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Diminutive tough-talking ex-narco cop Stacia Black has discovered the key to escaping the violence and poverty ridden streets of Chicago.Nick Miller runs a smoky bar in Sydney’s Kings Cross. He’s content with his life until Stacia appears and starts asking questions.With his loyalties divided between his underworld acquaintances and his desire for something better, he steps off the edge.Together, they enter a world of danger and deceit, put their lives on the line, and risk everything to gain a better future.Can they stay out of jail, stay alive, and stay together?Find out in this tense, fast paced thriller.
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Meet Me at Harry’s
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Published in 2016
Next Chapter Press
Author contact:[email protected]
I laid the whiskey tumbler in front of her, then asked again, ‘Why’d you come to Sydney?’
She looked down at the drink and said, ‘It’s warm, and a long way from Chicago.’
‘Chicago your home?’
She had an air of defeat about her, shoulders hunched, forearms resting on the bar as she gazed into the tumbler.
‘Why’d you leave? Violent ex? Cops after you?’
She looked up, a sardonic smile spreading across her face.
‘Cops? I was a cop. Joined up right out of high school. Twenty-two years straight. Made detective after ten and worked narco.’
‘Why’d you quit?’
She swallowed half the whiskey and hitched her shoulders. ‘I got in a bit of a jam.’
It was one-thirty in the morning, the crowd had thinned, and I was too tired to care what jammed her up. There were three regulars sitting around their usual table, and the American woman with a taste for cheap whiskey and strong cigarettes. It was the fourth night in a row that she’d been there, always alone, drinking and smoking until the small hours. I didn’t know her name and had no interest. My job was to serve drinks and stop people getting rowdy. If she hadn’t started asking me questions about Kings Cross, I wouldn’t be telling you this story now.
To begin with, her questions were general, then she started getting more specific, wanting to know about organised crime. My responses were brief and vague, my curiosity elevated. Her speech was slurred, and she had to close one eye to light her next cigarette. She crushed it out almost immediately, leaned forward and spoke conspiratorially.
‘I was in this classy joint last night, down the road a block or two. Place called blue something. Heard some guys talking about the Boss. The Boss of the Cross.’ Her eyes held mine, her brows flinched upward. ‘Who is he?’
‘No idea what you’re talking about, detective,’ I said, then moved away and stacked glasses into the washer, filled a shelf, and changed a couple of optics. When I turned towards her, she beckoned me over with her left hand, raising the empty glass in her right. When I tried to take it from her to refill it, she held fast and said, ‘I think you do know what I mean, and who I mean. I need to speak to him, and he needs to speak to me.’
‘Go talk with your mates at the Blue Room,’ I said, then twisted the tumbler from her hand. ‘On your way, you’ve had enough.’
Something bothered me about the ex-cop from Chicago, if that’s what she was. She slid off the stool and I watched her weave her way to the door. She gave me one last look then stepped out onto the street.
Two nights later, Ray Peterson came in to collect the weekly kickback. Ray worked for Johno Brookes who at that time was the Boss—and in a way, so did I.
My name’s Nick Miller; a Sydneysider born and bred, and at that time, March 1992, I was manager of a smoky bar in Kings Cross called The Saracen’s Head. Mark McGuire owned it on paper, but he was just a cleanskin for Brookes, who was the real owner; the real boss. Mark was fat and lazy, and had put me on as manager so that he could spend more time eating, drinking, and playing the tables at a private gaming room two blocks away.
Each Friday, Ray, or his offsider Sonny, would come in to collect Brookes’ cut. I’d known Ray since I was old enough to drink. We were never mates, and I don’t think he ever really had any. There were plenty of people who feared or respected him, many that toadied up to him, but he was a cold, hard bastard that kept everyone at arm’s length, including Sonny Thaku, his number one enforcer, and a tough guy in his own right.
When I told Ray about the American who’d been asking questions, he said, ‘Do you know where she’s staying?’
‘No. I didn’t get into conversation with her. As I said, she was asking about the Boss.’
‘If she comes in again, see what you can find out about her.’
‘My guess is she's just some burned out jack they pensioned off.’
