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A BILL MURDOCH MYSTERY
She came for Murdoch on a Tuesday night, like maybe she knew it was the night he sorted his stock. Later, of course, there was no maybe about it. She knew all right, the same way she knew not to use the lift or bring fewer than six big men.
Murdoch had just turned on the light when they came through his door. Before that he’d stood in darkness, staring out his grubby window to study life in the units across the wasteland. He’d always thought it weird how Australians called them ‘units’, but then maybe it was weird how you called them ‘flats’ back home. Turned out both descriptions were right. In the block across the way, he could watch as many flat units of life as chose not to close their curtains. Couples fighting, children chasing in and out of view, women walking around in towels. He did it too often, he knew, staring down at people most nights while the oven warmed his food and heated the bare rooftop shack around him. He’d thought once or twice of breaking in over there, hiding microphones so he could hear what good citizens talked about, understand what made them tick. He wouldn’t do it, of course, he wasn’t mental and there was a rule about avoiding unnecessary risks. But it would be interesting to know what normal people worried about, what they wanted from life.
On this mid-winter Tuesday night, as a plastic lasagne thawed in the oven, Murdoch watched across the darkness as a young Asian man on the other side moved about his kitchen, choosing, chopping, frying in bursts of steam. A dark-haired woman came into view and said something that made the man laugh, made him reach for her until she danced out of the way. The smell of Murdoch’s own dinner demanded his attention, but he didn’t want to break the spell of the darkness. He wanted to know if the Chinese guy would stop his cooking and go after the girl – maybe they’d leave the curtains open for that too. But then rain spattered against his window, reality determined to get his attention, so he turned with a sigh, crossed to the light switch and flicked it on. Above him, the fluorescents hummed and thought about it, before stuttering the breezeblock shack into brightness.
No one could see into Murdoch’s place – the warehouse roof was higher than any of the units across the way – but always when he turned on the light, he thought about what they would see if they could. A scarred and wiry man, too old for his years, red hair shorn short, dark eyes that unnerved people, he didn’t know why. A man alone in an empty room – a nearly empty room. Apart from the oven, there was only his flimsy camp bed, a small folding table and a chair. The only thing on the walls was his noticeboard, a riot of colour against the breezeblocks. Here, creased facades of comfortable houses struggled with overlapping gardens while badly folded living rooms fought sleek kitchens. Seeing the mess of pictures now, Murdoch remembered a page he’d torn from a magazine earlier in the day. He pulled it from his pocket, unfolded it, and stared at its picture: a pair of matching sofas in front of broad French doors open to a garden. He was pinning it up with the others when he heard the door being kicked in.
Cynthia always told Murdoch he was built like a cattle dog, all prick and sinew, and not an ounce of fat. He said, yeah, well, most big blokes were all intimidation and slow punches – he’d rather be quick, and a smaller target, any time.
‘You get too big,’ he told her, ‘and some bastard’s always got to prove he’s bigger.’
Most of the guys he’d put down hadn’t seen it coming: they’d thought he was just another runt they could kick out of the way. That was before he got a reputation; after that, people avoided him. But the guys who came into his place that night were not most big blokes. Murdoch had made it less than halfway to his flimsy camp bed – and, more to the point, the Beretta beneath it – before they had him down, one on each limb. They were very professional, none of them firmer than they needed to be. Murdoch swore at them, told them they’d got the wrong man, he’d not done nothing wrong. In reply, they pressed him gently against the cold concrete until, at last, he heard himself – heard his noise was the only noise there was, and heard it wasn’t helping. He stopped then. Listened to his breath instead, heavy and liquid against the hard, grey floor. Closed his eyes and tried to think.
This, it seemed, was what they were waiting for. The guy on his right arm – the only one of the four he could see: a huge Islander all neck and tattoos and perfect teeth, drops of rain glistening on his face – shouted to someone outside the door.
The message was repeated across the warehouse roof so that now there were at least six of them and Murdoch was scared. A second later and he heard the huge goods lift moving toward the ground floor.
‘It’s all right,’ said the Islander, smiling down at him. ‘No need to worry.’
Murdoch knew what he must look like. A dog after losing a fight, eyes wild, but nothing much else able to move. ‘He’s right,’ said the others, heavy men he couldn’t see. ‘We’re not here to hurt you,’ and ‘It’ll be fine, mate.’
‘Get off me, then!’
He’d wanted to keep the fear from his voice and it came out as aggression.
‘Soon,’ said the Islander. ‘Soon, buddy.’
Murdoch listened to the lift working its way up the warehouse floors. Then he felt the concrete beneath him vibrate as it shuddered to a halt, the rumble of cables replaced by a shriek of heavy metal doors. After that there was no sound but the rain until the broken door of the shack whined on its hinges and firm footsteps entered the room. They brought black and business-like shoes around the crouching Islander to stop close to Murdoch’s face. His gaze travelled up the pinstriped trouser legs above them, but he could see no higher.
‘I’m very sorry to do it like this, Bill, really I am.’
A woman’s voice: well-spoken, but so husky it croaked, like she’d started smoking in the womb. Then silence again. She was waiting for him to speak.
‘What do you want?’
‘I want to talk to you, my dear. I want to make you an offer.’
‘Who are you?’
‘We’ll get to that.’
‘Get these bastards off me.’
The shoes adjusted and the pinstripes bent at the knee until she was squatting above him: a big woman with thick hair and strong features. Straight nose, clear skin, bright blue eyes under delicate eyebrows. She leaned her head to one side and examined him – should she put the dog down or spend the money on a vet? – unbuttoned her pinstriped jacket and held it open to reveal a Glock 26, snug in its Serpa.
‘Now,’ she said. ‘You know there’s a round in the chamber. Are you sure I can get them off you?’
This was when you were supposed to give in. Sigh, cry, look at the floor and promise them the world. Murdoch held the woman’s eye and nodded slowly.
