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Authors: Alastair Sarre

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Ecstasy Lake (20 page)

BOOK: Ecstasy Lake
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‘And now?'

‘And now I realise I was stupid.' She blinked hard, several times. ‘I need to go back there. I need to find out what it means to me. It's my country. They're my people. I turned away from them and I haven't had the courage to go back. I was going to go with Mick. He said he would take me.' She took another sip of her tea.

I put the contract back in the box and fitted the lid over it. She put her hand on the lid.

‘I think I can trust you, Steve. I know why you want the contract, and you may take it and everything else. I only ask one thing.'

‘Yes?'

‘That you remember this if the time ever comes when you have to deal with my people.'

Tasso was still in the office when I got back. I handed him the contract.

‘Where did you get this?'

I told him the story.

‘Mick Hiskey is surprising me more in death than he did in life,' said Tasso. He put the contract in the shredder and we watched it disappear.

29

I was late getting to Tasso's penthouse suite for drinks with the minister. Appleyard, the kiss-arse, was there to usher me in, doubly excited to have both the Deputy Premier
and
One of the State's Richest Men in the building.

‘
Do
let me know if I can do anything for you, Mr West,' he said as I exited the lift.

‘
Do
disappear up your own clacker,' I said, after the lift door had closed.

The minister had come without Gloomy Dick, his advisor, and was in fine form. I arrived as he was telling Tasso and Fern the story of Harlin's bungled arrest.

‘As I understand it,' he said, ‘the results of the test on the hammer that Steve here found—hello, Steve—the results came in on Sunday afternoon because we'd put a priority on it and paid the cunts overtime to get it done, excuse my language, Fern. Hiskey's blood and Harlin's fingerprints are all over the damn thing. So the Star Force is organised to make the arrest and about ten of them turn up at Harlin's fortress. Two of them ring the buzzer on the intercom outside the gate.' He used his finger to push an imaginary buzzer. ‘When they get an answer they say they're the police and they're there to arrest Mr Christopher John Harlin or whatever his name is and can you please open the fucken gate. At which point whoever's on the intercom tells them to go away and do something physically impossible, at least I think it is. So the Star Force guys cut a hole in the fence and storm in and round up half a dozen bikies, not without a bit of a scuffle, none of them Harlin. It seems that Harlin has a tunnel that no one knew about and while the Star Force is attacking the fence with their Jaws of Death, Harlin is making off across the saltpans. Hasn't been seen since. Thank you, Fern.' The minister had finished his glass of champagne, and Fern had refilled it for him and poured a glass for me. The three of them were sitting on couches in front of the full-length window. Outside, the light was fading.

‘So it was a balls-up,' said Tasso.

‘Yes, in a nutshell,' said the minister. ‘Or a ball sack, if you prefer, har har.' He held his champagne glass aloft. ‘But enough about that. Now that Steve's here, I propose a toast. To the quick capture of Harlin and the imminent success of Goanna Mining.'

‘I'll drink to that,' said Tasso. ‘Although I point out that the two are not related.' We drank. ‘We submitted an exploration lease application recently.'

‘I'm aware of that.'

‘I think applications have closed now for those particular leases.'

‘I believe so.' The minister was churning through his champagne. ‘The details of the application process are confidential, of course.'

‘Of course.'

‘Changing the subject,' said the minister, ‘I had a meeting with Mick Hiskey's widow last night, which was why I was unavailable.' There was something about the minister's manner that suggested he was busting to tell us a second story.

‘I see,' said Tasso.

‘In fact, I not only met Mrs Hiskey, but also her mother.'

‘Jenny.'

‘Yes, charming woman. The two of them are a formidable pair. They were also interested in the application process, same as you.'

‘Oh yes?'

‘I'm not telling you a secret when I say that Black Hill has also submitted an application for the leases. I'm sure you knew they would, and anyway you'll receive a letter in a day or two telling you so. Mrs Hiskey and Jenny wanted to know if I could be persuaded to make a decision on the leases in their favour.'

