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

The January Zone

Peter Corris


The January Zone

Peter Corris

1

I am not,’ I said, ‘a security consultant. I am a private detective. A private enquiry agent if you like, a private eye if you must. But the day I let myself be called a security consultant is the day I become a retired private detective.’

‘Cliff, Cliff.’ Peter January always repeated the name when he wanted something. ‘John, John,’ he’d say to his political opposite number or ‘Michael, Michael,’ to the TV journalist. Now he wanted me to work for him. ‘It’s only a name, comrade,’ he said. ‘What does it matter?’

‘It matters to me,’ I said. ‘Fuehrer’s only a name but somehow I don’t like it.’

January laughed. He laughed easily, probably lied easily too. He was a politician from the groomed, greying hair to the Bally shoes, but he also happened to have some ideas I agreed with-nuclear-free Australia, profit-sharing in the workplace and support for the Balmain Tigers. ‘I’m not really talking to you as a professional, Cliff,’ he said. ‘More as a friend. I’m bloody scared. I need help.’

It was my turn to laugh. ‘Shit, you must be joking. You’re a Minister of the Crown. You’ve got everything laid on. You can get in a car to go to the pub if you like even though it’s only just across the road. You can hire all the muscle and brains you need. Look around you.’

We were in January’s inner office. His electorate takes in more pubs and TAB agencies than any other in Australia. He once told me that it used to have more outdoor toilets per capita than anywhere else in the nation until the gentrification of inner Sydney happened. As befitted the holder of one of the safest seats in the Parliament, and his status as a junior Minister, January had space and staff to fill it. The outer office accommodated six or seven desks, plenty of telephones and a good number of degree-holding workers.

January looked through the glass at the busy minions and shrugged. ‘Means nothing. I’m vulnerable.’ He had an actor’s knack of fitting his body to what he said. Right then, with his smallish trim figure and his lean, straight-featured face, he did look vulnerable. ‘My neck’s stretched out for every crazy in the country.’

‘What about a drink?’ I said. ‘You know the great thing about your neck, Peter, stretched or not? It’s clean. As far as I know you haven’t done any dirty deals you haven’t been able to get out of. That’s why I’m here in your comfy office asking you to open the cupboard and get us a bloody drink.’

It was early September, one of the first warm days of the year, and January was in his shirt sleeves. The cuffs on the cream-coloured silk shirt were turned back and the tie was loose. The only old thing he wore was the belt around his pants and, as an old waistline watcher myself, I knew why he did that. January was in his mid-30s, the belt was at least ten years old and it had only ever been fastened at one hole.

‘Scotch?’ He opened the small bar fridge and pulled at an ice tray. That was a surprise. I’d never known him to drink anything but white wine and soda in the daytime. Beer was out altogether and spirits were for late at night and in moderation.

I sighed. When people’s alcohol habits change you know there’s something serious going on. ‘You drink Scotch if you like,’ I said. ‘I’ll take a light beer. But I’ll listen to what you’ve got to say as well.’

‘Good.’ While he got the drinks I thought back over my short acquaintance with Peter January. It was barely a year old and its creator was Helen Broadway. At the beginning of her last six months’ stay with me in the city, Helen had met January at a meeting held to discuss the future of the Bondi foreshore. Their ideas matched and January had tried to match up other things as well. He hadn’t succeeded but Helen had needed to produce me to hold him off. We didn’t like each other so I was surprised that he’d rung me and invited me to take up some of his valuable time.

‘How’s Helen?’ January gave me the can of beer and sipped at a strongish-looking Scotch and soda. I was sitting at his desk with my back to the window-glare still bothered me a bit after an eye injury I’d sustained in the course of duty. January perched on the desk with his back to the glass door.

‘She’s okay,’ I said. I sipped the cold beer and seemed to taste the hollowness of the words. Helen was back with her husband and child in the bush for six months as per ‘the arrangement’. It was an arrangement that everyone, me, Helen, Michael her husband and her daughter were learning to hate, but no one had any better ideas.

‘Can’t see how you can let her go like that. If I had her…’

‘If you had her it’d get in the way of your ambition to screw every single woman on your electoral roll and half the married ones. Aren’t you worried about AIDS?’

‘Lowest rate in Australia on my patch. I’ve got the figures. Anyway, I’ve been too busy of late to do anything much in that line. And you’re wrong, I usually try to avoid shitting in the nest.’

‘Usually?’

‘Well, when you’re busy you haven’t got the time to scout around so you might work a little close to home sometimes. Did you see Trudi out there?’

‘I didn’t see anyone wearing the name proudly on a T-shirt.’

‘Dark woman, plump you might say…well, no soap so far. Anyway, I’ve got too much on my plate. But you, you’re not busy, so I hear.’

I crumpled the beer can and set it on the desk in front of me. ‘I’ve been busier, I admit. And I need distraction. I was thinking of enrolling in a course on neo-Marxist political economy.’

‘Crap,’ January said. No one had ever accused him of being doctrinaire. ‘I’ve got a real job for you. I get letters, I get threats…’

‘Shows you’re doing your job. You should attract 51 per cent love, 48 per cent hate and one per cent don’t know.’

‘Don’t joke, it’s serious. I want to hire you to check on everything-all the mail, all the staff, do bodyguarding, the lot. The money’d be right.’

‘Yeah, I’m sure. I’d be like a quango. It’s not my sort of thing, Peter. I do specific jobs-find this, protect that for such and such a time, mind him and her and their money for the weekend. I’m a…what is it, empiricist? I’m no good at generalising.’

‘Sounds like you’ve been doing the political theory bit already.’

‘Helen left a few books around. I’ve had the time to read them.’

It was the wrong thing to say because it gave him an opening. ‘If you came to work for me for, say, six months, you could tuck a fair bit of money away, Cliff. Quite a bit one way and another. Could be enough to get you a place up the coast. Where is she?’

I answered without thinking. ‘Kempsey.’

‘Nice up there. Place for you by the sea. Get away from all the dirt down here. More time with Helen. What d’you think?’ He tossed off the Scotch and sneaked a look towards the bottle. He was genuinely worried about something big but just for now he was savouring a possible small victory. I didn’t want him to have it.

‘I’ve never worked for a politician, not in 13 years. I’ve had a strict rule against it. And I don’t want to be a security consultant.’

‘That’s how I’d get it through the ledger shits. Pragmatism, Cliff. Come across that in your reading?’

‘No,’ I said.

And that’s when the bomb went off.

2

The blast rocked the old building to its foundations. The door between January and me and the outer office disintegrated and the glass flew back like shrapnel. January screamed and collapsed forward across the desk towards me. The crisp back and sleeves of his white shirt turned soggy red. I felt everything around me and inside me loosen and the roar seemed to block out all other sounds and all feeling.

I got out of the chair and moved forward by instinct. Incredibly, January was ahead of me feeling for the hole in the wall. We went through a cloud of billowing, acrid smoke and I heard people coughing and swearing. Flames licked along at floor level and then shot up to envelop the far wall.

‘Everybody out!’ January bellowed. ‘Forget the stuff, just get out. Trudi, where…?’

‘She’s okay,’ a man said. ‘Peter, Christ, your back…’ He collapsed into a fit of coughing and January crouched to lift him and push him forward.

I blundered around looking for people or bits of them. It seemed incredible that everyone could have survived the blast. The smoke was getting thicker and I realised I was holding my breath against it and the grit and dust. I couldn’t stay there much longer. January was coughing, trying to cover his mouth and doing the same as me, feeling with his hands and feet. I remembered that he’d served in Vietnam and had probably been in worse than this.

‘They’re all out,’ he gasped.

‘No.’ I felt something soft and still down by a desk near the shattered air conditioner. Blood from January’s back fell on me as he bent over and helped me to pick the body up. I got a solid grip and we staggered out of the room into the smoke-filled corridor. I was sobbing for breath, trying not to breathe the smoke in and wanting to cough my lungs up. January pulled at my sleeve to guide me to the stairs and the door to the street.

We burst out into the fresh air and I sucked it down in great gusts. Someone tried to take my burden from me and I fought them off, twisting my body and screaming. I couldn’t see anything through my tear-flooded eyes and all I could hear were shouts and breaking glass and then the wail of sirens.

January’s voice was close beside me, thin and harsh but still commanding. ‘Put her down, Cliff. Put her down.’

****

‘She was doing her work experience stint,’ January said. ‘She was 15 years old.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Lay off, I told you I’ll take the job.’ We were back in the office a week later. The bomb had been mostly noise with not much stopping power. It had stopped Alison Marshall, however, and it had put Peter January in the headlines.

‘That’s good, Cliff. Just tell me why you’re taking it and we can get down to business.’ January was in jeans and T-shirt helping with the clean-up. He’d moved back in as soon as the place was safe and made sure the photographers got some shots of him pitching in. But now he was working at it for real, with no photographers in sight. I didn’t understand him.

‘It’s specific now.’ I scooped a pile of ashes together and crushed them into a fine dark dust before they could float off again. ‘It’s murder, terrorism, and someone did it. Maybe I can help find out who.’

‘Hmm.’ January levered at the drawer of a warped filing cabinet. The papers had begun their coverage of the bombing with some shots of January supervising the care of the casualties-blood-drenched shirt and all. He looked brave and purposeful, which he was. ‘I still want you to sniff all around me. And I want you on hand. I have to go to America and…’

‘America!’

Trudi Bell, who was working at the other end of the office with a couple of other helpers, looked up at the sharp sound of my voice. She smiled at me and January waved at her.

‘That’s right. You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’re not banned or anything?’

‘I’ve been. I was hoping to take Helen the next time I went.’

‘Make it the time after next.’ He shoved some chairs around a desk and pushed back a couple of cardboard boxes filled with charred papers. ‘Let’s get a working space here. C’mon up, Trudi, you gorgeous thing, and we’ll have a talk.’

January seemed to realise that he was putting the death of Alison Marshall behind him a little too quickly. He sighed and flopped down into a chair as Trudi joined us. ‘That poor kid.’ He winced as his lacerated back came into contact with the chair. ‘You saw the parents, didn’t you, Trude?’

Trudi nodded and sat. I was too edgy to sit so I leaned against the smoke-stained wall. ‘I saw her mother. Made me glad not to be one.’

‘Bastards,’ January said.

‘Does that mean anything?’ I asked. ‘That plural?’

‘No. Judging from the kind of garbage I get in the mail it could’ve been anyone.’

‘That’s not quite true, Peter,’ Trudi said. ‘You can rule out some of the obviously harmless ones-the rues that want to organise petitions and such.’

‘I suppose so.’ January scratched at his back over his left shoulder. ‘Look, Trudi, Cliff’s coming in on this and he’s going to be around for a while. Security consultant.’ I could’ve sworn he enjoyed the sound of the words. ‘Could you fill him in? Take him through what you’ve got? I have to rush off.’

‘Sure.’ She reached into a big canvas and leather shoulder bag and extracted a thick manilla folder. ‘Hate mail,’ she said.

‘I thought it would’ve been destroyed by the bomb.’

January patted my shoulder as he swung off to leave. ‘Trudi took it home. Loves her work. See you both.’ He strode across the cracked and buckled floor nodding and grinning soberly to the workers. Trudi Bell’s eyes followed him to the door.

‘In his element,’ she said.

‘You don’t like him?’

She turned down the corners of her mouth. It was a wide, generous mouth set in an oval face. She had straight dark hair chopped off just below the ears. She was wearing a white overall with soft boots and a red neck scarf. I’d have called her well-covered rather than plump. ‘Don’t have to like him. I don’t even think about it. Compared to the other animals who could’ve got this seat he’s Bertrand Russell.’

I laughed. ‘Bit like Russell where the women are concerned too.’

‘Yes, well, you just have to keep saying no. My guess is he quits after a hundred.’

‘I’ll tell Helen.’

I noticed the thinly plucked eyebrows then which were oddly nice in her full face. She lifted them and opened her lazy dark eyes wide. ‘Is that your wife?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Tell me about the fan mail.’

A sound like a soft cheer went up from the workers. Trudi swung around in her chair. ‘What?’

A young man wearing overalls over his shirt and suit pants gave her a thumbs-up sign. ‘American stuff’s okay.’

‘I thought they’d found the booze,’ I said.

The young man came over and showed Trudi a file box that looked as if a few drops of water might have been spilled on it. ‘You know, it must’ve been rigged so as not really to do that much damage at all,’ he said. Then he remembered and blushed. Trudi took the box.

‘Thanks, Gary. When do the carpenters and painters get here?’

‘They’re late already.’

‘Okay. Take a break.’

I turned my head to look at the file box and wondered if I was cleared to open it. Trudi moved it away. ‘You seem to be in charge here,’ I said.

‘Sort of. Secretary, adviser, hand-holder…’

I looked around the damaged room. The bomb had been placed behind the portable air conditioner which was tucked away in a corner of the office. Alison Marshall had been using the top of it to collate some papers because she didn’t have enough desk space. I’d seen a lot of fires in my insurance investigator days; I guessed this one was electrical and probably an accident.

‘It doesn’t look as if it was meant to take you all out,’ I said.

‘The police have got stuff on that-charges and timers and so on. I heard Peter talking to them. I suppose you’d better too.’

‘They’re likely to tell me to go and do something rude to myself, unless it’s someone I know. D’you happen to know who Peter spoke to?’

She opened a notebook and I thought it was about time. I did the same. I poised a pen over a blank page‘.

‘Inspector Tobin,’ she said.

I drew a cross on the page. ‘One of the worst.’

‘One of the things I’ve been trying to do is match the mad letters to the issues Peter’s been most vocal on. I’ve also been singling out references to bombs and death.’

‘God, this must be heavy stuff. How long has January been getting poison pen letters?’

She laughed. ‘All his life probably. D’you know much about him?’

‘No, not much. Sydney law degree…’

‘Like me.’

‘Ah, you go back a way?’

‘I told you I thought it’d take a hundred no’s.’

‘Yeah. Well, he went to war when he probably didn’t have to…’

‘Like you.’

I realised two things then. One, that Trudi Bell was a very sharp woman who did her homework and remembered what she’d studied; two, that Peter January and I had more in common than I liked to admit. As Trudi told me more about him I felt the familiarity of it: working class background by a surf beach, public schools and an uneasy balance between sports and the books. We’d both studied law at university and then studied death-me in Malaya, January in Vietnam. But he’d gone on with the law and had risen meteorically while I’d…I tried to remember the term for it in one of the books Helen had left…plateaued, that was it, I’d plateaued early.

‘Are you listening?’ she said sharply.

‘Yeah, sure. Issues.’

‘He’s anti-nuclear, of course; anti-US bases…’

‘How’s he feel about smoking pot on the monorail?’

She grinned. ‘He’s against the monorail.’

The monorail was the big local issue-whether an above ground ‘people mover’ should run through the city to the Darling Harbour development. Most movers liked it, most people didn’t. I leaned forward and attempted my January imitation. “Trudi, Trudi, you’re avoiding the question.’

She laughed. ‘That came out more like Cary Grant.’

‘That’ll do,’ I said. ‘Okay, I’ve got what he’s against. I suppose we can throw in crime and corruption too. What about weekend trading?’

‘I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.’

‘I have trouble taking politicians seriously, it’s true. If January’s such a maverick how come he’s as high in the government councils as he is? What is he, a junior Minister?’

‘Without portfolio. It’s complicated. I think they needed someone to look like a genuine leftie somewhere along the line and Peter fitted the bill. They probably planned to dump him when things cooled off but he got attention, made these causes his…’

‘Turf?’

‘I was going to say fief.’

‘Ah, so your name is really Gertrude.’

‘No! I was never a Gertrude! Never! Stop joking.’

‘I’m sorry. I can’t take the political game seriously but the death of that kid’s a different matter. And I don’t like bombing. Don’t like it at all, not in Sydney.’

‘I think I begin to see what you’re on about. You want to keep Sydney the way it was?’

‘Is, no, was. Shit, I don’t know. I’d like to catch the bomber and show everyone what a miserable human being he is…’

‘Or she. You should see the mail.’

‘Him or her. We need a good example to show bombing isn’t glamorous.’

‘Mm, I think Peter would agree with that.’

‘I don’t care whether he does or not. Now, we know what he’s anti. What’s he pro?’

There was a crash behind us in the corridor as a load of timber hit the ground. A bald head came around the scorched door jamb. ‘January?’

‘Right,’ Trudi said.

A stocky man in khaki shirt and pants came into the office and looked around. ‘Jeez, this is a mess. Is he here, Mr January?’

Trudi shook her head and the man looked disappointed. ‘Pity. I wanted to shake his hand. Seen his picture in the paper. Bloody hero, that man. Got any drop sheets?’

Gary had come back into the office with a sandwich bag in his hand. ‘What?’ he said.

‘Drop sheets to cover all this stuff while we work. You’ll get dust in everything, otherwise.’

‘We’ll move what matters into the passage.’

‘No way. We’ll be tripping all over…’

Trudi touched my arm. ‘Let’s leave them to it and get something to eat. We’ll eat in the park-Peter’s pro parks and sunshine.’

****

3

January’s office was on the corner of the main road and a broad, tree-lined street that looked as if it was just waking up from a 50 year sleep. The houses that had been green and fawn were becoming white and mission brown. The straggly oleanders in the front yards were being rooted out in favour of ground covers and slender-trunked gums. There was a parking problem-the street was crammed with cars even in the early afternoon and a couple sat out from the kerb in a highly illegal two-abreast. The terrace houses didn’t run to parkable driveways, otherwise the middle class wasn’t having too much trouble adapting.

Trudi and I blinked in the strong sunlight and we put on dark glasses simultaneously.

‘What about the pub?’ I said. The Duke of Wellington was right across the road. I knew it had a snack bar. Unfortunately, it also had pinball machines.

‘No,’ Trudi said firmly. ‘Along here you can get the best health food sandwiches in Sydney and the park’s just a bit further.’

‘Sounds like a mineral water situation.’

‘Right.’

The main road was busy and smelly with trucks and cars jostling for position on the bitumen and the pedestrians ducking between them from delis to bottle shops. I remembered this place in the early 60s; it had been a slummy four-ways with dusty shop windows and more chemists and butcher shops than the area needed. There were casualties after that and the shopfronts went blank until the revival started. Now there were restaurants of every ethnic flavour, a patisserie, trendy second-hand shops and a glossy supermarket that stocked 38 varieties of pasta. I’d counted.

Trudi steered me to the health food shop that was shady and cool despite the heat in the street. ‘Hi, Charles,’ she said, ‘ ‘lo Madga.’

Charles was a sour-looking type with a pale, blotched face and stringy hair. He wore a black T-shirt and jeans with muscles-the white apron didn’t diminish him a bit. He was scooping something white from a tin into a jar and just raised the scoop a little to acknowledge Trudi.

‘Prick,’ Trudi murmured. ‘Let’s have two big ones, Madga.’

After Charles, Madga was like a lantern in the dark. She was small with a huge mass of glossy black hair and eyes to match. Her teeth were startlingly white in her smooth, olive-skinned face. ‘With onion, Trudi?’ she said. Her voice and accent were soft.

‘What about onion, Cliff?’ Trudi said. ‘Peter comes in here a lot and politicians can’t eat onion. Did you know that?’

‘Onion,’ I said. ‘Lots of onion.’

We got the sandwiches, which were thick enough to stand on and look over heads at the football, and two bottles of mineral water. I pretended to stagger under the load. ‘How far to the park?’

‘Half a kilometre.’

Oh, Christ, I thought. Someone who really lives in the 80s. That set me speculating on her age as we walked along the footpath beside the trucks and cars to the park. She came about four inches above my shoulder in her low heel boots, call it five foot four, or whatever the hell that is in centimetres. She walked nicely with a bit of a roll to her strong body.

She had a bruise on the left side of her face which I took to be a result of the bomb. No make-up except around the eyes. Some good lines there suggesting experience and sense of humour. Thirty-five?

‘Thirty-eight,’ she said, ‘and we cross here.’

‘Eh?’

‘When men look at women that way they’re totting up years and wondering…well, that varies.’

‘You got me.’ We steered each other across the road, judging the speed of the on-coming Kombi van exactly right. ‘What varies?’

‘Smart men wonder if the woman has read a book in the last ten years and if she liked Manhattan; dumb ones wonder if her tits flop and how tight her cunt is.’

‘Uuhh,’ I cleared my throat against the fumes and the confusion. We went through an archway that celebrated the fallen into a decent-sized park that had too much grass and not enough trees but was otherwise okay.

‘Which are you?’ Trudi said.

‘Bit of both I suppose. Bench or grass?’

‘Bench.’

We sat on a bench close to a rose garden. The bushes were stubby and bare and I only knew it was a rose garden because a sign said so. We munched on the sandwiches, swigged the mineral water and didn’t speak for a full minute.

‘Did you like Manhattan?’ I said.

‘Loved it, and I read Lonesome Dove last month.’

‘You’re doing better than me. I had this eye operation last year and got side-lined from reading a bit. I read some Ken Follett and I watched Ustinov on Russia on TV.’

‘I don’t get the time for TV. Peter keeps me haring after one thing and another.’

I brushed away the crumbs and capped the mineral water. ‘So, let’s talk about Peter the Great.’

Trudi was a slower eater. She still had a mouthful and she motioned for me to wait until she’d finished. It was the sort of moment that a smoker would fill in with a cigarette and an ex-smoker filled in with the memory of a cigarette. Even my light cotton jacket was too warm for the spring sun. I took it off and rolled up my sleeves. My arms were pale and the skin looked old; there were grey hairs on my forearms.

Trudi decided she didn’t need the last third of her sandwich. I probably hadn’t needed mine either. She re-wrapped it and put it back in the bag. ‘Peter is a maverick,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t fit into any of the categories, not even into the factions and Christ knows they’re flexible enough.’

‘So how does he get to be anybody? Why isn’t he on the outer?’

‘He is, more or less. He can’t make any real noise in Cabinet or the party meetings. He’s got as far as he has on charm.’

‘Come on.’

‘Plus hard work, plus good staff, plus not stepping on toes. And he’s shrewd. He was in the front line on abortion when uranium was the big issue and… vice versa.’

‘You make him sound like an opportunistic shit.’

‘He’s a politician. You have to understand the breed. They don’t come in black and white like puppies, they come in shades of grey.’

‘I’m sorry, Trudi, all this just makes me impatient. Can we get to the hate mail? I want a lead on a mad bomber.’

‘Impatient is right. You need the broad picture or you’ll be wasting your time. I could be wrong, Peter could’ve been targeted by some right-to-lifer or some Middle European who lost out in the Family Court, but I think think the stakes are bigger than that.’

‘Meat exports?’

She didn’t want to laugh and she almost didn’t. ‘You’re an idiot. Is this how you tackle everything? How do you make a living?’

‘Barely. I’m sorry. I like one joke per hour, minimum. Tell me about the high stakes.’

‘Peter thinks in terms of the Pacific south of the equator and between latitudes…shit, I forget. It’s a sort of grid. No bases, no nuclear ships, no arms sales and lots of swapping-fish for pharmaceuticals. ‘

‘God, no wonder he’s got enemies. What’re his ideas on the bases?’

‘Charge rent. Top dollar and back-dated to Day One.’

‘None of our parties would even look at it.’

‘The Yanks don’t know that. Peter’s thinking…sort of globally. Everybody knows about the missiles but what about the sensors on the sea bed that trace all the ships for every second of every year. Costs trillions and does nothing. Has to go, says our Peter.’

I swallowed and looked out across the grass, over the road and up over the roof tops to the west. A lot of humanity out there, most of the races and languages of the world would be represented within a few miles of this park, but somehow, January’s ideas seemed too big for the setting.

‘Biggish notion, isn’t it?’ Trudi said. ‘What he says is that you have to start somewhere, like…’ She cast around for a hook to hang the idea on. Across the road some workmen were tearing at the front of a terrace house. She pointed. ‘Like getting the render off that place. It’s a big job, but you have to start somewhere.’

I nodded. ‘There’s nothing more dangerous than trying to stop people making money unless it’s trying to stop them making love. Tell me what you think about the mail. Then we’ll go and photocopy it. Then we’ll have a cup of coffee at the Bar Napoli’.

She was suddenly very business-like. ‘The photo-copying’s a good idea. At least you’ll be one up on the police.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘They’ve only got photocopies-haven’t seen the originals.’

‘Were they happy about that?’

She shrugged. ‘Didn’t seem to care. I think a lot of people only expect to see photocopies these days. Pretty soon it’ll be screens-birth, marriage and death certificates-all on screen.’

‘Your cynicism distresses me. Coffee?’

‘I’ll skip the coffee thanks, Cliff. I have to go back to work.’

****

We copied practically the whole of Trudi’s hate mail file at a quick printing place a few doors from the health food store. I made some notes on her view of things-how the fringe conservationists who threatened to bury politicians in the middle of a rainforest stacked up against the anti-nukes who claimed to have some yellowcake they were going to feed to the enemy, literally. She was cool which puzzled me after the good time we’d had. Her goodbye was a nod and I watched her walk away, head up and striding almost, a solid purposeful figure in white. I shook my head and went to the Bar Napoli.

The file made me feel sick, angry, disappointed, a whole range of negative feelings. I went through it slowly while I drank coffee in the sun in the leafy courtyard behind the cafe. It was mid-afternoon and I had the place to myself apart from a few butterflies. Most of the stuff could be discarded straight away as sheer lunacy-religious ravings about second comings; outright Nazi propaganda quoting from Mein Kampf, racist diatribes of one kind or another. There was a lot of sick sex material -from pedophiliacs who’d raided the Greek and Roman classics for support, to lesbian separatists advocating the castration of everything from the Prime Minister to Michelangelo’s ‘David’.

The anti-smoking brigade was getting pretty wild too. They called nicotine a ‘deadly poison’ and likened passive smoking to the death camps of Belsen and Auschwitz. The pro-pot people were the only ones to display and humour: ‘the Huxley-Hash Society’ had some Riverina heads guaranteed to make anyone laugh within 10 minutes of inhaling; they said they had special blends that would treat constipation and diarrhoea. A ‘90% effective’ impotency-correcting hash oil was available from ‘Mary John Mountain Pty Ltd’ as well as a Thai grass that would help you to increase your reading speed.

‘Another coffee?’ The son or nephew or nephew’s son of the proprietor was at my elbow. He was wearing shorts for the springtime and when he grinned his two chins turned into three. His grin sold a lot of coffee. He looked healthy and happy which was welcome after the file.

‘Sure. Why not.’

I sipped the second cup and tried to think analytically. What the material had in common was threat. Even the mildest of the organisations, the most pacific, had an element of threat in their approach. The real threateners were nasty: there were a couple of pro-Palestinian bombers, an IRA sniper and an East Timor nationalist who threatened kidnap. Two letters from private citizens made reference to their wives and punches on January’s nose. A note, crudely printed on a square of rough paper, could have been in the same category. It read: ‘Do not speak to her again or I will kill you.’

I doodled, circling the references to bombs. I made separate piles of the stuff that had an international flavour-threat of world communism, domination by inferior races-and the purely local. I wished I had the envelopes with the postmarks. I wished I had some better ideas. A shadow fell across the table and I looked up to see Sam Weiss looming over me. Weiss is a freelance journalist; his lance is free because he’s been sacked from every paper in the eastern states.

‘Gidday, Cliff,’ he said. ‘It’s my lucky day.’

‘How’s that?’

‘Buy you a coffee?’

‘No thanks. What’s the story?’

‘A ripper. Happened to be in the neighbourhood and saw you in deep conversation with the luscious Ms Bell, and now I find you pouring over Peter January’s hate mail.’

I closed the folder and laid my hand over it. Weiss laughed.

‘Too late, mate, you were deeply engrossed and I saw all. I can see the headlines- “Bombed Minister hires PI to catch child slayer”.’

****

4

I must have built up some aggression from reading the crazy mail because I over-reacted to Sam Weiss’s statement. I came up from my chair fast and straight-armed him, hitting him on the chest and thrusting him back. He had to kick plastic chairs and pot plants aside to stay on his feet as I drove him back to the ivy-covered wall. He hit it hard; the wind went out of him in a rush and I held him there, pinned and wriggling even though he was nearly as tall as me and quite a bit heavier. My anger had made me strong.

‘Easy, Cliff, easy. What’s got into you?’

‘You won’t write anything about this, Sam. Nothing-got it!’

‘I have to make a living.’ He was sweating freely and I didn’t want to touch him anymore. I took my hand away and he relaxed against the wall. The sweat broke out on his forehead below the few dark strands across his bald head and a patch spread across his chest, under the cotton shirt spread tight by his belly.

‘You were making a good living,’ I said, ‘until you started to piss it up against a wall.’

His thin, tight voice went into a whine. ‘I’m off the grog, Cliff. Whaddya think I’m doing hanging around coffee bars?’

‘That’s a point.’ I went back to my seat and squared the folder which had got a little disarranged when I’d got up quickly. I felt a bit ashamed; Weiss had been a good investigative journalist once but he’d taken too much money from the wrong papers and lost his edge. We all make mistakes and I shouldn’t have strong-armed him.

He was game-he couldn’t have broken some of the stories he had otherwise. ‘C’n I sit down?’ He pulled one of the chairs he’d knocked over upright and sat. ‘Let’s talk. More coffee?’

I shook my head. ‘I’m full of the stuff. What d’we talk about, Sam? The weather? Jolly good for the time of year.’

‘Give it a rest, Cliff. I’m rehabilitating myself. You’d be all for that, wouldn’t you?’

‘Maybe.’

‘I need a story. A good one. With a really good one up maybe you could put in a word with Harry Tickener at The News.’

‘You’ve got a fair way to go, Sam. You have to live down that “Dead model left love diary” shit.’ This was a scandal story that had appeared under Weiss’s by-line in one of the tabloids. Everybody denied everything and everybody sued everybody else. Word was the paper had settled out of court for big money.

‘I got conned,’ Weiss said. ‘I was trying too hard, over-anxious. I need a solid story. Research in depth, take time to follow things up. You know what I mean.’

‘The last thing a man in my business needs is his name in the paper. I’m working for January on the bombing…’

‘Bullshit. You’ve signed on as a minder.’

‘You’re getting up my nose, Sam. Piss off!’

‘I can help you.’

‘Yeah, get me in the headlines. People come to me to stay out of the bloody headlines. D’you think I want the sort of people I have to talk to, you know, drop in on and ask if the hubby’s at home or when do you expect your son back, Mrs Kefoops, to recognise me? Be your age.’

Weiss leaned back and yawned. There was still an air of neglect about him, a smell as if he washed his socks in the bath and his shirt in a dirty laundromat with too much soap powder. But at least he was washing. He was fat but perhaps not as fat as when I’d last seen him and his colour was slightly better. Maybe he was on a comeback. He didn’t overplay it. ‘I can get you together with Tobin,’ he said quietly.

That was something to think about. I hadn’t seen Tobin for a good few years, not since he was a pushy, hard-nosed, detective sergeant at Balmain. I’d heard that he’d done well since; he’d been involved in some big cases that had come out right and none of the mud that was always flying around in the police world had stuck to him.

‘What’s Tobin’s rank now?’

‘Inspector,’ Weiss said.

‘God help all the sergeants. What’s his part in this? I haven’t been following his illustrious career all that closely.’

Weiss had his confidence back. He signalled for a coffee. The wet patch on his shirt was drying out. ‘I know he’s been following yours. He had a run-in with your mate Grant Evans one time. Could’ve held him back a bit if Evans hadn’t taken the Melbourne job. He doesn’t like Evans and he doesn’t like you.’

‘Don’t push it too hard, Sam. You’ve made your point. If you can get me through to Tobin it’ll be useful. I’ll do what I can for you in return. But you still haven’t told me why Tobin’s in the picture.’

The coffee came. Weiss looked lustfully at the sugar bowl but didn’t touch it. He ordered a can of Diet Coke instead. He ate the froth off the top of the cup with his spoon and then stirred longer than he needed to.

‘Sammy…’ I said.

‘I’m thinking. Tobin’s been made head of some special task force. Anti-terrorist thing. All bombings come to him, same with sabotage.’ He grinned. Also strikes, in some cases.’

‘Jesus, what do the security boys think about that?’

Weiss drank some coffee. ‘This is getting to be an unequal relationship already. I’m telling you things and you’re telling me nothing.’

‘I’ll talk when there’s something to talk about.’

‘Yeah. Well, the security people hate Tobin’s guts. He doesn’t care. He gets first crack at things usually-evidence, statements and so on, and he passes them on when he’s ready. Drives the spooks nuts.’

‘I bet. What’s he like these days, Tobin?’

The Coke came and Weiss drained it in a couple of gulps. He started to tie knots in the straw with his plump fingers. When he’d finished he poked the straw down into the can. ‘Tobin’s fat. Fatter ‘n me.’

