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Authors: Peter Temple

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BOOK: Shooting Star
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‘My name’s Frank Calder,’ I said. ‘I’m a mediator.’

‘What? Whadya want?’

‘I help people having disputes.’

‘Sellin? Don’t wannit.’

‘Your wife’s asked me to talk to you…’ ‘What?’

‘Your wife’s…’

It was like pulling a trigger. The man lurched forward, came down the passage at a run, arms held out like a wrestler, a fake wrestler on American television. I waited till he was almost on me, lunging, roaring, an out-of-control alcohol tanker. Then I stepped left, helped him on his way by grabbing his right forearm and swinging him. The roar changed to a different sound as he went through the rotten wooden verandah railing, falling into a mass of dead and dying vegetation.

I went down the stairs and inspected Mr Reagan. He was rolled into a ball, groaning, tracksuit pants ridden down to show the cleft of his buttocks. I stepped back, balanced myself, began to take my right leg back.

This is not normal mediation practice, I thought, but perhaps there is a place in dispute resolution for the solid kick up the arse.

The verandah light came on. A woman was in the doorway, young, exhausted. She was holding a child, its red hair like a flame against her cheek.

‘Well, I’ll be on my way then,’ I said. ‘Just called in to remind Mr Reagan that he owes Teresa twenty-five thousand dollars. She’d appreciate any loose change he can spare.’

I went down the path. In the street, the boys who had been kicking the ball were standing wide-eyed.

‘Go to bed,’ I said. ‘Or hold up the corner shop.’

They drifted away. I hope to Christ the car starts, I thought. Men like Joe Reagan often sought to redress slights with hunting rifles they had lying around. I turned the key. The Alfa started as if it never did anything else.

‘Small bloody mercies,’ I said. ‘Bloody small mercies.’

I drove off, trailing clouds of exhaust smoke. At the corner, waiting for a chance to turn right, I thought about life, how the wide vista of childhood shrinks to a passage in Footscray with a man in a plastic neckbrace charging at you.

I WAS suffocating, someone sitting on me and holding something over my head, saying, ‘Die. Just die.’ I woke up, gasping, on the couch in the sitting room, an old unzipped sleeping bag pulled up over my head. My breath had condensed inside it, wetting my face.

I put my legs over the side of the couch and sat with my face in my hands. When I lifted my head, I saw the dry black blood on the insides of the fingers of my right hand. For a moment, I was blank, alarmed. Then I remembered the lid of the tuna can gashing me.

I got up, went into the bathroom and took off my clothes. Under the shower, eyes closed, shaving with care, I made resolutions, not many but major. Half-dressed, I went into the kitchen and took two vitamin B complex tablets, big ones, like horse pills.

When I came back into the sitting room, pulling on a shirt, Detective Senior Sergeant Vella was sitting on the sofa, popping a can of beer.

‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘How’d you get in?’

‘Through the front door. Open front door. Where do you think you’re living? Druggie kicked an old lady to death for a VCR just around the corner.’

‘A VCR, that’s motive. Not much motive around here. Drinking before lunch now?’

Vella took a big drink, looked around, and said, ‘That’s right. About eighteen hours before lunch. It’s 6.30. P fucking M.’

I went to the window and looked out through the blind. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘Evening. Testing you. Now, day of week and date?’

Vella picked up a book from the coffee table. He examined it like an object from a lost civilisation. ‘What the fuck’s this?’ he said. ‘
A Guide to Propagation.
Any sex in it?’

‘Manual of sex,’ I said. ‘Cover to cover rooting.’ I was putting on shoes. ‘I’ve got a horticulture class to get to.’

‘Career number five. How’s number four going?’

‘Terrific. Had a really productive session last night with a man owes his wife twenty-five grand in maintenance.’

‘Mediation,’ Vella said thoughtfully, a frown on his long face. ‘Get someone to hold them down, hit them with a spade.’

While I looked behind the sofa and found a jacket, I thought about how I had almost kicked Mr Reagan. ‘Precisely the attitude that drove me into civilian life,’ I said. ‘You spend many hours trying to convince deranged people that no harm will come to them. Eventually, they believe you. Then your colleagues kill them.’