‘They wanted to know if you were open to bribes?'

The minister looked uncomfortable for a second, possibly less. ‘I wouldn't have put it in those terms.'

‘And what did you say, Minister?'

‘I told them it was difficult. After a while, Mrs Hiskey—Sonia—became discouraged, and left. Jenny seemed to think I could still be persuaded.' He swirled the remnants of his champagne and contemplated them. Then he looked up. ‘She clearly set out to seduce me, I kid you not. She can be quite seductive when she puts her mind to it.'

Fern looked disgusted, but the minister didn't care. He was grinning and waiting for a little more prompting.

‘And how did you react, Minister?'

‘Well, eventually I told her that the decision wasn't up to me and that ultimately it's the director of mines who makes calls like that, based on the recommendation of an independent panel. I told her she was welcome to try seducing the director of mines and all six members of the panel. Or at least a majority of them.'

‘What did she do when you said that?'

‘She slapped my face, put her clothes back on, and left.'

Tasso laughed, I laughed and Fern laughed, despite herself, and the minister laughed loudest of all.

‘What a woman,' said the minister. I tried to imagine an ambition so big it would make you sleep with this slob. I couldn't, and I wondered if the story was even true.

‘What a woman indeed,' said Tasso. ‘The things mothers will do for their children.'

‘Steady on,' said the minister, having calmed himself. ‘She didn't suffer during the act, let's put it that way.'

Fern snorted.

‘I can tell you, Minister, that I won't be engaging in the same tactic to win favour,' said Tasso. We all laughed again. The minister looked at Fern.

‘Do
not
go there,' she said.

‘You're a fiery one.'

‘I heard a rumour, Minister,' said Tasso, ‘that Black Hill has some shady part-owners. I would have thought that would exclude them from applying.'

The minister held up a hand. ‘Now, Tasso, you know I can't discuss privileged information like that.'

‘Sure.'

‘What I
can
say is that a process has been initiated and that all applicants will be given a fair hearing, regardless of documents turning up anonymously. And that the decision will be made based on the merits of the application.'

‘So as it stands, Black Hill is still in the running,' I said, just to be sure.

‘Yes, at least until there is incontrovertible, admissible evidence that it is not a fit applicant. And I think I did pretty well to say that on three glasses of champagne.'

‘You did, Minister.'

The minister held out his glass for a refill, and Fern obliged.

‘I'm not going to be in politics forever,' he said. ‘To tell you the truth, I sometimes think I've already had enough of it.'

‘The state will be the poorer when you retire.'

The minister chortled. ‘Cut it out, Tasso. The state won't give a shit. Anyway, there's an election coming up. We'll soon find out what the state thinks.'

‘I think this state's problem, this city's problem, is that it lacks vision. It could be great.'

‘I know you think so, Tasso. I recall a robust discussion on the topic at our dinner the other night. I recall being robustly scolded by you, Fern.' Fern smiled, a little.

‘Conservative thinking is holding us back,' said Tasso. ‘The problem with Adelaide is that it's so far from anywhere it has been ignored by the world, and it has ignored the world. But that's over now. Globalisation. There's not a place in the world, not a person in the world, who can escape it. The world is changing. Adelaide has to go with it. We could be riding it. My point is, Minister, you can help change it.'

I had been standing by the bookcase and picked up the lump of quartzite I had seen on the day I had arrived back in Adelaide.

‘Give me that for a second, Steve,' said Tasso. I obliged. ‘See this, Minister?'

‘Yes. It's a rock.'

‘It is.'

‘I'm not the minister for mining for nothing.' He laughed loudly.

‘Hiskey gave me this rock. It's from the exploration area.' Tasso held it out. ‘Take it, give it a good feel.'

The minister hefted the rock in his hand. ‘It's a very nice rock, Tasso.' He turned it over; it looked pretty much the same from all angles.