The heavies picked him up, sat him on the chair and – boys in a doll’s house they’d promised not to break – carried the table towards the oven. There they stood around it, playing cards they’d produced from somewhere. Murdoch recognised one of them as the big pink guy he did business with most Saturdays, face like a butcher in an ad on the telly. The woman stood apart from them, closer to Murdoch, as she introduced herself as Maria Dinos; apologies again for doing things this way. She smiled and leaned against the wall beside her until she realised it was leaving grey dust on her suit. Brushing it off, she kept a careful eye on Murdoch, but at no point did she look worried about him.
‘First of all,’ she said, ‘I need to reiterate, we are not here to harm you. I’m going to make you an offer. If you refuse we will leave again and none of this happened. You won’t see Tommy here,’ – she indicated towards the pink-faced man – ‘on a Saturday night. If you see any of us again, we will not recognise you, and you will not recognise us. Do I make myself clear, my dear?’
Murdoch held her eye, but said nothing. He could smell his dinner burning, was surprised none of them could smell it too.
Maria smiled. ‘That’s smart, Bill, letting me do the talking. I like that. It’s an example of why we’d like you to work with us. Put that down!’
Murdoch followed her glare to the shortest of the heavies – a cube of a man with dreadlocks and a bulbous nose – who had picked up a beer bottle from the work surface next to the oven. The cube blushed and apologised, said he was just moving it out the way of his elbow, boss, then watched shamefaced as the Islander with the tattoos reached past him with gloved hands, wiped the bottle down on his T-shirt and put it back in its original position.
‘Oven’s on, boss,’ said the Islander. ‘Something burning in there.’
Maria Dinos told him to bloody well turn it off, then and watched him do it before turning back to Murdoch. ‘We will touch nothing else in your home ...’
She looked around and seemed to notice for the first time there was nothing much else to touch. Her eyes stopped on the noticeboard and she wandered over to it, not touching as per her promise, but surveying its contents closely before turning back to him.
‘I’m guessing you’d like me to cut the bullshit and get on with it?’
Still he just sat and looked at her, the only noise the slap of the cards on the table.
Maria smiled, a little less easily than before, and continued. ‘The thing is, Bill, I’m here to offer you a job.’
Murdoch checked his watch, gave the waitress his best smile, and ordered a coffee he didn’t want. It was forty minutes before he had to be in the George Street office, but it was too hot to hang about on the street, especially in a suit. The summer had been relentless and now, at the end of February, even he was sick of it. He told himself he should have brought a newspaper – he could have sat fiddling with his pen above the cryptic crossword like he knew how to work one out. He’d seen a bloke do this just a week before: alone at a table for over an hour after he’d finished eating, inconspicuous because of a newspaper.
Eighteen months now he’d been doing the job and still he felt out of place. It was the clothes that bothered him most: suits, shirts, ties, shoes that cost more than his first car. He’d always liked the idea of being a spiv and, stupid as it was, it had been one of the reasons he’d taken Maria up on her offer. He’d had no idea how uncomfortable it would be. How your tie was either too tight or too loose; how your jacket pulled and restricted you whenever you sat down. The guy he had seen the previous week, the one with the cryptic crossword, had hung his jacket around his shoulders like it was a cape, but Murdoch had never seen anyone else do that. Here, in this restaurant, all the blokes kept their jackets on all the way through the meal, so Murdoch did the same.
With nothing else to look at, he studied these men in their jackets and their suntans, leaning forward to share secrets before pushing back against the table and laughing loudly, either at what they’d heard or, more likely he reckoned, at what they’d just said themselves. As he watched, a few tables away, a well-maintained brunette turned and caught his eye. She held it for a less than a second before deciding no, nothing of interest. Right next to him, two well-fed bankers were talking loudly, whole sentences in a foreign language.
‘They’re running the PSG like a PWG and, if they don’t sign off before the end of the financial year, our NPV calcs are blown.’
Murdoch saw the waitress returning with his coffee and checked his watch again.
‘Scuse me, boys,’ he interrupted the men beside him. ‘Mind if I have a squiz at your paper?’
They turned and looked at him like the wall had spoken. Then the older of the two, a man who’d probably been born in a suit, realised there was a Sydney Morning Herald under his elbow.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I don’t see why not.’
He handed it over and there Murdoch was, struggling with the crossword, when the waitress arrived with his coffee. He barely looked up when she set it down beside his paper. Seeing her hovering out of the corner of his eye, he ignored her until, eventually, she disappeared without asking if he wanted the bill.
The office in George Street had a long-legged receptionist, who went out for a chai latte every day between two thirty and three o’clock. Murdoch could tell she wasn’t supposed to. She’d cross the huge marble lobby as fast as her clicking heels would allow, barely squeezing out a tight smile for the security guards before dodging the traffic on George Street, no time to wait for a gap. Then she’d stand beside the Daily Grind coffee cart, smoking a thin cigarette while she waited for her drink. She was a good-looking girl: long legs in a short skirt, nice eyes, blonde hair done up in a way that was meant to fall down again. She ignored the looks she got, grabbed her chai as soon as it was ready – another tight smile – dropped her cigarette and repeated the process in reverse, even breaking into a trot across the echoing lobby if she thought she could make an open lift. Every weekday, regular as clockwork, six- to nine-minute turnaround.
Murdoch left the restaurant at exactly twenty-five past two, the humidity a shock after the crisp air conditioning, and walked up George Street as slowly as he could. He stood on the corner of King Street, hating his jacket and arching his back to keep his shirt off the sweat slowly forming there. Cars and delivery vans roared past, their noise contributing to the heat somehow. Then the receptionist appeared on the pavement not two metres away from him. As she started to cross the road, he turned and ducked into the building she had just left, crossing the lobby and taking the first empty lift to the tenth floor.