‘Maybe, but find out anyway.’
He pocketed the envelope of cash I’d given him, gave me one of his trademark tough-guy looks, then turned and left the bar.
She was there again later that night. I left it to Stella the barmaid to serve her, and went out the back and watched for a while. She sat there looking around; looking for me, I guessed.
‘That classy joint close early, or did they toss you?’ I said, as I passed her on my way to serve at the far end.
She gave a good-natured grin. ‘Saving that for later, Nick.’
We kept up the sporadic banter throughout the night, as I worked the bar and served her Scotch.
At one-thirty, I sent Stella home. There were maybe ten people left in the bar including the American.
I flicked off most of the house lights, indicating we were closing.
‘How about one more for the road, Nick?’
‘Sure, why not.’ I tossed another shot of Red Label into her glass.
Whether I liked it or not, I had to play along—there was no percentage in pissing off Ray—so I did my best to smile at her and said, ‘Seeing as you got my name right tonight, I should know yours.’
She looked at me for a few seconds, that interrogating, looking-right-through-you cop look, then she said, ‘It’s Stacia. Stacia Black. Ex-Lieutenant Stacia Maria Black: Englewood, Chicago District 7.’
Her chin jutted out, and her eyes held a defiance that suggested years of having to prove herself in a man’s world. If what she’d told me was true, that made her a narco detective at age twenty-eight. A tough call for any female, and my guess was that despite her small frame and fine, nicotine stained fingers, she was a tough little thing.
‘How long are you in Sydney for, Lieutenant?’
‘It’s Stacia, and I haven’t decided yet. Depends on how things play out.’
‘Could be a few more hours then?’
One side of her mouth twisted up into a mocking smile. ‘Could be a few more months, Nick.’
By two o’clock, there was only me and her, standing either side of the bar, slowly sparring and sizing one another up.
Remembering Ray’s order to see what I could find out about her, I took one of her Luckies, lit up, and waited for her to speak. It didn’t take long.
‘You know why I chose this bar, Nick?’
When I didn’t respond she gave an amused snort, like she’d seen all this before a thousand times, then said, ‘You. That’s why.’
‘You need to lay off the cheap Scotch, Lieutenant Stacia. It’s affecting your judgement. And these cigarettes could fell an ox.’
‘If Luckies are too much for you, you better stick with your menthols.’
‘Cute. Go on with your story.’
‘I met a lot of people working narco. After a while you get to know about a person just by watching, seeing how they move, what they say and what they don’t, how their eyes scan the room and see nothing, or take in everything without appearing to look.’
‘Is there a point to this, Stacia, or are you just being entertaining?’
‘Bit of both I hope. You know the guy that runs Frankie’s Bar a block away? Got the same name as you.’
‘Close but not the same. He’s Micky, as in Cohen, I’m Nick, as in old. And I’m nothing like him, Lieutenant Freud.’
‘I know you’re not. He’s a criminal. Trust me, I’ve seen the type too many times to be wrong. You’re not. You mix with them, work for them, but you don’t do drugs, you’re not a heavy drinker, and have a clean sheet.’
‘And you base that assumption on what?’
‘No assumption; or tell me I’m wrong. Tell me you’re an enforcer, a baggie runner… the Boss.’
I stubbed out the Lucky Strike, wondering if it had burned the skin off the back of my throat. I took a drink and waited for her to go on.
‘No tats, no ridiculous stud through the eyebrow and your face is younger than your thirty-seven years so you’re not an old stoner, meth head, or snowman.’
She waited for a reaction when she revealed that she knew my age. I was surprised, and fought hard not to show it. She gave another of those know-all snorts, and I felt targeted. It added credence to her story of being a cop, or ex-cop, and perhaps that was why she’d shown her hand, to make me a believer. But why? I realised that it was going to be easier to get close to her than I’d thought, but I’d have to up my game.
‘I bet you even workout, don’t you, Nick? Go to the gym? Run?’
‘The only running I do is running this bar, and the only working-out is right now, working out what you want. You come into a bar in a red-light area, openly claiming to be a narco cop—albeit one who’s had her narrow arse kicked off the force, so you say, and start asking questions that could get you a beating. And look at you; what are you, five-five and a hundred and ten pounds? Hardly intimidating.’