‘There's nothing very special about it, Minister,' said Tasso. ‘Except that it's loaded with gold.' It was a fair exaggeration, because at most it contained a hundredth of a gram, but ‘loaded' sounded better. The minister was suddenly interested in the rock. ‘There's gold in that mining lease,' said Tasso. ‘A
lot
of gold. Hiskey knew it, I know it. I will find it and I will dig it out and I will bring it to this city.'

‘You do that, Tasso. Bring us gold. Bring us a
heap
of gold.'

‘I can't bring you anything without the lease, Minister.'

‘I hear you, Tasso. Let's have a toast.'

Tasso called for more champagne and asked the minister if he'd like to stay for dinner and the minister said he didn't have any other plans and would be glad to and I wondered how they'd get the bastard home. I also wondered if I could stomach a second full evening with the minister, but then my phone rang. It was Melody. She asked me if maybe I'd like to see her tonight. I said maybe I would, and she said she would cook dinner if I hadn't already eaten. I said I hadn't and would be there ASAP. I excused myself from the party and headed to the marina.

She had been out fishing in the tender and had landed three mullet and cleaned them herself. When I arrived she barbecued them on the deck, and we ate them with a homemade sauce and a salad. We chatted and laughed and I left about midnight. At the head of the walkway I looked back through the masts, most of which had horizontal stays about halfway up, making them look like crucifixes and the marina like a cemetery or an impromptu, disorganised shrine. The wind was playing a dissonant, melancholic song of longing, it seemed to me. Tasso's boat gleamed silver against the black of the water and the sky, and I wondered if Harlin was lurking out there somewhere. I looked around for Goldsworthy's security but couldn't see it.

I didn't want to leave, but I did.

30

I didn't want to go home because Harlin might be lurking there, so I checked into a city hotel for the night. But then I found I didn't want to sleep. I lay in the sterile dark on a sterile bed and thought about Melody and what Harlin might do to her if he ever found her. Sleep didn't come. I thought about having a drink. Finally I got up, dressed and left the hotel.

I wandered the street. It was late on a Monday night, and quiet. I didn't know where I was going or what I was doing. I had money and I thought if I found a bar that was still trading I might call in, but everything was shut except White Pointer, which I knew was open because the big white neon fin was lit and the blood-red neon water was pulsing. I hesitated for a long moment, and then I thought what the hell. I didn't recognise the lone bouncer at the door. I nodded to him and went in.

There was no cover charge on a Monday night. The music wasn't as loud as it had been on that first night, and the dance floor was empty. A small group of men in white shirts and ties were sitting on lounges drinking beer, and a couple of women were perched on stools at the bar. They didn't look to be together. The barman was chatting to one of them and she seemed to be enjoying his line of chat, so I veered towards the other.

‘Mind if I sit here?' I said. She was older than thirty and younger than forty and looked like she couldn't have cared less where I sat. Her cocktail glass was nearing empty.

‘Be my guest, but I've got to tell you I'm not looking for company.'

‘Fair enough. Are you looking for another drink? I don't expect it to buy anything.'

‘A vodka martini.'

‘I might make it two.'

The barman took his time to take my order, and the woman studied her phone. When the drinks arrived she thanked me and gave a short-lived smile. She smelled of cigarette smoke.

‘Monday night, eh?' she said. ‘The worst night of the week.'

‘You might be right about that.'

‘I
am
right about that. The city is dead, the people have all scurried home to watch television, which is shit, most of the restaurants are closed, and even the drinks taste like cat's piss.' She took a sip of her martini and scowled.

‘I don't disagree.'

‘Go on, disagree. It'll keep the conversation going.'

‘I thought you weren't looking for conversation.'

‘I said I wasn't looking for company, and I lied. It's the first thing I tell a man. It's a filter.' She had wavy black hair and a face that probably could have been pretty if it had tried. It didn't seem to be trying. ‘And god knows I need a filter, the number of fuckwit men I've had in my time.'

‘So I passed through your first filter.'

‘That's my second filter.'

‘What's the first?'