It still surprised him that in the right suit you could walk into most buildings in the Central Business District. Surely the whole point of security guards was to keep people like him out? But even if one of the guards ever did look up, all he needed to do was smile and they’d call him ‘sir’ and watch him walk past. Not everywhere, it was true; not any more. Some of his meetings were in buildings where you had to be scanned through a barrier. But, even there, all he needed was the name of the person he was visiting and he was given a magical swipe card and told where to go. Like no one in the world had ever done anything bad in a suit.
Murdoch wasn’t complaining. He liked being part of this system of trust, this assumption that everyone is all right and not out to do you any harm. So what if he was still dealing poison the same way he’d always done? Or, on bad days like today, protecting the Club’s patch? At least he wasn’t doing it with the normal scum: animals with no interest in getting to the other side.
The previous time he’d been to the tenth floor – on his rehearsal run – he’d leaned across the empty reception desk and stolen some paper with the serviced office’s letterhead. He’d scribbled a note on it, written like he was in a hurry:
Couldn’t find anyone here. Have gone into the Waratah Room as per our telephone conversation. Under no circumstances to be disturbed until Mr Chaplin arrives.
Regards, J Smith.
He walked around the desk and laid the note on the receptionist’s red office chair. The seat was still warm and he left his hand there a second, thinking of those legs. Then he hurried down the corridor.
The Waratah Room was furthest from the reception desk, next to the Gymea Studio and opposite the Banksia Boardroom. It was the smallest office on the floor, but still big enough to hold a solid desk in front of a standard-issue leather executive chair and, closer to the door near a frosted sash window, a small meeting table with four padded chairs. Heavy, inoffensive furniture.
Murdoch set his briefcase on the table and stood listening, eyes fixed on his watch. Chaplin, of course, would be late. His type always was. He’d arrive in a rush and not apologise, ignoring any comment you might make about it. Or worse, he’d swear, tell you to deal with someone else if you didn’t like it, and threaten you for wasting his time.
After five minutes, Murdoch thought he heard the lift doors, but sound travelled badly up here: that was half the point. Another five minutes, still undisturbed, and he told himself to relax. He took off his jacket and hung it on the back of the leather chair, the way his buyers did in their offices. Walked over to the meeting table and, pushing one of the chairs aside, checked the sash window still ran smooth. He left the window a little open, like he wanted to let some air in. Thought about taking off his tie, but decided against it. Instead, he took off his belt and put it in his pocket.
With his waistband looser, he realised how uncomfortable he’d been since leaving the restaurant. It wasn’t just the weight of his lunch or the coffee he’d drunk despite himself. These enforcement jobs always got him in the stomach and this one was going to be the worst yet: a man who’d run out of warnings. Murdoch looked at the phone on the desk and wondered if maybe it wasn’t too late to call Maria and tell her he wasn’t willing to do it. He frowned at the idea and pushed it away: a stranger’s cigarette smoke on the street. Returning to the window with renewed determination, he opened the sash fully and leaned out to look up at the heavy grey sky, then all the way down, ten storeys to the bottom of the lightwell, where an air conditioning unit sat in a pool of dirt.
He was still there, looking out the window and thinking about school, the first time he got into real trouble, when the phone on the desk rang. He walked over and punched the speakerphone button the way he’d seen his clients do – too important to pick up a receiver.
‘Hello, Mr Smith, sorry for not being here when you arrived. I have Mr Chaplin for you.’
She had a voice like a secretary in a black-and-white movie, a suggestive smile under everything she said. Murdoch wondered if she always spoke like that, or if it was just part of the job – how she’d act if they ever met face-to-face. He thanked her and asked her to send Mr Chaplin through. Hit the button on the phone again and picked up his briefcase, took out a pair of handcuffs and put them in his other trouser pocket. For a second or two, he perched on the edge of the desk, but then – a better idea – ran behind it, the fat leather chair creaking in protest as he lowered himself.
Before he’d gone inside Murdoch had looked young for his age. It was the red hair, the thin and sickly frame, all those fucking freckles. He’d resented it a lot of the time, but the rest of the time he’d used it, had made the clueless little schoolboy act – ‘he seemed so innocent, officer’ – his speciality. Not that his baby-face had helped when the big job went wrong. They’d done it five days past his eighteenth birthday and, all of a sudden, his round face and wide eyes had been useless. Twelve years down the drain, thank you very much.
Murdoch didn’t generally let himself think this way – everything in his life was about the future now – but as soon as Paul Chaplin walked into the room, a whole crowd of memories rushed him at once, like they’d been gathering their numbers out of sight waiting for the right moment.
‘You all right, mate?’ said Chaplin. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
Murdoch told him he was fine and within a few seconds he was. ‘Close the door,’ he said. ‘Sit down. Hope you don’t mind me asking, mate, but how old are you?’
Chaplin grabbed a chair from the meeting table, dragged it noisily towards the desk and slouched into it. ‘Aw, don’t. I get this all the time. I’m older than I look. Old enough to get a drink in a pub. Old enough to be doing business with you. Jason, is it? You said Benny James gave you my name?’
A precarious ginger quiff wobbled above Chaplin’s freckles as he spoke, the kid repeatedly putting up a hand to check it was still there. The bag on the floor beside him was the same type of Adidas satchel Murdoch had had as a kid.
Murdoch shook his head slowly, closed his eyes and ran a hand across his own close-cropped scalp. This wasn’t going to be easy. He heard Chaplin talking again and opened his eyes to find the skinny kid leaning in over the huge desk – a little boy playing grown-ups.
‘Mate, you sure you’re all right? You crook or something? You know, I’m a bit busy, so if we can get on with it?’
Murdoch gave him a level stare. ‘Maybe we wouldn’t be in such a rush if you hadn’t been late.’
‘Look, Mr Pommie Smith or whatever your name is, you buying or not? Two more minutes of this and I’m out of here.’