I moved to the corner of the bar and flicked off the house lights, leaving us in the dim glow of two glass-fronted chiller cabinets.
‘It’s closing time.’
‘So close,’ she said, chained another cigarette, then slid her glass towards me for a refill. I slopped more Red Label into the tumbler, pushed it back at her. It was her sixth, yet her speech was clear, her eyes sharp, and my guess was that her mind was still humming. Surprising for a lightly built female a full six inches shorter than me.
There was a wry smile on her face and trouble in her voice as she said, ‘I like you, Nick. You’re a straight talker. A stand-up guy. When’s your night off? You do get a night off don’t you?’
‘Once a fortnight, and I spend it with my ageing aunt.’
She tossed her head back exposing her perfect American teeth, and a surprisingly feminine laugh. ‘Your aunt? Come on, Nick, you can do better than that.’
‘Okay, once a week, and I spend it with any burned out old narco cop I can find propping up a bar.’
‘Old! That’s not nice.’
‘You’re older than me, that’s enough.’
‘I don’t look my age though. Admit it. I look… what, early thirties?’
‘Have dinner with me next time you get a night off.’
‘Come on, indulge me. Let’s go to some fancy restaurant. I’ll pay.’
My instincts told me to pull back. To let this whole situation cool off, and start again next time she came in, if she did. But that other voice told me to forge ahead—nothing ventured, nothing gained.
She watched without saying anything as I walked around to the public side and locked the doors. I took her by the arm and led her out to the back room behind the bar.
‘What’s this, Nick? Gonna lock me in the cellar and rough me up?’
‘I thought you wanted to go out.’
‘At two-thirty in the morning?’
I dropped her arm, and walked ahead. ‘You coming or not?’
The cab to Woolloomooloo took just five minutes. Stacia climbed out and looked around at the naval dockyard, then looked questioningly at me.
‘Behind you,’ I said.
She turned and looked at the caravan as I walked past her. ‘What the devil’s this?’
‘It’s an icon, a late night pleasure palace for the tastebuds.’
‘You’re kidding me, right?’
‘No.’ I kept walking and she fell in step beside me.
When we stopped in front of the van her face lit with amusement as her eyes moved from picture to picture of the many celebrities that had eaten there.
‘That good huh?’
‘Better than that.’
I ordered pies and mushy peas for us both as she wandered around the van looking at more pictures of the rich and famous who’d stopped at Harry’s for a pie.
‘You really know how to treat a lady, don’t you?’
‘What can I tell you? I’m a sap with a big heart and no brains.’
We carried the pies to the railings by the waterfront and looked out across the naval yards as we ate.
‘Do they do anything other than pies and peas?’
‘Hot dogs. But that’s mainly for Americans. Here in Australia we eat pies, not hot dogs washed down with weak coffee and doughnuts.’
‘You don’t like Americans, do you?’
‘No. You want ketchup on that?’
She gave me a sour smile and bit off another big lump of pie.
It was a twenty-minute walk back to the Cross. As we walked, she probed with well-formed questions, a skill no doubt sharpened on the streets of Chicago. I parried, ducked and weaved; said plenty, and told her nothing.
I didn’t learn much about her that night, or what she wanted. But I did at least establish some form of… friendship I guess you’d say. Although she felt more like a predator than a friend.
Two nights later she was back, drinking Red Label, smoking Lucky Strikes, and smiling. The air of defeat had been replaced with cocksure. She’d also done something with her face and clothes. When she’d first come into the bar a week before she’d looked rough; not skanky, but worn out, run down. Now she looked almost attractive.
That night she stayed until midnight. I served her drinks as we traded insults. She seemed to get off on it and remained relatively sober compared with the previous times. Before she left, she handed me a beer coaster with a mobile number scrawled across it. Two days later, I called her.
‘Hi, Nicky. You took your time in calling.’
‘I’ve been busy, still am. What do you want?’
‘I’ve got a proposal you might be interested in. Thought we could meet up and talk somewhere other than the bar.’