‘No wedding ring. Yes, a guy might still be married, even without a ring, but at least he has the decency to pretend he isn't.' She looked at her watch. ‘You just passed my third filter, by the way.'

‘What was that?'

‘You didn't ask me for a fuck in the first minute. I'm not a fucken prostitute. You're the first one tonight to get this far. There have been three attempts. Not bad for a Monday night.' She laughed and looked at the group of white-shirts.

The door on the far side of the dance floor opened, it was the one through which Melody had taken me, Tasso and the girls during the brawl a couple of weeks before. The very large figure of Tiny came through it and headed in my direction, with only the hint of a limp. There was a bandage on his right hand.

‘This will be interesting,' I said. ‘What's your name?'

‘Julia.'

‘Julia, it's been nice to know you, but things are about to get rough and you might want to leave. Don't worry about the bill.' I put a fifty on the bar. ‘Will that take care of her and me?' The barman looked at the note with a sceptical eye. He nodded. ‘With a little change.' Tiny had me in his sights. Julia hadn't moved.

‘Hello, Tiny,' I said. ‘You're moving well.'

‘You've got fucken balls, coming in here.'

He came at me swinging left-handed. I parried his first swing but he landed a weak blow with his right, damaged hand. He tackled me and we fell to the floor, him on top of me. Julia, as far as I could tell, was still perched on her stool. Tiny was a big man and I couldn't move him. He used his forearm to push against my throat. His face was very close to mine.

‘I'm going to enjoy this,' he said. He jammed down with his forearm and I couldn't breathe. It was a choke.

Julia appeared behind his head. ‘Tiny.' She said it in a commanding way, like a dominatrix. Tiny turned his head. ‘You're an arsehole.' She was holding a small canister and she sprayed him with it, right between the eyes. Some of it hit me. Tiny screamed. He always was a good screamer. ‘Fuck' was the word he seemed to be attempting to articulate. He put his hands to his face and I could breathe again. He rolled off me, still screaming. My eyes were melting.

Julia knelt and took my hand. She spoke in my ear. ‘You okay? Come with me.' I stood and she led me to a chair. ‘Don't rub, you'll make it worse. It's okay to cry. It helps.' She started wiping my face with something moist. ‘This will ease the pain.'

‘What is it?'

‘Basically milk.'

It helped. I opened my eyes a slit and looked at her. She somehow managed to look concerned and also that she was enjoying herself.

‘Feel better?'

‘Marginally.'

‘You copped some of the spray. Sorry about that. But Tiny got the worst of it.'

I looked at him. He was still on the floor, his hands on his face. The barman was leaning over him, pretending to be concerned.

‘Let's get out of here,' said Julia.

She led me out of the building. The bouncer was curious, but not curious enough to stop us. My eyes were still burning, but I could see where I was going. We walked to the taxi rank.

‘What was the spray?' I said.

‘Pepper.'

‘It's brutal.'

‘It works.'

‘Is it even legal?'

‘No. I bring a new canister back from the States every time I go.'

‘I guess it's your fourth filter.'

She laughed, a little maniacally. ‘Fourth and last. Survive the pepper spray and you're in.'

‘I gotta go home,' I said.

‘Yours, or mine?'

‘Mine. But thanks.'

She laughed again. ‘You're welcome. This has been the best Monday night ever. What's your name?'

‘Steve. Steve West.'

She put a business card in my hand and kissed my poor burning cheek.

‘Call me some time.' She got into a taxi. She was still smiling as it pulled away.

I walked to my hotel, collected my gear and checked out. I called Melody and she said everything was fine and couldn't I go more than a couple of hours without hearing her voice? Then I called Bert, and he said almost the same thing, but still he was waiting for me when I got home. He had brought an overnight bag and a bottle of milk and he slept in the spare bedroom, just in case Harlin showed. My face was still hurting and I worried about Melody but eventually I slept, and Harlin didn't turn up to interrupt my dreams and didn't feature in them, either.

BOOK: Ecstasy Lake
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