Murdoch sighed and nodded slowly. He stood and walked around the desk, rested against it and looked down at his former self. ‘OK, Chaplin, what you got?’
‘Whatever you need, mate. Charlie, crack, pills, smack, G, P, ice or black. All of it cheaper than the competition and no messing. Just need a bit of notice for the bigger orders, no questions asked. What d’you need?’
‘You don’t mind Benny giving me your name?’
‘Nah, why should I? A friend of Benny’s is a friend of mine. Anyhoo, let’s do this, shall we? I’ve got somewhere I need to be.’
‘I wouldn’t be too sure of that.’
Murdoch jabbed Chaplin twice hard on the nose, the second punch knocking the kid and his chair backwards onto the floor. Before he could get up, Murdoch was on him, sliding his belt around his neck, fastening it quickly, and pulling hard. Chaplin flailed in choking fury, his tiny fists everywhere until Murdoch gave him a few slaps and told him to calm down. The kid stared at him and turned his hands to his own throat, nails at the leather belt. Murdoch knelt beside him and adjusted it carefully – a man tuning a radio to a bout he wanted to hear – until Chaplin could breathe and gargle but couldn’t shout. Once Murdoch had got it right, he stood, one foot on the restraint and one on Chaplin’s chest. He undid his cufflinks and his watch and put them in his free pocket. Now he was ready to talk.
‘Listen to me, you little arsewipe, you’re out of this now, understand? You need to be either smart or tidy to survive in this game and you ain’t neither. You let your clients give out your number to people what you don’t know. You come to an office you can rent by the hour and sing like a canary to a bloke what you’ve never met before. You’re late, you’re rude and ...’
The kid was trying to say something. Murdoch knelt and loosened the belt slightly.
‘Fuck you,’ said Chaplin.
Murdoch punched him hard in the stomach and, while the kid was still gasping, found a handkerchief and forced it into the boy’s mouth. Then he pulled off his tie and used it to gag Chaplin tightly. The kid struggled again, kicking against the chair and punching anything he could find, but Murdoch avoided it easily enough. He only took his weight off the belt to push the kid away from the fallen chair, flip him over, catch his wrists like birds in a pet shop window and handcuff them behind his back. For a while this made Chaplin struggle even more, but then the kid was suddenly still, breathing heavily through his bloody nose, tears blotching his face. Murdoch sat him upright in the chair again – he was even lighter than he looked – and turned him to face the other side of the room. Chaplin hadn’t got it. His eyes were wide, but, even handcuffed to a chair, there was no fear in them: someone was going to pay for this. Murdoch looked at him and shook his head. Pulled another of the chairs over from the meeting table and sat on it so his dark eyes were level with Chaplin’s.
‘Let me tell you something. My name is not Jason Smith. I am not an office worker what wants to buy drugs in a fake meeting. And you are not smart enough to deal in the CBD without the big boys noticing. You see this room? You want to know why I chose it? I booked the other ones near it too, by the way, so I know they’re empty. We could be in one of them, but I chose this one because it has a handy little feature.’
He stood and moved the table and remaining chairs from between him and the sash window.
‘The idea is I drop you ten floors to your certain death. It’ll be a few days before anyone finds you, but, when they do, the news will get out to the right people soon enough. Then I can go back to meeting my sales targets without wasting my time on pest control until the next little arsewipe like you turns up. Except by then ...’ But that was no one’s business but his own.
Murdoch stopped rearranging the furniture and looked back at Chaplin. Now the kid had got it. He was breathing as heavily as he’d done on the floor, shaking the remains of his quiff violently left and right, shouting muffles through the gag of material in his mouth. Then he was crying. Great sobs shaking his pale frame so that the chair beneath him wobbled and threatened to topple over again. A dark patch spread across his lap.
Murdoch looked away and frowned, sat down and wiped his hand across his scalp again.
‘As I was saying ...’ But he said nothing else. Instead, he studied the vague white pattern in the carpet, staring at it and seeing nothing.
‘Listen,’ he said eventually. ‘You have no idea what you’re getting into here. You think you’re just going to make more money than any of your mates and go and live it large on a beach somewhere. But it doesn’t work like that, sunshine. You get caught with what you’ve got on you today and you’ll go down for six to eight. And, mate, you’re not a fighter, let’s agree on that. They’ll eat you up in there – they like boys with pasty pale arses. Next thing you know, you’re out again and you’ve not got no way of making money without getting a bigger sentence and, then – bang – you’re thirty-something, unemployable, and the only way to survive is by dealing with the scum of the world.’
Murdoch heard himself talking and stopped, no idea what the hell had got into him. The rule said no mercy – what wasn’t clear about that? He forced himself up and dragged Chaplin – quiet now in some kind of daze – off his chair and over to the window. He had him halfway out before the kid came to life again.
Murdoch had seen a man shoot a horse once – the bloke had done a bad job of it, put three bullets into the beast before it would die – and when Chaplin started screaming behind his gag, he remembered the noises the horse had made: deep and high at the same time, everything it had coming out. Chaplin slammed a knee against the wall beneath the windowsill and cracked the plaster slightly, his other foot shooting out sidewards to catch Murdoch on the shin. It didn’t hurt much, but Murdoch dropped him anyway. He watched Chaplin slide down the office wall and wriggle under the furniture crowded into the corner like it too was scared of the fall.
For long minutes, there was no noise but Chaplin’s muted sobs and Murdoch’s own breathing. Then, swearing at himself, Murdoch reached past the kid and picked up his briefcase from the floor. He took a length of cord from it and, struggling now, caught Chaplin’s feet one by one, kneeling on them so he could tie them tightly together. He dragged the kid feet first to the other side of the desk, stood him, and pushed him down into the soft leather chair. Chaplin was quiet again, but he was still crying; more snot than blood from his nose now, a dirty bruise forming on his ashen forehead.