‘What sort of business could a smart-mouthed, hard drinking ex-narco cop from Chicago have that was legal, or wouldn’t get me a one way ride to the outback for snitching?’
I heard that same derisive snort. Then she said, ‘C’mon, Nicky. At least listen to me.’
‘I’ll buy you one of those pies with sticky peas.’ When I didn’t respond, she said, ‘Okay, how about we just meet up for coffee someplace. Just sit and talk. If you don’t like what you hear, I promise that’ll be the end of it.’
I liked my life. I had all I needed and most of what I wanted. I wasn’t part of a gang, didn’t hang with goons, and as Lt Black had correctly surmised, I wasn’t a criminal. I didn’t have to watch my back or dodge the jacks. So why did I agree to meet her that night? I regretted it even before I ended the call. What made me do it? I didn’t particularly want to screw with her. There was plenty of tail around the Cross, without having to dance with an American cop with a taste for cheap alcohol, and a secret agenda.
‘Meet me at Harry’s… around midnight.’
I couldn’t believe I’d said it. It was like some awful cliché from an American movie. To cover my embarrassment I added, ‘And it’s mushy peas, not sticky… mushy.’ I ended the call with an impending sense of trouble.
At ten past midnight I arrived at Harry’s, hoping she would have given up on me and left, but there she was, leaning against the railings, and looking out across the water. There were eight or ten people standing around the pie cart, eating and talking loudly. She saw me coming, watched appraisingly as I approached, and said, ‘Hi, Nicky.’
‘And it’s still Nick.’
‘I think Nicky suits you better.’
‘Were your parents Polish?’
‘Been doing your homework?’ She looked a bit pissed off.
‘Just knew a Stacia years back. She had a Polish family.’
She held my gaze for a few seconds, then said, ‘My old man was a Pole. It was him that named me Anastacia. Mom knew I’d cop it growing up in South Chicago with a name like that, so always called me Stacia, or just Stace at home.’
‘And your father didn’t mind?’
‘He wasn’t there to do any minding.’
I didn’t want to get into her family history, so said, ‘Pie, or hot dog?’
‘A pie, with lots of those fat peas. And a Coke to wash it down.’
I left her standing by the railings, walked over to the van and ordered two pies with peas, a Coke and a coffee. For a while, she stayed in the shadows watching; as if trying to commit it all to memory, then walked over and joined me. Twenty-two years a cop.
We left the van, crossed the road, and sat on a concrete step and ate. She screwed up the empty wrapper, leaned back, took a long pull on the Coke, then belched before lighting a Lucky Strike.
‘Is that how they do it in Chicago?’
She watched me finish, handed me a cigarette, then waited for me to light up before saying, ‘Can I be straight with you, Nick?’
‘I was wondering the same thing.’
‘Give me a break. All right? We’re kinda friends, aren’t we, Nicky?’
I took a pull on the Lucky Strike, crushed it under my heel and lit a Camel.
‘Too strong for you?’
‘Might as well smoke a rolled up newspaper. Did you bring me here just to eat and smoke, or is there something on your mind?’
She seemed to be considering the question as she smoked and sucked Coke from the bottle. Eventually she swept the butt back and forth on the concrete step sending up a small shower of smoke and embers.
‘Have you ever seen an amazing opportunity, walked away, then regretted it? Ever turned your back on something that you later wish you’d grabbed, but didn’t because it was outside your usual world?’
‘Are you selling Amway?’
The snort. ‘Amway. I’m talking real money. Low risk, high return, untraceable cash—’
‘And completely illegal.’
‘That’s a grey area.’ She stood and looked down at me. ‘Let’s walk.’
We did, and she started to explain.
‘There’s an overused cliché in East Chicago that says when you leave school, you can become a cop or a criminal. I chose to become a cop. I’d seen a thousand times over what being a criminal in those parts brought. Three to five years, followed by eight to ten. Life for some.’
Her life and philosophical thoughts were of no interest to me, but I stayed quiet seeing where it was leading.