‘How soon can you set up a meeting?’

‘Tomorrow or the next day do you?’

‘Good.’ He was squirming in his seat. ‘What’s the matter with you?’

‘Bladder trouble.’

‘You need royal blood. How come you’n Tobin’re so close?’

‘We’re brothers-in-law; Tobin married my sister. Also we can be useful to each other. Like you and me.’ He drained his coffee and looked pleased with himself. I was beginning to dislike this job already. Being drawn into a network of obligations with the likes of Tobin and Weiss wasn’t my idea of fun. It was the sort of thing Cyn, my ex-wife, had predicted for me. ‘You’ll get just like them,’ she’d said. ‘Ends will justify means, and the ends will get more worthless and the means will get sleazier.’ I hadn’t seen Cyn for years but some of her criticisms were still useful warnings.

‘Where’s Tobin’s office? Is he in College Street with the working coppers or has he got an assault-proof bunker somewhere?’

‘You won’t see him in his office, you’ll buy him lunch at the Bourbon Brasserie in the Cross. I told you he was fat.’

I picked up the file and got out of my chair. ‘Give me a ring when you’ve got it fixed, Sammy. Sorry about your shirt.’

‘What’s wrong with it?’ It was an expensive shirt and it had a big green smear all over the back of it where I’d hammered him into the ivy. He turned his head trying to look back over his shoulder and swore when he saw the mark. ‘What about talking to Tickener?’

‘If everything works out really well and you play very, very straight and honest. Cripple yourself with honesty. Think you can do it?’

Weiss wasn’t a fool. He’d lived long enough in the dirty, tempting parts of the world to know his limitations.

‘We’ll see,’ he said. ‘I’ll call you.’

My old Falcon has developed a quirk; it won’t start in neutral but kicks over beautifully with hardly a lurch when I start it in first. I tell myself it’s a good security device but in my heart I know it’s something serious in the vitals. I drove back to Glebe where the cat would or would not be waiting and where, sooner or later, I’d find an emery board inside a book or something else that would bring on the pangs of missing Helen so much I’d have to go out. I hardly spent any time in the house when she wasn’t in the city and not much when she was. We lived mostly in her flat at Tamarama.

No cat, some mail, nothing of interest. I had a couple of glasses of wine and looked through the file again. Alcohol sometimes sharpens the senses, makes you see things you’d otherwise miss. Not this time; I had no new thoughts about the file, just some not-so-new thoughts about Trudi Bell. ‘Luscious’ was what Sammy Weiss had called her and it wasn’t too far wrong. Like Jimmy Carter said, men are faithless in their minds a dozen times a day. I wondered if Trudi had an attachment that helped her to say no to Peter January. I wondered if she had a child. I wondered where she lived…

It was a question of more wine, TV and a book and bed, or the puritan ethic. I put the flagon away, made coffee and sandwiches and sat down to make some notes on the case as it stood. January had originally mentioned a contract but we hadn’t talked about that again. I wrote ‘Terms?’ at the top of the page. Reflecting on it, I realised that this was the first time I’d ever been involved in investigating a death in which the victim had been chosen at random. Usually, killer knows victim and that helps the investigator.

I’d kept the newspapers that had covered the bombing and I looked through them, mostly for the background on January’s career to see if there was anything important I’d missed but also to do a bit of free associating. I’d read about a case in America where the killer always got himself into the press scene-of-the-crime photographs. That’s how they got him in the end. I scanned the pictures of the chaos outside January’s office on the day of the bombing; I saw myself as a blurred image leaning against a car and January, as if he’d known how the light was falling, standing straight and distraught, blood-covered but determined, with a profile like a Roman centurion.

The cat scratched at the door. I fed it and it went straight out again. ‘Nice to see you,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you stay a while and shit on the rug?’ I was feeling depressed by the comings and goings in my life. I wanted some continuity.

The crashing of the door knocker disturbed my reverie. Helen had brought the knocker home one day and screwed it on herself. She said she could never hear a knock at the door, especially when we were upstairs in bed. I’d told her that was the idea but she’d gone ahead and done it anyway. I got out of my chair and walked down the passage feeling unsociable.

‘Who is it?’

There was no answer and my instincts, which had been dulled by self pity, started to work. I thought about the gun in the holster under my jacket hanging over the chair in the kitchen. I started back for it. We could be dealing with terrorists here, knee-cappers, Libyans eager for Islam heaven. The banging came again, harder.

‘Open up, Hardy. It’s Peter January.’

****

5

January was drunk but the woman with him was steely sober. She was taller than him, a few years younger and, right then, she seemed to be supplying the qualities January lacked. For one thing, she was in control of her speech.

‘Cliff, lissen, gotta talk…shit!’ He’d lurched in the doorway and hit his head against the jamb.

‘Mr Hardy,’ the woman said. ‘I’m Karen Weiner. Peter says he wants to talk to you. He’s in no condition to do it but he was going to make a scene in the restaurant unless he came here. I’m sorry.’

‘It’s okay. Come in. I can sober him up and see what’s on his mind. Are you…ah…?’

‘Don’ worry, Cliff. Karen’s m’ right arm. Tell her anything.’

Karen Weiner and I supported January along the passage and through the sitting room to the kitchen.

‘Anything to drink comrade?’ he said.

‘Not for you.’ The woman took his weight easily all by herself. ‘Where’s the bathroom?’

I pointed and she steered him, stripping off his suit jacket as she went. She wore a blouse and loose jacket, trousers with lots of belts and pockets, and high-heeled shoes. I heard a few protests from January as they went down the steps to the bathroom at the back of the house but there were chuckles in the sounds as if he was having fun protesting. I made coffee in the kitchen, kept an ear out for breaking glass and tried to tell myself that Peter January wouldn’t be the first drunken client

I’d had-wouldn’t be the 20th even and wouldn’t be the last.

When he reappeared January was still a mess but he looked steadier. The woman was carrying the jacket and waistcoat of his light grey suit; he’d slipped down his tie and had the shirt cuffs back in the way politicians like to do when they’re pretending to be one of the people. His thick hair was damp and his face was shiny but the slackness was gone from it and the artificial glitter that had been in his eyes was dimmed.

‘What did you do?’ I said. ‘Tell him to pretend he was going on “60 Minutes”?’

January dropped into a chair. ‘Don’t like me, do you, Hardy?’

‘I liked the way you handled yourself when the bomb went off. I like the way you want to stop us all from glowing in the dark. That’s enough.’

‘Yeah, I suppose it is. Did you say something about coffee?’

‘I’ll get it.’ Karen Weiner went out to the kitchen and I could hear her opening cupboards and clinking mugs as January and I looked at each other.

‘I’m scared,’ he said.

‘You must’ve been scared before. What about when you met Prince Charles?’

He ignored me. ‘I was scared in ‘Nam. I was scared the first time I stood up in court to speak and again when I got up in the House. But this is different. All of a sudden I feel outnumbered. I can feel the knives pointing at my back.’

‘Caesar complex,’ I said.

He drew his hand across his face as if he could rearrange his features to be the way he wanted. He wanted patience. ‘I knew you’d bullshit around for a while, but I’m serious.’

The woman came back with the coffee balanced on a breadboard that she’d wiped clean. She presented us with the mugs and put the milk and sugar where we could reach it. Then she sat down next to January-not too close, not too far away. He smiled at her as he sipped his coffee.

All I can say is that you’re bloody impatient,’ I said. ‘I’m setting up a meeting with the copper who…’

January waved his free hand. ‘I don’t expect you to have any results yet. I’ve come to put you in the full picture. It hasn’t been easy, believe me.’

‘I don’t know what you mean?’

Karen drank half her mug in a swig. ‘The hardest part is getting away from the press and the minders. ‘That’s partly how Peter got so drunk. We were out-waiting a reporter.’

‘They’re never around when you want ‘em,’. January said bitterly. ‘You can’t get the buggers to actually read anything you write or quote you accurately. But give them a sniff of death and they’ll wipe your arse and souvenir the paper.’

‘Well, I assume you’ve shaken them now,’ I said. I don’t reckon you’d be going around pissed like that if anybody important was about. Pardon my paranoia.’

‘Yeah, I’ve shaken them for now. They’ve got their first photo of Karen, though. That’ll keep them busy for a while and give them something to chew on.’

‘I’ve got a husband,’ Karen said.

I drank some more coffee and wished I could put some brandy in it but it didn’t seem diplomatic just then. ‘Well, reporters’ve got wives. They’re understanding. The reporters that is, not the wives.’

‘Karen’s husband has connections with the other side. It’s going to get sticky.’

‘Why?’ I said.

‘I’m going to marry her.’

‘Sticky,’ I said.

January finished his coffee and poured some more. Either he hadn’t been as drunk as he’d seemed or he had terrific powers of recovery. I had to admit I was interested. Here was abstemious Peter January, notorious womaniser, darling of the media, drunk, talking about marriage and running down the fourth estate. Karen Weiner was an athletic-looking woman with blonde hair drawn back and the sort of features that seemed to be produced, in some mysterious way, by expensive schools and plenty of international travel. She was more tanned than most for the time of year and when I leaned closer to her to get some more coffee I could smell expensive perfume. Something about her bothered me.

‘I don’t think he should marry me,’ she said. ‘I’d like it but it’s not necessary.’

January shook his head and looked stubborn. I started to feel puzzled about my role in things. It had been a long time since a private detective had had anything useful to do with a divorce. I dropped a spoon, bent down to pick it up and saw the light gold chain around her ankle above the strap of her white shoe. Things clicked into place; it was a chain like the one Cyn used to wear and that was who she reminded me of, at least in the exteriors-accent, hair, perfume and ankle chain.

‘I don’t get it, Peter. I thought I was looking into the bombing, checking on your fan mail. I…’

‘You are but there’s other things you should know.’

‘About you and Karen here. Fine with me. Congratulations, but it’s getting late and I’m not sleeping too well lately and I…’

‘This is serious!’ January’s voice had a whipcrack in it. ‘I’ve got enemies in the party-bastards who’d like to see me buried.’

‘Why?’

‘All sorts of reasons. My sort of politics is bad news for marginal seats for one thing. Some of them think about their majorities and nothing else.’

‘And you don’t have to think about yours,’ Karen said.

‘Right’

‘You’re not telling me someone in a swinging seat would try to kill you?’

‘No, but he might talk to someone who would.’

‘Such as?’

‘Have you ever heard of Airey Neave?’

I thought quickly: British polly, something to do with the Nuremberg trials. Killed in the House of Commons carpark by a bomb. ‘Yes, sure. He was Minister for Northern Ireland and the IRA got him.’

‘Not everyone believes that,’ January said.

‘What do they believe?’

‘There’s a theory that the IRA is really run by the British secret service. That they’ve infiltrated both sides-the IRA and the Unionists-and they keep the fire burning.’

‘Why?’ I was beginning to feel I couldn’t delay the brandy much longer.

‘To keep Belfast on tap as a training ground for the British army in street fighting. It certainly works that way-the Brits cleaned up everything in sight in Port Stanley with a minimum of fuss. Other Europeans send soldiers to Belfast to see how its done.’

‘Is there any evidence for this, Peter?’ Karen said.

‘Not hard evidence. Inference.’

‘What about the Brighton bombing?’ I said. ‘The secret service wouldn’t go along with that, would they?’

January smiled. ‘They didn’t get anyone important, did they? Didn’t harm a hair of Maggie’s head.’

Karen licked her lips which were full and dark around very white teeth. ‘What about Mountbatten?’ she said.

‘There’s two views on that. One, who cares? What did he matter? The other view is that occasionally a mad dog element in the IRA gets out of control and does something on its own. They get pulled into place later after the damage is done.’

It was late at night when conspiracy theories have most appeal. ‘Or they bungled something.’ I said. ‘Secret Services are full of idiots, think of ours.’

‘I am,’ January said.

‘I’ve met some of them through Clive,’ Karen said. ‘That’s my husband. Talk about thick…’

I was beginning to get January’s drift and I didn’t like it. It made me wish I was working on a nice, safe come-with-me-while-I-deliver-this-money case. ‘What was the point about Airey Neave? He was the Minister for Northern Ireland. If all this stuff was going on he’d have known about it.’

January fiddled with the ends of his tie. ‘What if he knew about it and wouldn’t go along with it?’

‘Fuck,’ Karen said. She’d evidently learned a thing or two since private school.

January looked at her. ‘Who bombed Airey Neave if that’s the way it was?’

‘The British spooks,’ Karen breathed.

‘Right,’ January said.

****

6

I slept late and awoke physically and mentally uneasy. January and Karen Weiner had stayed a while longer and I’d had a brandy or two as the talk went on. Karen had turned out to be one of those can-do people you read about but seldom meet. She was all for tackling the problem head-on-calling in the top intelligence men and the top police and putting pressure on all over the place to squeeze out the truth. All this came out in a passionate stream. January had looked at her with amusement.

‘Haven’t you ever heard of rocking the boat?’

She’d looked at him blankly. That’s when I had the first brandy; the other two refused.

‘What’s wrong with kicking a few heads?’ I’d said. ‘It’s one of the skills of the trade, isn’t it?’

‘It could be anything. It could be designed to discredit me and a panic move in the wrong direction could do that. It could be a long-range operation to set me up in some way. This could be just a softener.’

Karen had given up passionate argument in favour of physicality. She’d moved over to his chair and grasped his arm, pulling it close to her body. The thing between them was real.

‘So what can you do, darling?’

January had stroked her hair. ‘I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I think I need Hardy to circle around and sniff.’

I didn’t mind the dog imagery. Dogs are tenacious and loyal and no dumber than most people; very few of them drink brandy before going to sleep. When

Sammy Weiss called a bit before 11 o’clock I wasn’t feeling stimulated. Weiss sounded fine, as if he’d gone to bed early with a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking.

‘You’re going to do lunch with Tobin at the Bourbon Brasserie at 12.30. Smart work, eh?’

‘Do lunch?’

‘A Yank expression. Hollywood. I’m using it in my stuff. Think it’ll catch on?’

‘No,’ I grunted.

‘Got anything for me?’

‘Come on, Sammy. It’s only half an hour since we met.’

‘I hear January was out with a woman last night. He gave some reporter the slip but there’s a pic. Know anything about that?’

‘January out with a woman isn’t news.’

‘Depends on the woman. I’d like something on this, Cliff.’

The phone suddenly felt tacky in my hand. In my line of work the rules are usually clear: protect the client’s confidentiality all the way to the prison cell door. Stop there and think about it. I’d stepped into a new game by working for January and it had already put me in line for penalties such as an ‘information exchange’ relationship with Weiss. I wished I was on a beach up the north coast with Helen. But wasn’t that a part of what this was all about? I felt confused.

‘We’ll see,’ I grunted. ‘How come you were able to set it up so easily?’

Weiss paused, then he spoke too quickly. ‘Like I said, we’re close.’

I laughed. ‘Bullshit, Sammy. I get it. Tobin wanted to see me. Thanks, Mr Weiss. Stay in touch.’

I hung up and went off to shower feeling marginally better. It’s all a lot easier with cops.

They don’t expect to meet honest men, ever. If you are reasonably honest you’ve got an edge.

The cat jumped up outside the bathroom window and made a noise. I rubbed mist off the glass and looked at it as I showered. It’s a black cat with some grey in it. I combed my wet hair and saw the resemblance.

As I opened a can of cat food I tried to calculate the age of the cat using the formula which translates human years into cat years. I was rusty on the formula but, as near as I could judge, the cat and I were the same age. It ploughed through the food in the saucer.

‘Eat slower, you’re not young.’

It rubbed itself against my leg once or twice and then went out to sleep on the bricks. The sun was getting high and the backyard was heating up. Morning dew was rising from the bricks all around the cat in little, gentle puffs of steam.

‘Stay close, cat,’ I said. ‘We’ll do dinner.’

After I’d scraped my whiskers flat I went upstairs to put on a clean shirt and pants, my old loose Italian shoes and a light sports jacket Helen had bought me. I also put on the. 38 Smith amp; Wesson Police Special I’d bought myself. January’s dark tie was lying on a chair in the living room. I contemplated putting it on just for a joke but decided against it: Tobin might get the wrong idea. He might think I’d learned how to behave myself and do what was expected of me.

****

The weather was holding the way it does in Sydney in September-it holds either good or bad. Today there was a light breeze to keep the pollution moving and enough cloud to keep the heat down. From behind dark glasses the houses and trees and shops along Glebe Point Road all wore a more respectable, affluent air than they had in the days when I’d moved in, and it wasn’t just the glasses. The bookshop where I got my paperbacks was expanding; a butcher had become a boutique and the community seemed to be holding its breath waiting to see what was going to happen to the closed-down timber yard.

Things change at the Cross too, but the essentials remain the same. I parked in Victoria Street and walked along Orwell into Macleay Street. The Fitzroy Gardens, that once were more cracked and bubbling asphalt than gardens, are now more brick terrace than gardens, but the fat cops are still strolling through with their lunch bags. The drugs are changing; crack is on its way according to the papers which might be good news for the junkies if it puts them out of their misery earlier.

A pair of them were sitting on the low brick wall around a struggling tree. Young men, not yet 20, they were in dirty singlets and jeans, heavily tattooed and sharing an innocent cigarette. They smiled at each other as if they also shared a secret. I wondered what it was; I didn’t think it was a way to make an honest living or what to do with nuclear waste. It might have been a vision of God.

The girl outside the Bourbon Brasserie had something to sell rather than share. She was wearing a leather miniskirt, high white boots with heels, and a see-through white blouse. As I approached she moved out from the wall, lifted the skirt up a fraction more and pushed her chest forward; all her wares were on display. Her bright smile, under the heavily made up eyes and the fluffy blonde hair, seemed to be painted on rather than something that came from her face muscles.

‘Hello, sir,’ she said, ‘wanna go along?’

‘Not today,’ I said, ‘but good luck.’

The lips moved behind the smile. ‘Thank you,’ she said.

I took the glasses off as I went up the carpeted steps to the head waiter’s desk. The place is decked out in a heavily masculine style with a lot of brass, sporting prints and mirrors that make it look bigger that it is. There are tables at the front just above the street and big glass windows that slide back so that you could drop ash onto the footpath if you wanted to. Back from there tables are placed far enough apart to let people have a private conversation. A big bar with stools and the sort of tables you drink at rather than eat at occupies a lot of space downstairs.

The head waiter was Chinese, not young but slim and hard and able to wear a dinner suit at midday without looking silly.

‘The Tobin table,’ I said. I felt sure it’d be called something like that. The man nodded and snapped his fingers. Another waiter appeared and indicated that I should follow him. Tobin’s spot wasn’t in the window but more like the centre of the room. I fancied there was more clear space around it than was logical, but that might have been my imagination.

Two men sat at the table; neither moved when the waiter brought me up.

‘Sit down, Hardy,’ Tobin said. ‘You look the same-as if you could do with a haircut and a shave and a new shirt and it still wouldn’t make any bloody difference.’

‘Tobin.’ I nodded and took a seat. He must have put on nearly five stone since he’d been a flashy sergeant in Balmain. He’d had glossy black hair and sideburns and suits with too much stitching on them. A good deal of the hair had gone now and what was left looked to be touched up on top. The sideburns were smaller and grey. His belly bulged out to touch the table and his neck hung down over the collar of his silk shirt above the silk tie. His dark double-breasted suit was discreet and hadn’t been tailored anywhere local.

‘I can’t say the same for you,’ I said. ‘You must live here.’

‘A smartarse,’ the other man said.

‘Hardy’s the original smartarse, Ken,’ Tobin said. ‘D’ you know that I once had him with a gun and a stiff in a park in Balmain and I couldn’t do a thing to him. Know why?’

Ken shook his head. He was younger than Tobin, thin and angry-looking with short-cropped mousy hair and the scar from a mended hare lip on his mouth. He lifted his glass of beer to the scar and sipped. ‘Tell me,’ he said.

Tobin drank some red wine. The bottle was on the table; the label was white and the writing in it was small which meant that the wine was expensive. ‘Hardy had a mate. Name of Evans. Now he has a mate name of Parker.’

‘Frank Parker?’ Ken said.

‘The same. Hardy has a knack of being matey with rising coppers. That’s handy in his business.’

‘Evans went to Victoria,’ Ken said.

‘That’s why he switched to Parker.’

I reached out for the wine and poured myself a glass. It was smooth and ripe, the sort of stuff that slides down and beckons to you from the bottle. ‘I’d forgotten you liked the sound of your own voice, Tobin. Must be something in your childhood. I know, you weren’t allowed to talk at the dinner table so you ate too much. That’s why you’re so fat now and like to talk.’

Tobin’s dark face flushed red and the flesh on his neck quivered. He fought for control and his voice grated with the effort. ‘Let’s eat,’ he said. ‘You’re paying, Hardy.’

‘I’ll pay for you and me,’ I said. ‘Ken’s on his own.’

Tobin looked at me for what seemed like a full minute, then he nodded and the other man stood up. He drained his glass and curled his damaged lip at me. Tobin nodded again and he walked away.

‘You’ve made an enemy there,’ Tobin said.

‘I don’t think we could ever have been friends.’

Tobin ordered soup, a steak and chocolate mousse, I had a ham salad but I helped him out with the wine, both bottles. His jaws moved rhythmically and he’d learned to talk around his food without being disgusting-presumably through long practice. He also nodded from time to time and shot quick looks to left and right. I caught a fleeting movement here and a still presence there and gathered that the chief of the anti-terrorist squad took no chances about his personal security. It made me feel anxious about mine.

‘You’ve seen all that crap January gets in the mail?’ Tobin asked.

I nodded and speared asparagus.

‘What d’you make of it? Your line of country, isn’t it?’

I thought about it while I ate. I’d dealt with threatening letters, suicide notes, ransom claims. I thought I could tell the mildly nutty from the truly mad but that was about all. ‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Look, Tobin, I’m here to ask you about the bomb-what kind it was, what sort of experience behind it, that kind of thing. I’m buggered if I know what you want from me.’

He put down his knife and fork for the first time since the meal started. ‘I need a result. A real result. This is the first decent thing that’s come along. I need nasty faces, the more political the better as long as they’re of the right stamp. You follow me, Hardy?’

‘You’ve got the facilities for the job, haven’t you?’

He shrugged and started eating again. ‘Who knows? Who knows how to do the bloody job? Who knows if there’s a fuckin’ job to do even?’

‘What about the spooks?’

He almost choked on a bit of steak. A waiter hovered nearby while Tobin coughed and plunged. I saw movement by the door and a pale face peer anxiously through the smoke. ‘I’m all right, all right.’ Tobin waved the waiter away. ‘They’re the biggest headache of all. Top secret this, fuckin’ top security that. Some of those bastards literally can’t talk, can’t tell you their own names. I don’t know what they’re thinking.’

‘Mostly about their pensions,’ I said. If Tobin hadn’t been Tobin I might have told him about January’s suspicions, but the time to start trusting people like Tobin was when the priest was saying nice things about him over the grave.

‘I don’t like you, Hardy, never did. And nothing’s changed. Your mate Evans did me a bad turn and I was lucky to get out from under. But that’s not your fault. I don’t like Parker either.’

‘You’d have liked my Mum,’ I said.

‘Your smartarse talk’s another thing I don’t like. But I think we can do each other some good on this. You’d be on a good screw from January and the longer you can keep the job going the better for you. And I’m in no hurry. You follow me?’

‘No.’

‘Suppose you get a line on who planted the bomb. You tell me. We mount surveillance, tap phones, use all the technology crap they’ve given me and really make a circus of it. You’re on a daily rate and expenses. I can help you out a bit there. We move when we’re ready and we both look good. What d’you say?’

I had to keep eating although I didn’t have any appetite. Tobin had gone up in his world which meant that he’d got smoother and slimier than when he’d wanted to used the rubber hose on me in Balmain. Eating concealed expressions I didn’t want him to see.

‘What about the bomb?’ I said.

‘Standard sort of thing-gelignite, not much of it. Battery and timer.’

‘Planted when?’

‘Within 24 hours.’

‘By a pro?’

‘Not necessarily. They tell me there’s books you can learn this stuff from.’ He laughed and spooned up some chocolate goo. ‘D’you know we’ve got a whole library at the unit? They fitted us out with all these books-biographies, technical manuals, novels even. I haven’t read one of ‘em and I don’t think any of my blokes have either.’

‘Ken didn’t look like a reader.’

‘I’d rather have Ken with me than…Max bloody Harris at some of the interviews I go to. You want a brandy?’

‘No.’

‘I will.’ He lifted both hands and made a series of rapid movements with his fingers. Then he slumped back in his chair, belched loudly and laughed. ‘Got a deaf ‘n dumb waiter here. You gotta learn the sign language for brandy and coffee. Funny, eh?’

‘Oh, yeah, hilarious. So that’s all you’ve got? No leads? And the thing could’ve been put together by an HSC student?’

‘Hey, that’s an idea.’ Tobin unwrapped a fat cigar and watched approvingly as the brandy was poured into a balloon glass. The waiter lit his cigar and he puffed luxuriously. ‘The bomb could’ve been meant to kill the girl-planted by a jealous kid at her school.’

‘You’re disgusting, Tobin.’

‘Have some coffee, Hardy, and climb down a bit. Why’re you working for a politician except for the money?’

He wasn’t dumb, he’d hit the spot. I sipped coffee and tried to think objectively, professionally. ‘What do you think of January?’

‘He’s okay, good in fact.’

‘What?’ I couldn’t believe I was hearing something unqualified and positive from Tobin.

‘January’s okay. All that peace and no bombs and missiles stuff is shit of course, but compared to most politicians he’s a prince. He doesn’t go around spreading the dirt on his mates. He doesn’t pump you for more dirt than he already has.’ He waved the cigar and lifted the balloon. ‘You should see how most of ‘em carry on. Cunts!’

You’d know. I thought, but I drank some more coffee and didn’t say anything. Tobin drank his brandy and drew on his cigar. He did some more nodding at the shadows and then folded his napkin. He leaned forward across the table and I could smell all the sweet, strong, corrupt flavours on his breath.

‘You haven’t responded to the proposition, Cliff,’ he said quietly. ‘But I know you’ll see it my way.’

‘Why?’

He started to ease his bulk up and away from the table; it was going to be a long, slow process and I thought he might even need the waiter’s help. ‘Because whether you come through or not I have to find the guilty party. And who knows who the fuck it might be? It might be that good-looking Bell woman January and you and everyone else including me would like to screw. Or it could be you.’

****

7

I spent the next few days checking on the material in Trudi Bell’s file. I phoned organisations and snooped around their premises. I tried to unscramble acronyms like CLAOP (Committee for the Liberation of All Oppressed Peoples) and I did a tour of the area around January’s office looking at all the graffiti on the walls. I checked on everyone who’d had an appointment with the Minister in the last month and had come to the office. I drew blanks on everything.

I asked Trudi Bell what contact she’d had with Tobin and she shuddered. ‘Ugh, don’t call it contact.’

‘Has he been around much?’

‘Not much. He rang a couple of times to talk about nothing. He asked me out to dinner.’

‘I had lunch with him the other day. I don’t think I could’ve survived dinner. What did you say?’

‘I said no.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He implied I was screwing Peter. I let him think what he liked.’

‘How is the Boss? I haven’t seen him for a few days.’

‘Nor have I.’ She looked at her watch. The weather was getting warmer and she was wearing a T-shirt and white denim skirt. There was a faint trace of last summer’s tan on her arms. ‘He’s due in. He’ll be late, but not very late.’

We were by Trudi’s desk in the restored office. If you looked closely you might see signs of the bomb damage but you’d need good eyes. There was a smell of fresh paint and an air of fresh enthusiasm among the people in the room. The word processors were hammering and the light from the hard-pressed photocopier was like a strobe. Mutual dislike of Tobin had somehow drawn Trudi and me back into working harmony.

‘This place is buzzing,’ I said. ‘What’s up? A leadership challenge?’

She laughed. ‘No, it looks like Peter’s getting an invitation to give evidence to a Senate Committee.’

I looked blank. So far as I knew Senate Committees sat every day looking into everything and achieving nothing.

‘In Washington,’ she said.

‘Ah, that’s different.’

‘You bet your life it’s different. This Committee’s looking into the whole security system of the South Pacific-bases, tests, arms sales, the lot. Peter’s got plenty to say on all those subjects. Facts and figures too.’

‘The big time. All right. But what’re we waiting for?’ I looked around the office. People were checking their watches and collecting in one corner of the room as if they were going to watch the last game of the fifth set of the Wimbledon final on TV.

‘Telex,’ Trudi said. ‘Due any minute now.’

There was a hush. The traffic sounds from the busy street seemed to become muted as keys stopped clicking and the photocopier light died.

The door flew open and Peter January marched in. He was impeccably dressed and toileted and he skipped across towards Trudi’s desk. He leered as he placed one of the health food store’s bags on top of Trudi’s papers.

‘Oh, that Magda,’ he said. ‘Makes my blood race.’

‘Have you been pinching bums again, Peter?’ Trudi shifted the bag to one side.

It was on the tip of my tongue to say something like, ‘How’s Karen?’ but I held it back. I didn’t know whether Trudi knew about Karen or whether January wanted her to know. Besides, there seemed to be something forced in January’s display of lechery, as if his heart really wasn’t in it. Maybe he was really thinking about the telex.

‘It’s due through any minute,’ Trudi said.

January leaned forward and kissed her cheek. ‘She’ll be right, love. You’ll get your trip.’

The telex machine chattered. The workers craned forward.

‘Yee-haw!’ The whoop came from Gary who tore the telex free. ‘Shit!’ he roared.

‘What? What?’ January sprang towards him, all the cool self-assurance left behind.

‘Don’t worry. I ripped it, that’s all. It’s what we want. Invited to give evidence…blah, blah… Chairmanship of Senator Allan B. Abilene…’

‘Abilene?’ I said.

‘ “Prettiest town, ah’ve evah seen,” ‘ Trudi sang.

I grinned at her. ‘Who sang it?’

‘George Hamilton IV.’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’ January said.

‘You’re too young, Peter,’ I said. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’

‘Bullshit,’ he said. ‘Come into the office you two, we’ve got things to talk about.’

‘Don’t forget your sandwich.’ I handed him the bag.

January waved expansively to the whole office staff and led the way through the new glass door. I wondered how his back was and how it affected his favourite activity. He settled behind his desk; Trudi sat in front of him and I leaned against the wall near the window. It seemed to be my favourite position in the room.

‘Better lay on drinks for all tonight, Trude,’ January said. ‘Just for an hour or so.’

‘Press?’

January grimaced. ‘This afternoon, I guess. Say, at 4 pm, no…4.30. We can get it over quickly and the thirsty buggers’ll move on to the booze with any luck.’

Trudi made notes on a pad. ‘I’m glad I’m here to see this,’ I said. ‘Maybe I can hire a secretary with a law degree and get her to arrange me a seat in the Harold Park public bar.’

‘Shut up, Cliff,’ Trudi said.

January grinned. He opened the bag and pulled out the thick sandwich. ‘I don’t even like the sandwiches,’ he said. ‘Look, I know this is crazy, using Trudi like a stenographer, but it’s a security thing.’

Trudi scratched something on her pad. ‘Tobin suggested it.’

‘The idea is to limit the number of people who know where I am when. Ordinarily, I’d give this to one of the kids, but since Trudi has to know anyway it keeps it tighter. You want this?’ He held out the sandwich to me.

I shook my head. ‘Okay, I see it. What d’you mean when you say you don’t even like the sandwiches? Even, what’s that mean?’

They exchanged glances. January nodded and Trudi shrugged.

‘What’s this?’ I said. ‘A dumb show?’

‘Trudi knows about Karen. All this stuff about me perving on every woman I see is just a blind.’ He held up one hand, palm out, like a man running with the ball. ‘Usta be true, but not since Karen. That’s all very…’

‘Sticky,’ I said.

‘Yeah. The playboy image is to buy time while we figure out what to do.’

‘Peter, I’d hate to be you. Are you fair dinkum when you clean your teeth take a piss, or is that acting too?’

‘It’s not as bad as that.’ He wrapped the sandwich up and slid it across the desk to Trudi. ‘You can take that home to Gunther.’

‘Gunther?’ I said.

January shot me a delighted, point-scoring look. ‘Her dog,’ he said.

I looked out the window while they fixed a few details on January’s agenda. The awnings were down in front of some of the shops, sure sign of the summer on the way. It would be a summer without Helen unless things changed and I didn’t really know whether I wanted them to change or not.

‘Beer, Cliff?’ January reached into the bar fridge which had escaped damage completely.

‘Thanks.’

Trudi got up with the sandwich bag in one hand and her pad and pen in the other. I slid across and opened the door.

‘I’ve got the record,’ she said.

‘Huh?’

‘George Hamilton IV. My ex-husband was a bit older than me; it’s his record. You should come and hear it some time.’