The Adidas bag sat undisturbed where Chaplin had left it on the floor, calm in the eye of the storm. Murdoch picked it up and went through it slowly, examining each of the packages before transferring them to his briefcase. He rolled down his sleeves, put his cufflinks back in, and picked up his jacket from the chair behind Chaplin. Then he crossed to the door, opened it slightly, stuck his ear to the crack and waited. Chaplin watched him in silence.
It was a good fifteen minutes before Murdoch heard the receptionist’s heels on the tiles and the door to the bathroom swing. When he did, he pointed a stubby finger at Chaplin – ‘You won’t be this lucky again, you fuckwit,’ – stepped into the corridor and let the door shut quietly behind him. Taking a deep breath, he swore at himself more vehemently than before and strode down the corridor towards the lifts. Within two minutes he was back on the sticky street, just another suit late for his next meeting.
Too late as it turned out. There was no way he could make it to Macquarie Street on time, not unless he ran all the way and arrived at the Club with a shirt more wet than dry. Checking his watch again, in case it had lied to him a minute before, Murdoch swore out loud and stopped so suddenly that another man bumped into him from behind. He was tall and sure of himself, this man, important enough to complain until he saw the kind of man Murdoch was. Watching him retreat, Murdoch was tempted to go after him; sometimes it was so difficult to remember who he wanted to be. He felt cool air on his back and, turning, found he was outside a café doorway, the business inside deserted but for a bored Vietnamese girl behind the counter. Murdoch walked in, dialling Maria Dinos’s number.
‘Maria, it’s Bill. Listen, I’m running late. Can we move it to half past?’
‘No, my dear, we can’t. I’ve already got a four thirty and he’s waiting outside. Can you do five fifteen? Or next week? You should have enough to get through the weekend, surely?’
There was a tightness in her husky voice and he wondered what he’d done wrong this time. ‘Well, actually, today’d be better. I need some advice and it’s getting kind of urgent.’
‘Fine,’ she said, ‘five fifteen then.’ Murdoch hung up and dialled Cynthia, ordering an iced tea from the Vietnamese girl, any excuse to stay in the air conditioning. Cynthia’s phone rang out to voicemail so he hit redial.
‘Hello, handsome,’ she said when she answered at last. ‘Everything all right?’
She was putting on a sexy voice for him and he realised the receptionist with the legs had been doing that too. No one spoke like that all the time. Murdoch told her he was going to be late.
‘Oh Blackie, have you forgotten? I’ve got that thing on tonight. I did tell you. The girls are picking me up at nine.’
‘I could get there at eight.’
She hesitated and he wondered if she had someone else there.
‘Could you get here by seven, Blackie? If I promise to make it worth your while?’
‘And how would you do that?’
‘Well, I don’t know, darl. I thought I’d just be lying on my bed in nothing but my knickers from seven o’clock onwards and you could work out the rest for me.’
He saw the girl behind the counter was listening, told Cynthia he’d see her at seven and hung up. Carried his tea to the back of the empty café and sat staring into space while his skin adjusted to the chill.
He’d met Cynthia on the platform at Redfern station. Despite her body, it was her hair he noticed first. Pitch-black and thick, there was something old-fashioned about it, like she’d just walked out of a movie. Or maybe it was the raincoat she had on, belted tight and unbuttoned, like she wasn’t wearing anything underneath. She was compact and held herself well; anyone could see she was fit, even if these days it was the gym rather than nature holding gravity at bay. She’d caught him looking and asked him when the next express went and they’d chatted for a while, until next thing they knew, no one wanted to catch a train. They found a hotel nearby, neither of them pretending it was anything but what it was. They’d talked about how expensive Sydney was these days; how it cost so much just to have a good time. He’d wondered how much that was exactly and she’d said a hundred bucks, plus the hotel bill. And it was a good time: good enough to make it regular. They saw each other every Thursday night – most Thursday nights, sometimes she had something on. She let him go round to her place in Blacktown: two hundred bucks for a good time and a meal and he could stay through the night if he wanted. He never did – sometimes they didn’t even do it – but he still figured he got his money’s worth.
She called him Blackie because of his eyes. ‘They’re so frightening,’ she’d said that first time in the stained hotel room in Redfern. Then later she changed her mind and told him they were frightened. Like there was someone hiding in there, backed up against the wall, terrified of what was going to happen next.
He watched the Vietnamese girl make her way down the café towards him, wiping tables that were already clean. She was tiny, four foot something, standing too long each day in high heels. She asked him if he wanted anything to eat and he said no thanks, the iced tea was fine. It was obvious she wanted to close the café but was too scared to ask him to leave. No sympathy for his black eyes there.
‘It’s all right, darlin’,’ he said, scraping his stool on the tiles so she jumped and scampered back to the counter. ‘I know you want me gone.’
The Club was in an old building in Macquarie Street, just tall enough to peer over the hospital and into the Botanic Gardens. Close enough to the law courts that you passed a few barristers on your way, gowns flapping black behind them like reminders you had to be careful. Every other building in the row was filled with doctors, the spaces around the doorbells crowded by brass adverts for dermatologists and oncologists and urologists. The Club building was the same. Stone steps ran up to its heavy wooden doors, standing open between the brass plaques to reveal a list of names and floor numbers inside. On many, letters were missing, so Dr mith shared with Mr Pa el. Fewer people visited this building than any other on the street, but it was no worse a front for that.
The glowering sky had grown darker through the afternoon, pressing its humidity onto the CBD until the towers tore at the clouds. Now, as Murdoch walked slowly up the steps of the Club, still trying to avoid a sweat, it started to rain, like the day was determined to get him damp one way or another. The huge waiting room on the top floor was stuffier than normal, its tall windows no protection from the heat outside. The fans that usually stood in each corner had been moved to face back towards the reception desk. The receptionist who sat there was new.
‘Name?’ he said as Murdoch approached, the fans ruffling his thick black hair: a gorilla in an open-top car.