‘I went to school on the corner of Michigan and East 61st. It’s a rough neighbourhood held together by poverty and suspicion. From the time I was old enough to understand, I saw wasted lives all around me. People going to jail, others die on the street. It became normal, something you hardly notice any more. For many of the young guys, jail was better than trying to survive on the streets. Murder just a way of ensuring a long stay inside, and some kind of fucked up status. Cops weren’t immune from that shit either.’
‘Was your father a cop?’
‘Some cops die young, others grow old and jaded trying to stay straight in the face of overwhelming odds. Others just fold to the system, know when to look away and when to put out their hand. My old man? He left me with my mother, and left her with a broken face. She was church. Thought God would save her, provide for her, protect her. But in the end she learned different. There’s no God looking out for people from East 61st Street.’
‘What happened to her?’
She slowed and looked up at me, then looked away and continued walking.
‘She was out shopping late one day, stopped to help a guy on crutches pick his hat up off the ground. He stuck a knife in her kidney, took her bag, dropped the crutches and ran off. That’s one of the reasons I decided to become a cop. Not to go out looking for revenge; I knew better than that, but to not be defenceless. To always carry a weapon in dangerous places. To know how to survive on the street.’
‘No offence, Lieutenant Stacia, but that sounds like a messed-up place to live, and I’m sorry about your mother, but has this got anything to do with me?’
She looked down for a few seconds, as if considering what to say, then looked into my face and said, ‘From the time I graduated from Police Academy, I was determined to work narcotics. Not for any noble reasons, but because that’s where the money is.’
‘So you’re telling me you’re a bent cop?’
‘I’ve never taken a bribe, never looked away, or backed down. I knew that if I stayed straight, stayed sharp, one day an opportunity would come my way and I’d be able to get out of that place and stay out. Have a good life in a clean, open city like Sydney.’
‘And so what did you do? Rob the bad guys?’
She stopped, lit a cigarette and offered me one which I declined. We stood facing one another in the street. Light rain had started to fall, so we stepped into a shop doorway.
‘What do you want from life, Nick?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘C’mon, you must have ambitions, desires. You’re a smart guy, Nick. You going to spend the rest of your life working a bar in a red-light district?’
‘You going to save me from that?’
She paused, pulled in smoke and squinted out at the increasing rain. Eventually she said, ‘I need somebody to work with me, and I want it to be you.’
‘Why? Out of all the people you could choose, why me?’
‘It’s like I said at the bar; you’re clean, independent and smart.’
‘Okay, let’s just pretend that I’m interested to hear more, and that you’re making sense and not bullshitting me. What have you got?’
‘Look at it from another angle. What would you want to give up your life here and start again someplace else?’
She stood there looking into my face, waiting, but I couldn’t answer. I’d never thought about any such thing. I was a Sydneysider, born and bred. Eventually, I said, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy, Stacia. This is where I live, where I belong.’
‘I’m not saying you’d have to leave, but you know how it goes, hope for the best and plan for the worst.’
‘Hoping for the best doesn’t sound like much of a strategy for whatever it is you’re planning. But I wish you luck.’ I stepped out of the doorway and started walking back towards the Cross.
She was beside me almost immediately. ‘The reason you’re not running with a pack of criminals, is because you have a conscience.’
‘Maybe I’m just chicken.’
‘No, I don’t think so. I think there’s a line you draw that you won’t cross. You’ll turn a blind eye, but not a hand. Am I right?’
She was, but I wasn’t going to admit it, not that night anyway. As we walked, I pondered what she’d said, seeing my own duplicity and hypocrisy. Was I chicken? Was I any better than Ray or Sonny, or his brother Tony? Was I less guilty than Mark McGuire? I’d always thought so, but something that night caused me to question it. I’d told Ray about Lieutenant Stacia Black asking questions about the Boss. And what was I doing now, other than working for him, being his eyes and ears; and how long before I became his hands, his fists, his trigger finger?
‘You’ll have to get off the fence one day, Nick. I’m offering you that chance.’
‘I don’t need saving, thank you, Lieutenant.’
She laughed, one of her short, teeth-flashing laughs. ‘You know, I kinda like the way you say lieutenant, but if we’re going to work together—’
‘We’re not, unless you’re thinking of applying for position of barmaid, and even then I don’t like your chances.’