‘Women there don’t treat you mean,’ I said.

‘In Abilene.’ She went out.

‘I’ll tell Helen,’ January said.

‘Then I’ll tell Sammy Weiss you’re screwing Karen Weiner.’

‘Weiss! Shit, Cliff, you’re not talking to that slob, are you?’

‘He’s Detective Inspector Lloyd Tobin’s brother-in-law.’

January passed me a can of Swan Light and poured himself a weak wine and soda. He watched the bubbles rise and fall and shook his head. ‘God, it’s a dirty world. Okay, Cliff, here’s the thing. I want you to come to Washington with us.’

‘Us?’

‘Me, Trudi, couple of other staffers.’

‘Why?’

‘The Americans can’t guarantee my security.’

‘Can’t or won’t?’

‘Don’t.’ He held his hand up in that blocking gesture he favoured. ‘I’m buggered if I know. Are you aware of what I’m going to say over there? Trudi fill you in?’

‘Not really. You’re against a lot of things.’

‘The lot-bases, tests, arms deals, mercenary contracts, don’t you worry, there’s plenty of that under other names, surveillance equipment, monitoring devices, the lot.’

‘What’re you for?’ I looked out the window and saw Magda from the health food store weaving a sinuous path along the street. She was carrying a bundle and she held it high which caused the upper part of her body to be still while the rest moved. Almost every man in the street turned to look at her.

‘What’m I for? Peace!’

‘And motherhood?’ Magda went into a shop. I wondered if she and the stringy-haired, sallow-faced individual had any children. It seemed unlikely; they were like members of different species.

January drained his glass and made another drink, stronger. ‘Cynicism’s cheap, Cliff. I’ve got concrete proposals and that Committee’s exactly the right place to air them. It’s the perfect forum.’

I finished my beer and crumpled the can. ‘Have you checked with the Minister and the party, and your constituents? I’d have thought you were committed to the bases at least, probably to a fair bit of the rest as well.’

He cleared his throat. ‘Doesn’t have to be as tight as all that. We’re talking about…ideas.’

‘You want me to come to America to help protect your ideas?’

‘They’re good ones.’

‘But you can’t tell me what they are?’

‘No. I’ll tell you this, Helen’d approve of them.’

‘Oh, great. I’ll give her a ring and tell her I’m going to Washington to deflect bullets in defence of ideas she…’

‘Bullets?’

‘Look, Peter. I don’t know who planted the bomb here but the more I listen to you the more possibilities open up. It could be any one of a dozen loonies who write to you; you say it could be the spooks; the cops say they could pin it on me if they want to. It’s madness. Why don’t you develop an interest in something safe-like flat tax? Everyone wants it and no one wants to do anything about it.’

‘No. What’s that about the police?’

‘Forget it. How big a wheel is Karen Weiner’s husband?’

‘Very big. He’s head of a sort of think tank the other side listens to. He could move into a senior Parliamentary job with them any time he wanted to.’

‘Terrific. He could be another candidate for mad bomber.’

January shook his head. ‘No, he doesn’t know…’

‘Sez you. The only good news I’ve heard for your side lately is that the cops and the press still think you’re a sexual butterfly. For now, that is.’

January sat up straight in his chair. He ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head as though getting rid of all negative thoughts. When he looked at me again there was a steady confidence in his eyes and a firmness to his chin that no camera could fail to catch. He reached out and pulled some papers towards him. ‘You’re wrong, Cliff. This Washington opportunity’s the really good news- for me and everyone else-and I’m not going to let some nutter bugger it up.’ He dropped his gaze, scribbled a signature at the foot of a page, and then gave me the full candlepower look. ‘I want your help. Are you in or out?’

I pushed off from the wall. It sounds strange but there was an energy in him that seemed communicable. That was part of it; I also saw him as a man who had more problems than I did.

‘I’m in,’ I said.

****

8

Gary took the call from Sammy Weiss around tour o’clock and passed it over to me.

‘Hardy?’ Weiss said, ‘are you the pizza man or aren’t you?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Are you going to deliver?’

‘Sammy, you’re going to have to stop this. If you write that sort of crap no one’ll understand outside of Manhattan.’

‘They’ll understand. Now, I…’

‘Don’t say you got me to do lunch with Tobin-I’ll hang up.’

‘Okay, okay, but you got together and talked, right?’

‘It wasn’t much fun.’

‘He gets worse when you get to know him. But you owe me one now and I want to call it in.’

I sighed. ‘Okay, Sammy. Anything to shut you up. What is it?’

‘There’s a press conference in January’s office in half an hour, I understand.’

‘I wouldn’t call it a conference. He’s got an announcement to make.’

‘I wanna be there. You okay it.’

I thought about it for a second. I couldn’t see the harm; Trudi had said some of the party flacks and apparatchiks would be along so there’d be worse than Sammy Weiss present.

‘All right, Sammy. But behave yourself.’

‘I’ll be the quiet guy in the corner with the mineral water.’

‘You’d better be.’

I hung up and watched the office get ready to party. They seemed to know how to do it, how to move what to where to provide space and surfaces for bottles and glasses.

Trudi handed me a pre-party paper cup of wine. ‘Smooth operation,’ I said.

‘Goes with the territory.’

‘Don’t you start. I’ve got Sammy Weiss talking pure Brooklyn or Bronx or something to me. He’s coming, by the way.’

She shrugged. ‘We’ll survive it. That’s what you have to tell yourself before these things. And we might as well get used to the Yank chat. I take it you’re coming along?’

‘Yep. Be cold in Washington, won’t it?’

‘Very. What’ve you got on after this is over?’

I looked down at her. The thin eyebrow line was seductive. I wanted to run my finger along it. Her skin was smooth with just enough light wrinkles and lines to make her features more interesting. ‘If Peter doesn’t want me I’m not doing anything.’

‘He won’t want you. Our job is to get the journos pissed and cover him while he gets away for a tete-a-tete with Karen. When they’re blotto and he’s gone, we’re on our own time.’

I didn’t want to commit myself. ‘What d’you think of Karen Weiner, Trudi?’

‘Let’s talk later.’

‘Fine. Yes.’ Why kid myself? I was committed.

****

The cameras and the lights arrived first. The technicians seemed oblivious of being in a place where gelignite had been detonated not long back; maybe they were used to it. They whipped through their jobs smoothly and efficiently and transformed the office into a movie set. The reporters trooped in soon after, Sammy Weiss among them. The more cluey ones poked around for signs of damage; they grabbed drinks, threw another down and grabbed fresh ones. A mixed batch; seven men and five women; some old, some young. I examined them carefully out of habit but none looked odd or suspicious. A couple were half-stewed already; Weiss was steady but tense.

January read a short statement about his invitation and his delighted acceptance. The cameras hummed and the mikes bristled in front of him as he perched on a desk. He managed to look and sound humble, proud, deeply fearful for the future but intelligently optimistic.

The first question came from a bald sceptic with a short grey beard.

‘What’re you going to say that’s new, Minister?’

‘If I tell you now it won’t be new when I say it. The Opposition’ll pinch it.’

He got some laughs on that. The greybeard’s camera crew got him looking doubly sceptical and he was through for the day. The others took their turn:

‘Are you opposed to US bases on Australian soil?’

‘Absolutely, as presently operated.’

‘Where should the French conduct their tests?’

‘In the Louvre-have you ever seen the bloody awful paintings they’ve got there?’

‘What’s the best way to combat terrorism?’

‘Make the world less terrifying.’

And so on. January was well aware that they wouldn’t use it all so he reserved his best shots for certain questions. Some of his responses were virtually meaningless, others very sharp. He looked uncomfortable only once, when a reporter asked him if the Prime Minister was abreast of developments.

‘What developments?’ January said. ‘D’you mean…?’

A man moved at the back of the room; a tall, pale-eyed man who looked as if he shaved every hour on the hour and had his hair cut every day. He seemed to twitch as he heard the question and January’s response. January saw the movement.

‘I mean about the Senate hearing,’ the reporter said.

January recovered fast. ‘He knew it was in the wind.’

‘But you haven’t told him it’s definite.’

January smiled. ‘He’ll know,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew before I did.’

The lights switched off and the cameras went away to a paraplegic ward or a toxic chemicals spillage. The print men moved in for their meal. Weiss got in a question or two which I didn’t hear but January seemed to field them satisfactorily. I was looking at the tall man with the washed-out eyes who was now in a huddle with a couple of others I hadn’t seen before. They weren’t reporters. I’ve made a study of reporters-they work in all weathers, don’t sleep enough and get a lot of colds. They have flaky skins and bits of tissue stick to their clothes and bulge their pockets. They wear cheap clothes on the job because they’re constantly catching taxis, hanging their jackets over chairs and spilling coffee and ash. These men were telephone artists, limousine riders and users of ensuite bathrooms.

I cut Trudi out of the herd of staffers, journalists and hangers-on. I nodded over at the best-dressed bunch.

‘Who’re they?’

‘Party people. The enemy-if they ask you anything, lie.’

‘The one with the ghost eyes doesn’t seem to think too much of the Minister.’

‘He hates him. Francis Hogbin’s his name, he had a shot for the seat himself. Oh oh, got to go into the routine.’

January had broken free of the reporters and was moving towards the Party men. He gestured for Trudi to join him and I drifted along as well, ignoring an urgent signal from Sammy Weiss. January had wine and soda in his paper cup; Trudi had nothing; I had a can of beer; Hogbin had whisky in a glass.

‘Francis,’ January said, ‘good to see you. Ben, and ah…?’

‘Tim Donnelly,’ the other man said.

January’s arm moved as if to embrace Trudi but stopped as if he thought better of it. ‘Get you a drink, Tim? Trudi, could you…?’

‘No, Peter, we’re going.’ Hogbin knocked back his few drops of whisky. A prominent Adam’s apple bobbed in his close-shaved neck. ‘You’d be Hardy, would you?’

‘I would,’ I said. ‘Most days.’

‘Went well, didn’t you think?’ January said. He smiled at Trudi. She smiled back professionally, with just a touch of sexual chemistry. I thought they were doing very well indeed.

‘Yes,’ Hogbin said. ‘I thought you kept your ambitions nicely in check.’

‘Well, we all have to do that, Frank.’ January switched the smile across to Hogbin. ‘At one time or another.’

Hogbin nodded curtly and the three of them swung away towards the remaining journalists.

‘He gives me the creeps,’ Trudi said.

January’s hand no longer hovered near her back. ‘He gives me nightmares.’

‘Minister?’ Sammy Weiss had crept up on my blind side.

January’s smile was automatic. ‘Yes?’

‘This is Sam Weiss, Peter,’ I said. ‘Freelance.’ That gave January time to adjust, after that, I figured, he was on his own.

‘I know Sammy,’ January said. ‘What’re you working on?’

‘Bombing,’ Weiss said.

January spoke too quickly. ‘Nothing new, is there, Cliff?’

I shook my head. Weiss reached into his pocket and pulled out a glossy photograph, large postcard size. I caught a glimpse of Karen Weiner’s face, raised and happy-looking, as Weiss presented it to January.

‘Do you know this woman, Minister?’

My first reaction was to ram him up against a wall again, but it would have been the wrong move. January had the situation sized up now and, like a good pro in the ring, he was dictating the pace. He smiled, took a sip of his drink and drew his brows together in puzzlement. ‘No, I don’t believe so. Who is she?’

‘You had a drink with her the other night.’

January was moving now, not hastily but enough to put Weiss off balance. He grinned. ‘I wish I had a vote for everyone I’ve had a drink with, Sammy. See you again. Trudi, could you come and have a word over here? Excuse us.’ And he was off, sliding smoothly across the room, holding Trudi by the arm, and looking like an important man, not without the common touch, but with things on his mind.

‘Shit!’ Weiss said.

‘That’s about the first thing you’ve said in a while that I’ve understood, Sammy. Exactly what are you referring to?’

Weiss put the picture away. ‘There’s a story here. I can smell it. Hardy, you have to…’

I backed off and shook my can. Empty. ‘Sammy, we’re even. You got me across a table with Tobin and I got you in a room with January. Evens. In fact, you win because that guts of a brother-in-law of yours ate and drank up $60 worth.’

‘You’re on expenses,’ Weiss said sourly.

‘That’s right, I forgot. As I said then, we’re even.’

That was it for Weiss. I’ve seen them-a dried-out drinker only has so much social and nervous energy in him. If he expends it in a rush the way Weiss had, he either goes off the wagon or he retires to lick his wounds and do something else. I got another can of beer and waited until Trudi and January had finished their business. The hard-core had settled in: Gary seemed to have plenty of staying power and a few around him, journalists, a sound man who had got left behind somehow, and assorted party-sniffers who had drifted in, had that ‘let’s-kick-on’ look to them.

I saw the signal pass between Gary and Trudi and suddenly everything was movement. Gary grabbed a couple of bottles and shepherded his new-found mates towards the stairs. Trudi and January followed and I followed them. A few lights were turned off and an urgency to leave took hold and drove everyone to the street.

A car was waiting for January. Gary and the good-time group appeared not to notice as the Minister slipped inside and was driven away at speed, as the tabloids would say. I was left standing on the footpath with Trudi Bell beside me.

‘I hope you don’t have to go back upstairs and wash the glasses,’ I said.

‘Nope. I set the alarms and locked the door behind me. You’re the security expert, didn’t you see?’

‘Nope.’

‘Some expert.’

The street was still busy but the pace had changed. People strolled rather than rushed and the buzz from the pub was steady and keyed-in for the evening. Some of the shops were still open-the coffee bars, the health food store and an old place that still carried the pre-war sign ‘Mixed Business’-but there were dark windows and doorways and gaps along the kerbs where the shoppers’ and shopowners’ cars had been. ‘Well,’ Trudi said. ‘How’re you feeling?’ I took hold of her upper arm. It was firm with a long muscle that flexed and relaxed under my touch. ‘Like company,’ I said.

****

9

Trudi Bell didn’t have a car. I drove to Lilyfield and she told me to stop opposite a row of houses set high up on the west side of the street. From that elevation the view would be over the old concrete viaduct that emerges at different places through the suburb, across the canal and some scruffy parkland, clear across factories and houses to the city.

‘I can walk to the office from here,’ she said. ‘Good for the calf muscles.’

I stood on the footpath and opened the tricky passenger door of the Falcon. ‘I get the feeling that muscles are important to you,’ I said.

‘You’ll see. We’ve got the steps to climb first.’

My calves were aching when we got up to her place which turned out to be a loft behind a big sprawling house. The loft would once have had narrow slit windows but now it had big expanses of glass to let the view in. We climbed still more steps, narrow wooden flights up to a door at the end of the building.

‘What do you think?’

I clung on to the handrail. ‘Air’s thin up here.’

She laughed, dug out her key and we went in. She flicked a switch inside the door. The loft was spacious and spare. There was a pot belly stove up one end near a small refrigerator and microwave oven on a bench. A lot of cushions lay about and there was a table tennis table at the other end. The big windows looked out to the city. The viaduct was a dark, exotic shape back-lit by the suburban lights.

Trudi threw her keys into an earthenware pot and stomped around turning on more lights.

‘Like it?’

‘It’s great.’ Along one wall there was the sort of divan that folds down to make a double bed; a couple of light wooden room dividers lay on top of the divan. She saw me looking.

‘That’s my bedroom. I can move it to wherever I like. I’m going to make a toasted sandwich. Want one?’

‘Thanks. Where’s Gunther?’

‘He’s away being minded. I lined it up with a friend when I knew I was going to the US. Otherwise he’d be scratching the door down by now. D’you like dogs, Cliff?’

‘I’m not sure. Way back, when I did divorce work, they could be a bit of a nuisance when I was sneaking around a house. I haven’t met too many angry ones lately.’ I wandered around looking at the posters on the walls-movie themes and characters, some nice ones from a San Francisco exhibition of relics from Egyptian tombs-and the books. Her clothes hung on a metal rack near the divan. The pop as she pulled the cork from a bottle of wine made me start.

‘You’re edgy,’ she said. She poured some wine and beckoned me across to the bench.

‘Yes.’ I drank some of the dry white and suddenly felt hungry. Trudi diluted hers with soda water and I wondered if she’d picked that up from January.

‘Food won’t be long. Why’re you edgy?’

‘I don’t know. Who d’you play table tennis with?’

‘Anyone who’s good enough. Do you play?’

‘I can. Is that what you meant about muscles?’

‘No, I’ve got some weights and an exercise bike. Keep ‘em in a cupboard so’s not to scare off the men. What do you do for exercise, Cliff?’

‘Bit of tennis, some swimming, that’s about all.’

‘What about Helen?’

I took a long drink. ‘Who told you about Helen?’

‘Peter. He was sort of in love with her before he met Karen. Lucky for you; he hasn’t missed many he’s aimed at.’

‘So I gather. Helen plays tennis and swims. She does other things in the country-chops wood for all I know.’

‘Sounds like you’re getting sick of the arrangement.’

‘Peter’s really filled you in, hasn’t he?’

She touched my arm. ‘Don’t get pissed off. We’re just talking. It sounds good to me. Better’n anything I ever had.’

‘You’re doing all right. Good job, good place, you could take your pick of the men…’

‘I do.’ She took a gulp of her drink. ‘Let’s eat. Stools are under there. Just yank ‘em out and we’ll sit here.’

She made cheese and bacon sandwiches and we wolfed down a couple each with the wine. We sat very close together at the bench and I could smell her and feel the warmth from her body. She shivered and I took off my jacket and hung it around her shoulders. She was good to touch, firm and straight-backed with a softness over the bones.

She lifted her glass. ‘Washington,’ she said.

‘Washington.’ We drank. ‘Has there been any more nutty mail?’

‘Ah, work,’ she said. ‘Safe ground. No, nothing since the bomb. What d’you make of that?’

‘I don’t know.’ I wasn’t really concentrating on the words. There was a battle going on inside me. The four l’s-love, loyalty, lust and loneliness -were having a hell of a good time slugging it out and I was feeling miserable. Trudi fell silent and seemed to brood. Then she jumped off her stool and bounced up and down on the board floor.

‘Tell you what, I know a place where they have great coffee and they put French brandy in it. Costs a mint. I’ll play you some table tennis. Loser buys the coffee. Okay?’

I laughed. She kept bouncing and the chopped-off hair swung around her head. I wondered how long she could bounce like that-longer than me for sure. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘You’re on. Best of three?’

She nodded. ‘Toss for ends.’

She won the toss, turned on the big hooded light over the table and offered me a selection of bats. I chose a heavy one. She held up two balls, one white, one red.

‘White. I’m old-fashioned.’

‘I can see that.’

She turned off the other lights apart from a lamp down by the bench. We hit up. That is, she hit up. She put the first few past me on either side using wicked spin and plenty of power.

‘You could at least take the jacket off.’

‘Sorry.’ She slung the jacket aside. ‘Home ground advantage. Is the lighting okay?’

It wasn’t quite. Since my eye injury I’d had a little trouble with shadows and adapting from light to dark quickly. But I had no real excuses other than rustiness. ‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘Can we rally a bit on both sides while I get my eye in?’

‘Sure.’

We rallied steadily, forehand and backhand, and I began to get the rhythm back. I’d played the game like a madman at the Maroubra YMCA as a kid and later in long, boring lay-off times in Malaya. I’d had a few games since, away on holiday with Cyn and at other places with other people, but I’d played much more court tennis and the two styles don’t mix well. I took too much swing and advertised my moves from right to left too clearly. Still, after the rallying and a few practice serves, I felt I was ready.

‘Three over for serve.’ She was concentrating, bent over, serious. I lost the serve in four shots.

The first game was over pretty quickly. I lost 21-9. She had a tricky, whippy style which depended a lot on spin and an ability to drop the ball short over the net. I won a few points by pushing her back and forcing her to hit long. She aced me at least eight times, but it wasn’t all bad: I aced her once. I won most of my points towards the end when I’d figured out some of the elements of her game. She liked to take the ball late and very low, below the level of the table if possible. This disguised the spin and direction; the ball came back breaking to either side and skipping down the middle or skimming the sidelines. But I watched and picked up something from the way she dropped her shoulder when she made the shots.

I held her in the second game. The ways of neutralising spin came back to me and I could control her serve better. I read the tricky low shots and did better than before when she had to play long. But she was fitter than me and I had to end the points quickly if I could-most of the really long rallies she won. I hit my straps at 16-19 down. I won all five points and the game.

We changed ends. I was sweating freely but she seemed cool and untroubled.

‘You’re all right,’ she said.

‘I thought I was good and you were terrific’

‘I’m just getting warmed up.’

And she was. She won her serve to love and I was struggling to get three points on mine. I pegged her back a bit over the next few serves but she’d been reading my style while I’d been reading hers. She fought to keep the points long and with a lot of side to side movement. She bounced; I lumbered. She spun and I smashed.

‘That coffee’ll be good,’ she said at 16-10 up.

‘You can’t leave your purse at home yet.’

She laughed and seemed to lose concentration a little. The serve changed at 17-13.

She flicked the ball to me. ‘You’re gone,’ she said.

I won four points and got set to serve at 17 all.

‘I get the feeling that whoever wins this point’ll win the match,’ she said. She was gasping just a little.

‘You’re stalling for breath,’ I said.

She crouched, bounced and wove from side to side to prove me wrong.

I served. The window exploded and the lights went out. Glass showered onto the top of the table. I rushed forward around the table, slithered on broken glass and fought for balance.

‘Where are you?’ I yelled.

‘Down! I’m down!’

I hit the floor myself, half falling, half diving and trying to keep my hands and face out of the glass. I was almost under the table and I heard frantic scrabbling at the other end.

‘Trudi! Are you hurt?’

‘No! What the hell was that?’

I rolled over and looked out the shattered window. There’s nothing wrong with my distance vision at night. A hundred yards away, out among the dark patches and bright pools of light, I glimpsed a quick, flurried movement on the top of the viaduct. A dark shape moved down and out of sight, then a car engine started and I caught a quick glimpse of red light.

****

10

Mrs Bell!’ The shout came from the house below and in front of the loft.

Trudi scrambled up from the floor and rushed to the window. ‘It’s all right. Mr Jamieson. An accident.’

‘Are you all right?’

‘Yes. I broke a window. Nobody hurt.’

We turned on some more lights and surveyed the damage.

‘Shit,’ Trudi said. ‘Look at my bedroom.’

I looked sharply at her but she meant the stack of room dividers. A bullet had hit them, passing through and gouging the wall behind. Another had hit the light. Trudi went to the end of the room and poured us both some wine. She shoved things around and then gave a low moan. ‘I had some cigarettes here, I’ll swear.’

I went over and took the glass. ‘I didn’t know you smoked.’

‘I stopped.’

‘You’ll be okay without,’ I said. ‘Have some wine.’

‘Yeah.’ We both drank and she grinned at me. ‘I woulda won.’

‘I think you’re right. You’d have been cooler than me at 20-20.’

She sniffed and drank. ‘It’s nothing after the bomb. God, that poor little kid.’

We drew close and stood with our arms around each other, still holding our glasses. We stood like that for a long time and then I took her back to Glebe watching the rear vision mirror all the way.

I circled the block and checked every parked car before I stopped. Inside, I made her some tea and put her to bed in the room Hilde used to occupy. I went out the back way and checked the area thoroughly again. When I got back she was asleep.

****

We didn’t tell January or anyone else about the shots. Glazing is one of the few practical jobs I can do. I replaced the window panes; Trudi bought a new light and partitions. She stayed five nights at my place and moved back to her loft a few nights before we were due to fly to Washington. Helen had rung one night when I was out and left a message on the machine that she’d call again in 12 hours. I didn’t get the message and Trudi answered when she rang. Helen hung up. I tried to call her at the radio station where she worked part-time and was told she was on leave. I didn’t want to ring her at home. I never had.

I was bad-tempered after the phone disaster which was probably why Trudi moved back. Things were cool between us. I sat with the phone wondering whether I should call the Broadway Agricultural Company. Instead, I called Frank Parker. I felt the need for some non-political company and conversation and I could rely on Frank and Hilde to give it to me. Frank often needed the same sort of thing and Hilde, who was researching some jawbone speciality too ghastly to mention, was always good for some academic dental stories.

Inspector Parker was interstate on business. I put the phone down and it rang immediately. I considered flicking the recording machine on but I wasn’t that far gone.

‘Hardy.’

‘Cliff, Trudi.’

There was need in her voice. I love to be needed, I thought, almost as much as I need to be loved. Speak up, can’t hear you.’

‘I can’t yell, I’m in the office. There’s been another letter. Peter’s under big pressure all around. I don’t want to worry him with it.’

‘Don’t. Stay there. I’ll come in.’

The office was humming; there was energy in everybody’s movements and they were practically jostling each other to get at the phones and filing cabinets. Trudi had a phone to her ear when I walked in. She said something quick into it and slammed it down. I looked enquiringly at her and she grimaced.

‘My ex,’ she said. ‘Let’s go somewhere.’ She grabbed a manilla folder from her desk, mouthed ‘Out’ to Gary who nodded, and we headed for the door. On the street I had to scuttle to keep pace with her.

‘Why so busy?’

‘Getting stuff ready for Peter.’

‘I mean you, now?’

‘Oh, that man, he drives me crazy.’

‘Peter or your ex?’

‘All men.’

I couldn’t think of anything very useful to say to that. We went to the Bar Napoli and I ordered the coffee. Trudi passed the folder across to me. Inside was a cheap envelope with ‘PETER January’ printed on it in scratchy, half dry ballpoint. There was a square of paper, like butcher’s wrapping paper but smaller. Using the same pen and mixing up the cases someone had written: ‘I wiLL KiLL ALL THe WOMen’. There were photocopies of both. Trudi sipped her coffee and looked agitated.

‘He’ll need to be a better shot,’ I said.

‘What?’

‘Must’ve driven him crazy up there on the viaduct, getting all lined up, night scope and all, and you bobbing and weaving.’

‘Christ, do you actually think this is funny?’

I drank some of the good, strong coffee. ‘No, but I don’t see what harm a joke can do, as long as it doesn’t stop us being careful.’

‘What does it mean-all the women?’

‘God knows. This is the same paper as the other one, isn’t it? The “touch her and I kill you” one?’

‘I think so. Yes.’

‘It’s probably the sniper which doesn’t mean that it’s the bomber. Not necessarily.’

‘So, what d’you think?’

I finished my coffee. ‘I think there’s someone around, close by, who hates Peter January. Maybe for personal reasons, maybe for political things. That doesn’t help much.’

‘Why not?’

I pointed out the door to the busy street. ‘This is one of the closest packed parts of Sydney. We’ve got every kind of ethnic group here, we’ve got people who’ve been let out of psychiatric hospitals, we’ve got trendies, we’ve got Fascists. Have you ever taken a good walk around this place? I have. There’s temples for sects I’ve never heard of. People have got illuminated shrines in their front gardens. I’ll bet there’s an illegal immigrant with a history of mental disturbance and a Family Court problem within a hundred feet of us right now.’

She burst out laughing. ‘God, you make it sound dangerous.’

‘Maybe it is, unless you stick real close to your work, your pub and your house.’

‘I’m sorry about Helen and the phone call. Have you explained?’

‘I can’t reach her. What about you and your ex?’

She shrugged. ‘He’s ex as ex can be. He’s crazy, but…’ Our eyes fell on the note. ‘He’s never threatened to kill me.’

‘You know what I think?’ I said.

‘What?’

‘I think it’s a bloody good thing we’re all going to Washington the day after tomorrow.’

****

BOOK TWO

****

11

As Minister assisting the Minister for Defence, Peter January was low on the totem pole, which meant that he escaped a lot of the trappings-such as hordes of security men, departmental advisers and other nose wipers. When we assembled at Sydney’s International Terminal we numbered but five-January, Trudi, me, Gary, whose other name was Wilcox, and two guys named Martin and Bolton. Martin was from a PR section of the Department of Defence and Bolton was seconded from the Strategic Analysis Unit of the Australian National University. They were experts in politics and they used words like ‘hemispheric’ and even bio-tropic’.

Trudi distributed the tickets. ‘Business class. Any of you smoke?’

‘Yes,’ Bolton said. He was a long lean number with straight fair hair. He had several pens in the top pocket of his jacket and nicotine-stained fingers.

‘Not today you don’t,’ January said. ‘I’ll want to talk to you on the way and I don’t want to get my head full of shit before I get there. There’ll be enough of that later. Let’s go.’

The metal detector screamed as I stepped through the frame. I was wearing the. 38 in an underarm harness and I had a spare ammunition clip in a pocket. It made the attendant’s day. He suddenly stood taller and sucked his stomach in. ‘I’m sorry, sir, I’ll have to search you.’

I held my jacket open so he could see the gun but the other people standing around couldn’t. ‘The thing works,’ I said. ‘It really works.’

‘Stop clowning, Hardy,’ January snapped. He and Trudi presented the attendant with papers, which meant that his day hadn’t been made after all.

‘What was all that about?’ Martin asked. He was a small, intense man with a mop of wiry hair and big, violet-tinted glasses. He kept abreast of me by scampering down the corridor from the waiting lounge pumping his elbows like a competition walker.

‘Politics,’ I said.

It was a Trans Pacific Airlines flight stopping at Honolulu, Los Angeles and New York. The movie was Crocodile Dundee, which I’d seen and didn’t want to see again. I’d brought along Flashman at the Charge which I’d read but wanted to re-read and John Ehrlichman’s Washington Behind Closed Doors which I hadn’t and probably wouldn’t. Trudi and January talked and worked on papers; January also drank. Martin and Bolton read thick official reports so fresh the ink came off on their fingers. Bolton slipped out of his seat from time to time to go somewhere and smoke.

I read, listened to the music and thought. I’d imagined that the next overseas trip for me would have been with Helen. We had similar ideas about Paris and Rome; now I didn’t even know where she was, much less what ideas she had. I hadn’t phoned the farm, I hadn’t done anything except resolve to send a postcard from New York. That’d rock her. Maybe I could go on to Paris when January had finished in New York. Maybe Helen could join me there. Human beings weren’t meant to travel thousands of miles in a few hours-it stimulates the imagination too much and leaves reality too far behind.

January left Trudi and sat next to Bolton. They were arguing loudly within seconds.

‘You can’t say that,’ Bolton yelped. ‘You’ll offend mother major interest group with every word if you say that.’

‘Good!’ January slammed his fist on his knee. Good!’

‘They’d retaliate!’ Bolton’s voice went up in aguish. ‘They’d undersell us in wheat, wool, meat…’

January laughed. ‘They’re doing that now.’ His ice had got a little loose, the way I’d seen it before when he was drunk at my house. Trudi shot him a concerned look which I caught. I looked at my watch.

‘Food soon,’ I mouthed.

She nodded. Gary joined in the argument on January’s side and they went at it vigorously until the meal arrived.

‘They’re not the enemy,’ Bolton snapped. He felt for a cigarette and stopped when he saw how January was looking at him.

Gary looked at his tray. ‘Maybe they are,’ he said. ‘Look at the food.’

It was all pink or off-white with the consistency of freshly mixed polyfilla. I prodded at it, ate a cube of something called ‘cheese food’ but basically left it alone. January was wound up; he talked as he ate and finished the food apparently without tasting it. Trudi nodded encouragingly and managed to get several cups of coffee into him by the sheer force of her agreement with every word he said.

The leg room in the business class seats was adequate; the air wasn’t yet too stale and the drone of the engines was pleasantly muted. As he digested the ‘steak food’ and ‘ice cream food’, Peter January slept.

‘This is looking tricky,’ Gary said. ‘What’s wrong with him? He doesn’t usually throw it down like that.’

I looked at Trudi. ‘Does Gary know about Karen?’

She shook her head.

‘Time he did,’ I said. ‘I’m betting that’s the complication our master’s wrestling with.’

Trudi filled Gary in quickly. He covered his face with his hands when he heard the name. ‘Oh, Jesus,’ he said. ‘Does Frank Hogbin know?’

‘Nobody knows,’ Trudi said. ‘Except us sitting here, and Mrs Weiner, of course.’

‘And where’s her head now?’ Gary said.

On the block, I thought, but Trudi had learned 80s-speak. ‘That’s what’s bugging Peter,’ she said. ‘He hasn’t been able to reach her for a couple of days. He’s scared she might be doing something foolish.’

Gary took a sip of cold coffee and made a face. ‘What d’you think, Cliff?’

‘I’ve got the same problem with Helen.’

Gary looked at me, blinking rapidly. ‘Don’t worry,’ Trudi said. She patted my hand. ‘Cliff’s got jet lag-already.’

****

We went through customs at Honolulu. This time I made sure January cleared what they insisted on calling my ‘weapon’ first. I didn’t want any trigger-happy American cop thinking he’d got himself a live target at last. Back on the plane January fell into an argument with Martin. Gary Wilcox stuck close to them and seemed to be fuelling the debate from time to time.

