-placed hits than any of the others. He clapped the young man on the back and had to reach up to do it, being ten centimetres shorter.
‘Who’s that NCO?’ I asked St James, who’d watched the shooting with his head tilted back in his Viking pose.
‘He stands out-one of your best.’
‘True. Sirdar Assad. He should be. He fought in places you’ve heard of and places you haven’t heard of
‘He’s a mercenary?’
St James ignored the question. ‘Promising lad, that Pearson,’ he said.
‘What do you imagine all this fits them for especially?’
I took an appraising look at the trainees being instructed in the maintenance of their weapons. ‘Kids look like suburban types to me-office workers, keyboard jockeys. How will this kind of training help?’
St James appeared to be pleased to get the question. He adjusted his beret. ‘Do you think this country’s safe, Hardy?’
‘Why d’you say that?’
‘I reckon it’s safe from all but a handful of religious maniacs who’ll go out of fashion as soon as the US elects an intelligent president and the media stops beating the terrorism drum.’
He spun on his heel. ‘There are none so blind that cannot see.’
I thought, but didn’t say, a misquote, and cliche is the last resort of the obsessive. It wasn’t much but I was beginning to get a closer focus on what St James and DTS were all about, beyond what was in the literature.
To my surprise, St James invited me to give a talk to the trainees that night on the subject of journalism as a profession. ‘You seemed to have some definite views on the matter and its relation to the present crisis when we talked earlier,’ he said. ‘We want these lads to have active minds as well as bodies, so I’d be glad if you’d give them the benefit of your experience and be willing to field whatever questions they might throw at you.’
I couldn’t refuse and I muddled through it on the basis of whatever I’d picked up from the few journalist friends I had. Two adjoining rooms in the house with the connecting doors drawn apart served as the lecture theatre. Fires were burning in both rooms and the trainees seemed happy to be there, whatever the subject, instead of in their huts. In years past I’d given talks on the private enquiry business to TAPE students doing the PEA qualifying course, and this wasn’t so different, until Gary Pearson got to his feet in question time.
‘What would you say, Mr Hardy, to the idea that journalists are liars who write whatever their bosses tell them to write no matter what the facts are?’
‘I’d say that’s bullshit.’
‘We don’t permit bad language here, Hardy,’ St James said.
‘That’s bullshit, too.’
Two of the NCOs, Assad and another, moved in efficiently. Assad blocked me off from the audience while the other one pinioned my arms and eased me out through a side door. I heard St James raise his voice slightly above the murmuring as he brought the trainees to order.
Standing in the corridor, we were joined by the man who’d met me on the verandah on day one-same beret, same jacket, same pants and boots but a different mood. ‘Go through to your room,’ he said. ‘Leader will speak to you when he’s ready.’
‘I can’t wait,’ I said.
I’d blown it but I didn’t much care. I assumed the trainees were paying through the nose for their bivouac and the privilege of being insulted by their instructors. Looked to me as if St James had some kind of frustrated obsession about the military life and the decadence of society that he was turning into money. Let him. Gary Pearson was a big adult with certain skills and rather uncongenial ideas. I couldn’t see him coming to any physical harm, and if he chose to embrace St James’s view of the world, that was his lookout. I felt I’d fulfilled my commission for Clay Harrison and I didn’t want to hang around this overgrown schoolboy atmosphere any longer. I started packing.
St James walked in without knocking.
‘Bad manners,’ I said. ‘Tsk, tsk.’
‘You’re a disgrace. I’m going to contact your editor and withdraw permission for you to write about us.’
‘Your privilege. I was never much good at writing comedy anyway.’
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
‘Packing. I’m leaving.’
‘You are not. The perimeter is patrolled and protected. You will remain here until you are given permission to leave.’
‘And when will that be, dear Leader?’
If he got the reference he didn’t react. ‘0800,’ he said.
‘Eight am, that’s fine. Goodnight.’
He was adept at heel-turning; he did it again and left.
I’d eaten, the room was warm, there was an ensuite and I had the scotch and a good biography of Paul Scott. No reason not to stay the night. I had the level in the bottle challenged and I was still reading a bit after one am when there was a faint knock on the door. I opened it to find Gary Pearson standing in the darkened passage in his socks, carrying his boots.
‘I have to talk to you,’ he whispered.
‘I thought the house was off limits at night for you guys.’
‘It is. They’d throw me out of the course if they knew. Let me in, Mr Hardy, please.’
I let him in and quietly closed the door behind him. Stealth, whispering and politeness were all very well, but was this one of St James’s little gambits? I pointed to a chair. ‘Want a drink, Pearson?’
‘Sure, thanks. In case you hadn’t noticed, the camp is dry.’
I poured some scotch over ice and added water. ‘I noticed. I could’ve used something to wash down those stews and pastas. So that’s another rule you’re breaking.’