‘On the subject,’ he said, ‘the inquest’s put back another two months.’

‘They’re hoping I’ll die first. Of old age. Either that or they’re having trouble putting out the contract.’

He drank half his can, wiped his mouth. ‘Today we heard they want to make negotiation civilian. Put it with the shrinks.’

‘A really good move,’ I said. ‘Lateral thinking. Must have called in Dr de Bono. That shrink who sucks off the post-traumatic stresses, she’ll be good lying on the lino in her bra and pants talking to some psycho on speed wants to waste his whole family.’

‘The reason I’m here,’ Vella said, ‘is that Curry comes sliming around today, says to tell you, subject to certain conditions, he’ll back you for one of the jobs.’

I scratched my head. ‘Tell Curry I’ll take the job subject to certain conditions. One is he comes around here and kisses my arse, say around lunchtime every day. Two, he goes on permanent undercover public toilet duties. In a school uniform. With short pants.’

‘I’ll tell him,’ Vella said. ‘Tell him how you don’t need the money.’

‘What conditions? Change my statement, is that a condition? You the messenger boy now? Doing the swine’s bidding?’

He stood up, a gangling figure. ‘Fuck you. Got to go. A family not seen for two days. Been in Benalla, where some arsehole knifed an eighty-two-year-old lady.’

‘A family. Lucky man. On the subject of family, Marco good for a loan, you think? Say ten grand.’

Vella’s brother-in-law, Marco, owned the block of units I was living in. He owned lots of things, horses, table-dancing clubs, people.

‘In another life,’ said Vella. ‘What happened to the payout?’

‘What there was of the payout,’ I said, ‘I gave to a charity for bookies. Bookies and barmen. The double B charity. See a briefcase?’

He didn’t look around, pointed a thumb over his shoulder at the passage. I found it and we went down the stairs together. It was cold outside, sky grey with dark patches like oil stains. Much like the oil stains the old Alfa was leaving on the concrete driveway.

‘My brother-in-law’s not going to like this,’ said Vella, looking at the marks.

‘Marco doesn’t get around here much,’ I said. ‘Your sister know he’s fucking her F-cup cousin in that unit in Brighton?’

‘E-cup. At least it’s in the family,’ Vella said. ‘Don’t tell my sister.’

I got in, tried to start the car. Angry whine. It wouldn’t start.

‘Man and machine,’ said Vella. ‘In perfect harmony.’ He drained his can, dropkicked it towards the street. It bounced on a parked car.

‘Do that in your street?’ I said. ‘Kick beer cans onto cars? I’m coming around to piss in your neighbour’s letterbox.’

‘Feel free,’ said Vella. ‘A bouncer. Well, ex-bouncer. Presently awaiting trial for throwing a bloke across King Street. Landed on a parking meter.’

‘The one on the other side,’ I said. ‘The tiny Quaker.’

I tried the starter again. It whined and nothing happened. I waited, tried again. Reluctantly, the engine came to life.

‘Saturday?’ Vella said. ‘Come and eat. With a knife and fork. Remember?’ He mimed eating with a knife and fork. ‘That’s provided we don’t have some pressing murder in Wangaratta or fucking Moe.’

I mimed gnawing on a bone. ‘Real men eat with their hands,’ I said. ‘Kill it and eat it.’

Vella shook his head. ‘Kill a home-delivery pizza,’ he said. ‘Stalk a pizza and take it out with your bare hands. Eight, around then.’

I gave him the thumbs up and took off. Slowly. Five minutes from the college, at an intersection, ahead of me a class and then a date with the teacher, the mobile made its mad-bird noise, changed my plans, changed many things.

THE SECURITY system guarding the home of Pat Carson, patriarch of the Carson dynasty, began with a three-metre-high boundary wall. Then you drove into a gatehouse in the wall and a door closed behind you and ahead another door shot up from the ground and you were going nowhere, not until someone somewhere had looked at your picture from at least four angles and pressed a button. Once out of jail, concealed spotlights revealed that the boundary wall wasn’t the only obstacle intruders faced. Four metres or so inside it was an elegant stake-pointed steel fence several metres high. It was entirely possible that the grassed area in between was patrolled by Dobermans and their handlers.