‘You need a phrase, sir,’ Martin insisted. ‘A catchcry.’

‘A slogan,’ Gary said.

January loosened his collar. He had his jacket off and waistcoat unbuttoned. He looked a little dishevelled but nothing that couldn’t be fixed quickly. ‘What is this?’ he said. ‘An advertising campaign? Are we selling beer here?’

Gary smiled. ‘You’re falling into the style already, Peter.’

‘Shut up! Martin, have you got the breakdown of the media networks? I want to know where I can say what.’

‘Yes, sir. And the regional analysis. You’ll be travelling along the east coast a bit, I gather. Now, in Maryland…’

‘Agnew country,’ Gary said.

‘Jesus, don’t remind me. What’s that Baltimore paper that’s okay?’

‘What’s going on?’ I whispered to Trudi. ‘Gary’s getting up his nose.’

‘That’s right. The idea is to get Peter angry and charged up. Maybe he’ll stay off the grog.’

‘He might break Gary’s nose too, or Martin’s glasses. Are we going to have to nursemaid him like this all the time?’

She shrugged. ‘He’s hoping for a telegram from Karen in Washington. What about you?’

‘I’m just a boy from Maroubra. I’ll send Helen a postcard.’

‘I’ll help you draft it, if you like.’

‘No, thanks. She might smell your perfume. That reminds me, maybe we should’ve given some of those original letters to the cops.’

‘Why?’

‘They could do a microscopic analysis, get blood types from fingernail scrapings and so on.’

‘Was any crime ever solved by that stuff?’

I grinned. ‘I never heard of one. Still, something might turn up. We’ll do it when we get back.’

‘I’ll make a note. Are you enjoying yourself so far?’

‘It’s okay. No one’s shot at me. I’ll be ready for a decent feed. Where’re we staying in Washington?’

She consulted a notebook. ‘The Lincoln.’

‘Good.’

‘D’you know it?’

‘No, but at least it’s not the Watergate.’

‘I think the Watergate’s for the rich.’

‘It certainly made a lot of people rich, Watergate.’

‘Mm.’ She looked across the laps and knees at January who was arguing fiercely with Martin. Bolton, presumably, was off working on his emphysema. A steward came down the aisle and handed Trudi a note. She unfolded the paper and read quickly.

‘Great,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Press in LA.’

‘Talk English, Trude.’

She smiled as she handed the note along to Peter. ‘Some members of the American media would like to talk to the Minister at Los Angeles International Airport.’

‘Commie Aussie polly gives Reds head,’ I said.

‘Jesus, Cliff. It won’t be that bad.’

We looked at January. He smoothed down his hair, checked his watch and did up some of the buttons on his waistcoat. Martin held out a paper to him and he brushed it aside. ‘Later,’ he said.

‘Will he be out of his depth, d’you think?’ Trudi whispered.

I watched January work his tongue around his teeth and flex his neck muscles, pulling in the incipient double chin. ‘How tall is he?’

‘Five nine,’ Trudi said.

I smiled. ‘He’s barely five eight but I don’t think the depth will worry him too much.’

****

12

The American reporters, who had seen everything, hadn’t ever seen anything like Peter January. As we assembled in the media lounge, with January in his three piece suit and his advisers and minders around him, they must have thought they were in for another quick question-and-answer session which their editors just might give 30 seconds or a half column to.

The young man who opened was bored before he started. He wore a striped shirt and bow tie; his hair was clipped to his skull and he treated his cameraman like the Great White Hunter lording it over the Bantu. When he thought the technician had done his best he signalled to January that he was ready. The other reporters deferred to him.

‘Mr January, do you regard the United States as a friend or foe to Australia?’

January smiled. ‘In my country it’s usual for reporters to identify themselves.’

‘David Harvard, West American TV.’

‘What was the lead story in your channel’s morning news program, Mr Harvard?’

Harvard fumbled the ball. He looked confused and didn’t know what instructions to give his patient, curious Bantu. ‘I…ah, I’m not sure, I…’

‘How can you be a serious reporter if you don’t know how your channel is handling news? Next. Could I have someone from the print media, please?’

‘Mr January, Timothy Squires, LA Banner, first question-are you aware that the Soviet Union is ringing Australia with military bases under the guise of fishing facilities?’ Squires was a squat, heavily-jowled man with an aggressive style of delivery. He gave the impression of having elbowed his way to the front and of resentment at having to identify himself as January had requested. He had an unlit cigarette in the hand that held the pad as if he was seeking just one line from January before he could rush off to smoke and file his copy. ‘Second question-what…’

January was sitting only a few feet back from Squires; he leaned forward and flicked a cigarette lighter. Squires was nonplussed; he put the cigarette in his mouth and leaned towards the light. January killed the flame before he got the tip of the cigarette to it. ‘Sorry, I forgot. No smoking in here. What’s the population of Australia, Mr Squires?’

The cigarette fell from the reporter’s mouth. Some of his colleagues were tittering. ‘Around, er…shit, five million I guess…’

‘Guess again,’ January snapped. ‘Sixteen million plus. You need to do your homework, Mr Squires. Is there anyone here from Cal TV, channel 8?’

‘Yessir.’ The speaker was a sun-bleached young woman who stood with her camera and sound team near the back of the room. All three were women.

‘Congratulations on your report on the Solomon Islands. I saw it on the satellite link at home. Would you like to ask a question?’

And that’s how it went on for the remaining few minutes. He killed them with a mixture of charm and sharp put-downs. When Gary wound it up there were more smiles than frowns among the reporters and Peter January had won himself an unprecedented eight minutes on prime time West Coast TV.

****

Back on the plane January returned Bolton’s cigarette lighter with a nod. Bolton was open-mouthed and kept staring at January as if he was a bald man who’d suddenly grown real hair.

‘That was fantastic,’ he said. ‘I’ve travelled with…God, all the big ones, and I’ve never seen ‘em handled like that before.’

January winked. The steward came offering drinks and he waved him away. The wave appeared to include the rest of us because the steward retreated. I called him back.

‘Let’s see if they can make a wine and soda,’ I said.

January shook his head. ‘I’m off it for the duration. You need to be sharp with this mob. But you go ahead.’

‘Thanks, boss.’ I ordered drinks for Trudi, Gary, Martin and me. Bolton seemed prepared to follow January into hell and he refused a drink.

‘That was fine, Minister,’ Martin said after he’d tried his drink, ‘but I’m telling you, you still need a…’

‘Slogan,’ January said. ‘I know. I’m working on it.’ There was a note of dismissal in his tone and Martin moved back a row to confer with Bolton. The plane had emptied somewhat at Los Angeles and our group was gradually spreading itself. January made a side to side movement of his head which drew Trudi and me into conference. Gary Wilcox was studying a map of Washington, DC.

‘Speaking of working,’ January said, ‘what’ve you come up with on the threats?’

I looked at Trudi who raised an eyebrow which could have meant anything. I judged that January was high enough on success to take a pinch or two of bad news. ‘Nothing much, Peter,’ I kept my voice low. ‘Didn’t want to worry you with this before, but someone took a shot at Trudi the other night.’

‘What? Where?’

I gave him the details but didn’t mention the notes. His uncertainty returned in full measure. ‘Think I will have a drink, plenty of time before I have to do the performing monkey act again.’ He raised his hand to the steward. ‘Scotch and ice.’

Trudi and I sipped our drinks and January drummed his fingers on the armrest while he waited for his. When it came he sucked half of it down in a gulp.

‘Easy, Peter,’ Trudi said.

‘You’re saying easy and people are shooting at us.’

‘You’ve been shot at before.’

‘I could shoot back then. Who the fuck is this maniac? There must be some clues.’

‘As far as the sniper is concerned it looks as if it could be a wronged husband.’ I told him about the note. He finished his drink and rubbed his hand over the stubble that was beginning to sprout on his chin and cheeks. We’d been 18 hours in the air; my own face felt rough and dry and my operated-on eye was watering.

‘Things have got so crazy in this game,’ January said. ‘You should hear the letters some of the blokes get.’

‘You mean MPs, do you!’ Trudi said acidly. ‘I bet some of the women get good ones too.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Sorry, they do. You’re right. They’re 99 per cent hoaxes of course, but there’s some provocateurs out there you wouldn’t believe.’

‘What d’you mean?’ Trudi said. Gary Wilcox was listening now but January didn’t appear to care. He flicked at the edge of his empty glass.

‘People get set up. Some of the journos’ll do it in small ways-spike drinks. Sometimes it gets rougher. There was a freelancer who rammed a Member’s car to get a drunk driving story on him.’

‘I heard about that,’ Gary said.

‘You heard about what happened to the reporter,’ January said.

Trudi didn’t wear makeup except a bit around the eyes and her short hair didn’t need any attention. She had on light, loose clothes and had kicked her shoes off. She looked the freshest of us all. ‘What did happen?’ she said.

‘Don’t ask. This could be the same. I wouldn’t put it past that shit Sammy Weiss to pull some stunts like this. How’d he get to the press conference the other day?’

‘Through me. He was useful. I think you’re on the wrong track, Peter. I suggest you give up women for a while.’

‘You believe this wronged husband shit?’

I shrugged. ‘For the shooting, maybe. I don’t know about the bomb.’

‘Well, anyway, I’ll be able to drop the playboy stuff soon. Karen and I’ll work something out.’

‘And you’ll be faithful and true while you’re over here?’ Trudi waved at the window. I supposed we were somewhere over the mid-West.

January grinned. ‘Not as easy as that. You’ve heard of Don Carver, haven’t you?’

‘Oh, shit!’ Gary said.

The name meant something to me but I wasn’t sure what. ‘Who’s he, the Ambassador or someone?’

January laughed hard. ‘No, we’ll be dealing with our peace ambassador, that’s Creighton Kirby and he hates my guts too.’

‘Too?’ I said.

‘I had a thing with his wife once. But I had a bigger thing with Carver’s wife. He’s the Washington correspondent for the Incorporated Press papers at home. He knows me; if I step out of character he’ll smell a rat and he’ll know where to look.’

‘ I hope Mrs Weiner knows how to send a discreet telegram then,’ I said.

January groaned. ‘Christ, so do I.’

****

13

January’s performance in Los Angeles had gone over big in a news-starved lull. The result was that it was bedlam at Kennedy Airport and more bedlam at La Guardia where we went to catch the shuttle to Washington. January loved it and kept it up. When a crew-cut reporter wearing a mustard-coloured suit with a dark shirt and tie shoved a microphone at him and screamed: ‘Are you a Red agent!’ January grinned and undid his belt.

‘Christ!’ Trudi said. ‘What’s he going to do?’

Martin covered his eyes and Gary Wilcox shrank back towards the potted palms. I was doing my steely-eyed, crowd-surveying number, but I saw January pull up the waistband of his jockey shorts.

‘I’m wearing red underpants,’ he said. He let the elastic snap back and re-fastened his belt. ‘And a blue tie and a white shirt. I’m wearing red, white and blue.’

A small cheer went up from the media mob which January silenced with an upraised palm. ‘Tell me, Mr…?’ He transfixed the crew-cut reporter with his hard blue eyes.

‘F…Fisher.’

‘Mr Fisher. Which way did you vote in the last Congressional election-Democrat or Republican?’

Fisher was no slouch; he recovered fast. The flush which had been spreading over his skull, visible under the thin crew-cut hair, died down. ‘You can’t ask that question of an American citizen. I want to know…’

‘You misunderstand,’ January said silkily. ‘I want to know if you voted either way.’

‘Well, no, I…’

‘You didn’t vote at all?’ January drew himself up and looked more than five foot eight or nine. ‘You’re not a serious political person and yours is not a serious political question.’ He flashed a smile. ‘And from your clothes my guess is you’re colour blind anyway. Next.’

The reporters lapped it up but January knew when to stop. One of the print men pushed forward and held out his hand. ‘G’die, mite,’ he said. ‘Gotta prahn fer th’ barby?’

January ignored the hand and turned to me. ‘What did he say?’ He spoke clearly enough for the mike to pick up his voice.

‘Search me,’ I said. ‘I think he’s French.’

January pumped the reporter’s hand hard. ‘Sorry, I don’t speak much French. If you’d like to put the question in writing I’ll be happy to answer.’

‘Mr January-Cassie Burnett, NBC News.’ January gave her the nod. She was a tall redhead in a fur coat and boots. There was no window to look out but, judging from the clothes the reporters wore, it was cold outside. January had changed into a dark suit.

‘Ms Burnett.’

‘How would you describe your policy for the Pacific region-in a few words?’

January grinned at her but kept his voice serious. ‘My job to is give my views and those of a lot of people who think as I do to your Senate committee. I’ll try to make it clear what those views are but it’s not my job to sum them up in a few words. I’m afraid, Ms Burnett, that that’s your job. Let me know when you’ve got them.’

I could feel Trudi squirming beside me; the charm was a touch too thick but it worked for Cassie. ‘I will, sir,’ she said huskily.

I buckled my seat belt and looked at January. ‘Can you keep this pace up?’

‘I don’t know. What do you think, Martin?’ Martin shrugged. ‘You seem to be making the rules, Minister.’

****

Creighton Kirby met us at National Airport although he seemed rather resentful about having to do it. He was a tall, sandy-haired and freckled man with a Melbourne Club air about him. He wore a light poplin top coat so it was evidently warmer in Washington than New York. But that was all right because January had changed again-into a mid-weight suit and he carried a coat very similar to Kirby’s over his arm. Those of us who’d travelled 22 hours in the same clothes weren’t in the sartorial hunt.

‘Creighton,’ January said, while the minions bustled about with the bags, ‘why are you looking so cross?’

‘I’ll be frank.’ Kirby spoke with a crisp, Establishment accent that would get on my nerves inside half an hour. ‘You’ve created a stir at a time when I had some very delicate negotiations underway. I…’

January made as if to turn on his heel. ‘Well, if you’re on the brink of achieving total disarmament, I’ll just piss off.’

Kirby’s thin mouth twisted in distaste. ‘Please, just consult me before you make public statements that could be twisted.’

Trudi, Gary and the advisers had got into a huddle with some people who had arrived with Kirby. That left me with the Ambassador and the Minister, crumpled suit and all. Kirby was evidently used to bodyguards being within earshot because he ignored me completely.

‘If there was disarmament, Creighton, you’d be out of a job, wouldn’t you?’

Kirby’s long, bony features twitched as if to say there was no danger of that. The dislike flowing between the two men generated a tension that almost had a smell to it. I had to stop staring at them and do my job. I shielded my eyes from the glare coming through the big windows and looked around the polished floors and the steel and glass pillars and gleaming plastic surfaces for wrong movements, Wrong faces and anything that shouldn’t be there.

It was early afternoon and the place was busy. There were more security men around than you’d see in Australia but not as many as I’d been led to suspect. That’s unless the cleaners were carrying. 45s and the clerks had grenade launchers under the desks. Kirby acknowledged a signal from one of his team and spoke to a point a few inches above January’s head. ‘We’ve got a couple of cars for you. I have another appointment so I’ll…’ The sentence ended in a mumble but January had already turned away.

‘I’ll travel with you, Minister,’ I said, ‘and Trudi and the others can go in together. Gary, you come with us. Is there some kind of contact man around I can talk to?’

‘Here he is,’ Gary said. ‘This is…sorry, mate, I forget your name. This is Cliff Hardy.’

I shook hands with a chunky, useful-looking man who herded us along towards the doors. ‘Mike Borg,’ he said. ‘I’ve gotta nursemaid F…ah, the Ambassador at some do or other but I’ll see you to the cars. How’re you splittin’ em?’

I told him and he nodded agreement. ‘What were you going to call Kirby?’ I asked.

‘Freckles,’ he said. ‘Cost me m’ job if he heard it. Here we go.’

We stood by a sweeping driveway under a grey sky that was starting to spit rain. Two black limousines were waiting with a black driver in each.

Borg looked in at each man and said something brief and polite. I took Trudi to the second car and opened the door. She got in the back with Bolton. Martin sat next to the driver. Gary supervised the loading of the baggage into the trunks of the cars; he and January settled into the padding and I got in the front. The driver was a lean, whippy-looking man with a thin moustache and a tuft of hair on his chin. He started the motor, which made no sound at all, and pulled smoothly out onto the roadway which was turning dark as the rain started to fall heavily.

‘Lincoln,’ he said.

‘Right. How long?’

‘Well, it so happens we’ve got to go a little out of our way today. There’s some roadworks on the usual route. Depends on the traffic’ His voice was slow but with a neutral, eastern accent. ‘It’s a quiet day, won’t take long.’

The car was moving fast in the middle lane of a five lane road. The traffic slowed and bunched up as we reached the roadworks. We followed a detour sign right and picked up a secondary road that ran at an angle from the highway. I looked out of the tinted window through the screen of rain at a low-lying light industrial and residential area. It looked to be in need of trees and paint.

‘Is there anything to see on the way in?’

The driver glanced across at me and grinned. He had good strong teeth but nothing out of the ordinary, no gold. I was feeling a bit disappointed in him. ‘Are you from the city?’

‘Sydney,’ I said. ‘Australia.’

‘Then I’d say you’ve seen a whole lot better than this. I’m from Boston myself and I know I have.’

Gary and January were murmuring in the back seat. The car seemed to glide and I could feel sleep sneaking up on me. The driver’s big pink palm was in front of me with a small package between the fingers.

‘You look tired,’ he said. ‘Not far now. Want some gum?’

‘Thanks.’ I took a piece of the gum, unwrapped it and put the paper in the pull-out ashtray; it would’ve held the yellow pages. ‘Who do you work for exactly?’

‘Hang…on!’ The big car swayed to the right like a tacking yacht and then came back, slewing and rocking across the buttons in the road that marked the lanes. I heard January yell and Gary swear and then I was pressed back against the seat as the driver accelerated.

‘Behind and right!’ He yelled. ‘You see ‘em?’

I swivelled to look out the back window which was clear and clouded as the wiper slashed across it. I saw a big grey car gaining fast and rocking as gusts of wind hit it. I tugged the. 38 free for no good reason I could think of, maybe to encourage him to drive faster.

‘Grey car, foreign-looking?’

‘That’s him. He tried to push me through the wall back there. He’ll be coming again?’

‘Where’s our other car?’

‘Way back. I had to hit the juice to make him miss. They’re back in the bunch. Hold it! He’s coming! Your side!’

The grey car loomed up alongside and crowded us. The driver yielded one lane; we clicked over the buttons and then he held firm. We must have been travelling at over 90 miles an hour but the car could have been cruising. I was dimly aware of posts and overhead lights flashing past as we rocketed along side by side towards a few cars moving sedately ahead of us.

‘What can you do?’ My teeth were clenched and the words came out thin and tight.

‘Hold the road.’

The grey car hung back while we flashed past a couple of cars steering a frantic wavering line. I wound down the window and felt the wind and water whip at me as the grey car drew up again.

‘You seem to know what you’re doing,’ I said. ‘You think I should take a shot at him?’

He held the wheel lightly and only the fact that he was chewing the gum at a slower rate betrayed his reaction. ‘Think I see what they’re trying to do. No, don’t shoot. But it wouldn’t hurt to show them the piece.’

I half-turned, cocked an arm and levelled the gun at the windscreen a few feet away using the arm as a rest. The grey car was inches away, crowding us right. Ahead I saw a ramp running off to the right down from the elevated road into a grey, misty sea of streets and buildings.

‘He’s going to hit us!’ I yelled.

The driver sucked on his top lip. ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘I think he’s through.’ A wave of power seemed to run through the car and it surged forward until we were a few yards ahead by the time we reached the ramp. January was quiet; Gary was muttering what might have been a prayer.

‘They’re dropping back.’ I pulled my wet gun and damp arm inside and wound up the window. ‘Will they have a go at the other car?’

‘Have a go,’ the driver said. ‘That’s nice. No, I don’t think they’ll have a go at it. I’m not even sure they were having a go at us.’

‘Would you mind telling me what the hell that was all about?’ January’s voice was firm but a tone or two higher than normal.

I touched the driver on the shoulder. ‘This man saved our lives, that’s what happened.’

‘Thank you,’ January said.

‘Nothing, Mr January.’

‘I was asking you who you worked for,’ I said. ‘I suppose it isn’t the ACME limousine company?’

He laughed. ‘No, sir. Mr Hardy, is that right?’

‘Cliff,’ I said.

‘Billy Spinoza. I liked what you didn’t do with the gun, Cliff. I guess they were pretty good but if they weren’t a gunshot at the wrong time could’ve killed us all. Did you get a look at them?’

I tried to remember. ‘Just a flash. Two men; the driver was young and fair. The other one was heavier, older probably.’

‘You know this trick? Close your eyes and try to sort of print their picture inside your head. Might want you to look at some photographs later.’

I’d done it before, more or less automatically, but I did it deliberately now. ‘Long fair hair,’ I said.

Spinoza nodded. ‘Good.’

‘What were they trying to do?’ Gary asked.

‘They were trying to run us down the west ramp back there.’ Spinoza was chewing rhythmically again. ‘If they’d succeeded there’s no telling what might have happened. It’s rough down there.’

I coughed. ‘You still haven’t told me…’

Spinoza laughed. ‘Cliff, you could say I work for the Australian Government.’

****

14

Billy Spinoza slowed the limousine until the other car caught up and we went on our stately way into the city. He explained that he was a ‘sort of government man’ on loan to the branch of the Australian security service that protected the diplomats.

‘You’ve got a couple of good men,’ he said, ‘but they’re stretched thin and they get called away to other places. Job like this needs local knowledge or something like it.’

‘A job like what?’

‘Like you, Mr January. I don’t know how long it is since you’ve been here but things are changing every day. The crazies are coming out of the woods. Should see it when the President travels, it’s like a red alert.’

‘I see,’ January said quietly. ‘Well, that was quite a reception.’

‘I hear you had bombing,’ Spinoza said.

‘You think these things could be related?’ January sounded interested rather than alarmed. It was almost as if he was working out how to profit from the idea.

‘We’ll look at it. Cliff here and me. We’ve got most kinds of trouble here but not many bombers. I don’t really know why. You’d think this would be a good breeding ground.’

We were passing through a poor section of the city. The pavements were dirty and the rubbish overflowed into the gutters, or maybe it was flowing the other way. There were shops on the corners with boards and broken signs. I could see the scars of break and entry on doors to the shops and other buildings. Water cascaded from cracked, sagging guttering and the walls were covered with ripped, defaced posters advertising everything from soap to string quartet recitals. The people hurrying along the wet streets were mostly black. Groups of youths huddled in the doorways as if body heat was their only protection from the cold.

‘Christ,’ Gray said, ‘how far away’s the White House?’

Spinoza laughed. ‘Oh, just a few blocks.’

I looked down a side street as we slowed for a light. Rusting, burnt-out cars were parked bumper to bumper along both sides of the road for as far as I could see. In a couple of places they spilled over onto the pavement and there was even one wreck sitting high up on top of another. Spinoza saw me looking.

‘That’s the street where cars go to die. There’s some streets where you don’t walk around after dark but that’s a street where you don’t walk, ever!’

I heard Gary expel a long, harsh breath. January was silent. If he was anything at all like me he was experiencing the old-soldier feeling of moving into a battle zone. He’d also be needing a drink.

‘Would everyone in Washington know about those roadworks?’ I was wondering what was the right thing to do with my gum.

‘Could find out if anyone was specially interested in the routes and such. You’re thinking, I see.’ Spinoza turned and slowed down at an intersection. ‘We’ll be out of this stuff in a minute. Into the parks and bridges. Of course, folks sleep in the parks and under the bridges, but you can’t see ‘em from the road.’

‘You don’t sound like a government man,’ I said.

He drove for a while, then he wound down his window and dropped his gum out. I did the same.

He grinned. ‘Speaking my mind? That’s just my cover. Your journey’s end, folks. The Lincoln Hotel.’

****

I don’t spend a lot of time hanging around fancy hotels, but I’ve taken the odd gambler back to the Hilton in Sydney so I know what they look like. I’ve even had a drink in the bar of the Wentworth. The lobby of the Lincoln reminded me of Government House-all deep, dusty carpet, heavy furniture and too many surfaces to keep polished.

Spinoza and the other driver opened the trunks but the hotel staff unloaded the bags. Trudi and the others joined us in the lobby. She was looking tired and she kept shooting glances at Gary who was looking frightened.

‘What do you think of it?’ she said.

I shuffled my feet. ‘Let’s do the time warp again,’ I said.

‘They say Malcolm liked it because he could see the White House from his window.’

‘That’ll be Peter’s room,’ I said. ‘We’ll get to see the winos in the park. Oh, Billy Spinoza, this is Trudi Bell. She keeps score for our boss.’

‘Ma’am,’ Spinoza said. ‘Look, Cliff, you get your boy settled in and do what you have to do and give me a call.’ He handed me a card. ‘Anytime and the sooner the better.’

‘It could be late.’

‘We never sleep. Glad to have met you, Ms Bell.’

‘Who’s that?’ Trudi responded to January’s impatient wave and we went up floral-carpeted steps to the reception desk.

‘The Feds,’ I said.

We had five rooms at the end of a corridor on the fifth floor. Martin and Bolton shared, Gary, Trudi and I had separate rooms and January had a suite. The hotel looked out across Lafayette Square to the White House. That is to say, January’s rooms on the west side did. He could also choose to look at the inspirational sights of the Washington Monument and the Capitol, if that was his pleasure. The rest of us had grey government buildings to look at. Trudi came into my room and stood with me at the window. The day was clearing and blue patches were spreading across the sky.

‘That’s Georgetown,’ she said. ‘Where the rich folks live.’

I squinted. ‘And I do believe I can see a freeway in the distance.’

She snorted. ‘You’re a Sydneysider, you should be looking for water. See it through there?’

I was struck by the low level of the buildings. The Lincoln was only seven or eight storeys and I couldn’t see many higher ones around. I did see a pale gleam that could’ve been water.

‘What’s that, the mighty Mississip?’

‘Idiot. It’s the Georgetown Channel. How d’you like the decor?’

‘It reminds me of Aunt Maude’s parlour in Punchbowl. What’s on Peter’s plate for today?’

‘First, he has a nap, then he’s got two short meetings before dinner and a long meeting afterwards.’

‘Christ. I suppose I have to stand at the door with my hand inside my jacket throughout.’

‘I don’t think so. From what I’ve heard, everywhere he’s going’ll be bristling with security men. You’ll just have to sort of get him there and check him in and out.’

‘Like a hat and coat. Can I go and get laid then?’

‘You can do what you like. I’m the one who needs the sympathy. I have to sit in on the meetings. They’ll be 90 per cent bullshit.’

I put my arm around her. She’d taken off her shoes and, barefoot, she wasn’t much above my shoulder. The afternoon sun shone strongly through the window and it was nice standing there with a warm woman who smelled good. She rested there and put her arm around my back. I could feel her bicep roll under her skin, bunch up and stretch out.

The knock at the door was hard and urgent. ‘Trudi,’ Gary Wilcox yelled. ‘Peter wants you.’

She pulled away but I held her arm. ‘Don’t let him run you ragged. He’s not Jesus Christ even if the television people here think he is.’

‘No, but he could save the world, or our bit of it.’

I said. ‘I doubt it,’ but I was talking to myself. I unpacked, tested the bed and rang room service for a sandwich and a bottle of beer. I was almost asleep when it arrived. I had no American money to tip the waiter with; he accepted Australian but he wasn’t happy about it. The sandwich was thick and good; the beer was Budweiser. I drank half the bottle and fell asleep.

****

‘Five minutes, Mr Hardy!’ It was Trudi trilling and banging on the door. I cursed, rolled off the bed and threw myself under a cold shower which would guarantee I wouldn’t take long. I was dry and dressed close to five minutes later when January knocked and walked in.

‘You need a shave,’ he said.

‘My razor won’t fit in the plug.’

He picked up the phone. ‘Use mine while I phone. Make it quick, Cliff.’

I went out, down the passage and into January’s suite. Trudi was flicking through papers at a desk set by the window with the Presidential view.

‘Shaving,’ I said. ‘Where’s the bathroom?’

She pointed. ‘What’s he doing?’

‘Phoning.’

‘I wonder who.’

January’s cordless razor was almost silent. I came out shaving and talking over the sound. ‘Did he hear from Karen?’

Trudi shrugged. She’d changed into a conservative-looking suit and blouse with dark stockings and medium heels. Her hair was shiny and her face was rested and composed. It was an impressive transformation in 45 minutes but then, she didn’t have to shave. ‘If he did, he hasn’t told me. Now, you’re off to the Senate Chairman’s chief aide and then…to Commodore Brewster, he’s some sort of Pacific naval attache.’

‘I hope he’s quick.’

She looked up, puzzled, as I switched the razor off. ‘What?’

‘I hope the attache makes a brief case-get it?’

‘Shit,’ she said.

‘You’re the first to hear it. I was hoping to take Washington by storm with my wit.’

January walked in patting his pockets and frowning. ‘You ready, Cliff? Right, let’s go.’

We collected Bolton and rode down in the lift in silence. Trudi and Bolton carried folders and notebooks; January and I were unencumbered, ready to catch bullets in our teeth. We reached the lobby and I let Trudi and Bolton out of the lift first.

‘Have you heard from Mrs Weiner?’ I asked Peter quietly.

‘No. And you’re not doing your job. You should get out of lifts first.’

‘Elevators,’ I said. ‘I’ll do better next time.’

‘Just don’t clown. All this is serious.’

His face was set in a worried frown and the aggressive, bouncy Peter of the press lounge had disappeared. He wasn’t going to impress the bigwigs like this.

‘What’s wrong?’ I said. ‘Bad news…?’

‘Tell you in the car. Trudi and what’s-his-name can get a cab.’

‘Bolton.’

‘Bolton.’

The Minister wasn’t happy. He snapped at Trudi as we got into the waiting car and could barely contain his impatience as we waited for a taxi to collect her and Bolton. When we were moving he leaned back and sighed. ‘It’s having too many things to worry about that does it.’

‘You have heard from Karen.’

‘No, not a fucking word. That’s one thing. And I got a phone call.’

‘Yes?’

‘Man’s voice, educated, told me to ring a certain number in five minutes. I did that from your room-didn’t want to worry Trude.’

‘And?’

‘Different voice-rougher, older. It was a public phone. I could hear the noise in the background.’

‘What did he say, Peter?’

January shivered although the air conditioning in the car made for a comfortable temperature. ‘He got to me. I’ve seen a lot of things, in Vietnam, you know? Not much human mess you didn’t see there at one time or another, but he got to me.’

‘How?’

‘He talked about how embalming fluid works. How it fills the cells of the body and the way it…preserves.’

There was a clinical sound to the words and I was beginning to feel some of the chill myself. I looked out at the long rows of government buildings-the kind that would survive the neutron bomb when all the people in them would die.

January ran his hand exploratively over his smoothly shaven face as if he was feeling a death mask. ‘He said we’d be dead within 48 hours.’

‘We?’

‘His exact words were, “You and the hard-on with the broken nose and the gun.” ‘

****

15

I’d never seen so many three-piece suits in all my life. Almost every man around the government building we entered was wearing one. I had on a leather jacket over an open-necked shirt. The jacket was missing a button but in one respect I was right in style-like quite a few of the other men, I had a bulge under my left armpit where my gun was hanging. I comforted myself with the thought that my bulge looked more natural, blended in with my casual style. I’ll swear some of them had two bulges.

Trudi looked suspiciously at January and me as we waited at a desk which looked like a jumbo jet’s control panel. Lights flashed as buttons were pressed.

‘What’s up?’ she said.

I glanced around the steely eyes and blank faces. I would’ve told her but Bolton was within earshot. ‘Trouble,’ I said. ‘I’m glad I had that 30 minute sleep. Now I’m ready for anything.’

‘Ready for what?’ she hissed.

‘Go up to the fifth stage, please,’ the desk attendant said. He was pale as if he never went out in the sun. The way his fingers flashed over the panel suggested he never left the desk. He handed each of us a different coloured plastic tag. ‘You’ll have to check your weapon if you’re going into the conference room, sir.’

‘He isn’t,’ Trudi said. We marched across to the elevators. I flattened myself against the wall like a man on a window ledge 10 storeys up, reached out slowly and pressed the call button.

‘I told you not to clown, Hardy,’ January snapped.

Trudi laughed. She opened her handbag, pulled out two envelopes, and gave them to Bolton and me. ‘Greenbacks,’ she said.

I bowed. ‘Thank you, ma’am.’

We went up to the fifth stage along with a selection of the non-security people. These wore trench coats or carried them and they were mostly pale, as if they worked inside all day, seven days a week. Maybe they did. Discreetly lit, heavily carpeted, the fifth stage featured a lot of polished wood veneer. Trudi checked her plastic tag and pointed to the far door which had a red light burning over it.