I could have quickened my pace, but I didn’t. There was a part of me that wanted to hear what she had to say, but that nagging counsellor of self-preservation said, forget it, walk away and pretend you never met her.
I don’t know if you can relate to this, but I can’t make snap decisions about some things. I have to mull it over, and I mean for days. I’m not referring to working or colluding with her, but just about listening to her. I needed to chew it over, to play the ten thousand scenarios through my head until I could see every move and counter-move, every pro, con, and angle. At least as important was thinking about could I leave Sydney? Could I really go somewhere else, maybe even outside of Australia, and start again?
Those thoughts ran through my head as we walked back past Harry’s, then up McElhone Stairs, a long set of concrete steps that join Woolloomooloo and Potts Point. She must have sensed it and kept quiet, probably congratulating herself on getting that far into my head already.
When we were breathing hard at the top, I asked, ‘Where are you staying?’
‘Here, in Potts Point. A small apartment if you can call it that. At least that’s what the realtor called it. You heading back to the bar?’
‘Think about what I said, Nicky. It’s not what you’re thinking.’
‘Good night, Lieutenant.’
‘Call me,’ she said as I walked away.
I raised a hand without looking back.
‘Call me, Nicky.’
I just kept walking, trying to give the impression that I wouldn’t call, knowing all the time I would.
The bar was busy, as it always was on Friday night Smoke billowed from animated mouths trying to make themselves heard above Stevie Ray. Stella and I were flat-out trying to keep up with the ever-increasing crowd. It was good, a rush, urgent demand, and the satisfaction of a humming business. The optics drained, the shelves emptied, and the cash drawer chimed a gratified anthem.
I hadn’t called the Chicago cop as I’d thought I would. Several times during the past five days I’d reached for my mobile, but then left it, not sure what to say, and questioning whether I should call her at all. She seemed like trouble waiting to happen with all of her innuendo about wanting to work with me. And she wasn’t talking about bar work. But like it or not, I had reached for that mobile phone several—no, many times, and she’d been in my head more than I’d like to admit.
There was no single thing that I could say caused it. Not her looks, although she was tolerably attractive, especially when she laughed with those high-gloss American teeth. It wasn’t her penchant for drinking cheap Scotch or her choice of killer cigarettes. There was an indefinable quality about her; something impossible to put into words.
A few years before, I’d been filling my ageing Holden in a gas station on the New England Highway, about four-hundred kilometres north of Sydney. It was a hot, dry day, the road almost empty. As the bowser pump groaned and the dollars rolled round, a big Honda motorcycle swung into the forecourt and pulled up onto the pump ahead of mine. The rider dismounted, pulled off a black crash helmet, shook out her long red hair, unzipped her leather jacket, stretched, then turned and smiled. It was the same with her; there was an indefinable foxiness, a sexiness beneath the leather, and mixed in with the road dust and sweat. Maybe it was to do with a woman that courted danger, who wasn’t afraid to take risks, and that lived for the intoxicating rush of adrenaline. Maybe. Whatever it was, I wanted her. We had coffee at the station and arranged to meet further up the highway later that day. I was due back in Sydney the following week, but called in with some lame excuse and spent a blissful three weeks on the Gold Coast in the company of Angie, as we spent long lazy days hanging out, or riding through the hinterland on the big Honda. I’d just turned thirty and single after a disastrous two-year losing battle with married life. Sure, I was on the bounce, but it was way more than that.
I woke one morning to find her and the bike gone.
There was an element of Angie the leather-clad goddess in Lt. Stacia Black. Something that I found alluring and alarming in equal parts. Whether it was curiosity about what she had to offer, or memories of Angie is irrelevant now.
As I turned from a cash register and laid change on the bar, she was standing there, a wide smile across her made-up face. The effect was dramatic. I stood looking at her for a few seconds, wondering how many more identities she had. I’d seen the tired down and out; the sharp straight to business cop, and now… she looked good, and it put me on edge. She was dressed to seduce, and the red bead had stopped on me.