‘Afternoon,’ said Murdoch.
‘Fine, thanks. Bit hot out there. How are you?’ Murdoch was still new enough to Australia to love this: the way they always asked each other how they were. None of them gave a shit, but it was nice all the same.
‘Name?’ said the gorilla for the third time. He was one of those blokes that need to shave every hour, his thick neck uncomfortable in its collar and tie, his dark features no better because of them. He ignored Murdoch’s smile, sour eyes steady beneath bushy and unimpressed eyebrows.
‘Yeah, whatever. The doctor’s expecting me.’
The gorilla sniffed, looked down at his desk, pushed aside an economics textbook and found the appointments register.
‘Says you was supposed to be here at four.’
‘Yeah, well, I called to say I was running late, didn’t I? Rearranged for this time. If that’s all right with you.’
The gorilla sniffed again. He could tell Murdoch was in a hurry. ‘Well, Mr Whatever, seeing how yous’s late, maybe the doctor can’t see you at all.’
‘Is someone else in with her?’
‘Well, let’s see if your fat fingers can operate the phone. How about you buzz her and tell her I’m here?’
‘How about you go fuck yourself?’
They looked at each other for a few seconds. Any other time, thought Murdoch, you and me, sunshine. But Cynthia was waiting in Blacktown.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘let’s both stop wasting Maria’s time, shall we? I’ll be a good boy and you tell her Murdoch’s here, how does that sound?’
He walked over to the windows and looked down at the street so the gorilla could do what he needed to, like it was his own choice. Outside the rain was heavier – it never rained lightly for long in this city – and Murdoch watched the traffic thicken. It was another ten minutes before Maria came out.
‘You’re here!’ she said, striding across the room and grabbing his hand in the grip that always disturbed him. She was wearing a suit, of course – bespoke, of course – like she was off to buy something expensive: a football club or a ship.
‘I was wondering where you were, my dear. Hussein, why didn’t you tell me Murdoch was here?’
‘Oh sorry,’ said the gorilla. ‘Did I forget to do that?’
The front ended at the door to Maria’s office. This was no doctor’s surgery. Thick rugs on dark floorboards, heavy furniture on little curved legs, satin on the walls that, according to Maria, had cost five hundred dollars a metre. There was hidden air conditioning, smooth as a breeze, the sole noise in the room the ticking of assorted clocks. Only the huge windows were the same as the waiting room, but even these were half-hidden by plush curtains, green velvet pooling in ripples where they hit the floor.
Maria’s desk – the very desk at which General Somebody had planned the Battle of Something – was at the far end of the room. Murdoch rarely made it that far. Maria preferred to talk on the heavily studded leather sofas by the fireplace.
‘What happened to Arnie?’
‘Don’t ask,’ said Maria. ‘Not my choice.’
‘I’ve been out there for ten minutes, do you know that?’
‘Don’t let it bother you, my dear.’
‘Do you know what, Maria? It does bother me. One of the main reasons I do this job is to avoid tossers like that.’
‘Shut up, Bill!’
They stared at each other for a second, difficult to say who was more surprised. Maria had screeched at him, a higher-pitched tone than he’d ever heard from her. Murdoch smiled, thinking she’d apologise or something, but, instead, Maria sighed, got up and walked towards the windows, to a globe that opened out as a cocktail cabinet. She stood there with her broad back to him and asked if he wanted a drink.
‘I’m fine, thanks.’
‘Still a one-beer-a-day man, eh?’
‘Something like that.’
She turned and looked at him, framed by the clouds outside.
‘You still seeing that chick in Blacktown? Celia? It’s not Celia, is it? Sonia? Sandra?’
He gave her a flat-eyed stare.
‘Is nothing private?’
‘No, my dear, nothing. I told you that when I hired you.’
‘But you guys don’t know who she is yet, do you?’
Maria didn’t answer that. She came back to the sofas, sitting on the same one as him this time, whisky clinking in a chunky glass, her thighs spreading pinstripes across the leather.
‘Did you sort out Chaplin?’
‘How was it?’
‘Yeah, fine. Not my favourite thing, you know that, but, yeah, job done. We won’t see him again.’
Her face hid her amusement, but it came out in her husky voice. ‘You didn’t do it, did you, Bill?
‘You didn’t do it.’
‘Didn’t do what exactly?’
‘Bill, look at me. You didn’t knock him off, did you? Honestly, my dear, for a career criminal, you’re a surprisingly bad liar. What’s wrong? You going soft on me? What happened to “No-mess, No-mercy” Murdoch? All those rules you live by?’
‘No mess is what happened. No need. He was an amateur. Trust me, I scared him; he won’t be back.’
‘Bet you a fiddy he will be. In fact, scrap that. I’ll fine you a fiddy when he is, you hear me?’
She meant fifty grand and she wasn’t joking, but she was trying to keep the tone light, trying to pretend she hadn’t just lost it with him. Murdoch heard the carriage clock on the mantelpiece mark the half hour. Cynthia would be in the shower now, he should have left the building five minutes ago. He reached for his briefcase. ‘Maybe we should get on with it?’
Maria said she supposed so, plonked her glass onto the coffee table and heaved herself wearily out of the sofa. Over at her desk, she clicked on a lamp – the sky outside darker by the minute – then leaned and opened a drawer as he read out his order. When she brought an assortment of plastic packages back to him, he threw them quickly into his briefcase: he’d be chopping and bagging all day tomorrow, care and attention could wait till then.
‘Well, then ...’ He stood and rubbed his hand over his scalp.
‘You said on the phone you needed some advice?’
‘Oh yeah, it’s fine. That can wait.’
‘Sounded fairly urgent when you were on the phone, Bill. What you in such a rush for? You got someone more important to see?’
She walked back to the sofa – a few more lamps clicked into life on the way – and collapsed into its comfort again, patting the seat next to her. Murdoch sat down.