‘Be here in an hour, Cliff,’ January said.

‘Yessir.’

He strode, as well as a five foot seven and a half man can stride, towards the door with Trudi and Bolton following. She shot me a sympathetic look over her shoulder and I got a flash of what it had been like standing by the window with her. I wondered if we were going to make any progress from there.

****

An hour wasn’t long enough to do any business with Billy Spinoza. I went out of the building, told the driver he had an hour to wait and went for a walk. It was late afternoon and the clouds and rain had cleared completely. It would have been warm in the bright sunshine except for a breeze that seemed to be there as a reminder that winter would be along as usual.

I was hoping to find a bar to spend a greenback in but there was nothing of the kind around. It was all government buildings and carparks. A large shopping mall suddenly appeared at the end of a concrete path but it specialised in fast food, photocopying, instant printing and dry cleaning. Looked like this was an area where people came to work, and anything else they had to do got done on the run. Not literally on the run; I was almost the only person I saw who walked more than 50 yards. The cars moved along at a steady pace and pulled in and out of the parking bays, and people made short, stabbing rushes to where they were going. Not very aerobic.

From long habit I ran my eyes over the cars parked outside the building where January was having his meeting. Nothing unusual-a red Buick Skylark, several big Japanese jobs, a white Volvo with a red stripe, taxis and limos. Nothing familiar in grey; no freak trucks; no obvious mobile bombs. Our driver was deep in the sports section of a newspaper when I went into the building. He wasn’t worried, why should I be?

I was five minutes early on the fifth stage but January and party were already out and waiting for me. January looked accusingly at me but he didn’t say anything as we went back to the desk and handed in our tags. We all took the one car this time, me in the front. Trudi gave the driver his instructions and nothing more was said. I arranged my face in a broad smile and turned around.

‘How’d it go?’

‘He’s a cretin,’ Peter said.

‘I got a message before we left,’ Trudi said. ‘The dinner’s cancelled. We’ve got two hours between this meeting and the later one.’

‘Thank Christ,’ January said. ‘Trude, see if you can find out a decent place to eat tonight. Martin, you can…’

‘Bolton,’ Bolton said.

‘Yes. You can go back and talk to…’

‘Martin,’ I said.

‘Yes. At the hotel. Get something together for the speech tomorrow, okay?’

‘Sure. After the naval bloke?’

‘Mm. What d’we know about him?’

Trudi flicked some papers. ‘I think he was born on a nuclear warship. Probably got married on one, too.’

‘God.’ January sounded tired and dispirited. ‘Well, this is all just crap anyway. It’s the speech tomorrow and the Senate hearing that count.’

‘When can we leave?’ I said.

Trudi raised one of her plucked eyebrows. ‘You don’t like it?’

‘I’ll tell you after we go to the decent place to eat.’

The procedure at the next place was much the same except that there were a lot of uniforms about and they wanted to confiscate my weapon if I was to take a step past the desk.

‘It’s not worth the grief,’ January said. ‘Meet us down here in an hour.’ He flashed a grin that had some of the old charm in it. ‘From what I hear of him we might be back before you have time to take a piss.’

They went up and I sat down on a long padded bench beside a low table piled with magazines. I turned the pages of a few copies of Time and the National Geographic but it seemed like I’d read it all before-peace talks, famines, lost stone age tribe in Indonesia. I was in a waiting room adjacent to the reception desk; I sat so I could see out at the people who passed the desk but I soon got bored with that. I changed my seat so I could see out into the carpark. The light was fading; most of the traffic looked to have that going-home feeling to it, but there were still a few cars arriving.

I was practically asleep when two thoughts hit me-I hadn’t sent my postcard to Helen and I was facing the prospect of going out to dinner with a man whose life was threatened. Not only that, but I was a threatened man myself. I couldn’t do anything about the postcard where I was but I could do something about the threat. I took out Billy Spinoza’s card and approached the desk.

‘Could I use your telephone, please?’

The young man at the controls looked at me suspiciously. He wore a crisp white shirt with blue and gold epaulettes and a dark blue tie. His cheeks were pink and his teeth were very white. ‘It’s for government business only, sir, I’m sorry.’

‘This is government business. I’m on Mr January’s security staff and I want to call a number I’m pretty sure is government too.’

I showed him the number on the card. He examined it very carefully, holding it in his scrubbed hands. ‘I guess it’s okay. I can’t give you privacy, though. I can’t leave the desk.’

‘Just give me the phone, that’ll be enough. How do you get a line?’

‘Here, I’ll get it.’ He stabbed the buttons and handed the phone across. ‘Sure hope we don’t impose those sanctions.’

‘What?’ I could hear the dial tone.

‘Against South Africa. I’m against it.’

‘Do you have Mr January down as a South African?’

He consulted the sheet in front of him. ‘What it says here.’

‘Christ!’ I said.

‘Watch your language, sir!’

I stared at him and felt his discomfort. He moved his hand on the desk and I could see the edge of the National Enquirer slip inside the pages of the Washington Post. I turned as far away from him as I could and called the number. Billy Spinoza came on the line immediately.

‘Spinoza.’

‘This is Cliff Hardy. A hole has opened up in my man’s schedule. We’re going to be running loose for a couple of hours. I thought I should talk to you about it. Also there’s been a…development.’

‘Can you tell me now?’

‘Nope.’

‘Okay, where are you?’

I glanced around the reception lobby. ‘It says Navy 10, G6, by the door. That mean anything to you?’

‘Yeah. I can be there in 30 minutes.’

‘That’s about when he’s due out.’

‘Okay. Anything else troubling you? I mean as of right now?’

There was but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something vague – something I’ d seen or something less definite, like a smell. I told him no and he hung up.

I handed the phone back. ‘Thank you.’

He nodded and went back to sitting still. He was faintly flushed; he knew he’d said something wrong but he was too polite to ask. I went back to the waiting room and waited.

****

January stormed out of the lift; Bolton was gabbling at him and being ignored; Trudi’s face was set in a grimace of anger. If he thought he could use his bodyguard as a punching bag he changed his mind when he saw my face. He stopped a few feet from me and jammed his fists into his jacket pocket which ruined the cut.

‘Well, are we ready?’

‘We’re waiting.’

‘For what?’

‘Spinoza. I’m not waltzing you around in a city I don’t know with bull’s eyes painted on our backs.’

‘What bull’s eyes?’ Trudi said.

‘Tell you in a minute. I think you should let Bolton take the car back to the hotel. Spinoza’ll have a car.’

January fought for calm. He was flushed, his hair was ruffled and a nerve was jumping in his cheek under his right eye. But he was an experienced man and no fool. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘You’re in charge.’ He turned to Bolton and managed a few polite words. Bolton looked relieved to be pulled out of the action; he nodded, smiled tightly at Trudi and me and went out of the building.

We stood outside the waiting room watching the light traffic in the lobby. The servicemen predominated over the civilians and men predominated over women. They all looked busy; they all looked important and most looked worried. Billy Spinoza came through the doorway. I suddenly realised that his was the first dark face I’d seen in the place. He was wearing a rollneck sweater and a checked jacket-tough guys don’t wear ties.

‘Ms Bell, Mr January, Cliff, shall we go?’

‘Have you got a car, Mr Spinoza?’ January said.

‘No, sir, not right now. Have to be careful with cars in my line of work.’ He steered us towards the door.

‘Why’s that?’ Trudi said.

‘It’s just another thing they can wire. Fact is, there hasn’t been a single bombing or bugging in a taxi cab yet. We appreciate that.’

It was dark outside but the afternoon warmth was lasting. Spinoza collared a cab that was dropping a much be-ribboned officer at the building and he ushered us into the back.

‘Where to, brother?’ the driver said. He was darker than Spinoza with a shiny bald head. The photograph of him above the sun visor must have been taken years before when he still had a fringe of grizzled grey hair.

‘The Strip, I guess. What would you folks like to eat?’

The driver flicked the meter on. ‘Creole?’

‘Yuk,’ Trudi said.

The driver smiled. ‘Chinese?’

‘How about Australian?’ I said.

‘Say what?’

Spinoza pulled at his tuft of beard. ‘We’ll eat Italian. The food’s okay but more to the point we’ll get good visibility.’

‘That again,’ Trudi said. ‘Tell me.’

We told her as we drove to Georgetown. She listened in silence, asked for my descriptions of the men in the car again and then sank back in the seat. ‘Prohibition’s over, isn’t it? Let’s get a drink.’

After the grey wasteland of the administrative buildings, putting foot on the Strip was like arriving on another planet. The neon and the traffic noise and the music seemed to blend into a roar of sound and light. We three Australians were edgy and tired and Spinoza was tense, but something about the place revived us. It wasn’t quite a good feeling; it was almost as though the world’s problems were too big and this was a place to come to forget them for a while, until they reached out and snuffed you.

Spinoza directed us through the streams of people on the pavement who were milling around briefly, forming groups and breaking up and staying compulsively on the move. Cars crawled along the street, parked, honked and were honked at, moved on. There was flow between the road and the pavement. I saw a man park almost in the middle of the road, walk to the kerb; hand his keys to another man and take up the conversation as his car was driven away. The road and pavement people were all of the same tribe.

The restaurant, which was named Dino’s or Mario’s or Luigi’s, had red and white tablecloths but they were striped not checked and the bottles in which the candles stood didn’t have wickerwork around them. Spinoza had a quiet word with the supervisor and a couple was moved away from a table in the corner. They were smiling and I watched as the cloth was changed on the table and they were re-settled. A bottle of wine arrived for them and was uncorked with a smile and a flourish. Then we sat down.

‘Okay?’ Spinoza said.

We were in a corner; no doors behind us or to the side, a clear view of the entrance, the serving door and the door that led to the conveniences. I could even see through a window into the small carpark at the side. ‘Fine,’ I said.

‘Double vodka,’ Trudi said to the drink waiter. ‘Scotch and ice to my right and beer for the gentlemen opposite.’

‘Mineral water,’ Spinoza said.

The waiter looked enquiringly at me. ‘Light beer,’ I said. ‘I love a compromise.’

January was rubbing his eyes and massaging the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.

‘They say you shouldn’t eat when you’ve got jet lag, Peter,’ I said. ‘You should have a salad.’

‘I’ve never had jet lag in my life,’ January snarled. ‘I want osso bucco and a litre of red wine. God, I’m going to make them sorry for this.’

‘You’ll be sorry if you drink a litre of red wine here, sir,’ Spinoza said softly. ‘But what d’you mean, if I may ask. The threats…?’

‘No, I’m talking about that prick who thought I was a South African.’

The drinks arrived and Spinoza sipped his mineral water. ‘That is a considerable insult,’ he said. ‘Cliff, do you…?’

But I wasn’t listening; I wasn’t even drinking. I was looking out into the carpark and I knew what had disturbed me before but wouldn’t quite rise to the surface. The white Volvo with the red stripe I’d seen at our first stop had been in the carpark at the second stop and here it was again, pulling into a parking bay right outside.

****

16

I muttered the information to Spinoza as I got up from the table.

‘Could be a feint,’ he said. ‘I’ll watch the folks. Think you can handle it?’

I nodded. His signal to the restaurant supervisor must have meant ‘Give this man the moon’ because he leaned his ear up to my mouth and looked ready to clear the place if need be.

‘Quick way to the carpark?’ I said.

He didn’t waste time talking; his hand gripped my arm and he steered me past tables and out through the kitchen to a set of heavy perspex doors.

‘You can see it from here, buddy. We got a guy parks the cars.’

The Volvo owner was dark, heavy-set, with thin hair and a green face, but that was just the neon light above the building tinting him. He didn’t want his car parked by anyone. He wanted to leave it where it was. The car parker, a young black man wearing whites with a bow tie and a white cap, didn’t want him to do that but saw reason when Green Face gave him some money. I slipped out of the kitchen and ducked low behind the cars, moving forward to cut him off before he got to the door of the restaurant.

I got a quick look at the Volvo on the way-no one else in it. Green Face moved slowly; he was either furtive, hesitant or careful. He was built wide and strong; his suit was baggy and he wore scuffed suede shoes. He kept one hand in his pocket I took out the. 38, took four long steps and swung a kick in behind his right knee. His hands flew in the air, both empty and clawing at the wall for support. I hooked at his ankle and watched him fall.

He hit on his side and rolled over onto his back. I bent down and put the gun in front of his face where he could see it.

‘Stay there,’ I said, ‘and you won’t get hurt.’

His voice came out in a strangled whine with a lot of Australian vowels. ‘I am hurt!’

All that stuff about Americans ignoring muggings in the street is true; we were only feet away from the main throroughfare; several people stared at me as I bent over a fallen man threatening him with a gun, but no one stopped. You can’t count on it absolutely, though. The carpark attendant came out from behind a car with a gun bigger than mine in his hand.

‘Hold it there,’ he said.

‘You hold it.’ I eased back a little but remained businesslike. ‘This is official. It’s okay.’

‘The hell it’s official,’ the man on the ground said.

‘Have I touched your wallet? Am I trying to take your car keys? And if I wanted you to be dead that’s how you’d be.’ I was reasonably sure he wasn’t armed and not just because he spoke with an Australian accent. His jacket was open and he wore no harness; if he had a gun in his sock it’d be my own fault if I let him get it. I slid the safety to ‘on’ and put my gun away. ‘Would you please,’ I said to the attendant, ‘go inside and get a message to Mr Spinoza that everything’s all right. You can see that it is, can’t you?’

‘I guess so.’ He uncocked the big gun.

‘Don’t go!’ Green Face who was now White Face wriggled on the ground.

‘I’m Peter January’s security man,’ I said.

He groaned. ‘Shit! Okay, it’s okay.’

‘You done made my night, mister,’ the car parker said. ‘Spinoza, was it?’

‘Right.’

He backed away and headed for the kitchen door. The man on the ground tucked his left leg back and levered himself up. I watched him but didn’t help. He propped himself against the wall and we inspected each other.

‘Why the hell did you do that?’ he said.

‘You made me nervous following us the way you did. Who are you?’

‘I’m Don Carver. I’m a reporter.’

‘If you want an interview there’s a procedure.’

Carver brushed dirt from his shirtfront. ‘I don’t want a fucking interview. I wanted to observe the bastard. Do you realise where you are? Cameramen sue tennis players for millions in this country-for busting a camera.’

‘The tennis players sue back,’ I said. ‘Well, you’ve got your story. You can tell them the Minister’s got good security.’

He glowered at me. He had the sort of bulky body that won’t respond well to tailoring. His clothes were expensive but they hung around him awkwardly. His hair was precisely trimmed but it still looked thin and scruffy. He wasn’t a happy man. ‘There’s no news in that. He’s always had thugs around him.’

I moved closer to him and brushed more dirt from his jacket. ‘Something just occurred to me-January has had the odd threat since he got here. Now you turn up skulking around and you clearly don’t like him. I could put two and two together.’

‘That’s rubbish.’

‘So you say. Maybe I should have a word about you to the security boys here. Would that cramp your style at all, Carver?’

He stopped glowering and looked uncomfortable. ‘I was just doing my job.’

‘Me, too. You want to take a look at him before you go on your way?’

‘I suppose so.’

He eased himself painfully away from the wall and limped along after me. I took him into the carpark, nodded to the attendant, and we looked in through the window.

Peter January had his arm around Trudi’s shoulders. He was telling a story and Trudi and Spinoza were laughing. Light danced on the glasses on the table and on the bottle as the waiter poured January some wine. He smiled at Trudi and she touched his shoulder to draw his attention to something. I felt Carver stiffen beside me.

He sniffed noisily. ‘Who’s she?’

‘Assistant,’ I said.

‘There’s always someone. Nothing’s changed. Well, I’ve seen all I need to see. What’s your name?’

‘Smith,’ I said. ‘I suggest you get in your Volvo and go home so you can work for your Pulitzer prize.’

He sniffed again and limped off towards his car. I watched the tail-light blend into the traffic and I headed back to the kitchen. The attendant touched his cap as I passed. I settled down at the table and drank my beer which had gone flat. January and Trudi were eating; Spinoza looked at me.

‘Trouble?’

‘Not much.’ I poured some wine and drank it. Spinoza was right, a litre of it would have been bad trouble. ‘I have to stop doing this. It’s no way for a man to earn a living.’

January stopped chewing. ‘Doing what?’

‘Beating up journalists. I just had a run-in with Don Carver.’

January dropped his fork onto his plate. Some sauce splashed over his shirt. ‘Shit! What did you say? You beat up Don Carver?’

‘He’ll have a sore leg, that’s all.’

‘What other journalist have your beaten up lately?’ Trudi said.

‘Sammy Weiss.’

‘That slug.’ She drank some wine and shuddered.

‘I’m not following this,’ Spinoza said.

I reached for bread in the hope that it would improve the wine. ‘It’s all to do with the Minister’s reputation,’ I said. ‘He has to keep up this front of being a womaniser so no one’ll suspect he’s gay.’

‘Hardy, watch it!’ January said.

Trudi laughed. I suddenly realised that I was jealous. ‘Don’t worry, Peter,’ I said. ‘When Carver looked in Trudi was nibbling your ear. He got the right message.’

****

The party went sort of flat after that. We finished the meal; I didn’t eat anything and drank a bit too much of the wine. Spinoza didn’t drink anything. At one point he slipped out and I gather he spoke to the carpark attendant because when he came back he nodded to me approvingly.

‘Neat,’ he said.

We took January and Trudi to their next meeting which was in a condominium apartment near the Watergate hotel. I stayed in the car with Spinoza and we drank some very good and very strong coffee from a take-away joint.

‘You don’t look much like a citizen of the lucky country right now,’ Spinoza said.

I swilled the last inch of coffee. ‘We were the lucky country for about 24 hours in 1972.’

‘How’s that?’

‘We got a new government that did good things. 24 hours, maybe 48. It was all downhill after that.’

Spinoza looked out over the lights strung up high over the bank of the Georgetown Channel. ‘Luck sure is spread thin. But your man’s doing all right. He’s got past a bombing, I hear, and then there was that little freeway incident. Mind you, he’s going to be exposed tomorrow.’

‘They haven’t told me.’

‘He’s going to this big function in Georgetown-sort of liberal affair-anti-nuclear, pro-Third World, free range eggs thing. Lots of people and very hard to screen ‘em.’

‘Great. I still haven’t looked at your mug shots.’

‘We’ll do it tomorrow-after this thing is over. He does the Senate after that, right?’

‘Yeah. Tell me, Billy, do any of your people ever go over to the other side? I mean to the mob, terrorists or whatever?’

‘Sure. Some of the best and smoothest. The work’s much the same, the money’s better and the life expectancy isn’t much worse, if any.’

‘Thanks. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.’

****

17

The first person I saw the next morning looked worried and guilty-it was me, in a mirror, and I didn’t have to be a detective to know why. I hadn’t sent Helen her postcard. My stomach felt off after the bad red wine and I didn’t want any breakfast. I was in the corridor intending to go to the lobby where I remembered they had a gift shop. I bumped into Martin and immediately felt better because he looked worse than I did.

‘What happened to you?’ I poked the button to call the lift; Martin was shaking, polishing his spectacles and not looking up to the job.

‘Got drinking with some of the press boys last night.’

‘You don’t look the type.’ We got into the lift and had the chance to examine both our images in the mirrors. Mirrors don’t lie: he looked much worse than me.

‘I’m not really. A couple of beers down the Canberra Rex on Friday night’s my speed. Bit of wine with dinner. I don’t know how it happened.’

‘I daresay there’s more sin here than in Canberra. Don’t worry, you’ll recover. You can have a hair of the dog at this Georgetown bash. You going?’

We arrived at ‘R’, which meant the ground floor, and he stumbled leaving the lift. ‘That’s not the worst of it. They cancelled another meeting with the Minister this morning.’

‘That’s not bad news for me.’

‘It is for him. He feels he’s getting the cold shoulder.’

‘What did he expect? Excuse me, I have to buy something. Where are you going?’

‘For a walk, to clear my head.’

I thought of telling him to be careful and then cancelled the thought. He was over 30 and he had a job in Canberra; he could look after himself.

I bought a postcard of the Washington monument at the news-stand and wrote on it that I’d tried to contact her and that I missed her and that if she didn’t phone me in Sydney when I got back I was going to come up to Kempsey and fix it so that she and Michael and me and the kid all had our say. I got stamps at the desk and mailed the card to the radio station where she worked. Trudi came into view as I was dropping it in the box.

‘Helen?’

‘Right.’

‘What’s happened to you? You got all shirty last night?’

I hadn’t spoken much after we’d left the restaurant. I did the strong, silent stuff with Spinoza and said goodnight to Trudi and January in the hallway.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘It’s crazy. I had no right but it’d been a hard day. I was sort of jealous about you and January. Jet lag. Dumb.’

She squeezed my arm. ‘That was dumb. I’m more interested in Spinoza. C’mon over to ye olde gifte shoppe.’

‘Why?’

‘I wanna get a diamond-studded collar for Gunther.’

I hadn’t noticed but the gift shop was that sort of place. There were trinkets with thousand dollar price tickets on them; $500 gold lighters, Cartier watches for three grand. I did notice the wiring of the glass cases and the uniformed guard who stood by the door with what looked like a Colt Frontiersman on his hip.

‘Bit rich for the blood,’ I said.

Trudi peered at a case. ‘It’s got diamonds from one to 12.’

‘Not very big ones. What time are we due at Georgetown?’

‘Bit after 11.’ She’d washed her hair and smelled fresh and good. The fine eyebrow lines were still enticing. She fluttered her eyelashes. ‘Think Spinoza’ll be there?’

‘Hiding in the shrubbery. You won’t see him.’

‘We’d better get organised. Peter’s having a last brush-up of his speech with Bolton. He’ll want to talk to Martin too. Have you seen him?’

‘He went out for a walk.’

‘You’d better get him, Cliff. I think Peter’ll want to talk to us all before we go.’

She squeezed my arm again and left. I nodded to the big guard with the big gun and we went out onto the street. Nothing to the left; I looked right, saw the crowd of people clustering on the footpath a hundred yards away and broke into a run. The crowd parted as I came pounding up. My jacket was open and my gun was showing; I had my operator’s licence in my hand. It didn’t mean a thing here but it caused people to move back and let me see what had drawn them.

Martin lay on the ground on his back. His head was tilted at an odd angle and there was an ugly gash running from above his right eye up into his hairline. His smashed glasses were in the hand of a small man who was bending over him. He had blood on his shirt.

‘He’s alive,’ the man said. ‘Stunned real bad though. Concussion.’

‘Anyone call an ambulance?’ I said.

‘Hey, an Aussie,’ someone said from the crowd.

The man with blood on his shirt handed me the glasses. ‘I told someone to get help.’

‘Thanks.’

Martin groaned and lifted his head. ‘Who’re these people? What happened?’

I put my hand behind his head which looked like falling back. ‘Don’t you know?’

He tried to shake his head and winced as the pain shot through him. ‘Nothing. Where am I?’

‘Ain’t no mugger,’ one of the on-lookers said. ‘Lookit, his wallet’s still there.’

****

No ambulance ever came but the hotel doctor arrived and pronounced Martin fit to be moved. We got him back to the hotel where the doctor stitched the gash, gave him a sedative and advised hospitalisation. By this time Spinoza had arrived so six of us congregated in January’s suite.

‘It’s looking bad, sir,’ Spinoza said. ‘The harassments intensifying. I think you shouldn’t go today.’

‘No!’ January slapped his palm hard against the window. We were all standing up, nervous and uncertain. ‘I’m going. They’ve been cancelling me right, left and centre. I’m not cancelling myself.’

‘Private dwelling, lots of people, neighbouring apartments.’ Spinoza checked the points off on his long, thin fingers. ‘Very hard to protect you.’

‘I don’t care,’ January said. ‘None of the rest of you have to come, though.’

‘I’m paid to come,’ I said.

‘I’ll need it for my memoirs,’ Trudi said.

‘What?’ January spun away from the window and stared at her.

‘I’m going to write my memoirs. I need to experience everything.’

January grinned; his ego was still working even when he was under threat. ‘Memoirs, Jesus,’ he said.

Gary Wilcox genuinely had another appointment and Bolton contrived one so it was just the four of us that set out for Georgetown in an unassuming white Mercedes, Spinoza at the wheel.

‘Who lives here?’ I asked. We were outside a tall building, one of a number close together along the tree-lined street. The buildings were widely enough spaced to allow the trees and courtyards between them to look comfortable.

‘Mrs Amos Clephane,’ Trudi said.

Big cars were drawing up and dropping people outside the condominium. A uniformed motorcycle cop was helping to sort the traffic out. Spinoza showed him a card in a plastic folder and the cop pointed to a parking space, if you can call a spot squarely across a driveway a parking place. Spinoza slipped the Merc into place. ‘She’s the widow of a Judge,’ he said. ‘A very young and very liberal judge who got himself shot. Very rich Judge. Mrs Clephane now works for liberal causes.’

‘A young, rich, liberal widow,’ January said. ‘That must be interesting for her in this town.’

We got out of the car and Spinoza locked it carefully. ‘I believe she enjoys it, sir. She’s very popular. Well, folks, you won’t see me for a while but I’ll be around.’

I grinned at Trudi. ‘What did I tell you.’

Spinoza heard me but ignored it. ‘You must have done this before, Cliff. You look is all.’

‘Right. I assume there’ll be a few guys around who’re on our side?’

‘Not many. Mrs Clephane isn’t exactly on the Administration’s guest list this season.’

‘How many.’

He smiled and did the first bit of coloured-man patter I’d heard from him. ‘Just me,’ he said.

We went through a gate which would normally be a security device except that it had been neutralised for the occasion. The courtyard in front of the apartment block was bigger than I’d expected-big enough to hold a trestle table covered with glasses, bottles and plates and a marquee under which a long table with six or seven chairs was placed. There was a microphone on a stand at the end of the table. People were mixing in the courtyard; there were more dark faces than I’d seen so far in the official parts of the city I’d been in. Also more young people, although there were middle-aged and old liberals as well.

January was snatched away by a 40-ish blonde woman with elaborate hair and an ornamental face. I was left standing with Trudi.

‘What d’you do?’ she said.

‘Check exits and entries. Sniff the olives in the martinis. How about you?’

‘Try to stay close to Peter. Keep his drinks watered and get him a few minutes to look over his speech.’

‘What’s it about?’

‘Agreements with the Russians in the Pacific’

‘Whose agreements?’

‘Ours.’

I looked around the courtyard; there were 50 or more people in it now and the noise was going up. Most were sipping drinks and a few were smoking cigars. The women wore their expensive clothes as if they’d just stepped into any old thing. Trudi’s loose white dress was right; my linen jacket, slacks and slip-on shoes would have been okay if I’d paid ten times as much for them. ‘Don’t see any friends of the USSR here,’ I said.

Trudi shrugged and drifted away to look for the boss.

I got a glass of wine as a prop and cruised around doing what I said I’d do. The kitchen staff were all black and all busy. The waiters and food dolers-out were all bored but polite. I checked doors and windows through the apartment which ran up for three floors and had balconies and a dumb waiter and a dozen other things I managed to live without. I didn’t see anything to worry me and I was challenged twice by men who identified themselves as ‘friends of our hostess’. We managed to convince each other that we were on the same side.

When I got back to the courtyard it was full almost to the point of discomfort. I saw Creighton Kirby chatting to a tall black woman. I looked around for Mike Borg but couldn’t spot him. The wine had got warm. I took a sip and found a woman standing beside me trying to look into my eyes. It wasn’t too hard for her-in her high heels she was almost as tall as me.

‘He-ello,’ she said.

‘Hello.’

‘You part of the Oss-tralian party?’

‘That’s right.’ She was wearing a tight dress with a cut away top that gave her nowhere to hide a gun. If it was under her skirt I thought I could get to mine faster. ‘Why’re you here, Miss…?’

She waved her hand. She was carrying a long thin champagne glass, nearly full, but she didn’t spill any. I guessed she practised champagne glass waving a couple of hours a day. ‘It’s Mrs, but don’t let it worry you.’

‘Okay.’ She leaned closer; I could smell expensive perfume and see the fine pores in her skin. Her eyelids and lipstick were purple. Her dark hair was drawn back tightly and her cheekbones were accentuated. She was perfect, if you like spider women.

‘I’m anti-nuclear.’ Her voice was low and breathy. ‘And I’ve never done it with an Oss-ie before.’

‘You don’t know what you’re missing. We’re the best.’

‘The best?’

‘Yeah. It’s from living on the underneath side of the world.’ I dropped my voice and got closer to her ear. She wore hooped gold earrings in her pierced lobes. ‘The blood rushes to the right place and stays there, if you see what I mean. Well, nice talking to you. I’d better go and skin a kangaroo.’

I left her looking glazed and uncertain. Trudi pushed towards me through a press of tall blondes and redheads of both sexes.

‘There’s nothing happening down here at five foot four,’ she said. ‘How’s it up at six foot one?’

‘You’re half an inch too high. I’ve had one offer of meaningful adultery.’

‘The spider woman?’

‘Yeah, that’s her. She’s after an Australian. Lucky Martin and Bolton aren’t here, she’d eat them. I suppose Peter might oblige.’

‘He hasn’t got time, he’s on in a few minutes. I’d better get up there.’

Things were taking shape up at the front table. There were carafes and glasses of water; chairs were being pushed into place. Peter January, the hostess and a couple of other dignitaries were chatting in front of the microphone. I couldn’t hear anything which made me look around for the PA set-up. In the corner of the courtyard near the gate a man in blue overalls was working with electric cables and a loudspeaker. He glanced up at the table and nodded; someone tapped the microphone and a loud sharp noise rose above the din of talking, drinking and laughing. People heard it and the noise began to subside.

People formed groups and drifted to the sides; space opened up in the courtyard and I got a clear view to the table where January, the woman I took to be Mrs Clephane and two other men were seated. January was in the middle; an old man with a creamy white mane of hair and a luxuriant white moustache was at the end in front of the microphone.

‘Who’s that?’ Someone near me whispered.

‘Judge Calvin Clyde,’ came a hushed reply. ‘He had a triple by-pass and a change of heart at 78. He’s a liberal now.’

They were almost ready. It looked as if Judge Clyde was going to speak first. He shuffled some notes. I caught a movement to my right and looked across at the sound technician. He was looking tense and still fiddling with something although the slight hum from the microphone sounded steady and right. I edged closer and saw three things in one overloaded glance: he was holding an object like a electrical junction box in one hand and in the other he held another wire poised to make contact; the French cuffs of an expensive business shirt poked out an inch below the sleeves of his overall; and he was wearing one of the $3000 watches I’d seen in the gift shop that morning.

I yelled something and made a rush towards him. He saw me and panic seemed to jolt through his body. He shoved the wire into the box and dropped the apparatus as he backed away. Heads were turning towards me but the old man with the white hair was on his feet now and reaching for the microphone.

‘No!’ I shouted. ‘Don’t touch the mike!’ I bullocked my way towards the electrics. Maybe the judge was near-sighted and deaf. He touched the microphone. There was a deafening crack and a flash of intense white light blazed in the courtyard. People screamed, tables were upset and water jugs crashed. That was bad-enough electrically charged water splashed around and a dozen people could fry. I brushed the last person out of my way, bent and yanked out every plug and socket I could get my hands to. The Judge and at least two others were down; men were swearing and women were screaming. I saw Trudi propping up a sobbing fat woman. I ran for the gate.

****

18

Billy Spinoza had joined me before I reached the gate and he went through it first.

‘The car!’ he yelled.

We ran for the Mercedes and he had it moving before I could get the door closed.

‘The Electra,’ Spinoza said. ‘You see it?’

I didn’t know what an Electra was but I didn’t like to show my ignorance so I nodded and drew in several deep breaths. The Merc was really travelling now, barrelling down the wide, straight tree-lined street but heading for a roundabout which had a small forest growing on it. Spinoza slewed around a small, slow car and I caught a glimpse of a big, blue car ahead. I decided it was the Electra; I also decided that if it got to the roundabout too far ahead of us we could lose it. Spinoza seemed to think the same. He floored the accelerator and the Mercedes went faster as if it was suddenly going downhill.

We gained on the Electra. Spinoza threw the car into the sweeping roundabout, bluffing other contenders for space and racing through the gears. His dark, lean face was set in a grin as if this was the only kind of driving he really liked. Out of the last lurching, tilting turn and the blue car was less than a hundred yards ahead but drawing away.

‘Super-charged,’ Spinoza said. ‘Shit!’ He gave the Mercedes all the power available but the Electra gained. Spinoza hammered on the wheel and hissed his disgust through his teeth. ‘He’ll take a bridge and be long gone. Sorry, man, we lose.’

‘Slow down,’ I said. ‘It’s not your fault.’

He eased back and the trees and posts started to whiz past less frequently. ‘Guess not. Did you see the cocksucker?’