He took the drink in his meaty fist. ‘Thanks. Yeah. Sorry I got up your nose tonight. I had to find out where you were coming from.’
‘And did you?’
‘Yeah, you think this is all a lot of crap.’
‘There goes another rule.’
‘Here goes another one-I have to get out tonight.’
‘I can’t say, I just do. It’s important.’
‘Why tell me?’
‘I want you to help me.’
‘Why would I do that. I’m just-’
‘If you’re a journalist then I’m John Howard. I’ve seen the way you move and look at things, how you hold yourself. You’re here for some other reason. I don’t know what it is and I don’t care, but since you’re on the way out anyway, I thought you might help me. I’m going no matter what, but it’d be easier as a two-man operation.’
‘If they caught you sneaking out, what would they do?’
‘Something pretty rough, psychological as well as physical. I don’t like to think about it. I heard of this kid who finished up with a broken leg…’
‘So you reckon with me along they wouldn’t try anything like that?’
He emptied his glass. ‘I hadn’t thought about that, but yeah, I guess so. I can pay you.’
He had me over a barrel although he didn’t know it. My brief from his father was to look after him, and if I didn’t go along with his plan and it came unstuck as a solo, it sounded as if he was in for a bad time. I didn’t mind putting a thumb in St James’s eye, but it wouldn’t do to appear too idealistic.
‘How much?’ I said.
‘Five hundred dollars.’
‘Chicken feed, but you’re on. How d’you see it working?’
He told me that he’d located the control point for the sensor lights and the electronic gate. ‘I’m okay with that stuff,’ he said. ‘I can take them out long enough for us to get clear in your vehicle.’
I didn’t fully believe him but I was willing to play along. What was the worst that could happen? The Pajero could certainly break through the fence beside the gate once we got rolling, and I hadn’t seen any guard towers around the perimeter.
Pearson explained that he’d worked out a way to disable the lights and the gate for a maximum of thirty-five seconds. ‘Then a backup power source cuts in and the place is floodlit again, a siren goes off and the gate locks. And one more thing-the dog.’
I had seen a German Shepherd around a few times. It looked friendly enough and I said so.
‘He isn’t when he’s tethered at night near the electric control panel and instructed to bark blue murder if anyone approaches. But I’ve got matey with him and I can keep him quiet.’
‘I can’t see why you need me. A man with your resourcefulness should’ve been able to pinch a car key by now.’
He nodded seriously. ‘I probably could have but the thing is, I’ve got to cover nearly two hundred metres in thirty seconds in the dark. I’ve worked out that I could just about do it, but I couldn’t get my gear into a vehicle, get it started and reach the gate in time. That’s where you come in.’
‘I still can’t see the problem. If the gate locked my Pajero’d go straight through the fence.’
‘No it wouldn’t. The fence doesn’t look much but it’s electrified at a pretty high voltage. You hit it and it’d short out your electricals.’
‘A thousand bucks,’ I said. ‘And St James said something about patrols.’
‘Seven fifty. There aren’t any patrols. He says that just to make everything sound… you know, military.’
‘Sure you won’t tell me why you need to do this?’
‘I’ll tell you when we’ve made it. How’s that?’
‘Have to do. When do we do the Steve McQueen bit?’
He looked at me blankly.
‘A movie,’ I said. ‘ The Great Escape -you’ve never seen it?’
‘I don’t think so. Yeah, well, at 0300.’
He was hard to read-a gung-ho, dead shot, spit ‘n’ polish type who’d never seen one of the iconic war movies. The military lingo slid off his tongue but he wanted out. About an hour to wait. He said he had to sneak back to collect his gear and he nominated a meeting point.
‘What if one of your mates spots you?’
‘They’re knackered from today’s exercise. I’m fitter.’
Arrogant, too, I thought. I wanted to ask him about the NCOs, and particularly Sirdar Assad, but that would’ve aroused suspicion. It was all very odd but I reflected that my two jobs were to watch him and to find out what DTS was all about, and this was a perfect chance. I offered him another drink but he refused and took off in his socks. I poured another slug for myself and packed up my belongings. I was only going to have to travel twenty metres in the dark and start an engine. Piece of cake. I felt like Errol Flynn, except that there was no blonde in sight.
It went like clockwork. We met at the appointed time. I took his duffel bag and scooted across to my car. Pearson disappeared into the semi-darkness at the edge of the floodlit area. I heard a low growl a few seconds later and I started the motor. The lights went out. Pearson sprinted towards me and threw himself into the seat.
I gunned the engine, hit the lights and headed for the gate. Pearson jumped out while the car was still moving, operated the mechanism and swung the gate open. He got back in as we passed through. In the rear vision mirror I saw the area around the house light up like a football ground at night, and I heard the siren scream over the noise of the motor and the tyres on the gravel.
‘Yes!’ Pearson yelled.