‘Jameson please, Nick, on ice.’ The first night she’d been in, she’d ordered cheap Scotch with a rough mouth and scant manners, now her voice was soft, demure, and Jameson on ice was my drink, as she knew well. She watched as I poured it and lay it on the bar, all the time her face carried a soft smile, her eyes lowered slightly as if too shy to fully meet mine. My defences went up, but so did my level of interest. I took her money, laid change on the bar, then moved away to serve other customers. Her eyes were on me when I turned towards her.
‘It’s okay, Nick. I’m not here to recruit you. I just came in for a drink. I guessed from the no phone call that you’re not interested. It’s okay.’
She gave a light shrug, sipped her drink, then lit a Longbeach.
‘What happened to Red Label and the killer Luckies?’
‘It’s good to try new things. New places, new flavours, new experiences. Like the pie and peas you introduce me to. It was fun; something new.’
‘Pie and peas is safe, screwing with the underworld isn’t.’
‘Let’s pretend I never said any of that stuff; that this is the first time I’ve been in here and we’ve just met.’ She was calm, reasonable, and her sudden change of attitude hard to decode. I wondered if she was genuine, or if it was just another strategy; then figured there was only one way to find out. I shouldn’t have cared, should have moved away and washed glasses, stacked shelves or done anything else. But I didn’t. I reached for the bottle, put another shot into her glass, then poured one for myself, which I raised in casual salute.
Her smile widened. ‘Friends?’
We clinked glasses. ‘No more bullshit.’
As I said, the bar was humming, so I didn’t have time to stand around making small talk with her. After another shot of Jameson she left with a quick wave and a mouthed see you.
An hour later, Ray came in for his weekly kickback.
‘Did you find out what the Yank wanted?’ he asked as I handed him the envelope.
‘Just mouthing off pissed, Ray. Nothing to it.’
‘She’d overheard some guys in the Blue Room mention the Boss, and got curious. Nothing more to it.’
‘And is she a cop?’
‘Was. My guess is she got booted out for being on the bottle. Drinks like a bloody fish.’
‘Are you seeing her again?’
‘Only if she comes in here.’
He seemed satisfied and moved away. As I went to serve someone else I wondered why I’d lied. Why I’d chosen her over him.
Two days later, I hadn’t heard from her and began to suspect that she’d been telling the truth about starting over and no more bullshit. Perhaps she’d moved on or gone back to the States. The thought left a pang of regret. When I tried her number, it rang just twice.
I wasn’t expecting her to answer and didn’t know what to say. As always, she did. ‘Thanks for calling. How are you?’
‘Never better.’ I groped for things to say before blurting out, ‘Do you want to hook up later? Maybe get something to eat?’
‘Sure, what time?’
Regrets were already filling my head, but I could see no way out short of hanging up. If I did, she’d probably call me right back, or come into the bar and make me feel like a stupid schoolboy, so I glanced at my watch, and said, ‘How about eight o’clock at the top of McElhone Stairs?’
‘No work tonight?’
‘Sunday is my unofficial day off. So, eight?’
‘Sure. See you there.’
The mobile closed with a ‘snick’, and I felt like throwing it at the wall.
Even though I arrived a few minutes before eight, she was already there, sitting on the top step, smoke drifting lazily above her in the still evening air.
Without looking round to see it was me, she said, ‘You’re early as well.’
Cop intuition, a sneaky glance or a lucky guess. It didn’t matter how she knew, but that she did both amused me and raised my interest in what lay ahead. The starting whistle had been blown, the game began.
‘You ought to be careful sitting around places like this, people might get the wrong idea.’
‘Like you’re a hooker, a junkie… an undercover cop.’
She flicked the half-smoked Lucky with her thumb and middle finger, sending it curling through the air and landing on a step ten feet below, then watched the rising spiral of smoke for a few seconds, before saying, ‘What would have been your guess?’ She stood and posed with her arms held out in a frozen embrace.
‘The clothes are too good for a junkie.’ I looked at her a while longer, tilting my head to one side as if in deep consideration. ‘My guess would be a hooker. Not high-class, not trash either. Middle of the alley.’
She dropped her arms to her sides, and said, ‘You really know how to sweet-talk a girl.’
‘Come on, Stacia, let’s not get off on the wrong foot. How about we enjoy the evening for what it is.’