I told him that I’d been looking at other things like shirts and watches and he nodded as he took a turn. ‘I think there were two of them, though,’ I said. ‘There was someone up front giving him the nod. Tall, blonde guy.’

Billy grinned. ‘There’s so many just like that. If you ask me, the world’s over-stocked with tall, blonde, bad guys. Did you ah… see what happened?’

‘No. January could be in an ashtray now for all I know.’

****

We had to leave the car more than a hundred yards from the condominium and flash our IDs and talk fast four or five times before we could get through to the courtyard. The fire engines were there and the police cars with the flashing lights and the TV news trucks. We shoved people aside and fought our way through to the table where paramedics were squatting dealing with shocked people. Bits of glass from the broken bottles and jugs were strewn around behind the table which was blackened at the end where the microphone had been. A large pot plant standing near was scorched and there was a smell I hadn’t had in my nostrils for a long time-burning flesh.

Spinoza registered it too. ‘Like ‘Nam,’ he said.

‘Malaya.’

Trudi broke from a group and dived towards me. ‘Cliff! Cliff! Oh, God…’

I practically had to catch her. Her dress was smeared with blood and dirt but she was intact. ‘Where’s Peter?’

Her wide smile threatened to turn into an hysterical laugh but she checked it. ‘He’s gone to hospital but he’s fine. He was the hero of the hour. He calmed people down, organised everything. He gave a Senator mouth to mouth resuscitation and brought him back.’

‘Son of a bitch,’ Spinoza said softly.

‘The old judge?’

‘He’s dead. He was deaf and confused. But you saved the rest of us. That water from the jugs…it was everywhere!’

‘I wish I’d been quicker. So what’s the damage, apart from the Judge?’

‘The Senator. I think he must’ve touched the Judge when he was live. Some people got burns. Peter did. And cuts from falling on the glass.’

‘Could be worse then,’ I said. ‘You’re okay?’

‘I suppose. I was giggling a while ago. I suppose that’s shock.’

Spinoza moved a canvas chair forward. ‘Better sit down, Ms Bell. I’ll look see a bit, Cliff. Send you a drink?’

‘Two.’ Trudi sat and grabbed my arm. ‘Make it three,’ I said.

‘You didn’t catch them, did you?’ Trudi wiped her face with her sleeve and transferred some blood. I got out a handkerchief and wiped it off. Somehow I felt strange being at the scene and not having any blood on me.

‘No, we didn’t catch them.’

‘How did you know?’

I told her how and a waiter arrived with some Scotch in a decanter, a pitcher of ice and some glasses. We drank and sat quietly while the paramedics tidied up-a couple of people went out on stretchers.

‘What happened to them?’ I said.

‘There was a bit of a panic. Some people got trampled.’

The courtyard was emptying when Spinoza came up with a policeman, Mike Borg and another man who was holding a video camera.

Spinoza made a drink for Borg, the man with the camera and himself. ‘You all right, Ms Bell? Good. We got us a very useful gentleman here, Cliff.’

The useful gentleman turned out to be one Robert Klip who had filmed the proceedings in the courtyard from a balcony above with his Sony TV camera.

‘At Mrs Clephane’s invitation,’ he said quickly. ‘You can check with her.’

‘I have,’ Spinoza said. ‘She asked you to give us your fullest cooperation.’

Klip was a tall, thin man, almost bald and with devoted eyes and a sensitive mouth. ‘For her,’ he said, ‘anything.’

We experts who hadn’t managed to prevent an old man from being fried, exchanged glances.

‘Just give us the film, Mr Klip,’ Borg said. ‘We’ll give you a receipt and make sure your property is returned to you.’

Klip ejected the cassette. ‘Is that all?’

‘You’ve been a great help.’ Spinoza took the cassette. ‘I’ll leave the receipt to you. Mr Borg.’

Borg scowled and dug into his jacket pockets. Spinoza handled the cassette reverently. ‘We can go and look at pictures now, Cliff.’

‘Right. I want to take Trudi back to the hotel first and find out what’s happening to January. Where is she?’

Trudi came out of the apartment carrying her empty glass. She was pale but looked composed. ‘Peter’s staying in hospital until tomorrow. He’ll go straight from there to the Senate hearing and straight from that to the plane.’

‘God,’ I said. ‘Can he walk?’

She laughed. ‘He could run if he wanted to. This is all theatrics.’

‘It’s fine,’ Spinoza said. ‘We can mount real good security at the hospital. Keep everybody out.’

‘Except the TV and the reporters.’ Trudi said.

I drained my glass. ‘We’ve got business, Trudi. Want to go back to the hotel?’

‘What d’you mean?’ she flared. ‘ You’ve got business? I’m still working. I have to go to the hospital and orchestrate the performance.’

‘Okay, okay. We’ll take you.’

‘I’ll get a cab.’ She slammed the glass down and walked off.

‘What hospital?’ I yelled.

‘Be Georgetown University from here,’ Spinoza said.

I stumbled on a champagne bottle and picked it up. Half-full. I resisted the impulse to take a swig. ‘Are you married, Billy?’

Spinoza tugged at his tuft. ‘I don’t know. My wife went off to Mexico a year back. Maybe I’m still married, maybe I’m divorced, maybe I’m a father, maybe I’m a widower. I don’t know. Let’s go.’

We cleared another inquisitive cop and brushed past two reporters who were having a hard time finding anyone to talk to.

‘What about you? You married?’

‘Not for 10 years.’

We walked towards the Merc. The fire engine had gone and the blue lights on the remaining police cars had stopped flashing.

‘And would they be the best years of your young life?’

I waited while he unlocked the car and thought about it. I remembered the good times with Cyn; the holidays and the tennis and the few quiet nights, very few. Then the wandering years with the excited meetings and things turning sour within days, sometimes hours. Then Helen and the promises and the problems.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t say they were.’

****

19

My stay in Washington was becoming more and more unreal. I had a hankering to go into a house or flat where someone really lived and to see somebody do something that could be called normal work. This time I plunged back into the institutional world January had been visiting. The world of desk attendants, silent elevators and plush carpets. It was a vast steel and glass building with tinted windows and concealed interior lighting. I had the feeling that all the mirrors were two way and all the glass was bullet-proof, but that was probably just because I was getting the Washington blues.

After being cleared and checked and re-cleared, we were admitted to a room full of screens and consoles and whirling discs. It was like a computer warehouse with little bunches of salesmen and customers clustered around in certain spots. The air conditioning seemed a trifle high and I sweated. My suspect eye didn’t like the fluorescent light. A white-coated man introduced himself, in a thick Southern drawl, as Heseltine and took the cassette from Spinoza.

‘Be careful,’ Billy said.

‘I’m always careful… sir.’ He was pale and soft-looking with pinkish eyes behind tinted glasses.

‘We’d also like to do a description ID, Heseltine,’ Spinoza said. I thought I caught a flash of antagonism in the White Rabbit face. Maybe I did, because Spinoza added with a touch of acid: ‘If that’s all right with you?’

Heseltine checked on the clipboard he was carrying, nodded and became super-efficient. ‘We’ll do the lift from the tape first. Over here, please.’

He walked to a long, low-slung machine, put the cassette into a slot, pressed a button and an image appeared on a screen. The picture was just like on a large TV set, thinned out with a grainy quality. Heseltine fiddled with knobs and switches and the picture cleared suddenly.

‘We can freeze, magnify, alter the colour balance. Do jus’ about anything you want…’ He checked the clipboard. ‘Mist’ Hardy.’

‘Run it,’ Spinoza said. ‘Let’s see if you can run it.’

Klip was a pretty good hand with a video camera; the high elevation of the camera made the film hard to adjust to at first, but he had used the zoom to good purpose and he’d moved about on the balcony, getting different angles on the throng below.

‘That’s him. Hold it!’ I pointed to a man behind the table; he was tall and blonde, wearing a cream-coloured suit. His hair fell forward over his forehead and he tended to keep his head down. Heseltine advanced the picture frame by frame and he eventually got a fairly clear shot, almost front on with the head almost up.

‘Will that do?’ Heseltine said.

‘Sure,’ Spinoza said. ‘That’s fine.’

Heseltine flicked switches and pressed buttons. Nothing happened on screen but there were deep stirrings in the heart of the machine. When he was happy, Heseltine released the film and it moved on.

‘I take it these two weren’t the same guys as in the car?’ Spinoza took off his jacket and draped it over the back of a chair. Heseltine moved the chair away with his foot.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Quite different.’ I kept my eyes on the screen as the courtyard buzzed. I saw Trudi whisper in January’s ear. The Minister nodded and smiled. ‘There, but it’s not good.’ I saw the sound technician half-concealed behind a tall woman in a flowing silk dress. The film crept forward and some of the billowing material fell away.

‘You got lucky,’ Heseltine said. ‘Well, almos’ lucky.’

Just as the man came into view behind the dress he moved which threw a shadow across the lower part of his face.

‘Mark it,’ Spinoza said. ‘Let’s see if there’s anything better.’

There wasn’t. I saw myself move towards the technician and confusion break out among the VIPs, then the film jerked and shook and there was a shot of trees and sky as the cameraman reacted to the flash. Heseltine went back; he enlarged the image until it disappeared into a blur and then went back searching for the clearest definition. Eventually he got

a clear view of the upper part of the face and an impression of the rest. ‘Doubtful, but it’s the best we’ll do. I’ll cut and print. You can use the computer over there for the description ID.’

He got busy with his toy and Billy sat me down behind a keyboard and monitor. He punched some keys over my shoulder and a series of questions came up. The computer asked me to describe the men I’d seen in the car according to various categories. I tapped in the answers as best I could. Spinoza tapped ‘Send’ and the computer hummed softly.

‘What now?’ I pushed my chair back and stretched.

‘We wait. The brain sucks in the pictures from the film, does a sort of identikit on your pathetic descriptions and tries to get a match with the zillions of pictures it has on file.’

‘Of Americans?’

‘Of everybody.’

‘How long will it take?’

He yawned. ‘Shit, it could be minutes. You got anything at home like this?’

‘If there is they haven’t told me about it. What is this place exactly?’

‘It’s a clearing house, a memory bank, a filing system, whatever you like to call it. They’ve got army records here, prison and police records, immigration…’

‘Tax?’

He grinned. ‘Ain’t nobody saying.’

‘What about intelligence files?’

‘That’s what you think, huh? That this is some kinda spook plot against your boy? Ours or yours?’

‘Who can say. They probably don’t know which side they’re on themselves half the time. I’m sorry if I’m offending your professional pride.’

‘That’s all right. Speaking of professional pride, couldn’t you have found something less dangerous than a bottle to throw?’

‘I didn’t have time to take off my shoe.’

Heseltine approached us with a fistful of photographs and computer print-outs held out in front of him like the infant Jesus. ‘Would you draw me up a chair, Mr Hardy?’

Spinoza hooked a chair with his foot and flicked it into place. Heseltine sat down. ‘Thank you.’ He glanced at Billy and they exchanged grins. ‘You think we fooled him?’

‘He was all ready to write a report on unstated racial invective within the US Security Services.’

Heseltine laughed and took off his glasses. The eyes were very pink but had lost their furtive look. ‘Have to have some fun in this fuckin’ place,’ he said. ‘You should see Billy with the South Africans.’

‘And you should see him with thah British,’ Spinoza said.

‘Very droll,’ I said. ‘You Yanks have such a great cultural mixture to play around with. You know why we call you Yanks, don’t you?’

Spinoza spread his hands. ‘Man’s getting anxious. What’ve we got, honky?’

Heseltine stifled his laugh by putting his glasses back. ‘Some, not a hell of a lot. Positive on one of them-the blonde guy at the party.’

‘Political meeting,’ I said.

‘You could’ve fooled me. Well, he’s Arthur Udino, Italian.’

Billy peered at the glossy print Heseltine held. ‘Looks about as Italian as me.’

‘That’s his ace in the hole, or one of them. He’s aka James Swanson, George White, the list goes on.’

‘I’ll bet,’ Spinoza said. ‘So what’s his field of activity?’

‘Hard to say. He’s not a real heavy; it’s more like he’s happened to be around when heavy things are going down. Like today.’

‘Yeah,’ Spinoza said, ‘but around in what capacity. Sight-seeing? What?’

‘Contracts for the supply of military equipment,’ Heseltine said. ‘In his time Arthur’s been known to help people who want to supply guns to other people to get their ideas across.’

‘What people?’ I said.

Heseltine rustled his papers. ‘Various. It wouldn’t help you to know. And it’s just that that’s the kinda area he hangs around in.’

‘Great,’ I said. ‘What about the electrician?’

Heseltine shook his head. ‘Nothing on him and nothing on your descriptions. But we went around you a little there and might have got something.’

‘Don’t keep it all to yourself,’ Spinoza said.

‘A description of the guy who mugged the

Australian near the hotel fits Mr Hardy’s ah, rough impression of one of the men in the car.’

‘I was wondering whether to shoot out a tyre or jump onto their bonnet,’ I said. ‘Which one fits?’

‘The stocky one. It’s not positive but he was seen in town and he’s a car and street specialist. He doesn’t kill people.’

‘Oh, good. I’d love to meet him. Who is he and is there any chance?’

‘Hot shot, eh?’ Heseltine said. ‘Sorry, you’re not likely to run into “Sunny” South.’

‘“Sonny” as in Liston?’

‘No, man. As in bright an’ clear. When he was seen he was seen leaving. Now, I don’t know if the two are connected or what. Like I say, “Sunny” isn’t a killer but…’

Spinoza spread his hands as if he was going to receive a pass. ‘He made a death threat on the phone.’

‘That’s a long way from trying to put a few thousand volts through a man.’

I got a feeling now that the faked antagonism between the two was shifting towards something real. Spinoza looked almost embarrassed and Heseltine fiddled with his papers defensively.

‘You may as well tell him, Mr Heseltine, sir,’ Spinoza said.

‘Tell me what? What’s “Sunny’s” field of activity, to coin a phrase.’

Heseltine was happy to answer that. ‘Communications.’

‘You mean he talks to people?’

‘No.’ Spinoza looked around the room. It was full of white coats and white shirts and blue suits. If he felt anything like me he wanted to see some T-shirts and sneakers and smell sweat.

‘Where’s my goddamn coat?’ He stood up in one easy movement, retrieved the coat from the chair and slung it over his shoulder. ‘What you should know, Cliff, is that South works for some of the corporations here. He’s a sort of advance man who, ah, clears obstacles.’

‘Obstacles to what?’

Heseltine coughed as if he was about to start a lecture. ‘To installing the right kinds of communications facilities. The kind that can’t listen in when they’re not invited and the kind that we can listen in on if…’

‘We?’ I said.

‘The USA,’ Spinoza said. ‘The land of the free.’

‘I don’t quite get it. You mean this guy has got some protection? I don’t care. I’m not Dirty Cliffy. I don’t want revenge.’

‘You’re missing the point, Cliff.’

Heseltine carefully removed a strip of paper along the edge of one of his sheets; he slid a broad, pink thumbnail along the serrations. ‘Hell,’ he said. ‘We use “Sunny” ourselves. Sometimes.’

****

20

They had January and Martin in General Hospital and Spinoza drove me there in the white Mercedes. His driving was as skilled and purposeful as ever but he seemed to be off in the clouds ‘mentally’, as the sports commentators say.

‘Are you confused?’ I said. ‘Have you got a loyalty problem or something?’

‘Shit, no. I can do the job.’

‘What is the job?’

He shot me a sidelong look, maybe to see if I was checking my gun. ‘Don’t get paranoid, Cliff. The job is to get January in and out in one piece. So far, we’re doing all right. I give you a lot of the credit.’

‘Thanks. But it’s going to be harder if some of the people on our side are really on their side, if you follow me.’

‘I don’t think so. “Sunny” is a freelance, really.’

‘Why’d you get so upset back at the lab then?’

He laughed. ‘Heseltine’d love you for calling it the lab. Well, this development does make it a little harder to choose the right people to see your party from the hospital to the hearing and onto the plane.’

‘Let me know when you’ve worked it out.’

‘I will. And there’s one other thing.’

‘What?’

‘Do you realise that you’re the only member of the target party running around loose at the moment?’

I laughed. ‘Target party! You sure do talk funny.’

‘You think this is a joke?’

‘No, I don’t. The trouble is, I feel out of my depth. I don’t know this place like I know Sydney. I just don’t have the feel for it. I don’t even know what this road’s called, and these bloody alphabet streets…H Street, I Street. It makes me feel… vulnerable.’

‘This is Carolina Avenue. The streets’re logical. Well, to cut it down a little, “Sunny” South wouldn’t try anything while I’m with you and the communications people are only semi-serious.’

‘What about the guns people?’

‘They’re serious. Do you like the sights?’

I’d been staring out of the window but only getting impressions-boulevards, white buildings, cenotaphs. ‘No,’ I said, ‘there’s too many bloody memorials.’

****

January had a private room on the eighth floor, that is, if you can call a room with a guard at the door and a secretary and three journalists inside, private. He was in bed wearing hospital pyjamas; the top of his head and his right hand were bandaged and he appeared to have suffered bruising around the lower part of his face. He looked like a man who’d been in the fight of his life, and won. Several bunches of flowers stood in vases around the room.

‘Cliff,’ he said. He stuck out his unbandaged hand and I shook it awkwardly. ‘I want to thank you. You saved my life comrade.’ He passed his hand wearily across his face. ‘Gentlemen, would you mind? I’m rather tired.’

‘Hardy,’ Trudi whispered to the nearest reporter. ‘Clifford Hardy.’ The writers scribbled it down along with the quote which January had made sure they got; they chorused their thanks and wishes for his speedy recovery and trooped out.

‘Clifford,’ I said. ‘Just how phony is all this?’

January had revived instantly. ‘Not phony at all. I’ve got shock and burns. Hullo, Mr…’

‘Spinoza, I said. ‘William H. Spinoza.’

‘Hi, Mr January.’ Spinoza perched on the end of the bed. ‘Glad to see you’re okay.’

January grinned. ‘I want everybody to stop saying I’m okay. I’m an injured man. Show ‘em, Trude.’

Trudi cast her eyes to the roof and hit the Play button on the video recorder attached to the portable TV set.

‘Our news team was the first on the scene in Georgetown today where Judge Calvin Clyde was killed in an assassination evidently intended for visiting Australian peace activist, Paul January.’

‘Hi, Paul,’ I said.

‘Shut up!’ January hissed. ‘Watch!’

‘Judge Clyde was killed when a microphone through which messages of peace and cooperation were to be delivered to the concerned guests of socialite, Mrs Amos Clephane, was turned into an instrument of death. Our cameras captured this dramatic footage of the scene in the aftermath of the fatality.’

‘Murder,’ I said.

‘Watch!’ January snarled.

The news team must have arrived within minutes. Most of the concerned guests were still milling around; some looked as if they’d run for their lives and sneaked back. The paramedics were dealing with the shocked and trampled and January himself was in the thick of it. He had a rough bandage around his head and his jacket was off. His shirt was out of his trousers, torn where he’d ripped it for a bandage, and bloody; his hair was wild. With his strong features reddened by the film or by emotion and his compact body bending and straightening as he helped to lift and comfort, he looked like Lawrence of Arabia.

‘Mr January only consented to go to hospital himself when the last distressed witness of the horrific incident had been treated. Tomorrow, Paul January will get up from his hospital bed to tell the Senate sub-committee on Pacific security of his ideas on…’

Trudi killed the sound and picture.

‘How’s Martin?’ I said.

‘What?’ January seemed to be having his own difficulty with names. ‘Oh, he’s okay. Concussion or something. Bolton can fill me in on…’ He broke off as I turned away to look out the window at Washington DC. ‘What’s the matter with you?’

‘Nothing. I suppose you’ll be out there reading the lesson when they bury the judge.’

‘What are you talking about? We’re leaving as soon as I finish tomorrow.’

‘Great,’ I said. ‘Trudi, are you sure Martin’s got all the hospital insurance cover he needs?’

She sat on a chair not far from January. She was strained tight, trying to cope with a light touch and probably still in shock herself. ‘I’ll check. Peter’s all right…’

‘Oh, sure. He’ll be all right. Did you know, Billy, that Australia is the land of free enterprise. And Mr January is one of the rulers of Australia. And do you know what that means?’

‘You tell me, man.’

‘It means that he’s an enterprising person and enterprising persons get everything free!’

Trudi’s eyebrows shot up and she half-rose from her chair. ‘Cliff, I…’

‘Billy, would you mind briefing Mr January on what we’ve turned up so far? I’m going to drop in on Martin, then I’m going back to the hotel.’

Spinoza tossed me the keys. I caught them. ‘Sure, Cliff. Take the car.’

‘Wait for me downstairs, Cliff,’ Trudi said. ‘I’m coming too.’

I went out and opened the door to Martin’s room.

He was sleeping on his back. With his head bandaged and taped and without his glasses, he looked like a child. No flowers. I closed the door and went down to ‘R’.

Trudi strode from the elevators carrying her folders and handbag. She had a light jacket on over her dress that concealed the blood smears and the dirt. She gripped my arm and we went out to the Mercedes. She leaned across and kissed me hard on the mouth.

‘Take it easy,’ she said.

‘His ego’s got two people dead and put a few in hospital. Maybe he’s a great man.’

‘You’re getting things out of perspective. Let’s go back to the hotel. We can talk.’

I started the car and drove out of the car park.

‘Hey!’Trudi yelled.

The oldest mistake in the book-wrong side of the street. I reversed and turned to go the way I should. The Mercedes was a dream to drive and concentrating on finding the way back to the hotel relaxed me. I’d been told that Washington was a planned city and something of the plan became clear to me as I followed my nose and the overhead signs. The other drivers were polite. Trudi was quiet. I wanted a drink and I thought about Helen. Helen and a drink would have been best but I’d have happily settled for just Helen.

I got the car tucked away in a space that said ‘Reserved for the Manager’ under the hotel and we rode up to our floor, with Trudi holding my arm and still very quiet.

‘My room,’ she said and I nodded and went with her. As soon as she was inside she shook her jacket off onto the floor, kicked off her shoes and wrapped her arms around me. She pulled my head down and we kissed. I could taste brandy on her breath but she was warm and soothing to hold.

‘I want to make love,’ she said.

‘I thought you said we’d talk.’

She pressed hard against me. ‘We can talk later.’

‘I don’t think I can do it, Trude.’

She pressed closer. ‘Guilt or anger?’

‘Both.’

‘All right. You don’t have to do it. Do something for me. Come on.’

We went into the bedroom and she pulled off her dress and pantyhose. She wore a thin gold chain around her neck; her breasts were small and high and her body still had a faint tan from the last summer. I slipped my shoes off, took off my jacket and started to unbutton my shirt.

‘Forget about that,’ she said. ‘Come over here. This is for me.’

She jerked the bedclothes away, stretched out on the sheet and I bent over her. She opened her legs and directed one of my hands there and the other one to her nipple.

‘Do this,’ she said, ‘rub me and suck and bite.’

I did it and she groaned and moved and thrust against my hand. ‘Don’t stop!’

I did what she wanted; she pushed my head fiercely across from one breast to the other and I found the rhythm she liked and held it and she thrashed under me. I was excited, erect and pulsing but I wanted above all to please her, to do everything right for her. I kept on and she came in a long, shuddering spasm.

‘Oh, still. Be still.’

She collapsed and I got properly onto the bed and held her. After a while she reached down and pulled the sheet up over us. ‘How d’you feel now?’ she said.

‘I want you.’ I was still hot and hard.

‘Better we don’t,’ she murmured. ‘This way you’ll remember…something different.

‘I’ll think of the Queen.’

She smiled and curled herself up; I moulded her into a shape I could enclose with my arms and legs. I felt her twitch and then relax and settle into a loose, gentle sleep. I went with her, all the way, down to the warmth, out of the light, into the comforting dark.

****

21

We travelled from the hospital to the Senate hearing in a fleet of cars under a tight security screen organised by Billy Spinoza. Our bags were packed and on their way to the airport. Trudi went into the chamber with January, Gary Wilcox and Bolton, while I waited outside with the other men who had steel in their backbones and ice water in their veins. In fact, we lounged around; the brave ones smoked, some jogged on the spot, others, like me, leaned against walls and sweated.

The sweat wasn’t from fear; the whole operation had a smooth invincibility to it that convinced me from the first move. But it was a hot day in Washington, perhaps the last of the year locals told me. We all wore jackets to prevent our shoulder holsters from frightening the populace. It was more than a little absurd-a whole gaggle of men, every one above six feet and no one under 150 pounds, all standing around and sweating with several pounds of ironmongery under their arms.

It was boring enough to force me to take a look at the TV monitor when January came on to do his thing.

He was terrific.

With his head bandage smaller, his hair brushed and a better colour to his skin, he looked less like T.E. Lawrence and more like a slightly damaged Robert Redford. He spoke quietly, sketching the history of the Pacific and its associations for all the nations with a nuclear capacity-America, Britain, France, the Soviet Union.

One of the gun-toters outside said, ‘What about

Israel?’ It got a laugh outside but the audience in the large, wood-panelled room where January was speaking was hanging on his words. He went on to talk about the violence that was bred by violence and he managed by word and gesture to indicate his own martyrdom.

‘In the Pacific,’ he said. ‘We have a chance to demonstrate cooperation and harmony between people with the widest possible cultural differences -from the subsistence agriculturalists of New Guinea to the most sophisticated citizens of the United States. We can create a zone where no guns are fired, no bombs are dropped and not one nuclear device threatens the existence of the people, or the plants, or the lowest, most microscopic, form of life.’

Wilcox and Bolton passed him documents which he accepted with a boyish grin and glanced at without interrupting the flow of his remarks. He raised his right hand, the burnt one, occasionally as if to ward off a bad thought.

A mid-west Senator got the call from the Chairman and fixed January with a hard, blue-eyes gaze. He was an outdoors-looking type, with a mane of greying hair and a well-preserved figure.

‘Mr January,’ he said. ‘The Soviet Union is already acting belligerently in your so-called zone of peace. It is building stepping stones across the Pacific, stepping stones for the waging of war.’

Trudi handed January a note. He nodded and delicately touched his burnt hand to his bandaged head. ‘I believe that Senator Anderson knows all about stepping stones,’ he said quietly. ‘He is a fly-caster of note. Isn’t that so, Senator?’

The Senator inclined his head gravely.

‘You and the Soviets have something in common. The Russians are in the Pacific to catch fish, nothing more.’

There were smiles around the long table and in the several rows of guests, reporters and others flanking the participants in the hearing. Billy Spinoza, standing beside me, smiled too.

‘What he doesn’t know is that that fucking Anderson would just as soon dam up a river as fish in it.’

‘January wouldn’t care,’ I said. ‘He’s talking about the world tomorrow but he’s thinking about himself today.’

‘Too true.’

January never got flustered; he wasn’t glib, he hesitated a few times and appeared to be searching for the right words, but they always came. Some of his final answers were touched with passion-he projected a vision of the Pacific area as a laboratory where the study of man in conflict had been carried out by brilliant American, Russian, British and French anthropologists for decades and where the study of man in harmony could begin. He got a standing ovation and a series of awkward, and incredibly sincere-looking, left-handed handshakes.

A couple of the attendants stood to attention when January marched out. His jacket was open which, in that company, was like having a flower behind his ear. He acknowledged all the plaudits gracefully and as Spinoza and some of his trusted lieutenants along with yours truly hustled the party towards the cars, January made it look as if all the anxiety was on our side and for our benefit, not his.

I sat next to Spinoza in front while January shared the back seat with a Chinese he called Joe.

‘Who’s with Trudi?’ I said.

‘Three of the best.’

‘Does that leave any for Gary and Bolton?’

‘Bolton’s staying,’ January said. ‘He’s going to monitor press comment and come back when Martin’s fit to travel. Gary’s got some business to do. He’ll be on a later flight today.’

Spinoza negotiated the stately driveways around the Senate building. ‘We’ll look after them. The heat’ll be off them when Mr January leaves.’

‘In triumph,’ I said. ‘How’s the head, Peter?’

‘Fine, Cliff, thank you.’

I half-turned to look at him. Success became Peter January; it gave him an abashed, modest look that he wore easily along with his brimming self-confidence. Except that I seemed to detect a flaw in the armour. We rode down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House with the big, concrete barriers arranged around it like idols or totem poles. January bit his lip as he looked out at the seat of power. Maybe I was wrong in thinking he was worried; maybe he was planning security arrangements for the Prime Minister’s Lodge.

I shook hands with Spinoza before we boarded the plane. He’d overseen the departure of the Messiah of the Pacific with an awesome skill. We’d passed through all the stages as smoothly as if we were catching a taxi across a town.

‘Thanks, Billy. You’ve done a great job. Is there anyone I can tell that to? Do you some good?’

‘Sure, Cliff. You tell it to Mike Borg. He’s travelling with you.’

I was surprised and spun around to see Borg standing beside Trudi as January gave a last audience to the fourth estate.

‘Just a precaution. You tell Mike and he’ll tell some desk man and maybe I’ll get a desk myself some time.’

‘You want a desk?’

‘Sure. We’ve been on our feet too long. I’m ready to sit down and sign things.’

‘I don’t believe it.’

‘Maybe not. Anyway, I’d like to take a trip to your country. Put in a good word with Mike and I might make it.’

‘You’ll be welcome at my place if you do. Take care, Billy.’

‘You too.’

He turned away and I watched January field a few balls. Don Carver was in the clutch of reporters but he didn’t speak. January shook hands warmly with Creighton Kirby for the benefit of the cameramen and then we were heading for the plane.

I fell into stride with Borg. ‘Can they spare you?’ I said. ‘I gather from Billy that you’re the foreman.’

‘I am. But everyone seems to think that January’s suddenly got top priority. They’ll manage without me for a bit. Anyway, trip home’ll be very nice.’

‘Where’s home?’ I said.

‘Broken Hill. I won’t get anywhere near it, but a day in Sydney’ll be okay.’

‘You expect any trouble?’

He shrugged. ‘What else is there?’

****

I read until Flashy reached the guns and the Cossacks, and then I played poker for a while with Mike Borg. I lost a fair swag of the American money I hadn’t had any chance to spend. January drank steadily all the way across the USA. I surrendered the last pot to Borg and took a seat next to Trudi.

‘What’s wrong with the Chosen One?’

It was almost the first remark I’d addressed to her since our time together back at the hotel. We were close in spirit and mood, glad to be going home, but probably divided on the question of the worth of Peter January. ‘He’s tired. He took more of a knock when that microphone blew up than he’s let on.’

‘He shouldn’t be drinking. He should put brown paper in his socks for the jet lag or something.’

‘I think you’re too hard on him.’

‘Maybe. I didn’t hear anything really solid back there. A lot of words. D’you want a drink?’

‘No. I’ll have one when we leave LA. I’ll have several.’

‘Peter’ll be on his ear by then.’

‘He’ll stop. He knows when to stop. He’s going to have big problems at home. They say the local press went to town over this. It’ll be a madhouse when we get in, but he’ll be fine by then. You’ll see.’

I heard January order another Scotch. His jacket was off and his tie was loose.

‘He’s worried about Mrs Weiner, isn’t he? What did he hear from her?’

‘Not a word.’

We changed planes in Los Angeles. Between the transit lounge and the outside world there were many layers of bullet-proof glass, concrete and plastic. All I saw of the famous desert city was a shimmering blue sky which may have been an effect of the tinted glass, and a few palm trees in pots. I saw a tabloid newspaper banner though, one that would have gladdened Martin’s slogan-loving heart. Six-inch letters, red on white-’The January Zone’.

****

BOOK THREE

****

22

I assume Mike Borg made the arrangements from the cockpit. We arrived at Mascot in the late afternoon, just the time when the TV news crews would be screaming for footage. We saw them; the vans were parked outside the arrival gates; the technicians were running around the carpark and the reporters were probably hanging over the rail outside the customs hall. But our view was from inside the car that swept us away from the VIP room, where the immigration and customs formalities had been completed in double quick time.

It was a beautiful spring day. Borg wound down the window and almost hurt himself expanding his chest to suck in the Australian air. ‘Great,’ he said. ‘Just great.’

January sat hunched in the corner of the back seat. He hadn’t changed his suit for the Sydney weather and he looked hot and uncomfortable. ‘I wish I could go to Bondi,’ he mumbled.

Borg grinned. ‘My instructions, Minister, are to stay with you to your first port of call. I’d be happy to accompany you to Bondi Beach.’

January managed a thin smile. ‘Thanks. No, I’ve got to go and see some of my bloody colleagues.’

Trudi pulled a face. ‘Hogbin?’

‘And others. I’m not going to be popular.’

‘You’ll be the darling of the media,’ Trudi said. ‘The most successful Australian in America since Crocodile Dundee.’