We travelled about another hundred metres and then he leaned across and turned off the ignition. The Pajero bumped to a stop. I could see activity behind us, heard a yell and a dog bark.
‘What’re you doing?’ I shouted.
‘Fooled you, Hardy. We have to do an exercise to pass the course, and I chose to persuade you to get me out of the perimeter.’
Few things upset me more than being hoodwinked. His laugh was strangled when I hit him hard with an anger-fuelled short right to the temple. He was thrown sideways, bumped his head, and slumped down in the seat. I started the motor and drove on. I stopped at the cattle grid gate long enough to open it, pass through, close it again and roll a big rock in front to block it. Headlights appeared but I was well clear and drove steadily along the track, making the turns carefully, keeping up a respectable speed. There was a straight stretch before I hit the gravel road and if there was a vehicle following, it was well behind.
Adrenalin and exhilaration pushed me on until I reached the paved road, where I pulled over to take a look at Pearson. He was barely conscious-one of my better punches, aided by the hard interior parts of the car he’d bounced off. But then, many a knockout has been due as much to the head hitting the floor as the left hook. He was coming around, wasn’t bleeding from the ear-a mild concussion at worst. I strapped him firmly into his seatbelt, took a good swig of Johnnie Black and drove on with my right hand throbbing.
Pearson surfaced fully, after some muttering, about the time we met the highway.
He shook his head several times. ‘What happened?’
‘You bumped your head.’
‘You king-hit me, you bastard.’
‘You were fighting above your weight, son. I’ve been tricking people and being tricked for as long as you’ve been alive.’
‘Let me out!’
There was no traffic and I slowed. ‘Sure. Here?’
He stared out to the left and right. ‘Where are we?’
‘About fifty kilometres from Sydney. You could hop out, hitch back. Take you a while.’
‘I’d be a laughing-stock.’
‘I wouldn’t say that. You gave it a go and did pretty well, just didn’t quite wrap it up.’
‘My head hurts.’
‘Probably got a slight concussion. Want a hospital?’
‘I could sue you for assault and… restraint or whatever they call it.’
‘You’d look pretty silly doing that.’
He went quiet but his breathing sounded normal and he seemed to be okay-physically. I reached down for the bottle of water I’d brought on the drive out and passed it to him. He unscrewed the top and swigged.
‘Where d’you want to go, Gary?’
He sounded young all of a sudden. ‘I dunno.’
‘Tell you what, why don’t we go and call on your old man.’
‘What?’ he said, sounding even younger.
I told him everything. He listened, occasionally turning his head to look at me. After I finished he stayed silent for quite a few minutes.
‘I didn’t think he gave a shit about me,’ he said.
‘He does. Probably has trouble showing it.’
‘I suppose so. It’s mutual, I guess. I used to look at a picture of him that Mum had, and I wished… but we never… He’s right that Sirdar got me interested in DTS, but he’s behind the times and way off-beam. Him and my mum were washed up a while back. They’re just friends now. Sirdar’s not a Muslim by the way, he’s a Christian. What do you think of DTS?’
‘How much did you pay to go on the course?’
‘Three thousand dollars. I took out a loan to pay it.’
‘I think it’s an exploitative play-acting operation. If you want to be a soldier, join the army, or the reservists.’
‘I might. What would my father think of that?’
‘I don’t know. He was a very good soldier himself, but he might have a different opinion of the army these days, the way things are.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Politics. Was it true what you said about the consequences of trying to get out of the place-the bastardisation, as it’s known?’
‘No. I made that up. Do you really mean what you said? We go and see him now, at this hour?’
I rang Clay, woke him and filled him in. ‘I’m bringing him to your place,’ I said. ‘You have things to talk about.’
I drew up outside Clay’s house in Erskineville. Clay was standing in his pyjamas and dressing gown at the front gate waiting. Gary grabbed his duffel bag, seemed to think about shaking my hand, didn’t, and got out. I waved and drove off.
I waited a couple of days, making use of the 4WD to do a bit of carting. My daughter Megan had moved into a flat in Dee Why and I helped her to stock it with some furniture I didn’t need. Then I rang Clay and arranged to return the Pajero and the gear he’d lent me. I handed him the keys and dumped the rest on the floor of his office.
‘I drank the scotch,’ I said.
‘Of course. What do I owe you?’
‘I’ll invoice you. Your kid’s got a hard head-I bruised my knuckles. How’s it going with you two?’
‘Not bad. We’re talking. I even had lunch with Harriet the other day.’
‘Don’t tell me I’ve…’
He laughed. ‘No, but it all feels a hell of a lot better. I have to thank you, Cliff.’
‘Any flak from St James?’
He smiled. ‘Flak, eh? Still taking the piss. No, not a squeak. Is there anything dangerous about DTS, d’you reckon?’
‘Only to the bank balances of people silly enough to get into it.’