‘I keep getting calls from some outfit what calls itself the ATO. Something to do with tax. I told them to get lost the first few times, but I think that made it worse.’
Maria rolled her eyes, sighed heavily, and asked him what his front was.
‘What’s your front? What’s your shop?’
‘Bill, tell me you’ve got some way of explaining how you earn your money just in case anyone ever asks?’
‘No one’s ever asked. If I did I’d tell them to mind their—’
‘Bill, this is the tax office. When they ask, you have to answer. You never heard of Al Capone? You need a front, my dear, a business. All those shops you see with no one ever in them, what do you think they’re there for? For God’s sake!’
She hadn’t shouted again, but she wasn’t far off it either. Murdoch looked at his hands, then over Maria’s shoulder at the grandfather clock behind her. He could be half an hour late for Cyn, she wouldn’t mind. They sat in silence for a minute or two until Maria said she was sorry.
‘It’s been a shit of a week, my dear. Hey, you sure you don’t fancy a drink?’
‘No, I’m fine. Listen, don’t worry about the tax thing, I’ll sort it out. I should let you go. I hope your week gets better ...’
‘The thing is, Bill, there’s something I need to talk to you about too. There’s been a bit of a ... restructure. The Club’s moved a few people around, so I’ve got a new boss. Regime change, you could call it. A change of strategy.’
‘The Club wants you to take on a bigger role than just dealing, something more similar to what I do. This fiddy-a-week stuff, well, the margins are good, but it’s time-consuming and risky – too much traffic for too little profit. So, we’re going to concentrate on the bigger stuff. They, that is, we, don’t have many guys as dependable as you. You know, you present well, you’re professional. No mess, no mercy, etcetera. So this small stuff isn’t really making the best use of our prime resources. We need you to be the go-to guy for the deals with bigger distributors.’
‘Give me a break, Bill, that’s how these people talk. They’ve all been to business school and shit. You should see the stuff they’re asking me to do. Reports, spreadsheets. I was here till midnight last night.’
‘It’s a great opportunity. Less running around, more free time.’
Maria leaned back and gave him a look he hadn’t seen on her before. Slowly he realised she was scared. He felt his stomach start up again, the belt of his trousers as snug as a noose.
‘You know it’s not what I want,’ he said. ‘We had a deal; another six months and I’m out of here.’
‘To your little house by the sea?’
‘What’s so bleeding funny about that?!’
‘Settle, petal; it’s not funny. You know full well I think it’s great that you’ve got an aim. It’s ...’ she chose the word carefully ‘... admirable, Bill. But what if you could get there in three months?’
‘Yeah, great idea, thanks. Except the last time someone told me there was a quick way out of the game, I was eighteen and got sent down for life. I was young and stupid then, Maria, but now I’m big and ugly. So thanks, but no thanks.’
She twirled what was left of her ice cubes, and he knew there was more to come. She nodded towards the waiting room.
‘You know Arnie who’s normally out on the desk?’
‘What about him?’
‘Seems the new management think I need a babysitter.’
‘Arnie was offered a different job out west somewhere. Arnie, twenty years in the Club, said thanks, but no thanks. He likes it here. Nice view of the Botanic Gardens.’
She shrugged. ‘His wife called me this morning asking if I knew where he was.’
They sat and looked at each other for a while.
‘I could disappear,’ he said.
‘Disappear on the Club? Good luck with that.’
‘Do they know much about me?’
‘What could I tell them? I don’t know much myself.’
‘Right. Thank you.’
‘Whatever. If you’re going to do the disappearing act, Bill, you better do it fast.’
‘What do you mean fast? We talking a week, a month?’
She shrugged and he rolled his eyes and swore. There was a rumble beyond the windows: thunder or a plane or a lorry in a pothole, impossible to tell. Then just the ticking of the clocks again, the clink of ice in Maria’s glass as she took another slug.
‘What about you?’ Murdoch asked. ‘What you going to do?’
Maria nearly cracked at this. A tiny tremor in her left eyelid, her top lip not as sure as it liked to be. Murdoch knew she had teenage daughters. She stood quickly and walked to the globe again. Asked if he was really sure about that drink.
Then she turned sooner than he’d thought and caught him scowling at his watch.
‘Or you got somewhere better to be?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Not any more.’
The next day another waiting room. Shoddier this one and a lot busier: a constant stream of people walking in from the shops and hesitating over the machine before taking their ticket and hoping for the best. Murdoch watched the red numbers changing on the wall behind the counter: A147, B12, A148, then looked at everyone else watching them too. Someone had had a go at designing the space – zigzag seating in comforting colours, the same soft tones on the wall – but it was still a government office. He shifted in his seat for the third time in as many minutes and resisted rolling up his sleeves. On Maria’s advice, he’d left his jacket and tie at home, but he wasn’t any better off for it. The night’s rain had hardly touched the humidity; what they needed was a real storm.
Maria had told him about the New South Wales Crime Commission and the government seizure of the proceeds of criminal activity, about legislation and guidelines on the minimum sentences for organised crime. Only then, when she’d seen he was listening, had she told him they could sort things out. Give him enough invoices to keep the ATO off his back forever.
‘Tell them you’re a psychoanalyst or a male prostitute,’ she’d said. ‘Anything to explain why people want to pay in cash. Porn merchant, pawn shop, psychic, pimp.’ She laughed. ‘Anything beginning with a “p”.’
He’d said he was glad she found it funny and she’d told him to calm down.
‘Tell them you’re a cage fighter, Bill, on the unofficial street scene. They’ll take one look at you and they’ll believe it. They’ll want to believe it; it’ll be interesting. Something to tell the kids that night in suburbia. Guess who daddy met at work today?’
When he’d told her cage fighter didn’t begin with a ‘p’, Maria had laughed again and said ‘Pugilist does, my dear.’ He’d had to go home and look it up. He’d hardly slept that night, had been up through the small hours researching on the internet, piecing together a story that someone might believe.