January flushed. He started to tense up the way he did before he delivered criticism and rebuke, but his shoulders slumped. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘It’s all theatre. Did you pick up those messages at the airport, Trude? With any luck they’ll have cancelled the meeting.’

Trudi handed him a couple of envelopes which were stamped with the dates and times they’d been received at the airport. He tapped them against the back of his bandaged hand. ‘D’you want to check these for letter bombs, Mr Borg?’

Borg tried another breath of the air but we were getting closer to the city now and it was mostly petrol and industrial fumes. He coughed. ‘I already have,’ he said. ‘They’re clean.’

January opened the envelopes. He crumpled one message, groaned when he read another and then fell silent. There was something in that silence that made me glance around. He was staring out the window and his jaw was set like a bench clamp. We were in Redfern where Sydney’s past, present and future is laid out in the mixture of small, mean buildings and grand, pretentious structures and the shades of colour in the faces of the people on the street. But January wasn’t seeing any of it. Trudi looked at him in alarm; Borg was taking in the scene or maybe keeping an eye out for gunmen.

‘What hotel, Mr Borg?’ January said sharply.

‘Ah, Gazebo at the Cross.’

‘Let’s get there. I’m afraid the rest of us have business to attend to.’

Borg looked uncomfortable. ‘I’m staying with you, sir. To liaise with the American end of things.’

‘I’m over-riding that. I’ll take the responsibility.’

‘Minister, I…’

‘Mr Borg,’ January said coldly. ‘I’m very grateful for all you’ve done, but I have matters to attend to with my private and personal staff. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, sir.’

We dropped Borg at the hotel. I walked him to the door and barely had time to mutter a denial that I knew anything about what bee was in January’s bonnet. I’d told him how highly I rated Billy Spinoza while we’d played cards and I reminded him of it.

‘Understood,’ he said. ‘I’ll be here the rest of the day if you need me.’

January and Trudi stood in the sun on the footpath. ‘Trudi told the driver where to drop the luggage,’ January said. ‘I need a drink and I have to talk to you two.’

I led the way to the Bourbon Brasserie. The girl who’d been on duty outside when I’d lunched with Tobin was at her post again, but she was smart enough to see that she had nothing to offer the three people with crumpled clothes, jet lag and grim faces.

On the way to the bar we passed a man eating his breakfast-bacon and eggs. He was drinking what looked like a Scotch and soda. In the afternoon dimness the bar had a seedy look, as if the mirrors needed polishing or the people needed a shower. We sat in the darkest corner, 20 feet from two solitary drinkers on stools at the bar and about the same from the only other occupied table. January ordered Scotch for all of us without asking. When the drinks came he took out the airport message envelope, extracted another envelope and took from that a piece of paper. His hand shook as he passed it to me.

‘My brain’s seized,’ he said. ‘I’m right at the top, did what I wanted to do most and now this has to happen.’

The paper was the rough stuff of the previous threatening notes. The crude printing was the same also: ‘I HAVE takeN MRS Weiner. I will kill HEr if you do not DO what I SaY. No POlice. I will Telephone at 7 p.m. today.’

‘Jesus,’ Trudi said. ‘Have you tried to reach her?’

January took a gulp of his drink. ‘I haven’t done anything! You’ve been with me the whole time for God’s sake. What can I do?’

‘Ring her,’ I said.

‘I might get her husband, or what if the police are already involved? I could…’

‘Yeah. Give me the numbers. I’ll ring.’

He clicked a pen and was about to scribble numbers on the envelope the note had been in when I snatched it away. ‘Not on that. Something else.’

Trudi gave him a slip of paper. ‘That’s home, that’s her city apartment and that’s her office number.’

‘What kind of office?’

‘It’s a…sort of travel consultancy. They advise business people on travel deals. Small show, just her and two others.’

I took the paper. ‘You really like to fraternise, don’t you? Back in a minute.’

The phone sat beside a vase of flowers in front of a mirror. The flowers were faded and drooping and I had to brush some petals aside to use the phone. At the home and apartment numbers I got no answer. A woman answered the office number and told me that Mrs Weiner had gone interstate.

‘Are you sure of that?’ I said.

‘Why, yes. She telephoned from the airport.’

‘This wasn’t a scheduled trip, then?’

‘Who is this?’

I hung up and went back to the table thinking that I’d handled something that already looked bad very badly.

‘What?’ January said.

‘They say she’s out of town.’ I picked up the note. ‘I’m sorry, Peter, but it looks like there could be something to it.’

‘So what do we do?’

They looked at me as if I should have the answers. I didn’t. ‘It’s almost 6.30. We don’t have any breathing space. You’d better do as it says.’

‘The women,’ Trudi said. ‘The earlier note said something about the women.’

‘Yeah, he’s been watching.’ I read the note through again. ‘It doesn’t say which telephone.’

‘Christ, that’s right! I’ve got home, office, Canberra…’

‘Ten to one on the office.’ I finished the drink. ‘This is the bomber and the sniper for sure. He’s got local knowledge. Where does she live?’

‘Vaucluse. The apartment’s in the city.’

‘You’ve gone there with her?’

January nodded.

‘You’ve had company. C’mon, we need a taxi.’

We got to the office a few minutes before seven. Trudi bustled a late-working staffer out and pulled a tape recorder from a drawer. She hooked it up to January’s personal phone and got ready to route any incoming call to the number. We sat and waited.

The phone rang and January snatched it up so quickly Trudi hardly had time to activate the tape recorder.

‘January.’

‘I hate you, Mr January.’ The voice was muffled but not faint. ‘I hate you and by the time I am finished with you everybody in this country will hate you.’

‘Where’s Mrs Weiner?’ January’s voice was surprisingly strong and firm. The needle jumped on the recording dial.

The caller laughed. ‘Mrs Weiner? Your whore, your adultress? She’s here with me. If she’d stayed with her husband she wouldn’t be in such terrible danger now. And believe me, January, she is in terrible danger.’

‘What do you want?’

‘I want revenge on behalf of all husbands. For all the women you’ve dirtied…’

‘You’re mad!’

‘No, I’m not. I advise you not to say things like that to me. I can destroy you by making one telephone call. I can produce evidence of your adultery with Mrs Weiner. If I was to tell the newspapers about it or the men who come to your office, the Party men, what would happen to you and your January zone then?’

January grimaced at me. I mimed talking to him and moved my hands to suggest drawing out. January nodded. ‘I don’t understand. Are your motives political or…’

‘No! Politics is shit! You are shit! The thought of someone like you as the member for this area makes me sick.’

‘I haven’t dirtied any wives.’ January was using his sincere voice.

‘You have dirtied mine.’

‘I’m sure there’s a misunderstanding.’

Meeting, I mouthed.

‘If we could meet…’

‘No.’

‘Let me talk to Mrs Weiner-Karen.’

‘No!’ There was some hysteria in the voice now and I motioned to January to slow things down.

‘Tell me what you want. Anything reasonable…’

‘I want you to suffer. I’ll call again in 24 hours. No police or I’ll kill her and tell the newspapers and everybody what a piece of shit you are. What a coward, what…’

‘Listen to me!’ January shouted. ‘You are sick! You need help! It’s not too late, don’t do this. I can…’

The line went dead. Trudi stopped the recorder. January sank back in his chair; his body had been rigid and sweat was breaking out under the bandage around his forehead. He put his hand up to wipe it and winced when he touched the injury. ‘Jesus Christ. We’re dealing with a madman. You couldn’t reason with someone like that.’

‘You did fine,’ I said. ‘We got a lot.’

‘What d’you mean?’ Trudi said. ‘He didn’t talk any sort of term or anything.’

‘We’ve got a voice. He let the handkerchief or whatever he was using slip a bit near the end and we got a clearer sound. He’s a local-he talked about “this area”, as if he was a bloody ratepayer or something. He’s watched your office. He knows the comings and goings. It’s something.’

‘For the police, maybe,’ January said. ‘But it cuts the other way-if he can watch us he can see the police.’

‘He has to be the bomber.’ Trudi re-wound the tape. ‘That means he’s got nothing to lose. He killed the kid.’

‘That’s the bad part,’ I admitted.

‘What’s the good part, for Christ sake?’ January had opened his drinks cupboard and taken out a bottle of Scotch.

I put my finger on the Play button of the recorder. ‘That we’ve got 24 hours. Put that stuff away and let’s get some coffee. We’ve got a hell of a lot to do.’

****

23

Trudi got the job of copying the tape of the telephone call and trying to locate someone discreet who could advise on accents and speech patterns. The caller had some distinctive quirks of speech, a strange rhythm when he was in full flight. It meant nothing to me but it seemed possible that an identification of accent or background could narrow the field. January was making a list of ‘possibles’-married women with whom he’d been associated who might possibly have psychotic husbands. We looked up from the sheet of paper.

‘I can’t think of one.’

‘Try,’ I said.

‘I’ve got to talk to Hogbin and some others.’

‘And the press,’ Trudi said.

‘Christ, yes. They’ll be at me soon.’

‘You’re an old professional at that, Peter. I saw you at work in America. You can handle it.’

‘What’re you going to do?’

‘See if I can track Karen Weiner a bit. What’s the address of the city flat?’

He told me and I wrote it down.

‘What does she drive?’

‘Yellow Gemini.’

‘Where’s the hubby?’

‘Could be anywhere.’ January wrote a name on the page.

‘See if you can find out.’

‘We need Gary,’ Trudi said. ‘When’s he due back, Peter?’

‘Could be tomorrow.’ He wrote another name.

‘I’m off. I’ll stay in touch. You can go to my place to sleep if you like, Trudi.’

‘Thanks. What about you?’

‘We never sleep. See you.’

****

Karen Weiner’s flat wasn’t what I expected. No doorman or security system, no closed-circuit TV. It was in an old building, recently renovated, close to the Darling Harbour development. Four storeys, sandstone blocks, big windows, a bit of last century elegance in the middle of this century vulgarity. The building had been a bank or commercial house of some kind; the upstairs windows were narrow but long and they opened out onto small balconies around which some new ivy was twisting.

I had the taxi circle the block a few times while I weighed up the situation. A busy working day was coming to an end; parking spaces were starting to appear in the street. Pretty soon they’d fill up with movie-goers and recreational eaters. I got out around the corner and went down a lane behind the flats. From the top floor there’d be a good view of Darling Harbour; from the bottom the view would be of the lane and the yellow Gemini with the parking infringement notices on the windscreen.

The notices dated from two days before. Parking was allowed in the lane only between 11 pm and 6 am. It told me something but not much. The lane was narrow, flanked by the backs of buildings on both sides. There were doorways and recesses, a few rubbish bins and a skip carrying the debris from some renovation. No dog shit, no lolly wrappers, an area taking pride in itself. The entrance to the flats was adjacent to where the car was parked.

I tried the heavy door; it was locked but not fitted with anything complicated. A latchkey situation, more olde worlde charm. I used an illegal tool and had the door open inside a minute. Mrs Weiner’s apartment was on the top floor at the back; her door would have given me a lot of trouble if it had been properly locked but it yielded to a push. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me. It was a solid door with a peephole, a deadlock, a heavy chain and a bolt. A quick look around the flat told the story: Mrs Weiner had been interrupted while she was having a cigarette and a drink and reading a report on oil futures. She had let someone in; the someone had come into the sitting room and there had been a scuffle. A Persian rug was rucked up and a pot had fallen from a stand, spilling dirt and rubber plant across the polished floor. The someone had taken Mrs Weiner into the bedroom and pulled clothes and shoes from a cupboard. She had resisted; a handmirror and some bottles of perfume and face lotion lay on the floor. A thick, dark stain on the pale grey carpet and some brown smears on a yellow pillow case were dried blood.

I went into the bathroom but there were no messages in soap on the mirror, no maps traced in blood on the toilet paper. I went back into the living room, trying to think. It was dark outside but lights were on in the flat. That meant the abduction had happened at night. Brilliant, Hardy, I thought. You get better all the time. I went to the window and looked out. A plane roared across, low in the sky and not far away. The view was west-over the dusty ditch where they were building the arcades and casino, over the freeways and the water, towards where Mrs Weiner’s lover’s constituents lived. I guessed that this was as close as she’d care to come to them.

Everything in the flat was expensive. It was a good bet that there’d be some fine liquor about. I was out of ideas and tempted. I resisted temptation in favour of routine.

My knock on the door of the other west-facing flat brought a round red face into the few inches between the edge of the door and the jamb. The space was spanned by a heavy chain at about eye level for the man inside. I heard a growl and looked down. A bulldog was thrusting its ugly face through the gap.

‘What do you want?’ He was short and probably fat to guess from the shape of his head. He had wild, woolly hair and popped eyes. I showed him my licence folder, quickly.

‘My name’s Hardy. I’m a private investigator. I wanted to speak to your neighbour, Mrs Weiner, but she isn’t in. Could you tell me when you last saw her?’

‘How did you get up here?’ The dog made a lunge at my leg but I could see it wasn’t going to make it and I stood firm.

‘I had a key, Mr…?’

‘I’ve told them we need a security door. All kinds of people wandering in and out, it’s crazy.’

‘What kinds of people, Mr…’

‘Willowsmith, Roger Willowsmith. All kinds and Mrs Weiner’s the big attraction. I suppose I shouldn’t have said that. Is she in trouble?’

‘I don’t know, Mr Willowsmith. When did you last see her?’

‘Yesterday or the day before. Back, Winston!’

Winston came forward, if anything. ‘Are you saying she had unusual visitors?’

He shrugged. The eyes seemed to protrude further with any movement he made. ‘Perhaps not. Just a lot of them. I’m very quiet myself. I’m nervous too. That’s why I have Winston.’

‘I see. So you didn’t see or hear anything unusual in the last few days? I mean to do with Mrs Weiner?’

‘No-o.’

‘You don’t sound sure, Mr Willowsmith.’

‘Well I don’t know whether it was to do with her or not.’

‘What? Look, could I come in so we can talk more comfortably?’

He pulled back and the chain went taut. For a moment I thought he was going to close the door, but the impulse to talk was stronger. ‘Are you crazy? I don’t let anyone in here! No one! You might be a mugger.’ He peered more closely at me. ‘Oh, my God! You’re carrying a gun!’

‘Easy,’ I said. ‘I could’ve shot you and Winston by now and bitten through the chain if I’d wanted to. Tell me about the something unusual.’

‘There was a man watching the place.’

‘When?’

‘Yesterday.’

‘Where was he?’

‘Down in the lane. Along a bit from where her car is parked. In one of the doorways.’

‘What did he do?’

‘Nothing. Just watched. Everyone in the flats uses the door into the lane. I don’t know who he was watching for.’

Winston growled and strained the chain. ‘Show me where from your window,’ I said.

‘Oh no, I won’t. I’ve said all I’m going to say. You go away before I call the police.’

He closed the door and Winston yelped as it caught his nose before he could withdraw it. The door was too thick for me to hear anything more. So Willowsmith might not have heard Mrs Weiner being forcibly taken away. I went down the stairs to the lane and checked the doorways near the parked Gemini. In the second one I found a greasy bag that had contained chips wedged into a crack in the bricks. The door was dusty and unused. In front of it, sitting on damp, rank smelling concrete, I found two Diet Coke tins. One had a straw tied in a series of knots stuffed down inside it. The other was full to overflowing with urine.

I breathed out trying to keep the smell at bay. ‘Sammy Weiss pissed here,’ I said.

****

24

I was sagging with fatigue when I got to Glebe. My back hurt when I straightened up after getting the letters from the box. Nothing from Helen and nothing else that mattered. Trudi hadn’t arrived and the place had a smell of stale air and drying out rising damp. I opened a tin of food and a window for the cat who looked a bit thin from hunting and gathering while I’d been gone, and got under a long hot and cold shower. After that I put everything I’d been wearing that was washable in the machine and dumped the rest by the door to be dry cleaned. I felt I was back on my pitch with a lead to follow and I needed a fresh start. I certainly needed fresh socks.

I phoned January’s office and got Trudi who was still trying to locate a voice expert. She told me that January had gone off to meet his political cohorts.

‘You’re not there alone, are you?’

‘No. Peter sent Julian over from the pub.’

‘Who’s Julian?’

‘I don’t know. He plays Rugby Union, he tells me.’

‘Rugby Union. Where’s he from?’

There was a pause while she interrogated Julian. ‘He’s from Wanganui. He’s a Maori.’

‘He’ll do. How’s Peter?’

‘Confused,’ she said. ‘I think he really cares for Karen, I know he really cares for himself. He says you’re a professional and the kidnapper is an amateur. He has high hopes of you.’

‘That’s nice. Anything else?’

‘Not much. Gary’ll be back tomorrow which could be a help. I’ve heard that bloody voice on the tape so many times I think I know it.’

‘What d’you mean?’

‘I think I’ve heard it for real. I might be imagining it. I’m tired.’

‘Come here and sleep on it. Something might occur to you in your sleep.’

‘Okay. Can I bring Gunther?’

‘Is he afraid of cats?’

‘Gunther’s afraid of nothing.’

‘He hasn’t met my cat. Sure, bring him. But don’t go to your place. This freak might try to make it a pair.’

‘Will you be there?’

‘No, I have to talk to Sammy Weiss. Wouldn’t happen to know where he lives, would you?’

‘I do. Well, I heard some of the journos talk about it at that office conference. They said he lived at the Beta House-I don’t know what it means.’

‘I do. Get some rest, Trude. I’ll see you soon.’

‘What about you? You must be bushed.’

‘I’m going to drink a gallon of coffee, take some caffeine tablets and brush my teeth. I’ll be okay.’

‘How is Weiss involved?’

I told her quickly what I’d learned and instructed her what to tell and what not to tell January. She told me to be careful. I hung up and put the coffee on; while it perked I got dressed in jeans and a jacket and sneakers; the only thing I wore that I’d had on before was the gun. I drank the coffee scalding hot and took the tablets. The cat ate the whole tin of food and looked at me reproachfully as if it knew that I’d invited a dog into the house.

‘Go for his nose,’ I said to it. ‘You could win on a knock-out.’ The cat wiped its whiskers and jumped out the window. A wind had sprung up and the open window rattled in its warped frame. I shut it and the cat looked at me through the glass.

I was in the Falcon, turning into Glebe Point Road, when it occurred to me that Helen might ring again and get Trudi, again. I’m very good at thinking up things to worry about.

****

The Beta House is a large building in Newtown which is something in between a squat and low rent accommodation. It’s for people who are on the way down or just possibly taking a breather before making a comeback. I’d had dealings with its residents before. They tended to be defensive, eccentric or downright aggressive. There’s no way into the place unless someone inside lets you in or throws you a key. All the windows are two floors up and the fire escape rusted and rotted into disuse long ago.

I parked in King Street outside an all-night video shop and walked down the narrow street to the Beta. It hadn’t changed in the couple of years since I’d been there. It was still a dark green five storey pile with broken windows boarded up, water dripping from broken pipes down the outside walls and roof iron lifting and thumping down as the night wind caught it. There’s always someone at home in the Beta. I could hear rock music coming from the fourth floor; a toilet flushed at the back, gurgled and flushed again and again.

I picked my way between the abandoned cars and refrigerators and, in the lane on the west side, found the window I wanted on the third floor and in the centre of the building. I collected some small stones and pelted it until a light came on.

‘What the fuck you want?’ The shape in the window was squat and wide with a belly that kept it back from the opening.

‘It’s Hardy, Sammy. Let me in.’

‘Got the key money, you cunt?’

I held up a $10 note. Sammy Trueman spat out into the night but missed me by a long way. Trueman had run a gymnasium in Newtown until he’d run out of fighters he could throw to the lions. As the boxing business sagged Trueman went down for the count. He’d had one good fighter in recent times, an Aborigine named Jacko Moody, who’d won national titles and then given the game away for football. Trueman thought I’d had a hand in that and I liked to think he was right. He hated me but he couldn’t afford to hate $10.

A string came snaking down the side of the building with a key tied to the end of it. I untied the key, replaced it with the $10. The string floated up and I went to the front of the building. The key turned easily in the lock; I opened the door and held it open with a piece of wood I found among the litter just inside. I figured that $10 should buy me a convenient exit as well as entry.

The stairwell stank of beer, piss and shit, some of it human, some animal. I went up three flights, feeling my way more than seeing because most of the light bulbs had blown. Trueman’s room was along a corridor past a dozen doors to rooms like his. It reminded me of prison cell block without the bars. I had to step over boxes of bottles and ruptured garbage bags. My foot skidded on something soft and ripe smelling that had slipped from a bag.

Trueman’s feet shuffled and he opened the door outwards on rickety hinges. He collapsed in a fit of coughing when he stretched out his hand for the key. I held it back. ‘I’m here to see Sammy Weiss.’

‘Don’ know ‘im.’ His singlet was grey and the room behind him was filled with smoke and the stench of sweaty, unwashed clothes.

‘Don’t give me that, Trueman. Now you know I can come in there and take back the 10 bucks and break whatever bottle you’ve got. So be nice. Weiss, where?’

‘One up and towards the front. Red door. You’re a bastard, Hardy. You took away the best boy I ever had.’

‘You had some good ones and they all ended up the same way. Except Moody.’

‘You cost me 50 grand, maybe more.’

‘Think of it in terms of brain cells. Moody saved himself a couple of million of them when he quit you.’

‘What’s a fuckin’ Abo need with brains?’

I dropped the key at his feet and headed for the stairs. It was even gloomier on the next level; I passed a half open door from which the marijuana smoke was softly eddying along with sitar music. A bit further on a door stood wide open and I saw a group of people on their knees in front of an altar draped in black cloth. The signs and figures painted on the cloth were repeated in chalk on the floor. The worshippers were murmuring and swaying gently as incense smoke billowed up from behind the altar.

The red door was closed, No exotic smells or sounds, just the rhythmic grunting and wheezing of a heavy snorer deeply asleep. I knocked but the snoring didn’t miss a beat. It was my night for easy doors; this one would have been a pushover with a nail file. I unzipped my jacket so I could get at the gun but I wasn’t really expecting to need it except perhaps to shoot rats.

It was a small room, narrow and low-ceilinged, with a window set up too high to look out of. Depression was the keynote and it continued with the gas ring, the hand basin in the corner and the rickety card table on which there were a few books and a portable typewriter. Sammy Weiss lay on his back on the narrow bed. He was wearing baggy cotton underpants and a pyjama coat with no buttons. His fish-white chest and belly rose and fell as he snored. He had a three-day stubble and the smell reminded me of when a flagon of wine had broken in the boot of my car and stayed there a few days. Lying beside the bed were an empty bottle of rum, two wine bottles ditto and a flagon of sherry with enough left in it to make a trifle. Crumpled sheets of paper overflowed a box that had held half a dozen cans of beer; the empty cans were in the wastepaper basket along with more paper.

I filled a can at the hand basin and trickled the water onto Weiss’s face. He grumbled, turned his head and twitched. I kept pouring and he came awake spluttering and moaning.

‘What this? Shit, what’re you doing. Ooh, I’m gonna be sick.’

‘Keep it down, Sammy, unless you’ve got a bucket handy.’

He forced his eyes to stay open and he tried to sit up but he couldn’t make it. ‘God, I’m gonna die.’

‘Not yet. We have to talk, then you can die. When you come off the wagon you really come off, don’t you? What happened, Sammy?’

His eyes were red and dry-looking. He knuckled them violently and moistened his lips with his tongue. ‘Is there anything left?’

‘Bit of sherry.’

‘Gimme.’ He twitched violently and attempted to locate the flagon beside the bed. I moved it away with my foot.

‘Talk first. Clam up and I pour it down the sink a drop at a time.’

‘Christ, Hardy, have a heart.’

‘Sammy, I haven’t got the time for games. You were watching Karen Weiner’s flat. That I know. What happened next?’

‘N-nothing. I found out who she was. Pretty smart, eh?’ He forced himself up onto his elbows and looked at me with his chins up. ‘I haven’t lost the touch.’ He looked around at the room and let himself slide back. ‘Yes I have,’ he muttered. ‘I’ve lost the fuckin’ touch.’

‘Cut out the self pity. What did you see?’

‘I saw where she lived. Saw her husband come by before he went off to the Philippines or wherever. Saw her up at her window.’

‘And you saw someone march her out, didn’t you?’

‘I dunno. Come on, I need that drink.’

I picked up the flagon and swilled the few inches in the bottom around. ‘It’s not good for you, Sammy.’

‘Okay, okay, she left with this weird-looking guy. I dunno who he was or anything. He could’ve been her pusher. You know what they’re like. Some of them go for the rough stuff.’

I gave him the flagon and he drained it in a long gulp. He shuddered. ‘God, that’s rough.’

‘Chivas Regal’d taste rough to you now. We’ll get back to the bloke when your mind’s cleared. What’s all this? What put you back on the piss?’

Weiss dropped the flagon to the floor. ‘I had it. The big story. January and Weiner’s wife. January was making all that noise in the States. He’d come back a hero and I could pull the plug on him. I could do it slow or fast.’ His voice trailed off and I had to move closer to the smell to hear him.’ I could milk it a bit. Get a few statements from the colleagues. Test the water…’

‘So what happened?’

He belched and I moved back again. ‘ I had a few to celebrate,’ he said hoarsely. ‘Then I came back here to write. And I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t get into it. Couldn’t find a hook. Just couldn’t…’

‘So you went out for more help?’

‘Yeah. No bloody good. I tried. See the paper? I tried, but it’s all shit. I can’t do it.’

‘Did you make any phone calls? Talk to anyone?’

He shook his head and groaned.

‘That’s tough, Sammy. I’m bleeding for you. But this is more important. The Weiner woman’s been kidnapped and January’s the one getting the pressure. Tell me about the man who took her away.’

I was watching Weiss’s face, looking for signs that would help me to assess what he said. Suddenly I was aware of someone watching me. I turned towards the open door but the gap was filled with the big, wide body of Inspector Lloyd Tobin. The man named Ken with whom I hadn’t hit it off at lunch stood behind him. Tobin took a slow, heavy step into the room.

‘This is all very interesting, Hardy. Why don’t we have a nice quiet talk about it?’

****

25

Weiss levered himself up again.

‘Gidday, Lloyd, what…?’

‘Shut up.’ Tobin came into the room; Ken followed, closed the door and stood with his back to it. Ken’s pale eyes were riveted on me as if he’d memorised everything else about the room and was now concentrating on the essentials.

I moved away from the bed. ‘Tobin,’ I said. ‘Family matter?’

‘Don’t piss me around, Hardy.’ He was wheezing with the effort of having climbed the stairs. ‘What’s this about January and a kidnapping?’

I shrugged. Ken smiled and took his hands out of his pockets.

‘God, it stinks in here,’ Tobin said. ‘How can you live like this, Sammy?’

‘He’s got no graft coming in,’ I said.

Tobin shook his head. ‘You’re obvious, Hardy. That’s your trouble. We’re going to talk about this the hard way or the easy way. Which is it to be?’

‘What’s the hard way?’

‘After Ken here knocks you around a bit.’

‘Oh, that’s all right then,’ I said. ‘I thought you were going to try it yourself. I’m not too worried about Ken. Nobody with razor cut hair ever gave me much trouble.’

Weiss had fallen back on the bed. He watched us with wide eyes and kept licking his dry, cracked lips. Tobin eased his big shoulders inside the well-cut suit. ‘I didn’t mean a fair fight, Hardy. I’d join in from time to time. We could take as long as we liked. No one’d care in a shit hole like this. I could’ve made busts for six different offences on the way up.’

I was thinking fast. I hadn’t got anything out of Weiss of value yet and it was clear I wasn’t going to get a private session with him. Also there was no point in trying to keep January’s association with Karen Weiner secret. If Weiss didn’t tell Tobin he’d tell someone else. Tobin wasn’t my idea of an ally but this time he wasn’t an outright enemy either. I sat down on the chair by the card table.

‘We can talk, Tobin. Just as an act of good faith, how about telling me what brought you here?’

Ken looked disappointed but Tobin’s rubber hose days were behind him. He relaxed, sniffed a few times, brushed the blanket with his hand and perched on the end of the bed like a fat owl.

‘Fair enough, Hardy. I heard that this piece of shit was celebrating. Off the water wagon and back on the hard stuff. I wondered what he had to celebrate. The last I’d heard from him was about you and January. I thought there might be something in it for me. Is there?’

‘What’re your politics, Tobin?’

‘Politics? Shit. My politics’re vote for Lloyd Tobin. He knows what’s best for himself.’

‘That’s what I thought. Well, it’s like this. January’s mistress is Karen Weiner. Her husband is…’

‘I know who he is. So?’

‘There’s some crazy out to get January. He bombed the office, took a shot at Trudi Bell…’

‘I don’t remember a report on that last incident.’

‘There wasn’t one. It was just before we went to Washington.’

‘Where January nearly got barbecued. You’ve got an exciting job, Hardy.’ Tobin took out a tin of cigars and lit one; he blew out a stream of smoke as if he was spraying disinfectant around. ‘And Mrs Weiner’s been kidnapped, did I hear you say?’

‘That’s right. I think Sammy saw the kidnapper. I’ve got a few other possible leads on him. Nothing much.’

‘Sammy’ll tell us all about him, won’t you, Sammy?’

‘Not much to tell,’ Weiss muttered.

‘You’d be surprised.’ Tobin puffed more smoke. ‘A bomber and a gun merchant. Sounds promising, Hardy.’

‘I don’t think it’s political or terrorist. Seems to be personal.’

‘That could depend on your point of view. Well, it seems as if we’re both holding good hands. I’ve got control of Sammy’s information and you’ve got leads and…background. Right?’

I nodded. Tobin was corrupt and ruthlessly ambitious and a hundred other unlikeable things but he wasn’t stupid. I looked at the typewriter on the desk in front of me. The sheet of paper sticking up had a half line of type on it: ‘Peter January’s erogenous zones…’ Ken shifted his feet impatiently.

I suppressed a sneeze; the air was dusty as well as evil-smelling. ‘As they say in Washington, Tobin, we need to cut a deal.’

‘You do,’ Ken said.

Tobin tapped ash onto the floor. ‘Shut up, Ken. Let’s hear it, Hardy.’

‘We cooperate. You get the bomber but with a minimum of violence and getting Karen Weiner out safe is the top priority. I control the story. I keep January as clean as I can.’

Weiss yelped: ‘Hey, that’s my story!’

‘Shut up! Okay, Hardy, you’ve got a deal. Let’s hear all about it, Sammy. It happened before you got pissed, I take it, so I want it all crystal clear.’

‘Not here,’ Weiss moaned. ‘I need to clean up and breathe some fresh air. I need some coffee.’

Tobin looked at me. ‘How long’ve we got?’

‘Next contact is seven o’clock tomorrow.’

Tobin stood up. ‘Tons of time. Let’s get out of this pigsty.’

****

Weiss washed his face, got dressed and we tramped down the stairs. Tobin wheezed after one flight. Outside, he pointed across King Street. ‘McDonalds,’ he said. ‘I’m hungry.’

Weiss whimpered. ‘Jesus, Lloyd, I can’t face food.’

‘You can look the other way. Got a bottle on you, Ken?’

Ken nodded and Tobin looked pleased. ‘We’ll put a drop in the coffee. Might even give you a belt, Sammy. If you’re good.’

We went into the place which was almost empty. It needed sweeping and disinfecting after a hard day’s cooking and selling. Tobin ordered two hamburgers with French fries, Coca Cola and coffee. Weiss wanted water; Ken and I settled for coffee. We took a table in the corner and Tobin spread his food out in front of him. Apparently he liked to look at it for a while before he ate it. Ken spiked the coffee from a flask of Bundaberg rum.

‘Here’s to you, Sammy.’ Tobin lifted his cup and took a gulp. He opened the polystyrene box and examined the hamburger. ‘Looks okay. Now, what have you got to say.’

Weiss sipped water and scratched his head. His fingernails were black and he still smelled bad. ‘I saw her leave with a weirdo. I told Hardy that.’

Tobin spoke through a mouthful. ‘Height?’

‘Average.’

‘Shit,’ Ken said.

I drank some of the coffee. It wasn’t good to start with and the rum didn’t help it much. I was dead tired; I knew I shouldn’t be drinking. ‘Think back, Sammy,’ I said. ‘They’re coming out into the lane. Who’s taller, him or her?’

‘Him.’

‘By how much?’

‘Couple of inches.’

Tobin raised an eyebrow as he swallowed. It was an uncomfortable thing to watch.

‘She’s a tall woman,’ I said. ‘Five eight or so. Makes him a fair height.’

‘And thin,’ Weiss said. ‘Real thin.’

Tobin nodded. ‘You’re doing fine, mate. I’m proud of you. Go on.’

Weiss closed his eyes. ‘Thin but like he was fit, with muscles, you know?’

‘Unlike many,’ I said. ‘What about his hair and complexion?’