‘I can be nice, Nick. How about you?’
‘Sure, and I’m sorry, I take back what I just said. Put it down to an unusual sense of humour.’
‘Apology accepted,’ she said, the shadow of a smile passing across her face.
‘There’s a top Indian joint not far away,’ I said, to cover the awkwardness I was feeling.
‘Sounds great. I haven’t eaten Indian in so long.’
We turned and walked towards William Street, making small talk as we went. I figured that if nothing else, it would be an entertaining night.
After a great Indian meal washed down with a couple of beers, we headed back to her apartment for a nightcap. She’d been good company and stayed away from any talk of Kings Cross, other than a few general questions about the Saracen.
Her place was a rented apartment, a block back from William Street. She unlocked the door and led the way.
‘Jameson?’ she called over her shoulder as I followed her inside.
She crossed the room and closed the dusty venetians over the only window. There was no view anyway, other than the back of more apartments and the yellow glow of streetlights that knifed between the buckled blinds. The place looked prepped, like she’d planned to bring me back there. Glasses, set upside down on coasters stolen from the Saracen, sat on a tray beside an unopened bottle of Jameson. The ashtray was clean and looked like it also came from the bar.
I sat in a worn brown corduroy armchair, and watched her. She kept her back to me as she poured two drinks, lit a cigarette, then turned and handed them to me.
She sat in the chair opposite me, leaned back, and looked at me, as if waiting for me to speak.
I was never any good at filling silences, especially with people I didn’t trust, so I sat there and looked back at her, waiting for her to speak.
‘You don’t have many friends do you, Nick?’
‘More than I have time for. What about you, are all your friends in Chicago pining for you? Do you miss them? Do they even know where you are? If you think I’m hanging out here with you because I don’t have any friends, you’re wrong.
‘Tell me about being a cop, tell me what it’s like to work the streets of a big city like Chicago. Come on, you must have stories working narco for ten years. You must have seen shootings in your time. I’m just a naive Aussie barboy. Tell me what it was like in the big bad world of Chicago.’
For a while she just sat and looked back at me, a half smile curling up one side of her face, as if she was bemused by what I’d said. I didn’t care, I just wanted her to open up. Eventually, she took another sip of her drink, crushed the cigarette out in the ashtray and said, ‘Okay. I’ll trade you one for one. I’ll tell you one story of Chicago… about a bust I did. And you tell me something about Sydney. Something similar. I know you’ve seen things, you can’t work in a place like Kings Cross and not have. I’ll tell you one story, you tell me one, that way we get to know a little bit about each other’s cities, and at the same time, something about each other. Is that a deal?’
‘Sure, that sounds like a fair thing. You first, your job, your city.’ I stood and walked to the window and pulled the blinds apart peering out on the street. It seemed to unsettle her. She tipped back her drink, stood, poured another one, and said, ‘So, will you sit your arse down so I can tell you something, or will you stay there peering out the window all night?’
I sat, and waited.
Her tale could have come from any Hollywood movie; was a drugs bust in cardboard cut-out. I didn’t know whether to believe her or not.
In retrospect I guess she was telling the truth, probably embellishing it, stretching the point here, hiding a little there. Who tells the whole truth anyway? The story didn’t matter, what mattered was getting to know her. She could tell me about school days, her unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. It was all the same.
When it was my turn, I poured more whiskey and lit a cigarette, buying time thinking what I could say that might sound genuine, but didn’t give away anything she could use. I still didn’t trust her, whatever she was, so I made up something based on a real incident, changing the people and places.
By the time we’d told our stories, downed the best part of a bottle of Jameson between us, and smoked far too many cigarettes, it was after midnight. I got the feeling she wanted company for the night, company that would still be there in the morning. I took a cab home.
It was two weeks before I heard from her again. She sounded relaxed… friendly, when she asked, ‘Do you want to go for Indian again tomorrow night?’
‘Sure, unless you’d like Italian instead.’
‘Cool. I love Italian food. Should we meet at the same place?’
‘Eight o’clock. Don’t be late, Lieutenant.’ I hung up, not wanting to grope for small talk.
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