‘William James Murdoch?’
A small pink mouse of a woman in dark trousers and a nondescript blouse had opened a door at the end of the line of counters. She stood blinking through her glasses and Murdoch could see that unless he answered quickly she was going to shout his name even louder. He hadn’t heard his full name used since he’d last been sent down and couldn’t see why this woman needed to use it now. He stood slowly and sauntered over. The mouse gave him the Minimum Polite Smile and said, ‘This way, please,’ before turning back the way she’d come, down an overlit corridor of identical green doors. Murdoch left the door to the waiting room open behind him and strolled after her, asking after a few steps if Mr Simms was too important to come and get people himself. The woman stopped and looked over her glasses and he saw that with a different personality – one that wore skirts and sexy shoes – she might turn your head. She had a good figure and thick blonde hair cut into a bob; it was her blonde eyelashes that made her look like a mouse.
‘My name is Hannah Simms,’ she said. ‘I’m your tax inspector.’
She didn’t seem to need a response to that and marched on, until, a few metres later, she stopped abruptly and opened a door on the left. Inside was a small white office. She gestured Murdoch through, offered him a metal chair, then squeezed past him and behind a grey metal desk. Reaching her own worn chair, she lowered herself into it so carefully that he wondered if it had let her down in the past.
‘So, Mr Murdoch ...’
‘Please, call me Bill. Everyone calls me Bill.’
She sniffed at the idea and didn’t comment, then gave him a sudden and uncomfortable smile. Like someone on a course somewhere had told her you should smile at the public. She reminded him of a prison counsellor he’d had, younger than him, when he was only twenty-three, terrified on her first week on the job. He’d made her life hell.
‘It seems we had some difficulty contacting you?’
Maria had said he should apologise. Show humility, let them know they were in charge.
‘I’m a busy man,’ he said.
‘Yes, we’re all busy Mr ... but all income has to be reviewed for taxation.’
Maria had said to agree to this vehemently. To say money for hospitals and roads didn’t grow on trees. Murdoch said nothing.
Hannah Simms reached down and pulled a file from a drawer beneath her desk, then sat back carefully, testing the limits of her chair. She flipped the file open just out of his view.
‘You have only one bank account in Australia?’
‘Only one bank account anywhere.’
‘In the name of William Murdoch?’
He found an imaginary thread to pull off the knee of his trousers. During the course of the previous night, he’d resigned himself to paying tax on the money banked in his own name. It was a protection racket, the same the world over, no reason the Australian government should be any different. But there were limits.
‘What do you mean?’ he said slowly.
‘This one bank account, it’s in the name of William Murdoch, I presume?’
‘Oh. Yeah, course.’
‘Yes, well, normally you see, Mr ... Bill ... normally we need your permission to look into your accounts. But as this case has been escalated due to your lack of responsiveness, I can now look into any bank account in Australia in that name and review the transactions at a daily level.’
Murdoch offered to give her the account number if that would make things easier and she tried her smile again and said, yes, it would. He dictated the numbers and they sat in silence for a while, Hannah Simms concentrating on her computer screen, Murdoch practising his breathing.
He watched Hannah Simms go through his bank account, printing off copies of the transactions, marking little asterisks next to certain lines with her pencil. She was younger than he’d thought at first, but in clothes designed for someone twice her age. Lamb dressed as mutton. Why would anyone do that? She had full lips, the top one floating as she read, and healthy skin that hadn’t seen much disappointment. A tiny silver chain flashed into view as she bent forwards towards the computer screen and Murdoch bet himself five dollars it had a cross on the end of it. Behind her glasses were soft grey eyes. She looked up and caught him watching. Said, ‘Sorry, just give me a second,’ and pretended not to see his blush. It was another fifteen minutes before she was ready.
‘So, Mr Murdoch.’
‘Yes, Bill. And you should call me Hannah, I suppose. So, tell me, for the past eighteen months you have clearly been earning an irregular but substantial cash income and not declaring any of it?’
‘I had a lucky year. It won’t be like this next year, trust me, so I thought if I can average it all out after a few years, then it’ll be fine.’
‘Really. I see here that you’re an Australian citizen and yet we have no records of any tax being paid by you ever. How does that work?’
Steel in the grey now. Maria said don’t resist them. Pretend to give them too much information, not too little.
‘You tell me,’ he said. ‘You’re the expert.’
Hannah Simms sighed and laid her pen down. She leaned forwards on her desk, looking at her hands as she spoke. ‘I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, Bill, but my job is to help you explain how you earn your money and why you don’t pay tax on it. If I am unable to do that, you are facing at least a heavy fine and very possibly a jail sentence. Believe it or not, I don’t want that to happen. What I would like to happen is for us to get along and explain what’s going on, for you to pay your back taxes and for us both to get home on time.’
He believed her – maybe the mutton helped with that. Hannah Simms looked like she was tired with the job, not with him – as miserable in here as he was. He forced himself to apologise, easier than normal, and told her he wasn’t used to this kind of thing. ‘It’s this whole place,’ he said. ‘It gives me the creeps. And’ – no idea why he was sharing this – ‘I’m told I have an issue with authority.’
‘Yes, well, as for this place, try working here five days a week. And don’t worry, I have a bit of an issue with authority myself.’
He doubted that, but it was nice of her to lie. He sat back in his chair and took another of her smiles – softer, more sincere this one. What the hell, he had to give her something. He explained he was only a few years out from England. Told her how his father had been Australian (no need to explain ‘father’ had never been more than a tiny word on his birth certificate) and how the smartest thing he, Murdoch, had ever done had been to get his citizenship sorted. Sensing he was on a roll – Hannah Simms nodding nicely and not taking notes – he fished out a business card, a new one from the machine at the station, and handed it over.
‘A private detective?’ she said, looking doubtful.