Three Mercedes, one small and two big, were parked in front of the landing-strip terrace that preceded the huge neo-Georgian structure. I parked the shabbier but sexier member of the Axis Powers in front of them.

A man called Graham Noyce was waiting for me. He was in his early forties, short and pudgy, snub nose, fair hair giving out in front. Once a lawyer and an adviser to politicians, he now worked for the Carson family as some kind of fixer. I’d first met him after an affair in a distant reach of the Carson empire, a shopping-mall branch of a women’s underwear chain called Cusp. The unhinged husband of an ex-employee took three staff and four customers, all women, hostage. In the beginning, the man, a plumber called Tony, wanted his wife and the manager, who was on leave, brought to him. The idea was that he would get them to confess to having a lesbian affair. I got him to let me sit in the front part of the shop on a white plastic chair, and I managed to talk him out of the confession-extracting scheme.

Okay, he said, a million dollars, cash money, delivered by a Carson, no one else would do, plus a helicopter and pilot on the shopping centre roof. That or he’d kill the women one at a time, starting with the fat one who reminded him of his sister, the fucking bitch. Sounds reasonable, I’d said, let’s talk details. In the midst of a discussion ranging over many topics, including religion, trust and the ability of lingerie to inflame and deprave, I broke off to get two cans from the machine across the way, outside the jeans shop. Just me in the shopping mall, air-conditioning humming as it pushed the dead air around, all the shops evacuated, the workers and the gawkers and Hepburn and his killers down at the police line. I went back into the lingerie shop, popped my can of Sprite, got reasonably close, tossed Tony his Diet Coke, underhand.

Tony relaxed, took his trigger hand off the shotgun to catch it, and that was the end of the matter.

Five hours after it began. Your face and your shoulders ache dully for days, tension clotted in the muscles.

Noyce put out a hand. Firm but not too firm.

‘Frank. Thanks for coming at short notice. Pat appreciates it.’

We went through the front door. I touched its surface, at least twenty coats of black paint, each one almost rubbed away by hand before the next was applied. Inside, the amount of space was alarming: a sparsely furnished hall the size of an art gallery, then a softly lit passage two hospital trolleys could pass in. At its end, a full twenty metres away, a rosewood staircase rose in a gentle curve.

Pat Carson’s study was halfway down the passage. Noyce took me in without knocking. It wasn’t a bookish room but a clubby room, a big panelled room, six or seven armchairs, small tables, family photographs and portraits on the walls. Behind a desk the size of a billiard table, closed wooden internal shutters behind him, sat a man, old, had to be in his eighties, square face, deeply lined, full head of charged white hair brushed back.

‘Mr Carson,’ said Noyce, ‘this is Frank Calder. Frank, Mr Pat Carson.’

I knew quite a lot about Pat Carson, a man who went from penniless immigrant builders’ labourer to millionaire property developer before he was forty. In his time, he had been accused of beating, bribing or threatening everyone in the building unions, top to bottom, of being the most ruthless figure in the industry, the worst person an honest union man or a subcontractor could ever meet, the most sinister person in construction. But a Royal Commission in the seventies couldn’t prove that, couldn’t find a single witness to testify to acts more reprehensible than bullying and intimidation and vague mentions of future favours.

Pat Carson waved a big parcel of bones at me, a hand that had known work. As he raised his head to inspect me, his neck skin tautened and, for an instant, he could have been the older brother of the man standing at the fireplace.

‘A soldier once, they tell me,’ he said. ‘And a policeman.’

I nodded.

‘Don’t know whether that’s a good combination for a man. Havin either of them jobs, for that matter. You know my sons? Tom.’

Standing in front of the fireplace, dark-suited right arm draped along the mantel. Tom Carson moved fingers at me. He was in his sixties, tall, with close-cut grey hair, curved nose presiding over a severe face.

Tom was the visible Carson, the elder son, the public face of the country’s richest private company, a man who dined with prime ministers and premiers. Lately, his picture had been in all the newspapers because he was taking Carson Corporation public, ending fifty years of utterly private ownership. He reminded me of someone I’d served under, a man who liked to witness pain. Not inflict, just watch.

BOOK: Shooting Star
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