‘Sort of stringy hair, dark and a bit long. Sallow, I’d call him.’

‘What’s that mean?’ said Ken.

‘Never mind.’ Tobin started on his second hamburger. ‘Now, would you say he was a good type, British say, like me and Hardy? Or a wog or a Jew boy like you?’

‘What about Scotch?’ Ken poured more rum into his coffee.

‘Don’t confuse him,’ Tobin said, ‘and the Scotch aren’t sallow. Sammy?’

‘Could’ve been mixture. English maybe with…I don’t know, Lebanese or something.’

‘I’d like a mixture,’ Tobin said softly. ‘I’d love Lebanese. What was he driving?’

‘A car.’

Tobin’s cheeks bulged as he chewed. ‘I hope you’re not trying to be funny. What sort of car? What number?’

‘I don’t know about cars and I didn’t get the number. I can’t even remember what colour it was.’

‘Anything else?’ I said. ‘Clothes?’

‘Dark.’

Tobin held out his coffee cup for more rum. ‘Not much to go on. What’ve you got, Hardy?’

‘We’ve got him on tape. Trying to get an identification of the accent. We get the feeling he’s local. Talks about watching January’s office. Sounds as if he belongs to the area.’ I got out my wallet and extracted the note. ‘We’ve got two others like these.’

‘Have you now. Funny-looking paper. How come I didn’t see the others?’

‘You saw photocopies. That’s all your boys asked for.’

Tobin banged the table with his fist. The boy and girl serving the food looked up in alarm. Tobin smiled at them and waved his hand. ‘No trouble, we’re the police.’

‘But you paid,’ the girl said.

Tobin smiled at them and turned back to look at the note. ‘I have to do everything. We should’ve had the originals.’ He picked the paper up and sniffed it. ‘Funny smell. ‘Course, anything’s possible in Hardy’s wallet. Is that it? That the lot?’

I shrugged. ‘Trudi Bell thinks she might know the voice. Might have heard it. She’s trying to place it.’

Ken was scribbling notes. ‘Where is she?’ he said.

‘My place.’

Tobin leered. ‘You lucky dog.’ He popped the last of his chips into his mouth and chewed noisily. ‘Well, I’d call it promising. Quite promising. We’ll take Sammy into town and get him to talk to one of the faggot artists. See what comes of that.’

‘I’m too sick, Lloyd.’

‘You’ll be sicker if you give me any trouble. I’ll get one of our flash lab men to analyse this paper, Hardy.’

I nodded. I was almost dead on my feet. I could feel control of the whole thing slipping away from me but I was too tired to do anything about it. Tobin looked fresh and keen. He stood up and hauled Weiss to his feet by the collar.

‘I’d say a meeting is called for. I want to see January and the rest of you in the morning. Let’s make it 10 o’clock in my office. Right?’

I had enough pride left in me for a couple of small challenges. ‘Make it 11. We might have something on the voice by then. And don’t let him near a telephone.’

‘Don’t worry, Hardy. Sammy’s going home to my place. His sister can make him a nice cup of tea and put him to bed. You don’t look like you’re going to be much use to Trudi tonight. Give her my best.’

****

26

Gunther took hold of the leg I put through my front door; he growled; he didn’t try to get to the bone but he didn’t let go. Trudi came down the stairs shrugging herself into my towelling dressing gown.

‘Gunther, off!’

‘ “Off”? I’d never have thought of “off”. I might have said “down”. What would’ve happened? Would he have killed me?’

Gunther backed away, sat on his haunches and watched me. He was a big, sleek, black dog, very big, black and sleek. Trudi patted his head and laughed. ‘No, if he was happy with his grip he’d just hang on.’

‘What if he wasn’t happy?’

‘Could’ve got messy. You look like death. What’s been happening? Want some coffee or tea?’

I walked around Gunther and Trudi hugged me. Gunther growled but didn’t move. ‘You haven’t found any tea here, have you?’

‘I brought some.’

‘Tea self-destructs here. No, thanks, love. I want a big glass of wine and a couple of headache pills.’

We went out to the kitchen. She made herself some tea and I took my medicine. I told her about my evening’s work and she told me she’d located someone who’d get a report on the tape back to her first thing in the morning.

The cold white wine cut through the mists in my brain and the pills were smoothing things out. ‘Any calls?’

She shook her head. ‘Still nothing from Helen?’

‘Nope. What’s new with Peter?’

‘Oh, God, you haven’t seen the television, have you? They’ve been all over him. He’s a hero. And he looks amazing-he’s worried sick about Karen but it comes across as great statesman-like concern. He’s more popular tonight than Paul Hogan.’

I grunted and finished the wine. ‘Won’t do him any bloody good if this goes wrong. Can you get in touch with him? I mean now?’

‘Yes.’

‘Would you mind? Tell him he has to be in Tobin’s office at 11.’

‘Yuck. D’we really have to deal with that slob?’

‘No choice. You haven’t put a face to that voice, I suppose?’

‘I’ve been close but it keeps slipping away. I’ll ring Peter.’

I was only dimly conscious of her using the phone. I had some more wine and I suppose I dozed. She shook me awake. ‘Get up to bed. I’m in the spare room.’

I blinked. ‘Can’t afford to sleep in. Have to set an alarm.’

‘No need. Gunther wails like a banshee at seven thirty.’

‘Great. Has he met the cat?’

‘They agreed to differ. I’ll see you in the morning, Cliff.’

The door to the room Cyn used to do her drawing in and which Hilde had occupied and where clients and friends had slept at odd times over the years was closed when I got up the stairs. Gunther was curled up on the carpet outside but it wasn’t Gunther that kept me from going in and it wasn’t fatigue. It was something else. I crawled into bed half dressed; I heard aeroplane engines; telephones rang; I smelled dirty socks and marijuana smoke; a 150 watt bulb was burning in the ceiling but none of it could stop me falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.

****

I didn’t hear Gunther howl, I wouldn’t have heard an elephant trumpeting in the next room. Trudi woke me up by turning off the light and opening the blind. She was dressed and she had coffee and toast balanced on the bread board.

‘Couldn’t find a tray,’ she said.

I sat up. ‘There isn’t one. Thanks, Trudi. Did you get on to January last night?’

‘Yes. He’ll be there. Get this into you. I’m expecting a call about the tape at nine.’

She went away and I ate the toast and drank the coffee. A gallon wouldn’t have been enough. When I got downstairs to make more she was on the phone saying yes and no and shaking her head. She was making notes but not very energetically. It didn’t sound too promising.

‘Okay, thanks, Lee. Yeah, I’ll let you know.’ She hung up and looked at her notes.

‘What?’ I said.

‘Not much. Nothing really. Possibly Irish…’

‘Tobin’ll like that.’

She grimaced. ‘But a long way back. The thing is the speaker has overcome a stammer. It’s left him with some strange speech patterns but there’s nothing, you know, exotic or specific. Jesus, I’m sure I’ve heard that voice. I wish to Christ I could remember.’

‘Easy. Maybe Tobin’s got something.’

‘The only thing he’s got is a filthy mind.’

I poured the water into the glass beaker over the grounds and set the plunger in place before I realised that I wasn’t using the percolator. Plunging was Helen’s favoured method and this was her machine. ‘Tobin’s not stupid. He wants a good result for himself. I just wish we had something on him to keep him honest.’

‘Im-possible. Oh! No, shit!’

‘What? What’s wrong?’

‘I was so close to placing the voice just then.’

‘Give it a rest, love. Your brain’ll seize. Have some more coffee. Christ, I wish Helen’d ring.’

We drank coffee and looked at the paper. The News had January on the front page. The headline read: JANUARY ZONE-A BEAUTIFUL THING! The article quoted the Indian Prime Minister, who was in Australia for a few days, to this effect. ‘Peter January’s idea of oceanic zones of peace and freedom has seized imaginations around the world,’ the reporter wrote. I gave up on the article when I got to the bit about ‘the new wave’ sweeping across international discussion. Trudi was right about Peter: he looked tired and strained in the centre page photograph but full of zeal and energy. A leader of men, and women.

****

Tobin’s office was in the new police building in Darlinghurst. The building wasn’t finished, there was scaffolding around part of it, and pneumatic drills were hammering not too far away. After some fast talking and a phone call to the right place I managed to gain entry to the building’s underground carpark. There was no parking in the streets for blocks around, presumably as a precaution against the sort of bombing they’d had in Melbourne.

We rode the lift up to the reception area. I had an impression of high security-light beams, heavy doors, TV cameras.

‘I’d better wait for Peter here.’ Trudi said. ‘He won’t like any of this. I’ll try to smooth him down.

You go on and see if you can get Tobin to behave reasonably.’

‘OK.’ I snapped my fingers suddenly. ‘Quick! The voice! Anything?’

She shook her head and I took the lift to the third floor. Tobin’s office was inside a series of other offices, like the last in a set of Chinese boxes. He and Ken were there with papers spread out on the desk. For once Tobin wasn’t eating, but there was a smell in the air suggesting that he’d tucked into something not too long ago. Ken glowered at me but Tobin was effusive.

‘Sit down, Hardy. Where’s your boss and Trudi?’

‘They’ll be along.’ I sat and looked around. Nice office-grey carpet, big bullet-proof glass window, filing cabinet, mini-bar. It was a long way from the detectives’ room in Balmain where I’d first seen him.

‘Do any good on the voice?’ Tobin unbuttoned his waistcoat which was constricting him. He wore another expensive suit and ditto accessories. I couldn’t be sure but I think his hands were manicured.

‘No. No luck.’

‘We’ve done better. D’you know we’ve got equipment here you wouldn’t believe. There’s a camera that can take a picture of a nose hair and make it as big a baseball bat.’

I grunted my lack of interest and looked out the window. It was a nice day; Tobin had a window full of blue sky with a bit of tree low down in the left corner. He waved a paper at me. ‘Interesting, that note January got. Standard sort of wrapping paper, cut down with scissors. All sorts of crap on the scissors and the paper.’

‘Like what?’

Ken turned away to close a filing drawer as if this frank talk with a civilian was painful to him. Tobin looked benign. ‘Cornflour, wholemeal flour stone-round, some honey, bit of peanut oil.’ I realised why Tobin was feeling so good-he was talking about food. ‘Does this mean anything to you?’

My dislike of him welled up. ‘No. Does it mean anything to you that the voice could be Irish originally and the guy’s overcome a stammer?’

‘Irish is good. Take a look at the drawing.’ He passed a sheet of cartridge paper across.

‘How’s Sammy?’ I said before I turned the paper over.

‘Got the shakes. Can you believe a man losing his guts like that when he had his big break right there in his hand?’

‘Wouldn’t happen to you, eh, Tobin?’

‘Give me a chance and just watch me.’

I looked at the drawing. All identikit pictures tend to look the same and I couldn’t say this one did anything for me. It certainly didn’t flatter the subject-dark, stringy hair, a narrow forehead, thin nose and mouth. No Robert Redford, not even a Jack Nicholson. There was a noise behind and I turned to see January, Trudi and Gary Wilcox come into the room. Ken looked even more angry at this mass invasion of the citadel. Tobin got up from behind his desk and extended his hand to January.

‘Minister. Ms Bell’

January was pale, his skin had not much more colour in it than the bandage on his head. His right hand was still bandaged but more lightly. He nodded at Ken and introduced Wilcox who did some nodding too. I turned towards Trudi, still holding the drawing. She gasped and her finely plucked eyebrows shot up. She almost staggered and grabbed at my shoulder for support. She stared at the drawing.

‘Jesus Christ,’ she gasped. ‘It’s Charles!’

****

27

Tobin jerked to his feet. His soft, swelling belly hit the edge of the desk and he sank back into his chair half-winded. ‘Who the fuck is Charles? Excuse me, Minister.’

The words came out of Trudi in an uncontrolled rush. ‘He’s the health food man. I mean…the shop…two doors away.’

‘Shop? What shop?’ Tobin was excited and fighting to regain his breath. His voice was strained and rising in pitch.

January took control. He pulled a chair up for Trudi and motioned for me to sit too. Gary and Ken were behind him so he was the only one standing in the centre of the room which was the way he liked it. ‘Calm down.’ he said. He took the drawing from me, examined it and nodded. ‘This is a good likeness of a man named Charles who is known to me and my staff. Inspector Tobin, I take it you had this made up from a witness’s description?’

Tobin was impressed. ‘That’s right, Mr January.’

‘It fits,’ Trudi said. ‘It fits everything. His wife…’

January held up his hand. ‘Let’s keep this in perspective. Cliff, I gather you have an understanding with Inspector Tobin?’

‘That’s right. A deal-he agrees to soft-pedal things and I’m on the spot at all stages to protect your interests. Mrs Weiner’s safety is the big concern.’

‘Good. You have my authority to act on those terms. I want to be consulted at every stage.’

It was too much for Ken. He practically spluttered as he took a step away from the wall and towards January. ‘Now, hold on. We can’t…’

‘Shut up, Ken.’ Tobin had himself under control now and was seeking his share of the initiative. ‘I want to handle this discreetly as Hardy says, but I have to ask you this-has this man…Charles, any reason to take violent action against you?’

‘No,’ January said firmly. ‘But he may believe he has.’

‘That’s acceptable, Mr January. You’ll understand that there are procedures to follow.’

‘I should hope so. I’ll leave it to you. Gary, come with me. Trudi, I want you to act as liaison between Hardy and me.’

Trudi nodded. She was doing her best to keep anger, contempt and possibly several other emotions under control. ‘Where will you be?’

‘Party HQ until early afternoon and, ah…this number after that.’ He took out a gold pen and waited until Gary handed him a card. He wrote and passed the card to Trudi. Then he turned to look down at me. I took another close look at the drawing. I could scarcely remember Charles but I had a clear picture of his wife. January coughed and I looked up. ‘Do it right, Cliff. I want to be there when anything happens.’

I nodded. ‘We’ve got a minimum force agreement, I think.’

Tobin nodded.

‘Good,’ January said briskly. ‘I’ll be talking to the State Police Minister within the hour, Inspector.’

‘Talking?’ Tobin said.

‘I’m sure you understand. Come on, Gary. Hardy, a quick word outside.’ I followed them out of the office. January grabbed my shoulder and dug his fingers in. It was his bandaged hand he was using and there was plenty of strength in it. ‘I never touched her!’ he hissed. ‘It was all an act!’ He let go and moved off quickly.

I went back into the office. Ken had turned to the window and was muttering. Tobin stood up taking care to miss the edge of the desk. ‘If you’d care to wait outside, Hardy, Ms Bell? My colleague and I have arrangements to make. Could you give me the address, Hardy? And the lay-out as best you can. What’s where, and the staff position.’

‘What arrangements?’

‘A simple look-see first. Nothing heavy. Just to see if he has other premises, somewhere to put the woman. No contact and a report back to here which I’ll let you in on.’

I told him the address and Trudi gave him some of the other information he wanted. We went out of the office and walked down a corridor to a waiting room that had a TV set, magazines and a cafe bar.

Trudi’s hand shook as she accepted the plastic container in which the paper cup of coffee sat. ‘That’s it,’ she said fiercely. ‘I’m finished with that cold-blooded bastard. His woman’s lying somewhere with a bloody gag in her mouth and all he can think of is how to handle it discreetly.’ She gulped some coffee. ‘And you’re just as bad!’

The coffee was lousy; I couldn’t imagine Tobin drinking it, even rum-spiked. ‘It looks that way, I agree. But don’t forget Karen Weiner’s got a lot at stake as well. Have you met her?’

‘Once or twice.’

‘I’d say she was a tough nut. At least as tough as January. It could be that he’s handling it just the way she’d want him to.’

Trudi snorted her disbelief. ‘What about you? Are you going to sit around and watch them protect their areas first, last and always?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t trust Tobin. He wasn’t really interested in the lay-out of the health food shop and he didn’t even ask us about vehicles. He’ll do whatever will work out best for him. Big question is, will Charles be there?’

‘He’s always there. I’ve never been in the place and not seen him around.’

I nodded. ‘That’s useful. Tobin’ll sniff that out too, but he’ll be careful, so at least we’ll have a bit of time.’

‘To do what?’

I left the coffee on top of the machine. ‘I’m going to get hold of Mike Borg and try to beat Tobin to the punch.’

‘Thank God. A good idea at last. What can I do?’

‘Something important but not much fun. You stick here until you can get Tobin to give you some idea of what he’s got in mind.’

‘Oh no, Cliff, I…’

‘Look, you can play it any way you like. You can abuse him, threaten him. Don’t be nice, be an impossible bitch.’

‘That sounds better.’

‘When you know something just get out of here.’

‘And then what? D’you want me to sit around at your place watching Gunther and the cat?’

‘No. First you ring somewhere I can ring. Somewhere you can leave a message. Can you trust anyone…near the office?’

‘Julian. He’ll be in the pub. He’s always there.’

‘Right. Ring him and tell him what’s happening. Then you go…’

‘Where? Where do I go?’

‘God knows what it’ll be like near the office. Does the roof of that building the health food store’s in meet the other roofs? I mean is it flat across a couple of roofs?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Who looks at roofs? Can’t swear to it but I think it’s got a sort of attic’

‘He could be looking out. If he sees you at the wrong place and the wrong time it could be trouble.’

‘I can get to the pub down the back way. He couldn’t see me from any angle.’

‘Do that then. Mike and I’ll take a look around and we’ll meet in the pub to decide the next step. January might have to put in an appearance. You know where to reach him, don’t you.’

‘Mm, he’ll come for sure.’

‘Yeah. Guts aren’t his problem. God, it’s a bloody rough plan but its something.’

‘What if you can’t locate Borg?’

‘I said it was rough.’

****

But I did locate him. He was sitting in the rooftop spa at the Gazebo looking up at the pale blue sky. Maybe he was dreaming of Broken Hill.

‘Hey, Hardy,’ he said. ‘You should try this, it’s great.’

‘Maybe later. How’d you like to do a little work?’

‘What kind?’ He pulled himself up. The pale, freckled shoulders breaking the surface of the bubbling water were knotted with muscle.

‘When does your plane go?’

‘Tonight. Come on, I was so bloody bored. What’s going on?’ He got out of the pool, picked up a towel and rubbed himself. He was thick and solid all the way down. There was at least one bullet scar on his upper body.

‘To do with January. Have you got a gun?’

‘I’ve got two. Let’s get to my room and you can fill me in. I can cancel the booking.’

‘If it’s for tonight you won’t have to. It’ll be settled one way or another before that.’

****

28

Borg looked surprised when he saw the Falcon. Living in Washington he probably hadn’t ridden in a car that old for years. He was wearing a lightweight suit but he’d left the tie off. He had the Washington bulge under his arm and a light in his eye. I filled him in on the drive.

‘Sounds like an amateur,’ he grunted. ‘Think he was shooting to kill when he took a pot at Trudi?’

I jockeyed the car into the centre lane among the heavy afternoon traffic on Parramatta Road. ‘Hard to say. Did I say the bomb killed a kid in January’s office.’

‘That right? Could’ve been an accident. Well, it doesn’t matter much, you gotta treat ‘em all different.’

‘That’s why you’re here,’ I said. ‘I think Tobin’s philosophy is to treat them all the same.’

We had a long wait at the lights; January’s office and the health food shop were down the street a couple of blocks from the turn. I tried to call up a picture of Charles but I couldn’t get much. My image was confused by the police artist’s sketch. I remembered that Weiss had remarked on muscles. Magda, his wife, was easier to think about. Did she have the kind of beauty that could turn a man’s mind? Hard to say-minds turn for different things.

Everything seemed normal in the street, which is to say that it was busy and parking spaces were hard to find. I squeezed the Falcon into a semilegal spot outside the Post Office and Borg and I approached the pub down the lane Trudi had mentioned. Borg reminded me of good non-coms I’d known in Malaya-cover spotters, escape route mappers…survivors.

We went into the public bar. The pool table was in use and so was the dart board. A machine behind the bar that dispensed coins for the pinball machines clattered and a stream of money flowed into a glass. The bar was about half full with a scattering of people at the tables and a few along each wing of the three-sided bar. It was the time for casual conversations, when the social drinkers are having a quiet one and the real drinkers are still pacing themselves and minding their own business.

‘Good pub,’ Borg said. ‘Can we see the joint from here?’

‘Yeah, from the window over by the phone.’

‘I’ll take a look. You find this Julian.’

Julian was at the bar; a six foot three inch Maori with tattoos on his arms and shoulders, and there was a hell of a lot of arm and shoulder to work on. He had a schooner in one hand and a cigarette in the other, very bad for his health but I wouldn’t have cared to tell him so. He was staring straight ahead and his big, heavy face was wrinkled in concentration.

I ordered two beers. ‘Get you something, Julian?’ I said.

The huge head turned slowly. He examined me carefully, took a drag on his cigarette and nodded. ‘Hardy,’ he said.

‘That’s right. Trudi’s called, then?’

‘Just now. She said to watch for you and I saw you come in.’

‘What? Through the back of your head?’

He pointed in the direction he’d been looking and I saw a mirror mounted high up so that it exactly framed the doorway. ‘She said you’ve got a bit of time. Know about that mirror?’

I shook my head. Paid for the beers and sipped. It seemed best to humour him. ‘The story is there was a man used to drink here who had to watch ‘is back, know what I mean? Well, he was popular so they put the mirror in so’s he could watch the door.’

‘And?’

The laugh started deep down in his belly and spread up through the vast auditorium of his chest. He bellowed and took a swallow of his drink. ‘One of the blokes that was after ‘im got a job as a barman here. Shot ‘im straight through the chest. Great story, dunno if it’s true. Yeah, Trudi says she’s on ‘er way and the cop won’t be far behind. I wrote it down.’ He pulled a TAB ticket from his pocket and read off the initials. ‘He’s comin’ with a TRF. Wazzat?’

‘Tactical Response Force,’ Borg said. He reached across me for the other drink. ‘You must be Julian. Gidday.’

Julian nodded. ‘What I can do? Mr January’s coming too, Trudi says.’

‘Just keep an eye on them both,’ I said. ‘Try to stop him from doing anything silly.’

‘I see the bloody guns. Trouble?’

‘I don’t think so,’ Borg said.

We went to the window and looked across the street to the building. There was a clear view of the top storey room at the back of the health food shop; it was across two flat roofs from January’s office and it afforded vision into the street in front and to the back and left.

‘Can’t see a bloody thing from there to the right,’ Borg said.’ I did a quick reccy. That back room, that loft thing, has a blank wall on the right and you can get up to it across the roof. I walked past the shop. It’s just a matter of through and up the stairs at the back. It’s an easy set-up to penetrate but I’ve seen easier fucked up before.’

‘How?’

‘The target’s too tempting. They lob tear gas into the loft, the guys inside panic and take a shot and they shred it from the street. Very messy.’

‘Tactical Response Force,’ I said. ‘Heavy mob.’

‘You said it. It doesn’t look hard, Cliff. One in the front and one over the roof.’

‘Could you see who was in the shop?’

‘Not properly. A woman in the front but I got an impression of someone else.’

‘I guess I take the roof. He’s seen me in the shop and probably in his ‘scope.’

Borg nodded. ‘I’ll go in. Sit on him. You kick in the window and get the woman if she’s there. We meet in the middle. Timing’s the thing. I’ll go in at…2.35. You hit the window at the same time. Of course there’s one thing.’

‘What?’

‘He could be standing at the window with a gun.’

‘Or sitting on the stairs.’

‘Yeah. Why’re you doing this. Cliff? For January?’

‘Hardly. I don’t really know. What about you?’

We’d kept our voices low but something about the tightness in us and the rigid alertness of Julian were beginning to attract attention. It was time to go.

Borg cleared his throat. ‘I’m bloody sick of Washington. It’s all bullshit and brainless bigwigs. If this goes well I could get a classy posting back here. I’d love to get back to the Hill for a bit.’

‘What if it doesn’t go well?’

He grinned. ‘I always try to think and act positive. We clear? 4.05 and in!’

I went further down the lane and skirted around to come up on the blind side of the loft. I had 12 minutes to get onto the roof and across to the window. Borg’s reccy had been good but you can’t see everything from ground level. Climbing onto a roof three buildings away from the health food store was no problem. From a paling fence up onto a garage and across its solid iron roof to the next. Then the problems started; the tin on the last roof but one was rusted through and I could see the rotting bearers underneath. It didn’t look as if they could take my weight.

I worked forward along the good roof with my eyes straining at the dilapidated one. The flashing had come away and the whole of the first section of iron was a mess. And the next section didn’t look much better. Eight minutes. I needed a long plank to put across but there was nothing around to serve and I didn’t have time to go back to ground level and look. Six minutes. I was going to have jump across and hope for the best.

Eight, maybe 10 feet across the rotted timber to a point that looked sound. Looked. Five minutes. I’d cleared 19 feet 9 inches in the long jump at senior high school. Third place. But then I had a 60 yard cinder track run-up, now I had about three steps to take before the jump. Four minutes. I took the steps back and got ready to go forward and across and Borg’s question came to my mind: why was I doing this? I still didn’t know.

I made sure the gun was secure in the holster; I kneaded my calf muscles and took the first step-right foot so I’d be on my take-off foot with the third step…two, three-I jumped, straining for distance and trying not to land too hard. The roof creaked and groaned as I hit it but it held. I straightened up, breathing hard. I’d jarred one knee but I scarcely felt it. The loft was 12 feet away. Two minutes.

I bent below the level of the window and scuttled across. The four panes of the window were dusty and there were cobwebs on the outside and inside. Less than a minute. I lifted my head to look through the bottom corner pane. Through the dirt I saw Charles standing at the other window looking out onto the street. I couldn’t see Karen Weiner. I straightened up and at that second Charles broke the window, shoved a rifle through and fired into the street. I looked down and saw a man in a grey flak jacket duck back under cover. The street had gone suddenly still.

Charles fired again. He screamed ‘Magda!’ and ducked out of sight. I kicked the window squarely in the middle and the wood and glass collapsed inward. I pulled out the. 38 and climbed through ready to shoot at anything that moved. Nothing did. Karen Weiner lay on a mattress on the floor. She was tied and gagged and her eyes were wide open in terror. I made some kind of gesture that was meant to be comforting and went through the door to the steps which were steep, and turned once before reaching ground level.

An explosion from below seemed to shake the steps. I went down in three plunging leaps which carried me into the back of the shop. Charles was several feet in front of me, squatting behind a large bin slamming shells into a double-barrelled sawn-off shotgun. The air was filled with echoing sound and fine, swirling flour. Men were shouting in the front of the shop and on the street. I could see Borg’s reflection in the shop window. He was inside, crouching below the counter on the customer’s side with his gun out. He signalled urgently and authoritatively for quiet behind him.

‘Charles, put it down!’ Borg shouted. ‘It’s okay-I’m not the police.’

The commotion around the doorway got louder. A shotgun was fired over Borg’s head; the blast destroyed a shelf and sent more flour into the air and sprayed Charles and me with sweet smelling liquid. I had Charles’ eye view more or less; Borg moved and his shoulder was unprotected. Charles lifted the gun.

I levelled my. 38. ‘Don’t move, Charles, or you’re dead.’

He swivelled and fired at me. I didn’t think; I dived under the blast and tackled him around the knees. He went down but he held onto the gun. A shadow flitted from behind a rack of spices a few feet from where we hit the shppery floor. I dropped my pistol and clawed at Charles’ hands holding the shotgun but he twisted away. The shadow moved fast, became white. Charles fired again and the shadow screamed and red blotches erupted over the white.

‘Madga!’ Charles stood and lurched forward. The shotgun boomed again from the front of the shop and Charles was lifted and spun around; his knees buckled and he collapsed on his back into a spreading puddle of oil that smelt of warm winds and flowers.

****

Tobin stepped over the woman. He held a pump action shotgun and his enormous chest was covered by a bullet-proof vest. He glanced down at Charles. ‘Don’t stand there, Hardy. I should have your balls but it looks like it went all right. Where’s the woman?’

‘Upstairs.’

‘Gelignite? More guns?’

‘Probably up there too.’

‘Good. Who’s this?’

Borg had put his gun away and was crouched, feeling the pulse in the slim brown wrist. He shook his head and stood. ‘You don’t need to know,’ he said. A siren wailed outside.

‘Get the woman out the way you came in, Hardy,’ Tobin said. ‘I’ll keep to the deal.’

I grabbed Borg’s arm and pulled him towards the steps. ‘You never kept a deal in your life, Tobin.’

‘Piss off.’

‘I’m taking her out the front. You clear us a path and keep any press away or I’ll pick up anything that’s in that loft and sling it into the street. How’d you like that?’

Tobin sniffed. ‘Smartarse, I should’ve got you too. Make it fast, then.’ He turned and started shouting at the men who’d crowded into the shop. Smoke and flour filled the air along with the smell of honey and sweet oil and death.

****

29

It was Christmas in October-everybody was getting what he or she wanted. Tobin had set up a production crew for his raid; he had cameramen and reporters, an explosives expert and a medical team all ready to go into action. He orchestrated the whole thing and he got maximum coverage for removing the threat to the hero of the hour, Peter January.

Tobin appeared on the front page of the tabloids looking menacing and effective in his TRF gear. Charles Galloway came into the public eye as a dangerous sociopath, a man obsessed with his own obscurity and with a hatred of the opinion-makers. Tobin destroyed the last note and Trudi received a broad hint that the emergence of the earlier notes from Galloway would mean trouble for January. There was no point in resisting: Madga Galloway was ‘slain’ by her husband as a last desperate act. Some gelignite, detonators and various guns were artistically photographed.

Galloway was a childhood immigrant from Northern Ireland, a fact not lost on a sensation-hungry media. The case was closed on Alison Marshall, ‘the politically sophisticated 16 year old who had died as a result of Galloway’s twisted terrorism’.

‘What shit!’ Mike Borg said. He crumpled the paper and shoved it in a bin. We were at the airport two days after the raid and I still hadn’t heard from Helen. I shook hands with Borg and told him I’d like to work with him again if he came back to Australia.

‘Might hold you to that,’ he said. ‘I gather you don’t always work for these crap holes, like January and Creighton Kirby?’

I shook my head. ‘First and last time.’

I drove back to Glebe with the last pieces of the case falling into place in my mind before I would start to file and forget them. Tobin had thrown a smokescreen over the way his identification of the terrorist Galloway had been arrived at. Karen Weiner had not been mentioned; January had got her away into safe-keeping. I saw January briefly the day after the raid.

‘Karen understands that I never laid a finger on the woman,’ he said. He wore only a gauze pad taped to his forehead now. He had an interesting bruise and I fancied a few more grey hairs. ‘She understands that it was all a blind.’

‘I thought she might,’ I said. ‘What did she say about Galloway?’

He shrugged. ‘Not much. He wasn’t very rough. Had his wife terrified 24 hours a day. A nutter.’

‘What now for you and Karen?’

He smiled, ‘I don’t know, maybe we can come to some arrangement with Weiner. Like you’ve got with Michael Broadway. Works doesn’t it?’

‘No.’

‘You handled it well, Cliff, very well. I’ll have to go back to America again and…’

‘America! You’re going back for more?’

‘What’s the difference? Look what happened here.’

‘It’s organised there, you know that. Here it’s… more individual. It’s not built in.’

January shrugged. ‘Just as dangerous from my point of view. What I’m asking is whether you want a steady job?’

I shook my head. ‘I’m going to vote independent for the rest of my life.’

Trudi voted independent too. She quit her job with January and said she was going to write a book.

‘What about?’ I asked. We were leaning against the Falcon parked outside my house. Trudi had walked Gunther from Lilyfield and was going to walk him back. I patted Gunther’s sleek head and he smelled cat on my hand and growled.

‘Men,’ Trudi said. ‘What’re you going to do about Helen? I can tell from your face that you haven’t heard from her.’

‘Looks like you’ve got the qualifications to write about men. No, I haven’t heard.’

She handed me an envelope. ‘From Peter to you. From some slush fund or other. See you, Cliff. We have to finish that ping pong game.’ She kissed my cheek and tugged at Gunther’s lead.

‘Aren’t you going to give me some advice? About Helen?’

Her back was to me. She raised her arm and wiggled her fingers, like Liza Minnelli at the end of Cabaret.

Inside the envelope was a six figure cheque and a note from January. It read: ‘Thanks anyway. Love to Helen.’

The next morning I made arrangements with my neighbour Harry Soames to feed the cat. Harry doesn’t like me but he likes cats. I put a message on the answering machine and I locked the house. It was a fine, warm day and I was noticing things I’d been looking through, like the banana tree leaning over the fence from Soames’ place. It had several bunches of bananas on it which Soames had wrapped in plastic. I liked that.

****

I banked the cheque, drew money out and filled the Falcon with petrol, water, oil and air at a Shell station.

‘Great day, mate,’ the attendant said. ‘Where you headed?’

‘North,’ I said. ‘Kempsey.’